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TANGLES AT TRI-JUNCTIONS: PART I

Assertive Nepal Emerges As A New Player In Modern-day ‘Great Game’

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India build road link in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh via Lipulekh pass. Photo: Kathmandu Post

In the nineteenth century, the “Great Game” was played between the British and the Russian empires for control of Central Asia. Today, a similar geopolitical tussle is on in South Asia between two new players and major economic powers, namely, India and China. 

Nepal, sandwiched between the two countries, one on its north and the other in the south, has emerged as an assertive and smart diplomatic player taking advantage of its strategic geographical position. Nepal no longer wants to remain a “pawn” in the hands of its powerful neighbors on the geopolitical chessboard. It is playing its diplomatic cards smartly to extract the right concessions from the two. 

On May 9, the landlocked Himalayan country raised strong objections to India’s building a new link road that Nepal says passes through a disputed territory. The link road was inaugurated a day earlier by the Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh. The Indian move came six months after India published a map that showed the disputed territory within its borders. 

A huge uproar erupted in Nepal despite a national preoccupation with the Covid-19 attack. The clamor was evident both within the Nepalese parliament and the streets. 

The aggressiveness shows that the tiny Himalayan country’s geopolitical clout under its Communist Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma “Oli” can no longer be undermined, said strategic and political analysts in Nepal and India. The uproar adds to the already strained relations between India and Nepal. 

While India says that the link road connects Dharchula in the Indian state of Uttarakhand to the Lipulekh mountain pass near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on India's border with China, Nepal says that it passes through the southern side of the pass, called Kalapani, which is a disputed region between the two neighbors. 

The aggressiveness against India over the 56-year-old festering boundary dispute has never been so marked, said Nepal watchers. 

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Nepal will have to stand up against the “bullying big-brotherly” attitude of India and, if needed, confront India by sending its army to the disputed border, opined Krishna Pokharel, a leading strategic analyst and professor of political science at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. 

“India thinks that it can do whatever it likes with its military might. India’s bullying attitude should not be tolerated, and if needed, Nepal should stand up to India and increase its army’s deployment in the disputed territory,” Pokharel told South Asian Monitor over phone from Kathmandu. 

“The international community will take notice of India’s unilateral act only if Nepal physically obstructs the building of the road. Nepal has until now been reactive to India’s strong-armed tactics. It’s time the role was reversed and the tables turned on India. Nepal should be pro-active come what may. What is the use of the 90,000-strong army, if Nepal cannot defend its territorial sovereignty?” Pokharel wondered. 

India says that the new road will facilitate the movement of pilgrims to Kailash-Mansarovar-a Hindu pilgrimage site in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China-significantly cutting down the duration of the journey. But Nepal sees this as a ploy to claim the disputed territory, analysts said. 

Given Delhi’s discomfort with Kathmandu’s increasing proximity to China, Beijing’s ‘behind the scenes hand’ cannot be ruled out in the Lipulekh border row, they added. The already complex relationship between India and Nepal is bound to get more complicated with the China further stirring the pot, they pointed out. 

Though the Chinese do not have any direct stake in the Lipulekh Pass, Nepal is no longer scared to play the Chinese card, said China watcher Dr Binoda Mishra. 

“The assertive Nepalese are playing the diplomatic card very smartly and are expressing their reservations very openly. Nepal is playing the Chinese card to extract the right concessions from India,” Mishra, who is Director of the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Research (CSIRD), told South Asian Monitor. And China is ‘indirectly’ involved in the “new great game,” he asserted. 

The Nepalese government should immediately hold talks with both India and China and make it clear that Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura belong to Nepal. Any encroachment is not acceptable, a Kathmandu Post report said. 

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“The Lipulekh issue has now put the Oli government in a bind. Given the region’s positioning and an agreement between India and China in 2015, many say it is incumbent on Kathmandu to hold talks with Beijing also. But since 2015, Nepal has not engaged with the Chinese in any capacity regarding Lipulekh,” the report said. 

Just like the original great game (which denoted clandestine operations by semiofficial and private adventurers from Russia and Britain for influence and control in Central Asia) this new battle for control is being fought on many fronts with aid, investment and politics. 

The Lipulekh row is not new, said Lokraj Baral, a former Nepalese ambassador to India. “In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to open the Lipulekh route for trade and tourism. The Strategic pass lies on the tri-junction between India-Nepal and Tibet (China). But Nepal was not consulted. Nepal even then had lodged a protest note. Now India has built a link road through Nepalese territory complicating the matter further,” Baral told South Asian Monitor over phone from Kathmandu. 

The main difference between India and Nepal is on the source of the Mahakali River. Delhi wants talks on the border row after the coronavirus lockdown is eased, but Kathmandu insists that the talks be initiated even before that. “There is immense domestic pressure on Oli on this issue,” the former diplomat said. 

But no attempts were made by either Nepal or India to settle the border dispute even after the Modi government released new maps to factor in the newly-created Indian union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in November 2019, pointed senior Nepalese journalist Anil Giri. 

The map had kicked off a row and renewed tensions between the two neighbors, he said. In February 2020, Nepal proposed foreign secretary-level talks on the Kalapani row, but India did not respond, Girisaid. 

The strategically located Lipulekh Pass in Kalapani serves as an important vantage point for India to keep an eye on Chinese troop and civilian movements, said China watcher Binoda Mishra. “The Lipulekh Pass is strategically important for India as it is for China and Nepal. For Nepal the border issue is a very emotive and politically important. Kathmandu also claims the highly strategic Limpiyadhura and Kalapani,” Mishra added. 

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The Lipulekh Pass is claimed by Nepal based on a treaty (Sugauli agreement) it had entered with the British to define its western border with India in 1816. “But Indian troops have been deployed in Limpiyadhura since a brief war was fought between China and India in 1962. Nepal too must now deploy its army in Limpiyadhura and make its presence felt,” Pokharel said. Indeed, on May 13, Nepal deployed its elite paramilitary force-the Armed Police Force (APF)-in the disputed region. 

The row further deepened on May 15. Hours after Nepalese Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi held a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi in Kathmandu regarding the boundary row with India, Indian Army Chief General Manoj Naravanesaid that Nepal was acting ‘at the behest of someone else’. 

“There are reasons to believe that Nepal objected to India laying a road connecting the Lipulekh pass at the behest of someone else,” Naravane said at an interaction in, Delhi, The Mint reported. 

“The Nepalese Ambassador has mentioned that the area east of the Kali River belongs to them. There is no dispute on that whatsoever. The road that is built is west of the river. I don’t know what they are agitating about,” Gen Naravane said. 

Though Kathmandu has refrained for reacting to the Indian Army chief’s allusion to China, Nepalese strategic and security experts termed the General’s remark “irresponsible, undiplomatic and objectionable.”

“It is deplorable because the Indian Army chief is also an honorary general of the Nepalese Army,” said Geja Sharma Wagle, an international affairs and strategic and security analyst. As per a long-standing reciprocal tradition, chiefs of both the Indian and Nepalese armies are also honorary chiefs of the other country’s national defense forces. 

“Gen Nanavare’s remarks reflect the very character and mindset of the Indian government and India’s haughty approach,” Wagle told South Asian Monitor over phone from Kathmandu. “The remarks of the Indian army chief has not only impaired our sovereignty they have dragged China into the controversy which may complicate relations between Nepal and India,” Wagle warned. 

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“Relations between Nepal and India started going downhill after India unofficially imposed trade blockade in 2015, which crippled supplies to our landlocked country. Nepal-India relationship hit a speed breaker again after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s to Kathmandu in October 2019," journalist Giri said. 

“India is playing a childish game. China is bound to take advantage of the situation,” warned Giri. “It was Doklam and now it is north Sikkim…China can come to Kalapani too and there is bound to be a confrontation between India and China. In such an event, Nepal will support China. The Indian political leadership has to realize this looming danger,” Giri warned. 

Giri was referring to the 74-day long border stand-off between India and China in 2017 at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction in Doklam and the clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers at the India-China border in northeastern state of Sikkim’s Naku La Pass on May 9 this year. 

Kalapani dispute

Both India and Nepal claim the Kalapani area. Kalapani lies at a strategic tri-junction in Nepal’s north-west corner. It has almost the same strategic importance as Doklam that lies in the tri-junction point between Bhutan, India and China. Nepalese scholars say the British East India Company had signed the Sugauli Treaty with Nepal in 1816 and under this treaty, the Kali River, now known as the Mahakali River, marks Nepal’s western boundary with India. 

The main difference between India and Nepal over Kalapani is on the source of the Mahakali River. While Delhi maintains that the river originates at Kalapani, which it claims is in the Pithoragarh district in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, Kathmandu says the source is in Lipulekh, a Himalayan pass near a tri-junction point between India, Nepal and Tibet/China. 

Kalapani, which has a strategic military location, has been held by India’s Indo-Tibetan Border security forces since the 1962 war with China. The Mahakali River defines the border at Kalapani. But India and Nepal each claim that the river originates in different places. Hence the conflict. 

The Mahakali River has a number of tributaries, all of which merge at Kalapani. India claims that the river begins in Kalapani as this is where all its tributaries merge. But Nepal says that it begins at Lipulekh Pass, the origin of most of its tributaries. 

There is a growing anti-Indian sentiment in the mainline Nepal political parties as well as the Nepalese people. The outdated, outmoded and unequal India-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950, coupled with Delhi’s constant meddling in Kathmandu’s internal affairs have become thorns in the bilateral relationship.