The release of a restructured map of India in November 2019 after the abrogation of Article 370 had reopened old wounds in the Indo-Nepalese relationship. With the evolution of COVID-19 pandemic this Indo-Nepalese impasse appears to have been on the backburner. However, with the recent inauguration of a new road stretching around 80km from Drachula in Uttarakhand to Lipulekh pass by the Indian Defence Minister, it seems to have resurrected.
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What and where is this Kalapani region?
- Kalapani territory is a 372 square-km area at the India-China-Nepal tri-junction.
- Kalapani is located in the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. It shares a border with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the northand Nepal in the east and south.
- The region derives its name from river Kali.
- India administers the Kalapani territory as a part of its Pittorgarh district of Uttarakhand. The revised map also shows it so.
- The Indo-Tibetan border Police has a significant presence in the region.
What is the cause and nature of the dispute?
- This border dispute is a legacy of the treaty of Sugauli of 1816 which states that all the land that lies east of the Mahakali river is part of Nepal. Consequently, Nepal’s claim over the disputed area lies in the fact that the territories of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani fall south-east to the alleged source of Mahakali.
- According to the treaty, Nepal lost the regions of Kumaon Garhwal in the west and Sikkim in the east. The King of Nepal gave up his claims over the region west of the river Kali which originates in the High Himalayas and flows into the great plains of the Indian subcontinent.
- The river Kali and what the two countries make of it is the real dispute. According to Nepal, the east of the Kali river should begin at the source of the river which is in the mountains near Limpiyadhura, which is higher in altitude than the rest of the river’s flow. Nepal claims that a landmass that falls to the east of the entire stretch starting from Limpiyadhura downwards, is theirs.
- However, this remains disputed as what Nepal claims as the source of Mahakali, is actually just a stream called ‘Lipu Gad’ which is one of its that merge into Mahakali near the trijunction. India has contested Nepal’s claims arguing that the area north of its actual source is not demarcated by these treaties. Furthermore, administrative and revenue records dating from the late 1800s prove that Kalapani was indeed part of India’s Pithoragarh district.
The contested maps- Left one is from the Indian side and Right one is Nepalese map (Source: The Wire)
What is the importance of the Kalapani territory for India?
- The region extends to the Himalayas and is connected to the other side of the mountain range through the Lipulekh pass. The Lipulekh pass has been used for centuries by Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims and tourists in their path to Kailash Mansarovar.
- The other two routes pass through Kathmandu and Sikkim are very long and over 80% of the route is in the foreign territory.
- The route through Lipulekh pass, though rugged and difficult to travel, the majority of the route is in India and the road construction is near its completion till the pass.
- Apart from tourism, control over this pass and the Kalapani territory is strategically important.
- The importance of Himalayan passes was highlighted in the 1962 war when the Chinese forces used the pass of Se La in Tawang and reached the Brahmaputra plains in the east. It clearly demonstrated that weakly guarded passes were a major vulnerability against China.
- The strategic necessity is enhanced after the Doklam standoff when a Chines official reportedly stated that if PLA decided it could enter India with ease through other border tri-junction like Kalapani or PoK.
- The control of the Kalapani provides India with a strategic advantage as it is at an elevated position allowing Indian Posts to monitor the Tibetan highland passes.
- The Kalapani area is of strategic significance in South Asian diplomacy as it serves as a tri-junction between India, China, and Nepal. Given that Nepal is a “buffer state” between the other two countries—both with great-power aspirations in the region—the Kalapani dispute has important ramifications on the relations between the three.
How the dispute has fared since independence?
- The battle over historic accuracy of the maps for this region is brewing since last several decades now.
- The Nepalese did not raise the issue after Indian independence, even during the 1962-Sino-Indian war.
- Though Nepal has collected revenue from this region has held its elections here, it virtually ignored the issue from 1961-1997
- The dispute over the location of the river and the territorial sovereignty of Kalapani was raised by the Nepalese government in 1998. It was mainly due to the democratization of Nepalese polity in the 1990s. The nationalist tendencies in Nepal raised the Kalapani issue in domestic politics.
- Though this is the case, it has hardly raised its voice over the Kailash Man Sarovar road project since its inception.
Is it the only border dispute between India and Nepal?
- Apart from Kalapani, the Susta area dispute to the east of the Narayani river has seen the most tensions.
- The changing course of the Narayani river has been the main reason behind the geographical confusion.
- Also, the Mechi area dispute is also important as Nepal raises the issue frequently. All these disputes stem from the terrain difficulty in mapping a decisive border.
Why Nepal is raising its voice now?
- Recent Indo-Nepal relations form the backdrop for the issue. The Blockade of 2015 over the Madhesi issue has not gone well with the Nepalese.
- The South-Asian geopolitical issues also seem to be a reason for current Nepalese aggression. The increasing influence of the Chinese in the domestic affairs of Nepal, its infamous cheque-book diplomacy, and its influence over Nepalese Maoists have been an important source of Nepalese change of stance.
- it was hurt when India and China did not consult it during the 2015 Lipulekh agreement between the two.
- Nepal has historically sought to use its strategic place as a buffer state to its advantage by smartly siding to one side or the other.
An overview of the recent issue
- After India revised its map, The Nepalese government protested over the Kalapani issue and called the Indian Ambassador to Nepal for an explanation.
- The building of the road to the Lipulekh pass has also not gone well with Nepal as it sees it as India’s intrusion in its territory.
- The PM of Nepal said in November 2019 that he would ask India to withdraw its troops from the region and will not cede an inch of its territory.
- India on its part has maintained that the new maps are accurate. It also recognized the existence of a mechanism for the resolution of outstanding border issues.
- Nepal has published a revised official map incorporating the territory as its own. On May 22, 2020, The Nepalese cabinet registered a constitutional amendment motion to grant constitutional status to the map.
Is there a mechanism between the two countries to resolve the issues?
- In 1981 India and Nepal set up the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee to demarcate their shared border of over 1850 km and resolve the territorial dispute.
- This mechanism has actually been successful in resolving around 98% of the border by 2007.
- Both countries have ever since agreed to establish a high-level bilateral mechanism to resolve the remaining dispute.
- As the dispute does not seem to stop from becoming a major bilateral issue, it is advisable for both the countries to maintain a proper channel of dialogue and not release unwanted statements.
- There exists a channel to resolve these kinds of issues and it must be utilized.
- The Kalapani issue must be solved with existent and relevant facts and documents as there is a difference of opinion about which documents are to be considered,
- It will serve Nepal not to fall prey to the schemes of China which has resulted in debt traps in Maldives, Sri Lanka, and other countries.
- The COVID-19 relief work can help deviate the relations from that of tension to co-operation. Both countries can work together to fight the pandemic.
- India has already provided Nepal with 30,000 testing Kits and Nepal has recognized and expressed its gratitude to India for it.
- India could use the COVID diplomacy to strengthen Ind-Nepal ties and tide over the border dispute. It can deal with it at a later point when the pandemic is over.
- It is important to highlight the Gujral Doctrine at this point and India, taking the responsibility of being the largest power in South Asia must make the first move towards peace and talks.
- The India-Bangladesh border issue resolution can be a model for this issue also.
The timing of the issue is not good as the region is grappling with the pandemic of a nature never seen before. It will take a lot of statesmanship from all the stakeholders (especially from Chinese side as it has contained the pandemic largely) to understand the severity of existing crisis and keep aside geographical issues at bay till the pandemic is over. Both the countries should invent new border management agreements to take into consideration recent events.
Practice Question for Mains
Explain the Kalapani Dispute between India and Nepal. Why the region is significant for India? (250 words)