Experts call for bringing India, China on board to resolve Kalapani rowModi statement on Lipulekh has created fresh uproar, with Delhi, Kathmandu issuing statements one after another.
If Nepal wants to seek a lasting and amicable solution to the boundary row in the Kalapani region, Kathmandu needs to hold talks not only with New Delhi but also with Beijing, some experts and diplomats say.
The row over Kalapani between Nepal and India has escalated once again following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent statement on Lipulekh.
Addressing an election rally in Haldwani of Uttarakhand on December 30, Modi said that his government has extended a road to Lipulekh and further expansion work is going on.
The remarks created uproar in Nepal.
Political parties, from the main opposition to ruling coalition partners to Deuba’s own Nepali Congress, demanded that the government respond to Modi’s statement and issue a protest note against India.
On Saturday, the Indian embassy in Kathmandu said in a statement that India’s position on the India-Nepal boundary “is well known, consistent and unambiguous”.
“It has been communicated to the government of Nepal,” the embassy said.
A day later, Nepal on Sunday said that Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura are “integral parts of Nepal”.
According to experts, Nepal needs to take a different approach when it comes to the Kalapani region. If Kathmandu wants to resolve the outstanding boundary row surrounding Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, it should initiate talks not just with India but also with China, according to them.
“There is a need to bring both Delhi and Beijing together for talks. The region belongs to Nepal, but it’s a trijunction,” said Dinesh Bhattarai, a former ambassador who served as foreign relations advisor to prime ministers Sushil Koirala and Deuba in the past.
The Kalapani region has been occupied by India for the last six decades, even though Nepal has been claiming it as its own.
Lipulekh, however, came into focus in May 2015 when India and China agreed to develop a transit and trade point via the region.
One of the points of the joint communique issued on May 15, 2015 in Beijing mentioned that "the two sides recognised that enhancing border areas cooperation through border trade, pilgrimage by people of the two countries and other exchanges can effectively promote mutual trust, and agreed to further broaden this cooperation so as to transform the border into a bridge of cooperation and exchanges".
The then government led by Koirala had sent diplomatic notes to Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping and protested against the agreement, saying that since “Lipulekh belongs to Nepal, such unilateral decision has only violated the territorial integrity of Nepal.”
Now that India has unilaterally built the road via Lipulekh, there is a need to draw Beijing's attention to the development, observers say.
Bhattarai who was adviser to Koirala at that time was the witness to the letter sent to both India and China.
“It was China that dragged India up to Lipulekh so it cannot remain silent because as per the boundary agreement between Nepal and China of October 1961, we had failed to fix the location of pillar No zero,” said Bhattarai. “So both India and China must be brought on board and the government, accordingly, should initiate talks.”
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), which was in 2015 known as the UCPN (Maoist), too had written separate letters to Modi, Xi and Nepal’s then prime minister Sushil Koirala had drawn their attention to the agreement signed between India and China.
The incumbent Deuba government has been embroiled in a unique scenario where it is facing criticism for failing to speak up on the boundary row with the southern neighbour while it is being called out for raising border dispute with the northern neighbour.
In September, the government had formed a team to study the boundary issues along the Nepal-China border from Limi Lapsa to Hilsa of Humla.
China, which has all along maintained that it does not have any boundary disputes with Nepal, has refused to accept that there is any territorial dispute in the Kalapani area between Nepal, India and China.
Just as questions were being raised against the Deuba government for not issuing a protest note to India against Modi’s statement, the Chinese embassy on January 13 put out a statement to reiterate that that “China and Nepal have resolved the boundary issue through friendly consultations as early as the 1960s, and there is no dispute at all.”
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal has issued a statement to clarify it and the Nepali government has also dispatched a team to conduct on-spot investigations,” said the Chinese embassy. “The foreign authorities of the two countries maintain good communication on border-related affairs. It is hoped the Nepali people will not be misled by individual false reports,” added the embassy in the statement without providing details as to which boundary issue it was talking about.
The Nepali side has come up with a report that there are issues on the Nepal-China border in Humla district. Similarly, Nepal and China have yet to resolve the dispute over pillar N0 57 in Dolakha. Pillar No 1 in the far-west and pillar No 99 in Taplejung have yet to be erected ownting to the disputes. One major dispute between Nepal and China earlier was two different heights of Mt Everest, which was resolved amicably in 2020.
A senior official at the Department of Survey told the Post that the office has sent three requests and communications, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to China in the last two and a half years for a joint inspection of the border.
“Sometime before the joint announcement of the height of Mt Everest, we had sent one request. When the height of Everest was announced jointly in December 2020, we sent a request again,” said the official. “Recently, after the boundary issue resurfaced in Humla district, we again sent a request for talks as well as joint inspection of the boundary. But we have yet to get a response from the Chinese side.”
An official at the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu, however, told the Post that they have not received any formal proposal from the Nepali side to hold boundary meetings. “China is willing to keep communications with Nepal on boundary issues through the established boundary management and cooperation channels,” said the official.
As per the boundary protocol between Nepal and China, both sides will conduct and complete the joint boundary inspection every 10 years in order to update the boundary protocols. But officials said that Nepal and China have not signed such a protocol since 1998 and have not conducted joint inspections since 2006.
“It is really essential for us to talk with China in order to resolve the dispute in the Kalapani area,” said Madhusudan Adhikari, former director general at the Department of Survey. “Without talking with China, the boundary row around Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura cannot be resolved.”
According to Adhikari, the Indian side had made some communications with the Chinese side regarding identifying the trijunction as per his conversation with Indian officials. “The Indian officials told us that the Chinese side did not respond to the Indian queries on their position about the trijunction around Lipulekh area since pillar No zero of Nepal and China border falls in that region,” said Adhikari.
“We have to raise the issue of the trilateral boundary point both with India and China. Otherwise, the boundary row surrounding the Kalapani area will continue to linger,” added Adhikari, who later retired as a government secretary.
Some diplomats say since the Koirala government had sent two separate letters to India and China protesting their decision to develop a trade and transit route via Lipulekh, the Deuba government should take a similar initiative for resolving the outstanding boundary issue, once and for all.
“Currently there is a Nepali Congress-led government in Nepal again,” said Pradhumna Bikram Shah, former ambassador and chairman of the Association of the Career Ambassadors Nepal. “It must make a prudent move and should consider sending notes both to India and China as the continuation of the notes dispatched by the then Koirala government in 2015.”
According to Shah, Nepal should call for a trilateral meeting between Kathamndu, Delhi and Beijing.
Nepal and India have completed strip maps covering 98 percent of the Nepal-India boundary, but Kathmandu has refused to sign, saying the boundary disputes in Susta in Nawalparasi and Kalapani in Darchula remain unresolved.
Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, an acclaimed cartographer and former director general of the Department of Survey, said that Beijing should also speak on whether the trijunction between Nepal, India and China lies in the Kalapani region since the three nations share the border in the area
“China cannot escape from its responsibility and should assist Nepal as well as India to find out the trijunction so that we can resolve the dispute amicably,” Shrestha told the Post. “When Nepal and China settled the boundary dispute in 1961, India paid no attention as it was on the verge of war with China. And China did not remember Nepal in 2015 when it signed an agreement with India to open a trading point via Lipulekh.”
According to Shrestha, both India and China ignored Nepal’s calls in the past.
“Now time has come for Nepal to initiate talks,” said Shrestha, “both with India and China so as to settle the dispute, which has been on the table for long, for good.”