Naravane visit a positive step to repair ties but has little to do with boundary dispute, experts sayIndian Army chief is arriving in Nepal next week amid frosty relations between Nepal and India and on the heels of controversy over the trip of a top Delhi spy to Kathmandu last week.
As Indian Army chief General MM Naravane is all set to arrive on a three-day official visit on November 4, all eyes are now on the outcome of his visit, mostly the status of the boundary dispute between Nepal and India, which has emerged an irritant in the bilateral relations since November last year, and how military, security and strategic ties between Nepal and India will move on.
Though Naravane's visit is a customary one—in line with the long-standing tradition of receiving the honorary title of the chief of Nepal Army—a section of the Kathmandu-based intelligentsia has found a new perspective, given the frayed ties and Naravane’s statement a few months ago.
Back in May, Naravane said that Nepal was objecting to India’s opening of the road link via Lipulekh at the behest of “someone else”. Though he did not name any country, it was apparent that he was alluding to China.
Experts on foreign policy matters and strategic affairs say that Nepal and India are having some structural problems in their bilateral ties so until they are resolved or addressed, the boundary dispute is unlikely to be resolved. Nepal should carefully handle its diplomacy while dealing with such a sensitive issue, according to them.
“Military-to-military contacts between Nepal and India have remained intact even during difficult times in the past,” said Prof Sridhar Khatri, who headed three think tanks based in Kathmandu and Colombo in the past. “But the way Naravane spoke about boundary disputes between Nepal and India was a strong message he delivered on behalf of the government of India.”
Naravane’s statement in mid-May came amid rising tensions between Nepal and India after Delhi inaugurated a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. In response, the Oli administration unveiled a new political map of Nepal depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as parts of the Nepali territory. The Oli government then subsequently got the map endorsed by Parliament.
Ties between Kathmandu and Delhi have remained frosty since. Even though both sides have expressed their interests to hold diplomatic talks to address the issue, nothing concrete has taken place so far.
“Nepal and India are having several structural problems since then, but we have not seen any concrete steps taken by both sides to overcome these problems. Until these structural problems are addressed, bilateral ties will not be normalised,” Khatri told the Post.
“The Indian army chief’s visit is just one-way communication; not for dialogue. Our leadership needs to make careful statements and moves on such sensitive matters.”
Since November last year, when India in its new political map showed Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura within its borders, Nepal has sent four diplomatic notes to Delhi seeking talks to settle the dispute. After India’s reluctance to sit for talks, the Oli government issued a new map of Nepal incorporating the territories within Nepal’s borders.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli earned praise for the move from across the political spectrum. But last week, Oli’s “nationalistic” credentials suddenly came into question.
On October 21, Samant Kumar Goel, chief of India’s foreign intelligence agency, arrived in Kathmandu and held one-on-one talks with Oli at Baluwatar. The meeting was confirmed by Baluwatar, but what transpired between them remains a mystery.
Analysts were quick to raise questions if Oli has given up on his stance that relations between the two countries should be guided and dealt with at the political and diplomatic levels. Even some members of Oli’s Nepal Communist Party (NCP) including Bhim Rawal and Narayan Kaji Shrestha have objected to Oli’s meeting with Goel.
Naravane’s visit will now take place on the heels of the controversy over the Oli-Goel meeting.
According to Brigadier General Santosh Ballav Poudyal, spokesperson for the Nepal Army, some symbolic military assistance is expected to be announced during Naravane’s visit but the exact nature of the Indian military support is yet to be known.
But besides strengthening military-to-military relations and upgrading strategic ties, Poudyal said that he is not aware whether the issue of boundary dispute between the two countries will be discussed during the meeting between Chief of Army Staff General Purna Chandra Thapa and General Naravane.
At least two officials familiar with the developments said since the armies of the two countries do not directly deal with or discuss boundary disputes as such matters fall under the jurisdiction of political and diplomatic leaderships, chances are that General Thapa will discuss the matter unofficially.
But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that will prepare the “talking points” for Prime Minister Oli, who is also in charge of the Defence Ministry, is likely to include the boundary issue for the prime minister’s November 6 meeting with the visiting general.
Foreign policy analysts say it has now become apparent that both Kathmandu and Delhi have realised there is a need to mend fences and move ahead, as Nepal and India share a unique relationship. According to them, the Indian Army chief’s visit is not enough to improve ties, especially because he is arriving in Kathmandu for a different and customary purpose.
“There is no need to make a fuss about what Naravane had said,” said Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister. “Oli, however, may use some subtle language to convey the message that Kathmandu wants to address the misunderstandings through talks.”
Some in Nepal have not only questioned Naravane’s visit at this time but also called for its cancellation in view of his May remarks.
Bipin Adhikari, a former dean of Kathmandu School of Law, who often writes commentaries on wide-ranging issues, has called for cancelling Naravane’s visit.
Adhikari wrote on Twitter earlier this week: “The govt should cancel this visit immediately. We have a border dispute. He has spoken badly about Nepal.This is a dispute that needs to be resolved at the political level. Why talk to the army? How can such people be given an honorary rank? What does that mean in the int'l community?”
Surya Raj Acharya, a former leader of Sajha Party Nepal, who has over 250,000 followers on Twitter, also wrote a message in the similar vein.
“Efforts to improve Nepal-India ties must continue. But honouring the chief of the Indian Army who made a public statement undermining Nepal’s sovereignty and self-respect is absolutely not justifiable. The Nepal government must reconsider this [visit],” Acharya tweeted on Thursday.
Foreign policy experts, including Pandey, however, say that Kathmandu needs to practise matured diplomacy so as to establish its standing and keep the conjectures at bay.
“Neither the R&AW [Research and Analysis Wing] chief nor Indian Army chief handles or deals with Nepal-India ties,” Pandey told the Post. “What we are hearing today vis-a-vis Goel’s visit last week or Naravane’s trip to Kathmandu next week is because we failed in our diplomacy.”
According to Pandey, Nepal has failed to show maturity in its public diplomacy.
“We have to see and understand what mandate Naravane is carrying,” said Pandey. “He is not coming here to resolve the boundary dispute. His visit, however, may add some positive vibes to Nepal-India ties.”
According to government sources, more high-level exchanges between Kathmandu and Delhi are lined up in the days to come. A meeting at the Foreign Secretary level has been pending for quite a while. Both Nepal and India have agreed to let a mechanism at the Foreign Secretary level deal with boundary disputes.
Naravane’s visit may set the tone for upcoming high-level exchanges between Nepal and India, officials say.
Suresh Sharma, a former brigadier general, said the Indian Army chief’s visit to Nepal was long due but he is not coming to Nepal to discuss boundary disputes.
Naravane assumed office as the chief of Indian Army in December last year.
“Naravane’s visit is not linked with Goel’s visit as some have interpreted. This is mainly a ceremonial visit and basically focused on strengthening the military ties between the two countries,” Sharma told the Post.
“This visit will have a positive contribution and impact on confidence building measures for both sides.”