By Maila Baje
An upsurge of patriotism has united Nepalis after India unveiled an updated version of its political map. By incorporating the Nepali regions of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh firmly within the Indian Union, New Delhi has reignited a territorial dispute that has been smoldering for nearly six decades.
While this is not the first time New Delhi has done so, there are some novel twists. The dissemination of a full-fledged official map has placed the dispute squarely in the Nepali public sphere. With China and Pakistan already involved as disputants in this latest instance of Indian cartographic legerdemain, Nepal’s grievances have acquired clear regional ramifications.
What next? Much will depend on how Nepalis address the issue. The familiar calumny that King Mahendra bartered the territory in exchange for Indian support for his active rule following the abolition of multiparty democracy has returned to the debate. There is little value in beating that drum apart from, say, foiling attempts to revive the monarchy as the defender of Nepali nationhood. Even there, the ploy may have run its course. The fact that successive elected governments have failed to lift a finger seeking a return of the territories has forced Nepalis to probe deeper into the context and circumstances surrounding the dispute. Given the character of the regime circa 1962 – when India is said to have begun occupying Kalapani in the context of its war with China – only one Nepali personage could best address the issue. He departed the world in 1972. The credibility of anyone claiming to speak on behalf of King Mahendra or his regime is bound to be compromised by the profound partisanship surrounding the monarch.
New Delhi cannot be expected to come clean without addressing the ‘quid pro quo’. Even if King Mahendra had bartered away the territories, the fact remains that India was the beneficiary. Given New Delhi’s consistent claims of having championed Nepali democracy, Kalapani is not a can of worms it would want to open. The wholesale rejection of the Kali River as identified as the western border of Nepal under the 1816 Sugauli Treaty would put India on a slippery slope. That treaty, which Nepal signed with British India following its war-induced dismemberment, is in a league of its own. India cannot contemplate picking and choosing its provisions without tipping the balance in favor of (Greater?) Nepal.
Despite the controversy surrounding the text of the Nepali government’s response to the publication of the Indian map, Kathmandu has made a solid assertion that it considers Kalapani as part of Nepal. Our Foreign Ministry statement added that “any unilateral actions along the Nepal-India border will be unacceptable” since the two foreign secretaries have already been assigned by the Nepal-India Joint Commission to find a solution on the unresolved border disputes in consultation with border experts.
New Delhi, too, has accepted that latter stance. While insisting that its new map has in no manner revised India’s boundary with Nepal, a Ministry of External Affairs spokesman also conceded that the delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing under the existing mechanism.
So far, so good. Beyond the official channels, however, there is enough potential for mischief on both sides. Within Nepal, the temptation to play politics has proved to be irresistible, especially at a time when unity of purpose is required the most. As alluring as one-upmanship can be in these politically charged times, it can hardly matter which Nepali leader raised the issue with which Indian counterpart unless government-to-government channels were activated to follow up on a solution. Nor can we afford to subvert our cause by obsessing with the fact that every political faction across party lines has been complicit in this national injury.
On the Indian side, the potential for malice has taken a new turn with the assertion that Kathmandu this time is somehow animated by third-party vested interests. Then there is the attempt by sections of the Indian media to play up the angle that China has encroached upon Nepali territory.
Granted, New Delhi has opened multiple breaches with its new map, and it must have contemplated ways of navigating them. Nepal’s stand is rooted in its understanding of the Sugauli Treaty and its delineation of its western border. If questions of ‘ridgelines’ or the ‘origin’ of the Kali River have emerged, they have done so subsequently in a way that do not impact Nepal’s understanding of and adherence to the Sugauli Treaty.
How Nepali territory ended up in Sino-Indian bilateral agreement on trade in 2015 needs to be taken up separately and together with India and China. There is already too much going on to muddy the waters externally to obfuscate the issue and present Nepal with a fait accompli. Excessive public jingoism at home at the cost of patient bilateral – and, if need be, international – diplomacy could prove extremely counterproductive.