On November 4, 2019, The Kathmandu Post published a news titled “India’s New Political Map Places Disputed Territory of Kalapani Inside Its Own Borders”. The news quoted unrevealed sources stating that “disputed tracts of land between Nepal and India, like Kalapani and Lipu Lekh pass are placed inside Indian territory” for which Nepal’s Survey Department has objection over the ‘status quo’. Following this Nepal Kabbar and other media houses also published similar stories. The entire issue became a social media sensation within days and many hawkish statements started to pour out from various fronts. The heightened social media outrage needs to be seen in the backdrop of 2015 India-Nepal border blockade for which Nepalese have blamed India for causing misery to the lives of ordinary citizens after major earthquake had damaged normal life in Nepal. As a result, many new maps have been created and flooded in the social sphere, some even projecting New Delhi as a part of Nepal. This also stems from the insecurity most Nepalese carry deep in their hearts often correlating the status of Sikkim to be that of Nepal in future, if India is given greater role to play in Nepal.
Some stretch even farther to highlight that India has encroached 60,627 hectare of Nepali land in 23 district in 71 locations, not only which is in hot debate now, i.e. kalapani and Lipu Lekh. It is also reported that both countries have prepared 187 strip maps to demarcate the border by 2022; while 76 out of 78 disputed border points were resolved by the Nepal-India Joint Technical Committee formed in 1981. If this is the case, then the issue is why only this piece of land has become a bone of contention now? Is it that some vested political interest groups want to create tension between India – Nepal ties to reap benefits? Is it that some domestic political tussle want to use the issue to garner support of the masses by inciting the nationalist feelings to counter the Nepal Communist Party’s power? Or is it that the tension between India and Nepal serves the larger interest of external forces active in Nepalese ground?
What is Kalapani Issue and Why is it So Significant?
Kalapani is a stretch of 35 sq. km land area between India and Nepal. After Nepali parliament ratification of Mahakali treaty with India in 1996, the area has been in controversy. Nepalese claim that the 1816 Segauli Treaty between the British Raj and then ruler King of Nepal agreed that the Kali river (now called the Mahakali river) will mark the western border between India and Nepal. Nepal also claims that the entire area from Lipu Gad, the tributary of Kali river, up to the source of Kali river in the east of Lipu Lekh pass is Nepal’s territory, though there has been various conflicting versions of Nepal over the source and tributary of Kali river. Nepal adds that during the 1962 India-China conflict, Nepal allowed Indian troops to occupy certain posts for defensive measure, from where the troops retreated later except from the Kalapani area.
The Indian side, however, claims that the administrative and revenue records of British Raj available with the Uttar Pradesh State government reveals that the area was governed by the Pithoragarh district and the map of 1879 shows Kalapani as part of British Indian territory. The UP State police was in place since 1956 and after 1979, Indo-Tibetan Border Police is in control of the surveillance operations. Further, as per the Article 5 of the Segauli Treaty, Nepal has renounced all claims to the areas west of Kali river.
The area is significant as the pilgrim route from India to Tibet briefly passes the east bank of the river. In 2014, as India and China agreed to build a trade corridor, the issue gained greater significance. Any which way one sees it, there has been proposals from some scholars and officials in India that the issue needs to be resolved through dialogue. However, the very premise of holding a dialogue is based on the prerequisite that Nepal accepts there is a dispute over the boundary issue. However, many claims state that it is not a boundary dispute, but an issue of “Indian encroachment of Nepal’s territory”, which is largely seen as an issue of Nepal’s sovereignty.
Nepal’s Internal Political Tussle and the Role of External Factors
On November 6, 20 cadres linked with the Nepal Communist Party – a splinter Maoist faction led by Netra Bikram Chand (aka Biplav) were arrested for staging an anti-India protest over Kalapani issue. On November 9, PM Khadga Prasad Oli called an all-party meeting at his residence to discuss the issue, though no formal mechanism or outline map came out after the meeting to resolve the issue or make the claims more authentic. Soon after that PM Oli while addressing a meeting of the National Youth Association (also a Communist party affiliate) made a public statement that India should “immediately withdraw” is troops. He says, “the government will not allow anybody to encroach even one inch of its land. There is support of all to the government for nationality and national integrity”. There are symptoms of external forces playing critical role in inciting tensions, especially in the wake of drastic changes made in Kashmir and also due to the enhanced closeness of China with Nepalese Communist Party.
In addition, as there were concerns over the performance of the government brewing for quite some time, on November 21, PM Oli reshuffled his cabinet that led many unhappy. On November 25th, the National Congress of Nepal, the main opposition party brought out 21 failures of the present government along with the lack of diplomatic efforts to hold a dialogue with India to reclaim the Kalapani region at the top of the list. NC leader Sher Bhadur Deuba also blamed PM Oli of having consensus with the Indian government in drawing the map. The issues needs to be seen in the context of internal bi-elections for which many parties are gearing up.
The big power v/s the small power
There is dearth of literature that dwells with the vulnerabilities of a small power. The theories that have propounded on the role, power, and status of small power look at small power being weak and incapable to engage in conventional war with a big power. Hence, most of the theories look at the possibility of small power looking for a shelter or forming an alliance with the big power. These theories also posit that the small power needs to use multilateral forums to form pressure groups around an issue that can tame the big power from any assertive approach or action.
However, in the changing geopolitical scenario and with the rise of new technologies, new approaches need to be incorporated in the understanding of small power’s role, power and status. In particular, one has to understand the tools of nationalism through social media, the act of balancing powers in the region, the national pursuit of economic development and rise of nationalist sentiments, and also the hard power ambitions that can alter the alliance matrix. Nepal is a case in point.
Nepal, that stands between India and China – the two big powers- has both advantages and disadvantages of its placement in the region. As Nepal itself was embroiled in intense internal political turmoil some years back, there was no united consciousness to confront any power. Hence, Nepal played the equidistance policy or used the ‘China card’ approach against India to maintain the tricky balance for peaceful existence in the region. It also preferred the existing paradigm of shelter approach with India in its foreign policy, calling it as a ‘big brother’; while using multilateral forums to deal with issues.
However, the rise of united Communist power under the Prime Minister Oli with a clear mandate along with the meteoric rise of China, Nepal sees an opportunity to coax the Chinese for its own economic development agendas. As the US-China enters a serious trade war; while India seems not in clear tilt towards either side, Nepal has shown keenness to join the Chinese mooted alliance bandwagon, though internal debates continue. This gives Nepal a leverage to renegotiate its relations with India, especially relook at the past treaties, and also bargain greater support with India for having cultural and historical linkages. The Kalapani issue is another slice of cake that Nepal wants to use as a tool to bargain hard with India. It is for India to resolve entire border demarcation issue at the earliest, without giving space for Nepal to use the ‘big brother’ rhetoric to shelve its responsibilities.
Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal
Jawaharlal Nehru University