Deciphering the Kalapani-Lipulekh Conundrum

Sumitra Karki

May 23, 2020

9 MIN READ

Deciphering the Kalapani-Lipulekh Conundrum
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The Government of Nepal has unveiled a new political map of Nepal placing the ‘disputed territories’ of Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh as part of their territory.

On 8 May, the Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a Link Road from Dharchula to Lipulekh.

Nepalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal raised an objection, summoned the Indian Ambassador based in Kathmandu, and send a diplomatic note expressing its concern.

In this context, the article looks at different aspects of the Kalapani-Lipulekh border dispute and its impact on India-Nepal relations.

Origin of the Conflict

The origin of the Kalapani and Lipulekh conflict dates back to the Treaty of Sugauli which was signed in December 1815 and ratified in March 1816 by the East India Company and the Kingdom of Nepal after the end of the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816) where Nepal lost one-third of its territory to them.

Nepali border experts claim that according to the maps published by the then British Surveyor General of India in the years of 1827 as well as 1856, the Kalapani area is clearly depicted as a Nepalese territory.

Some parts of land (western Terai) were later returned to Nepal in 1860 after Junga Bahadur Rana, Nepali Prime Minister helped the British in suppressing the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

As per Article V of the Sugauli Treaty ‘west of the Kali river’ belongs to India. The treaty fails to mention the source of the Kali (Sharda/ Mahakali) river which has become the bone of contention between the two countries.

Nepal claims that the source of the Kali river lies at Limpiyadhura, hence the Kalapani and Lipulekh in the east of the Kali river, belongs to Nepal.

Nepali border experts claim that according to the maps published by the then British Surveyor General of India in the years of 1827 as well as 1856, the Kalapani area is clearly depicted as a Nepalese territory.

Senior border experts like former Director-General of Nepal’s Land Survey Department, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, agues in the same lines, where he states that the river which flows to the west of Kalapani is the main Kali River which originates from Limpiyadhura.

He also mentions that the ‘Old Atlas of China’ a map published during Qing Dynasty (1903), depicts, in Chinese characters, Limpiyadhura as the source of the Kali River. The word ‘Nepal’ is scribed in the map for the north-eastern part of the river.

However, India claims that a small river named Pankhagad, to the south of Kalapani, and the ridgeline on the east side of the Kalapani area is the true border, hence the Kalapani area belongs to India.

The dispute between Lipulekh and Kalapani is not new. It has remained unresolved since 1962 as Indo-Tibetan Border Police are posted there since the India-China War of the same year.

It also presents its tax records and other administrative documents and claims Kalapani as part of their Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.

Strategic Importance of Lipulekh and Kalapani

Lipulekh and Kalapani is a tri-juncture of India-Nepal and China. They are of geo-strategic and geo-political importance as India can keep an eye against any attempt of encroachment by China or the movement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) towards India.

Similarly, Kalapani has not been free from the politics meted out from the Chinese front as well.

In 2018, during Doklam standoff, Wang Wenli, Deputy Director-General of the Boundary and Ocean Affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs remarked, “the Indian side has also many tri-junctions. What if we use the same excuse and enter the Kalapani region between China, India, and Nepal or even into the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan”.

Further, it is geo-economic as well, as it is the shortest and direct route from North India to Kailash Mansarovar. At present, the Indian pilgrimages have to go to Kailash Mansarovar via Nepalgunj-Humla or Kathmandu-Kerung.

Not a New Conflict

The dispute between Lipulekh and Kalapani is not new. It has remained unresolved since 1962 as Indo-Tibetan Border Police are posted there since the India-China War of the same year.

In 2000, during Nepalese Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s visit to New Delhi, significant work was done, and the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had agreed to resolving the border dispute through an on-site study of Kalapani, with the aim of concluding it in 2002.

Both the country agreed for the Bilateral Joint Boundary Committee. However, there was no progress as India refused to withdraw its troops from the area. Later in 2014, during Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s visit to Delhi, both countries agreed to resolve “pending Nepal-India boundary issues once and for all, including Kalapani”.

At that time Nepal-India Joint Ministerial Mechanism, it was decided to resolve the dispute over Kalapani and Susta at the Foreign Secretary-level on the basis of technical suggestions.

Sushma Swaraj, the then External Affairs Minister represented India at the meeting, but, as expected, no progress has been made since then.

Moreover, Nepal raised a serious objection when Lipulekh was mentioned in the India-China joint statement during Modi’s visit to China in May 2015.

The joint statement states, “the two sides agree to hold negotiation on augmenting the list of traded commodities, and expand border trade at Nathu La, Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass, and Shipki La.”

Nepal demanded China and India to remove the mention on Lipulekh from their joint statement, arguing that it threatens Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

While the current Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane sees the provocation of a third party (hinting at China), Indian expert then pointed to Nepal’s position based on India-China joint statement of 2015 as being politically motivated.

In response to General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s statement, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has come with the statement that, “The issue of Kalapani is between Nepal and India. 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”.

Impact on India-Nepal Relations and Way Forward

In spite of having ‘special relations’ with historical, cultural, political, economic, traditional, and religious links, Nepal always has grievances against India.

However, Nepal has also safeguarded India’s genuine security concerns. Both countries can find other collective mechanisms to meet such security challenges.

However, since the ‘economic blockade’ of 2015, where Kathmandu saw hidden Indian hand, there is a massive upsurge of anti-India feelings among the people.

Even the political parties and leaders who enjoy excellent relations with India do not refuse ‘Indian intervention’ in Nepal.

Though India played an important role in most of the political transformations of Nepal, for which Nepalese appreciate it, it is no longer an influential player.

In this new situation, it is necessary for both countries to resolve the boundary issues through serious dialogue, unlike in the past.

If India fails to resolve its border issues with Nepal, with which it enjoys friendliest relations, it will never be able to resolve the most complicated border issues it has with Pakistan and China.

Similarly, having border issues with a small country, whose people have sacrificed their sweat and blood for India’s independence and security since decades, will not only hurt its international reputation but is not conducive for its internal security, as there are thousands of Nepalese in Indian security forces and millions of Nepali residing in different parts of India.

In addition, both countries have an open border. Kalapani holds great geostrategic importance because of its location.

However, Nepal has also safeguarded India’s genuine security concerns. Both countries can find other collective mechanisms to meet such security challenges.

Let’s hope that India responds promptly to Nepal’s request for Foreign Ministerial-level talks, resolve the issue once and for all through dialogue amicably so that ‘third parties’ or anti-India elements do not benefit from the strained relations of two great peaceful neighbors.

(The writer is a Program Coordinator and Research Associate at NIICE)

(Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement (NIICE), Nepal’s independent think tank, and Khabarhub — Nepal’s popular news portal — have joined hands to disseminate NIICE research articles from Nepal)

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