Nepal issued a new official national map last week in a “unilateral” attempt to claim disputed territories along the country’s border with India and China. India’s government has rebuked the country’s actions, even though it too, claims the territory in its official map.
The land in question is a mountainous region of roughly 300 square kilometres along Nepal’s northwest border, encompassing the provinces of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani. The two countries have wrestled for the region since the early 1800’s when British India and Nepal agreed upon a treaty labeling the Kali River as their shared boundary. Since then, the two countries have had geographic disputes over the source of the river, resulting in a continued struggle for ownership over the area.
Contention between India and Nepal was reignited on May 8th, when India’s Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh announced a newly constructed segment of road running through the contested area, helping to connect the country’s state of Uttarakhand to the autonomous province of Tibet. Nepal’s Foreign Ministry quickly responded in a statement, calling on India to ‘‘refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal.” In the streets of Nepal, demonstrations soon began taking place to protest India’s transgression, pointing blame at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and raising political tensions between the nations.
Consistent with their interpretations of the Kali’s whereabouts, India defended its creation of the new trade route. ‘‘Both sides are also in the process of scheduling Foreign Secretary level talks which will be held once the dates are finalized between the two sides after the two societies and governments have successfully dealt with the challenge of Covid-19 emergency,’’ the Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. ‘‘Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India.’’
Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli responded definitively to the remarks: ‘‘We won’t let go the issue of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani. This is our land and we will reclaim it. It is not a disputed land. It is our land. India created unnecessary controversy by claiming it as theirs. This government will make concrete efforts to reclaim the territories.’’ Nepal has since requested a meeting with India’s foreign ambassador over the matter, likely to take place following the current pandemic.
Until territorial disputes over the area were revived, India and Nepal have enjoyed friendly relations since the signing of peace treaties in the 1950’s. Alongside free trade agreements and promises to protect each other from foreign aggressors, both countries have adopted special provisions for their citizens; India has granted Nepalese citizens equal economic and educational opportunities as Indian residents, and Nepal has granted preferential treatment to Indian citizens and businesses as compared to other nationalities. The countries’ unique relationship has also created an open border, where citizens are free to move, trade, and work in either country without restrictions. Even so, controversy over the ownership of the Kalapani region has threatened the transparent relationship created by the two governments.
Maintaining peace with Nepal is in India’s chief interests at the time, considering existing tensions between the country and its northwestern neighbor, Pakistan, that have made the country vulnerable. The threat of terrorism in the region remains high, to which India has been forced to devote much of its military and diplomatic tools. Increasing conflicts through border discussions will only make the nation’s foreign affairs more complex, stretching their resources thin and putting its citizens further at risk.
China has also weighed in on the ensuing dilemma in the region. ‘‘We hope the two countries will resolve their differences properly through friendly consultations and refrain from taking any unilateral action that may complicate the situation,’’ a spokesperson for the country’s foreign affairs noted in a press conference.
As hot-tempered protests continue to go on in Nepal over the border, the foreign ministries from both countries should look to pursue a diplomatic solution to their problems, and avoid de-escalate any potential violence that might occur while the countries jockey for control. Moves like Nepal’s unveiling of its expanded national map are unhelpful toward this end, and compromise over the boundary should instead take place.