Indo-Nepal Border Dispute – An Explainer

An explainer on the Indo-Nepal border dispute, based on articles /open source inputs. Received from a friend on social media

Historical Background

·         Anglo-Nepal Treaty of Sugauli of 1816. The treaty determines the Kali river as the western boundary between British India and Nepal. Nepal has produced an East India Company map from the archives to show that the British considered the tributary of the Kali River, the Limpiyadhura, as its main channel. But a map drawn up in 1879 after surveys had been carried out shows the boundary along a ridge just west of the Tinker Pass. As per this and later official British maps and what India claims, Kali River originates from a natural spring at Kalapani, where it is joined by a rivulet flowing down from Lipulekh Pass. This was not challenged then nor at any time subsequently until after 1990. In fact, Nepali maps have all along reflected the same alignment. Some Nepali journalists and scholars now argue that the monarchy, first under King Mahendra and later under King Birendra, was reluctant to raise this issue with India for fear of Indian reaction.

·         1950s   India in the early 1950s, set up, with the consent of Nepal, a string of military-cum-police posts along the Nepal-China border after the Chinese occupied Tibet. There were either 17 or 18 posts altogether and they remained in place until 1969. In that year, Kirti Nidhi Bisht, the Nepali Prime Minister, on the instructions of King Mahendra, asked Indira Gandhi to withdraw all these posts from Nepali territory. This was done but the Indian post at Kalapani was not in the Nepali list. When this is pointed out to Nepal, the answer is that Mahendra was being sensitive to India’s security concerns vis-a-vis China and hence allowed an act of generosity to let India hold on to Kalapani and access to Lipulekh Pass.

India and China concluded an agreement in 1954 for trade and transit between India and Tibet and among the six border passes listed for the purpose, Lipulekh was included. There was no protest from the Nepali side. The first time that Nepal protested formally was in 2015 when India and China signed an MoU for conducting border trade between the two countries through Lipulekh Pass.

·         1960s   China and Nepal reached a border agreement in 1961. Article 1 in the agreement describes the western extremity of the China-Nepal border “starts from the point where the watershed between the Kali River and the Tinker River meets the watershed between the tributaries of the Mapchu(Karnali) River on the one hand and the Tinker River on the other, thence it runs south-eastward along the watershed.” This agreement has been demarcated and there exists Pillar 1 on ground which marks this starting point at the western extremity, and is located at Tinker Pass, well east of Lipulekh Pass.

Politics of Nepal

·          Politics in Nepal survives on anti-India sentiment. Nepalese PM, Oli was initially considered favourably disposed to India. Many now feel he wants to leave his legacy by raising the issue of Kalapani-Lipulekh. China’s interference in Nepalese politics and their successful attempt to merge the rival communist parties the CPN-UML and the UCPN (Maoist) to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).  

·         Indian Interest Kalapani has strategic value to India, besides economic logic.

·         China’s Position 2015           India-China statement of 2015: “the two sides agreed to … expand border trade at … Lipu-Lekh pass.” Crystal clear: Beijing implicitly recognized Indian sovereignty over Lipulekh, disputed with Nepal.

May-June 2020         

·         RM inaugurated a new 75-km track to Lipulekh, on May 8, which will now be the shortest route to Kailash Mansarovar for Indian pilgrims.

·         COAS’s statement has sparked a furore in Nepal after he hinted at China’s hand behind Kathmandu’s decision to lodge a complaint against the new road.

·         Prime Minister KP Oli statement – China has clarified that its agreement with India to open a link road through the Lipu Lekh pass does not affect the outstanding boundary questions between Nepal and India.  

·         PM Oli has made statement considered offensive and derogatory to India (relating to national emblem etc)

·         20 May – Nepal released a map which includes Indian territory as part of Nepal.

·         Parliamentary Moves in Nepal Initially Madhesi parties tried to block the move, subsequently consented. Now a constitutional bill to amend the map has been tabled in the Nepalese parliament, which is likely to pass, considering the support it has got from all the parties.

·         Nepal has sought Foreign Secretary level talk (even if a virtual one).

·         India’s Option As per one media report – act tough with Nepalese ldrs but enhance people to people contact.