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Nepal and India clash over disputed Himalayan territory

Lekhanath Pandey Kathmandu
June 3, 2020

With the publication of a new political map, Nepal has toughened its stance on a row over a stretch of disputed land that lies at a strategic three-way junction with China and India. Delhi accuses Beijing of interfering.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) welcomes Nepalese Prime Minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli ,during a ceremonial reception in New Delhi on February 2016
Image: picture alliance/AA/I. Khan

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nepal and India have become caught up in a border dispute, following competing territorial claims by both sides over controversial land in the Himalayan region.

The latest diplomatic spat between the two countries began to escalate after New Delhi announced on May 8 the inauguration of an 80-kilometer-long (50-mile) road that passes through Lipu Lekh, a disputed area that lies at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet and China.

The unilaterally built motorway links India's Uttarakhand State to Tibet's Kailash Mansarovar via the Lipu Lekh Pass, a territory historically claimed by Nepal and considered one of the shortest and most practicable trade routes between India and China. The small Himalayan nation challenged India's inauguration of the road, viewing the move as another example of bullying by its much larger neighbor.

Nepal issues new map

In response, the government of Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli issued a new political map of Nepal that showed the disputed territory — including the areas of Kalapani, Lipu Lekh and Limpiyadhura — within its borders. Nepal, which was never under colonial rule, has long claimed these areas in accordance with the 1816 Sugauli treaty with the British Raj following the Anglo-Nepalese (Gurkha) War.

The treaty recognized the Kali River as Nepal’s western boundary with India and the land lying east of the river is Nepalese territory. People living in Kalapani, Lipu Lekh and Limpiyadhura had cast votes during Nepal's 1959 general election and been paying taxes before the conflict erupted. India then fought a war with China in 1962, and these areas have remained in control of Indian troops since.

Nepalese officials said the exact size of the territory was still being calculated. The new map was made public on May 20 by Land Management Minister Padma Aryal, who said the occasion was "historically pleasant" for Nepal and its people. The Nepalese government said the new map will be printed in school and university textbooks and official documents and will be used for all administrative purposes.

The announcement, however, has strained diplomatic relations between India and Nepal, resulting in heated political exchange from both sides.

Read more: India-China border standoff raises military tensions

New Delhi slams new map of Nepal

While the new map received overwhelming support by Nepal's opposition and civil society and bringing a rare show of unity among the country's bickering political parties, it was not welcomed by New Delhi.

India rejected what it considered Nepal's "unilateral act" saying the new map was not based on historical facts and evidence.

"It is contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue," Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said in a statement, a day after Nepal issued the new map. "Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India."

The new map is not the first time the two South Asian neighbors clashed over cartography. In November last year, New Delhi released a new official map of India, following its decision to reorganize the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. The new map included the area of Lipu Lekh as part of Indian territory.

The Nepalese government denounced the map, proposed dates for resolving the dispute with dialogue but reportedly received no response from New Delhi.

The China factor

Also surfacing on Indian media platforms are allegations that Kathmandu has become a puppet of Beijing, with China's increasing economic activities in the region becoming a headache for India.

In an apparent insinuation to Beijing, Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukunda Naravane said Nepal was acting at the behest of "someone else."

Read more: Nepal's delicate balancing act between China and India

China hopes Nepal is the way to India's heart

Swaran Singh, a professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that the emergence of such a narrative has to do with India's complicated relationship with Beijing, which is also seeking relations with Pakistan and Nepal. The diplomatic landscape "only reinforces allegations of Nepal becoming more emboldened to take a tough stand and use harsh language against India to please their Chinese friends," Singh told DW.

In addition, Nepal has an unresolved border dispute with China, following a joint communique between Chinese and Indian leaders at a May 2015 summit, which sought an expansion on trade between India and China via the controversial Lipu Lekh Pass.

Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali rejected rumors of Kathmandu acting under the command of Beijing, adding that Nepal has sufficient evidence to prove its recent territorial claims.

"I entirely reject the idea of dragging other countries in border disputes between Nepal and India. We had disputes with China on Lipu Lekh. And the issue is still pending," he told DW.

Khadga KC, the Head of Diplomacy at Nepal's Tribhuvan University, warned that such allegations from India could further taint bilateral relations. "As a sovereign nation, Nepal does not need to drag another neighbor in between," he said. "In fact, Nepal became forced to reveal its new political map after India unilaterally built and inaugurated the road within its territory."

Read more: India watches warily as China deepens ties with Nepal 

What's next?

Analysts say the latest border dispute has given rise to nationalism in Nepal, serving as a lifeline to the embattled prime minister. Oli has faced mounting public criticism over his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Opposition parties have thrown their support for Oli to amend Nepal's constitution and endorse the new map.

In an interview with Indian newspaper The Hindu, Foreign Minister Gyawali said that "the most appropriate way" for resolving the country's territorial disputes is to "withdraw security forces from Kalapani and hand over occupied territories back to Nepal."

Dinesh Bhattarai, Nepal’s former ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, told DW that the best way to stabilize the situation is to resume talks as quickly as possible and negotiate based on historical facts and evidence, adding: "The largest democracy in the world should not hesitate to seek an amicable solution."