New Delhi: India’s newly-inaugurated link road to Kailash Mansarovar may not see smooth operation anytime soon as Nepal has raised strong objections to it over territorial claims.
The road connects Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh with the Lipulekh Pass — which Nepal considers as part of its own territory — at the India-China border. The construction of the final 4-km section of the road still remains and could start later this year, pending clearances.
In a meeting of the House of Representatives of the Nepalese Parliament Sunday, Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali said, “We have called upon the Government of India to refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal.”
His comments came a day after Kathmandu issued a statement opposing the road, which was inaugurated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh Friday for public use.
On Saturday, New Delhi protested this statement, saying the inaugurated section of the road is on a pre-existing route and lies entirely within the Indian territory. It also addressed Nepal’s concerns and said it will hold the long-pending foreign secretary-level talks on the border issue after the Covid-19 pandemic is over, adding that the boundary delineation exercise is ongoing.
In response, Gyawali said Nepal remains committed to “seeking diplomatic solutions to boundary issues on the basis of the historical treaties, documents, facts and maps in keeping with the spirit of close and friendly ties between the two countries”.
However, diplomatic sources told ThePrint that Kathmandu is “extremely upset” with the fact that India hasn’t held the foreign secretary-level talks, which were agreed upon between the two sides as far back as 2014. But they noted that it is not planning to escalate the issue at present.
These issues come even as Nepal has been pushing India to “seriously consider” implementing the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) report on Nepal-India relations, which was finalised in 2018.
‘Settle the border issue first’
Tensions between India and Nepal over border disputes have grown in the last year. The latest row has broken out just months after there was an issue over the disputed Kalapani and Susta region, when New Delhi released a new map showing Kalapani as part of India.
While 97 per cent of the border between India and Nepal has been demarcated, the portions on Kalapani and Susta remain unmarked.
Both India and Nepal claim Kalapani as an integral part of their territories — India says it is part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, where the new road originates, and Nepal says it is part of its Dharchula district.
Speaking to ThePrint, a senior official of the Nepal government said, “India has to settle the border dispute with Nepal first, even if it considers this to be a small issue … And then we can discuss the new road.”
However, a top Indian defence source said that while there have been engagements between the two sides, sporadic statements like the ones quoted above are aimed at its domestic population.
“The road has been existing for a long time, and now the route has been made motorable. As far as the last few kilometres leading to Lipulekh Pass (China border) is concerned, constructing that part can take place by this year itself,” said the source.
“However, the work will start only after political and military clearances at the highest level,” the source added.
Impact on relations
Ranjit Rae, who was India’s ambassador to Nepal from 2013 to 2017, said this row over the new road should not be “such a big issue”.
“Nepal is keen on FS-level talks and the MEA statement issued today (Saturday) clearly shows India’s willingness to hold the talks as soon as the Covid crisis is over. India and Nepal have extremely close and cordial relations and I am confident that they would not create any hurdles in the smooth operation of the road, which will benefit thousands of pilgrims that travel to Kailash Mansarovar every year,” he had said.
“Lipulekh finds mention in several agreements between India and China,” added Rae.
S.L. Narasimhan, a member of the National Security Advisory Board, said the Indian government will take a considered view on the matter.
“We have been making a lot of efforts to maintain good relations with Nepal. India-Nepal trade far outweighs the Nepal-China trade. There could be minor irritants, but I’m sure those would be resolved diplomatically,” he said.
Meanwhile, protests have emerged in Nepal with police detaining a few of them. Reportedly, students aligned to the ruling party staged protests near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu on the Lipulekh issue.