Despite the strong linguistic, religious and cultural resemblance that ties the citizens of Nepal and India, it seems that the political issues and border disputes regarding the Kalapani region have strained the relations between the two nations and has given to rise to an anti-Indian sentiment amongst the government and people of Nepal. The cartographic aggression between Nepal and India isn’t recent, it is rather stale and has come up now and again since the 1960s. The Kalapani region derives its name from the river Kali. Nepal maintains that the Treaty of Sugauli, 1816, ratified by both the kingdom of Nepal and British India, designates the kali as the boundary river. India’s claims to the area are based on British Indian maps dating back to the 19th century. Here lies the historic origin of the dispute. The area is currently in India’s control but Nepal claims the region. Nepal also possesses land registration records and tax receipts from the disputed territory.
The issue was recently revived in November 2019, when India published a revised political map illustrating the freshly devised Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The issue stemmed from the fact that India inaugurated the Darchula-Lipulekh pass link road, cutting across the disputed Kalapani area without discussing it with Nepal, which Nepal views as a stark example of bullying. Although The earlier remarks on a solution by Nepal’s prime minister, with possible road leasing to India, was a welcome step towards de-escalation, since then, we have only seen repeated moves from both sides that have raised the temperature and resulted in the advent of a gloomy phase in their relationship. The ill-placed comments and the derogatory statements made by leaders of both countries lead to an unnecessary escalation. This was followed by an activist protest against India’s newly inaugurated link road, near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. The announcement saw Nepal’s capital Kathmandu being flooded with protesters. To top it all, the Communist government of Nepal taking help from china published a new, authoritative political map incorporating the territory from the Limpiyadhura source of the Kali to Kalapani and Lipulekh pass in the northeast of the triangular region as its territory, toughening its stance on the flared up territorial dispute with India. This marked a new paradigm of “cartographic war” as anger grew on both sides.
In recent years, India has perceived Nepal as tilting toward China. The level of distrust amongst both nations has also spiked in recent months.
As a consequence of the distrust, India had to spend its resources in reinforcing border control by sending more troops to the disputed area, which, considering the current pandemic situation, isn’t beneficial to the country. The link road via Lipulekh Himalayan Pass is considered one of the shortest and most feasible trade routes between India and China. It is also a route that has been used for centuries by Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims and tourists on their way to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. The nearby markets have always benefitted the mountain communities. While it is understandable that the sentiments of the citizens of Nepal are deeply affected by the historical significance of the land, closing the route will not only affect the trade but will deeply affect the mountain communities alongside the pilgrims who were looking forward to their travel.
As the current situation only leads to distress in both the countries a concrete solution seems to be the need of the hour. The heart of the dispute lies in differing cartographic interpretations about the headwaters of the Mahakali River. So, as both sides dig in their heels over cartographic interpretations, a political solution is the only way out. New Delhi and Kathmandu need to immediately engage with each other through public diplomacy to bring down the temperature. The dispute has become more complicated after hardening of stances on both sides, establishing communications at the highest level — between the prime ministers — before the dispute reaches a point of no return seems pivotal. This would also lead to reassurance amongst the populations. The presence of the Indian army in the tri-junction that connects India, China, and Nepal complicates the issue. A proposal much similar to the ones made in the past wherein, India would withdraw its troops while Nepal would guarantee Indian security interests in the region could help in the de-escalation of the situation. It is important to understand that such situations cannot be dealt with by “rhetoric or unilateral map-making exercises” as such brinkmanship only breeds mistrust and erodes the goodwill at the people-to-people level. The way to move forward is to formally approve the strip maps, resolve the two remaining disputes, demarcate the entire India-Nepal boundary, and speedily execute the work of boundary maintenance. While conflict still resides on the Land of Kalapani, the fact that Political maturity is needed to find creative solutions that can be mutually acceptable is a statement that everyone can agree upon.
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