India-Nepal ties
File photo of PM Narendra Modi with Nepal's Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli | PTI
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On May 8, India’s defence minister virtually inaugurated a new 80 km-long road in the Himalayas, connecting to the border with China, at the Lipulekh pass. The Nepali government protested immediately, contending that the road crosses territory that it claims and accusing India of changing the status quo without diplomatic consultations.

Over one month later, the bilateral crisis seems to now be stuck in a stalemate, a worrisome trend in otherwise friendly India-Nepal relations. I try to answer some of the key questions on the crisis, the possible factors that escalated the dispute, the geostrategic context, and ways to de-escalate towards a solution.


Also read: Health Silk Road — How China plans to make BRI essential in Covid-hit South Asia


Why did India build this road through territory claimed by Nepal?

India has been in effective possession of this territory for at least sixty years, although Nepal claims it conducted a census there in the early 1950s and refers to the 1815 Sugauli Treaty as legitimising its claims. But India’s new road, up to the Lipulekh pass, is not an unprecedented change in the status quo. India has controlled this territory and built other infrastructure here before, besides conducting its administration and deploying military forces up to the border pass with China.

The region is of strategic importance, and the new road is now one of the quickest links between Delhi and the Tibetan plateau. In a 2015 statement, China also recognised India’s sovereignty by agreeing to expand trade through the Lipulekh pass. Finally, this is also an important route for thousands of Hindus who trek across the border with China every year to visit the sacred Mount Kailash. Given recurrent military tensions with China, the future potential of trade, and the religious symbolism of the region, India will certainly continue to exercise civilian and military control.


Also read: Oli now says India has ‘encroached’ Nepal’s territory since 1962, should return it


Is there any reason for the timing of the Indian announcement on May 8?

Nepal may not even have figured in India’s decision to time the announcement on May 8. Unless part of a larger signaling game directed at China, the Indian defence minister was probably more interested in scoring a domestic success by bringing good news during the lockdown period. Even if warned about the negative repercussions this could have on relations with Nepal, Indian decisionmakers clearly did not factor this in. From the perspective of maintaining good India-Nepal relations, any other timing would have been better than May 8.

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Also read: Madhesi parties on board, Nepal hopes to amend constitution over new map by next week


Why has this border dispute become so politically charged in Nepal?

In line with democratisation and competitive nationalism, Nepal’s foreign policy is becoming increasingly politicised. The Indian road was not built overnight and the Nepal government was surely aware and monitoring the situation in Kalapani over the preceding months and years. The issue had come up in November last year, when India announced its new political map, after the revocation of Article 370: as for many decades before, the Indian map continued to include territories claimed by Nepal, but this time the government in Kathmandu took it up officially and publically.  It also became a popular issue in Nepal, with the hashtag #BackOffIndia trending on social media.

For the beleaguered Nepali prime minister, India’s May 8 announcement thus fell like a gift from heaven as he faced his worst internal crisis since coming to power, in 2017. He was swiftly able to mobilise public opinion, play up nationalist sentiments against India, get his internal party rivals on board, and divert attention from his failed ordinances and challenges to contain the pandemic.


Also read: India silent as Nepal set to amend its Constitution to adopt new map


Are domestic politics hindering Nepal’s foreign policy?

Nepal has one of the world’s youngest populations and, especially after India’s implicit support for the 2015 blockade on the landlocked country, anti-Indian sentiments have been running high. This offers a new generation of Nepali politicians a powerful fuel to mobilise the electorate.


Also read: India says will hold more diplomatic-level talks with China to resolve border standoff


Did China engineer this border dispute between India and Nepal?

No, the border dispute between India and Nepal was brewing for many months and years, so it is unreasonable to blame China for creating the crisis. The counter-factual is clear: even if we hypothetically imagined China away, Prime Minister Oli and Nepali nationalists would always have reacted negatively to the Indian road announcement. For many years, Delhi was well aware that the issue was prone to politicisation in Nepal.

All this does not mean that Beijing has not supported or further instigated Kathmandu to take on a more assertive position, especially against the backdrop of the China-India military standoff in Ladakh. This could have contributed to the severity of the India-Nepal crisis. But we simply don’t know enough about the China factor, and it is thus simplistic, if not outright harmful to call Prime Minister Oli’s government “pro-China” or reflexively “anti-India” because of his party’s communist credentials.


Also read: India, Nepal talks unlikely anytime soon as Kathmandu is set to fast-track map changes


Is China’s political influence in Nepal harming Indian interests?

We know from other recent crises in the region, for example in the Maldives in the aftermath of the 2017-18 Doklam crisis, that China rarely shies away from an opportunity to use India’s neighbours as proxies, especially when its relations with Delhi are tense. Nepal and several other Indian neighbours are young democracies, developing new institutions in a political transition that can be instable, as we see in Myanmar. But Beijing’s authoritarian system and appeal is growing and may hinder further democratisation, undermine the rule of law, or curtail critical media and academic independence.

India has always seen a more democratic Nepal as being in its interest, leading to greater stability and inclusiveness, especially towards minorities in the Madhes. In 2006, after returning his ambassadorial post in Kathmandu, then Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran emphasised that “stability in Nepal is in the best interests of India” and that “democracy in Nepal is the best guarantee of such stability.”

As China’s political influence grows in Nepal, Beijing may have, at least indirectly, encouraged Prime Minister Oli to take a bolder stance against India during the current crisis. Recent examples show how China reportedly mediated between different factions to keep the CPN in power, how it put pressure on critical reporting in the Nepali media, and how it promoted the authoritarian governance model of China’s Communist Party. But often it is also Nepali’s self-censorship and over caution that has the greatest effect, seeking to please China even when Beijing doesn’t really care that much and defers to Delhi.

By playing the China balancing card as a last resort, Nepali leaders often hope to get Delhi to pay attention to festering problems that Indian diplomacy neglects or forgets about. This is a risky game because it raises alarm bells in Delhi, especially in the security and strategic establishments, which are quick to step in and tend to resort to coercive tools that can further escalate the dispute. It is also risky because it assumes China is always willing to extend indefinite support to Nepal at the cost of its relations with India.


Also read: Ladakh military operation has President Xi Jinping’s sanction: China expert Jayadeva Ranade


Does this dispute reflect a deeper problem in India-Nepal relations?

The rising presence of China across the Himalayas, especially after the BRI, forced India to recalibrate its policy towards Nepal. Delhi has begun shifting the emphasis away from geostrategic denial and insulation towards greater economic delivery and connectivity. This has been a tough adjustment, beginning in the 2000s, but with many Indian actors pushing in different directions. Some in India still look at twenty-first century Nepal through a nineteenth century colonial prism: as a buffer state with limited sovereignty, where India’s resources should be focused on political engineering and cultivate assets to topple a pro-China “puppet government.”

There is no better example of the larger problem in India-Nepal relations than the tragic fate of the report prepared by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) from both countries. The EPG was mandated in 2015 by Prime Minister Modi and former Nepali Prime Minister Deuba to assess the state of bilateral relations and come up with major recommendations, whether on the 1950 Treaty or the open border.

Submitted in 2018, the EPG report has still not been accepted: sources initially noted that Prime Minister Modi had not found the time, but by now it is obvious that Delhi is uncomfortable with some of the non-binding, expert recommendations that it had commissioned itself. Such lack of confidence and openness to reassess the fundamentals of the relationship has transmitted negative signals to Nepal.


Also read: New map ‘lifeline’ for PM Oli who came to power riding anti-India nationalism: Ex-envoy Rae


Does this crisis reflect a failure of India’s Neighbourhood First policy?

No, it is rather simplistic to assume that this crisis reflects a failure of India’s regional strategy. On Nepal, in particular, the successes have been astonishing since the 2015 course correction, after the blockade. After 2017, in particular, Prime Ministers Modi and Oli engaged at the highest level on multiple occasions and developed a direct, political and personal link that India-Nepal relations were often lacking, maybe since the 1980s.

Most importantly, driven by a new logic of interdependence and connectivity, India invested in upgrading its cross-border infrastructure and economic assistance: there are now new rail and road links, an electronic cargo system for Nepali goods to transit via Indian ports, inland waterway navigation plans, and a new cross-border pipeline for petroleum products. These are just some examples of the many achievements of India’s new connectivity strategy, focused on delivering more, better and faster to support the development objectives of Nepal and other neighbours. Unfortunately, these silent successes rarely make it to the headlines in Delhi or Kathmandu.

It is important for Delhi to realise that Kathmandu politics matters, but that different governments will come and go, all proclaiming an “India first” policy even while balancing with Beijing and others. India will continue to have its friendly political preferences in Nepal, but it should never forget that only its interests are permanent.


Also read: China’s trade with India’s neighbours has grown stronger since 2005. Delhi must catch up


Why has India not yet taken the initiative to defuse tensions and begin a diplomatic dialogue?

India’s silence is the greatest cause for concern for the future of bilateral relations and is creating natural uneasiness in Kathmandu. After indirectly indicating its displeasure at the politically charged environment in Nepal, India has largely remained silent. The optics of the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu being summoned also conveyed India’s discontentment: the envoy simply “stated” Delhi’s position and handed over a public declaration of the MEA’s spokesperson.

One month later, we have still not seen any significant de-escalatory move from Delhi, and that betrays clear intent, especially in a context of friendly relations marked by a positive phone call between both leaders in early April. Silence speaks volumes and the relationship may now be in for a deep freeze. We do not know the exact reasons why, but it certainly transpires that Delhi does not feel comfortable to address the issue at this point or in the current context.


Also read: Modi govt’s flip flops widened the gap between India and Nepal. Chinese are filling it fast


Does this mean India has lost confidence in Prime Minister Oli?

It is possible that this affected Delhi’s trust in Prime Minister Oli, especially given how long this dispute has played out and that both leaders have still not talked to each other. Whether it is because of his relations with China, his politicisation of the dispute, his jibes at India’s national symbols, or any other possible reason, it certainly looks like Delhi may now be less confident in Prime Minister Oli. This does not mean India will interfere to support any political alternative, despite what may circulate in Kathmandu’s many conspiracy corridors.

The reality, once again, is less flattering. Delhi may simply not care, having made its displeasure clear and now willing to wait it out. This would mean that India may now see Prime Minister Oli as more of a problem, rather than part of the solution to improve bilateral relations.


Also read: China’s animosity record towards India reflects wolf warrior diplomacy: Taiwan representative


Are both sides really interested in a dialogue?

Not necessarily. Nepali analysts often overestimate the importance of their country in India’s foreign and security policies, or read too much into its allegedly “strategic” outlook. Not everything is planned in detail: Delhi’s decisionmaking, even on next-door Nepal, can be quite confusing and contingent. With many other urgent issues taking precedence in India, whether the COVID-19 pandemic at home or the military standoff with China, Nepal may simply not be a priority.

India’s calculation may be that it can afford to wait this out, watching how Kathmandu’s politics play out.


Also read: India must stay prepared as it watches China’s ‘not so peaceful’ rise


Will India ever give up control over the territory claimed by Nepal?

Unlikely and certainly not under any compulsion. Nepali nationalists may like to believe that passing a constitutional amendment, roping in the support of China or internationalising the issue at the United Nations will force India to back down. But it is doubtful that any realist in Kathmandu, especially Prime Minister Oli, is under the illusion that Delhi will cave in to any such demands or coercion. This is why despite all of its political rhetoric and pressure, the Nepali government has always continued to emphasise the importance of a diplomatic dialogue.


Also read: Madhesis back at centre of Delhi-Kathmandu row as they ‘block bill to change Nepal map’


Are there any possible solutions to this dispute in the long term?

The sooner India settles this dispute with Nepal, the lesser the chances for China to get involved. Beijing has chosen to remain quiet this time, but its future calculation may change. The Kalapani dispute between India and Nepal is also an almost perfect mirror case of the 2017 Doklam crisis between China and Bhutan, where India stepped up and deployed its military forces to restore the status quo ante.

Hostile states have been able to find such innovative solutions in other parts of the world and, at one point, India and Pakistan were close to finding solutions for Siachen or to make borders irrelevant in Kashmir.  Based on their history of friendly relations and driven by pragmatism, it should not be difficult for India and Nepal to think out of the box and find a practical solution. Delhi and Kathmandu could lead the way to liberate the subcontinent from the sovereignist, nationalist and territorial logic that continues to leave everyone in the region worse off.

Constantino Xavier is a Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Views are personal.

The article was first published on the Brookings website.

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16 Comments Share Your Views

16 COMMENTS

  1. As soon the relations between India and Nepal will sour permanently through Oli’s disastrous actions, and China feels confident that India will not come for Nepali rescue,China will start arm twisting Nepal and soon China will occupy it like Tibet, in case anything goes wrong Oli will run to China communist party for shelter and may settle in mainland or Hongkong leaving the civil society at Chinese mercy, it will be worst than Saugali treaty for Nepal.

  2. Time and again nepal has blackmailed India with China-India balance narrative. It has recieving benifits from new Delhi at its own terms. Nepalese people can not curse India for the benifits India stops providing.
    Be it infrastructure projects, government jobs in India or free passage to Kolkata port.

    Nepal is so much dependent on India, that even if they want, they can not rely on China for everything.

    It is time India puts an end to this and treatment should be on at par basis, or atleast provide them only benifits which china provides.

    We should not have any open borders with Nepal, no jobs for its citizens and no benefits of government schemes.

    Nepal should understand that grants and alms are not rights and you can not demonize India and take all the advantages in the same breath.

    • Mr. Ankur you must not put your nose into any issue before knowing the background, the root cause of the border dispute. This dispute is age long dispute created by your Indian Republic Gov. This border issue was duly resolved by your previous lords The British India after Anglo Nepalese war and the Old Maps are in libraries you can produce that at anytime and glance at them which were retaliated. But your Gov. cunningly later on Changed by Trickster´s way the source of Kali river from Limpiadhura the original source as per mentioned in retaliated maps below the lower unidentified source which is very irking.
      A little stream that seems like
      Baby´s Urine-Pass is named Kali river´s source violating International border policies. Its ridiculous.
      For next thing what you said that India should let fences in borders than its very right it should fence borders. IF YOU ARE LEARNED YOU MAY KNOW GOOD FENCES MAKES GOOD NEIGHBOURS. AND NEXT THING YOUR INDIAN FELLOWS ALSO WORK HERE BE CLEAR IN VARIOUS SECTORS FROM MANUAL LABOUR AND GUARDS TO OTHER POSTS. AND YOUR STOPPING OF NEPALESE CITIZENS WONT CHANGE ANYTHING. BESIDES ITS NOT POSSIBLE.
      AND LASTLY IF YOU SAY INDIA MUST GIVE NEPAL AS MUCH AS CHINA GIVES THAT JUST TALK TO YOUR MPS AND PM AND OTHERS AND CUT IT SHORT. WE CAN SUSTAIN ON OUR OWN ON LIMITED SOURCES BUT NEITHER TOLERATE INDIAN OR CHINESE EYES ON WHAT WE WRITE ON OUR CONSTITUTION, WITH WHOM WE KEEP OUR TRADE AND ECONOMIC TIES AND WHAT WE CLAIM AS PER OUR HISTORY AND EVIDENCES.
      YOU BETTER LOOK INTO YOUR SHOULDER THERE IS A BURDEN OF CHINESE TRADE AND ITS POUNDING IMPACT ON YOUR ECONOMY. GLANCE IN INDO-CHINA TRADE DEALS. YOU CANT SUSTAIN SIMPLY BY MADE IN INDIA THEME. ALL COUNTRIES ARE DEPENDENT ON OTHER COUNTRIES ON TODAY´S WORLD. WE ARE UNDER CHINA´S INFLUENCE BUT CHINA IS ON YOUR SHOULDERS POUNDING YOUR ECONOMY. SO PLEASE DON´T ACT ARROGANT AND RIDICULOUS ON POLITICAL MATTERS, LET IT BE HANDLED BY YOUR MINISTERS AND NOT YOUR IRKING WORDS. BE PATIENT.

      • So, your eyes opened only after the road was completed and India-China relations soured? Under the current scenario, it clearly shows that Nepalese politicians have played directly into the hands of China.
        You must see, irrespective of the territorial issues, where the welfare of people lie and what is beneficial. Considering the long socio-economic relations, if you consider siding up with China is a better option, then India too will feel free to make necessary changes.
        The Treaty of Sugauli is 200 years old and things do change during the period. Let’s see what is mutually beneficial and work this out rather than having a fantasy of having military confrontations.
        Let’s see how far the anti-India sentiments have grown in Nepal, thanks to China and ISI.

  3. This admin is biased. It screens and removes the comments. It retains those comments which blindly support Indian action. You Modi puppet media, I request you to republish my comment.

  4. It seems to be biased and sponsored article. The fact about Sugauli Treaty, Nepal’s continuous claim atleast for the last 30 years, India’ s acceptance on the border dispute, India’s ignorance on Nepal’s diplomatic note, India’s acceptance on origin of Kali river by it’s 8th edition political map and suddenly issued 9th by deleting the name of Kali river, India’s exercise against status quo agreement, threatening/ answering Nepal’ diplomatic note by India’s army chief etc. are to be included for analysis on this issue.

  5. What a comedy story….Did India built road 80 km within over night??? Why Nepal was silent at that time ? …Nepal just dancing as China puppet ..Print stop support CCP china

  6. Anyone trying to understand the issue should first understand the Two Anglo-Gorkha Wars of 1814 and 1816 which led to the signing of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty. At that time the wars were between the East India Company and Nepal over this territory. Nepal at that point owned the western territory upto the Shimla Hills. Post Sugauli, much of its territory was lost to the British and in the west, the River Kali was the dividing boundary. However, there remained a confusion over the starting point of the river and the three points of Lipulekh Pass, Kaalapaani and Limpyadhura. India and Nepal last met in 2014 to discuss the issue. Meanwhile a road being made by India now crosses this area. Coming to today, Nepal has gone ahead and claimed the disputed territory as its own. What appears on the map is a sliver of land with India and China on both sides. It looks like a sharp blade jutting into a strategic area. All said and done it is going to be a bone of contention keeping in mind Chinese aggression in nearby Ladakh. A situation that Delhi chose for best reasons, not to attend while Nepal kept on pressing to discuss. As it stands now, will Delhi respond or dismiss it? Will it become a thorn in India-Nepal relations? Thats something the Indian govt will have to attend to. Indian borders, pre and post partition are a can of worms anyway. And till date a lot of Indian resources and attention have been spent sorting out border issues. I would also like to know how this claim benefits Nepal today? And on this narrow sliver of land how Nepal plans to handle the two sides of China and India. There is no doubt that in the future, China will try to arm-twist Nepal on controlling this area.

    • The two countries has deepest of the historical ties. Altercation as this one is very unfrutunate for the stablity in the area and will have longer implication on the relationship between these two countries. To resolve this issues IMO both countries should be willing to take a step back. However, it seems like the India is indulging in an ego of it being heavy weight country while ultra nationalism is prospering in Nepal. India’s unwillingness to continue dialogue on this matter in only excerbating the issue as oridnary Nepali are feeling thier sovereignty is being put under question.
      Historical facts reveal that former king of Nepal had allowed indian army to stay there on temporary basis when late Nehru was apprehesive of China’s aggresion. I don’t see why similar arragement could still be made such that nationlism of Nepali people reamin unhurt by establishment that the ownership of the land remains with Nepal while India serve its intersted by taking the control of the land under question for finite term until necessary measures could be established within the indian territory to cope with potential Chinese aggresion.

  7. A very comprehensive and balanced article on India-Nepal relations in the background of the current stand off. It appears that the relations with Nepal will go in freeze for indefinite time as Nepal has closed its doors for any negotiations by hurriedly passing the Constitutional amendment. Hopefully, India does not initiate steps to effect blockade of good and services and close its borders thereby leaving Nepal with no choice but to be a Chinese stooge. That will have disastrous consequences but late Mao will be pleased! Internally, Nepal can see separatist movement as well and that will be sad chapter for this lovely country.

  8. It would be no discourtesy to Nepal if the talks on the Indian side are led by a Secretary in MEA, not the FS. Governments will come and go in Kathmandu. What should worry India is how we are losing the trust and affection of ordinary Nepalis. When the Congress and the Madhesi parties line up with the ruling Communist party in a show of political unanimity to see an important constitutional amendment through, they know they are in consonance with the people’s mood.

    • Well its communist party in Nepal and whatever india say or do they will contradict. Nepal is in self destruction mode and they have made them realize that india is problem for them. Next Tibbet or HongKong in Making!

      • Let’s watch how many and for how long loaded trucks from India cross into Nepal carrying stores and petroleum. Compare that with those coming from China into Nepal. Heard that salt prices are already Rs 60/- kg there.
        Why let innocent Nepalese citizen suffer? Will Oli government feed and care for them all?

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