For the second time since its transition to a democratic republic, India’s relations with Nepal have deteriorated sharply. The latest controversy over the inauguration by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh of an 80-kilometre stretch of road that connects the Lipulekh Pass in the north eastern corner of Uttarakhand to Kailash Mansarovar in order to make the journey of pilgrims to the holy site far less fraught than the current route they take through the high mountains of Sikkim and Nepal, has brought into focus an outstanding boundary question between the two countries.
Situated in Kalapani, at the tri-junction of Nepal, India and Tibet, the piece of land has been contentious for decades over what diplomats believe is a difference in perception over the real source of the Mahakali River that forms a border between India and Nepal. Citing the 1816 Sigauli agreement signed with the British, Nepal has periodically disputed India’s claim of the roughly 400 square kilometres of territory, even though India’s own maps have consistently displayed the area first as part of Uttar Pradesh, and subsequently, Uttarakhand. Indian diplomats believe the issue was hardly ever raised by Kathmandu before 1990, but it then fed into a growing ethno-national assertiveness within the Himalayan nation in what became a turbulent decade in Nepal’s contemporary history. On the back of this assertiveness for political gain, Kathmandu strongly objected to a border trade agreement between India and China at the Lipulekh Pass in 2015, arguing that the boundary issue was not yet resolved. As Nepal launched its new ‘official map’ this week, including in its own territory the entire Kalapani area and Limpiyadhura which has not been a part of Nepal’s map for nearly 200 years, the war of words sharpened between Delhi and Kathmandu with the External Affairs Ministry in Delhi saying India won’t accept such “artificial enlargement of territorial claims.” But it is important to ask just why, and how, things have spiraled so severely with a prominent neighbour.
Unlike most other neighborhood relationships, India’s ties with Nepal have traditionally been based on a unique openness – marked by the free travel of goods and people, labour and work rights for Nepali nationals in India and several cultural and religious affinities. However, too much confidence in a relatively peaceful relationship can often lead to complacency. The kind that sees dialogue dry up and partnerships crumble under the weight of both ignorance and arrogance.
Since the overthrow of the monarchy and the arrival of the Maoists onto the electoral stage, Nepal’s political pole has shifted – from the old India-friendly, high-caste elites with ties to the monarchy, to a public seeking to assert its own identity and aspirations in a turbulent South Asian neighborhood where China vies to undermine India’s regional role. Today, as Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli blusters against India, going to the somewhat bizarre extent of accusing India of sending a lethal strain of Covid across the border, most agree that he is simply playing to the gallery. However, whether Mr. Oli is pandering to domestic politics, or playing off China against India in order to retain control amid dissent within his Communist Party, it begs the question of why Delhi would provide more ammunition at such a sensitive juncture with a grand road opening that has raised Kathmandu’s hackles. More than that, it has also diluted the opposition to Oli both within his own party and outside it – amongst the Nepali Congress and Madheshi groups that have looked to Delhi to advocate for them in the past.
Since India’s release of a new national map post the dilution of Article 370 last year, there have been enough rumblings in Kathmandu to suggest Oli’s leadership has used the new Indian maps that changed the contours of Jammu and Kashmir to fuel a populist politics over control of the Kalapani tri-junction. Yet, even though high-level Prime Ministerial visits have taken place between Narendra Modi and KP Oli, Delhi has clearly failed to move engagement beyond photo-ops to a sustained process, whereby regular consultations and dialogue would perhaps have helped pre-empt such tensions.
The sharp exchanges between the two capitals over the Lipulekh road make it clear that Delhi could end up overstating its already reduced sway over Kathmandu if it continues to bank on either its size or its cultural and religious affinities with Nepal in order to keep bilateral ties on an even keel. After all, it was not so long ago that Nepal accused India of supporting an ‘unofficial blockade’ on the Terai border by Madheshi groups seeking greater rights in the country’s new constitution in 2015. Hostility towards India has festered since, and it seems like a no-brainer to ensure diplomats engage in consistent conversations in order to avoid precisely the kind of controversy the last week has witnessed. Yet, Nepal claims two requests for Foreign Secretary-level consultations in the last few months have been delayed, denied, even dismissed – most recently with the excuse that they will be held once the pandemic is ‘over’.
In January this year, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said India’s policy instinct had thus far been to wish problems away. “In India’s case, we look at a problem and we say the problem is a problem, I wish it would go away. Our instinct is not to home in on a solution, our instinct is to kick it down the road,” he said, and argued that the Modi-led BJP government had taken steps to address outstanding issues, both domestic and external. But the fact that the Indian government has chosen to either ignore the noise out of Kathmandu or play it down and not hold sustained dialogue has now brought it to this fork in the road with Nepal.
A key foreign policy tenet is to first protect or expand engagement and influence in one’s immediate neighbourhood as a springboard to a larger regional role. The lesson from this latest controversy with Nepal is simple – episodic interest when things get out of hand can only ever be just a temporary solution. As a new map becomes a new irritant, it seems all the more urgent for Delhi to pursue a coherent neighborhood policy and remain engaged at high levels. It must forge new relationships and revive old ones before this downward spiral with Nepal hits a point of no return and leaves a wider gulf that Beijing would like nothing more than to fill.