A new 80 km-long road was inaugurated by the Indian defence minister on May 8. 2020, at Lipulekh pass to connect its border with China at the backyard of India, however, without making any diplomatic consultations with Nepal. Originally, the territory became controversial in 1998 when the Nepalese government raised the issue over the location of river, and consequently its territoriality at Kalapani. The Indian act of May 8, was immediately contested and then followed by several retaliatory moves with Nepali police forces deployed in the region. Nepal even summoned the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu. A highly controversial conjecture between the two erstwhile friendly Nepal-India relations was resulted in the initiation of successful constitutional amendment by the pro-China government of the Prime Minister Oli from its parliament. His party credentials are predominantly pro-communist. Nepal decided to reclaim 400 sq km of approximate land from India. On the other hand, In a lukewarm reaction, India initially postponed its geo-strategic concerns till the end of COVID 19 contrary to the statement given by the India’s Ministry of External Affairs whereby, recognizing that there is a dispute which requires a diplomatic solution. Nonetheless, the coercive tools have been appreciatively kept at bay much to the opposition of the worried demand in India itself.
In any case, emboldened by its increasing lineage towards China, much braver Nepal could logjam the bothersome crisis successfully. What made the Prime Minister Oli put up a brave face with a multifold greater military and nuclear power of India? Is India’s claim of a regional power, backed by the US policy in Asia questioned? Are all comparatively smaller peripheral states of India clubbing together to challenge its expansionist policies or India could no more trample over the region and faces competitive challenger? India’s overstretching in Maldives in the aftermath of 2017-2018 Doklam crisis, conflicts with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are all precedence to the non-compliance with the India’s masque rated big brother intimidation. Ruling through causing fear is always counter -productive. Hence, is it a revolt against the much pronounced Hindutva ideology enwrapping India itself speedily with monolithic claims of ancestry? The counter claims could also bea fence against non-secular interventions in the young democracies at its backyard countries. In either case it is certainly a yet another constitutional and democratic expression of protest, perhaps not as emphatic and painful like the dissent in the Indian Occupied Kashmir after the unconstitutional abrogation of Article 370 which granted a special status to the Muslim state, gradually picking up the watershed status in the foreign policy status. Kashmir lies close to the neighborhood of Nepal in the peaceful and picturesque foothills of Himalayan Mountains. The domino effect is steady.
India had kept an effective possession of this territory for at least sixty years despite the fact that Nepal conducted census there in the early 1950s.It is also highlighted in a detailed and concretely researched essay by Sam Cowan. In fact, a part from Kalapani, there is also a second dispute with India in the Susta river border region. India had however, controlled this territory of Kalapani for long. Apart from conducting its administration and deploying military forces up to the border pass with China, India introduced several infrastructural changes as well uninterruptedly for several years. This strategically important link at the tri-junction of India, Tibet and Nepal in Kalapani provides one of the quickest accesses for thousands of Hindus trekking across the border to visit the sacred Mount of Kalash. The religious significance is as valuable for India and holds the civilian and the military control of the region.
Politically, at its home front, these structural changes by India in the region were a blessing in disguise for Prime Minister Oli’s government who otherwise was under severe pressure of the opposition. They all got united and fueled an uproar across-partisan, nationalist opposition against India and decided to constitutionally approve the geographical definition of its boundaries in the region, unanimously. Although, Nepali government was closely monitoring the situation in Kalapani over the preceding months and years; the Indian government continued to include the territories claimed by Nepal; yet revocation of the Article 370 in August 5, 2019, made the watershed for the region as well. The blatant violation of the international law by an emerging economy of South Asia posed a pronouncedly destabilizing atmosphere. India was no more offering a comfortable harbor to the smaller nations in its neighborhood. Government in Kathmandu took it up officially and publically. Brewing for several years, it even became a popular issue in Nepal, with the hashtag #BackOffIndia trending on social media. Anti-Indian sentiments have already been running high amongst the predominantly young population of the landlocked country of Nepal though had been alleged as “at the behest of a third party”, by the Indian Chief of Army Staff. He is obviously alluding China.
On the other hand, much to the disappointment of India, Nepal had already chosen not to attend a multilateral BIMSTEC counter-terrorism exercise hosted by India, in 2018. Nepal considers BIMSTEC as an anti-China military alliance driven by India. Similarly, the US sponsored MCC grant to upgrade the Nepal’s electricity transmission system and connect it to the Indian power grid was also vehemently opposed. Conversely, China has been the only regional and the international power deepening its heels in the region with its massive BRI project along with several smaller supplementary projects for the smaller regional countries as its allies.
At the same time, Nepal’s foreign policy has also been gradually embracing a motivational and futuristic curve for external balancing and diversification since the recent years. The leadership of its Foreign Minister, Pradeep Gyawali has given a new impetus to its foreign policy. The participation in the Fourth Indian Ocean Conference, held in the Maldives in 2019, by Nepal’s Foreign Minister further augments Kathmandu’s widening and ambitious geostrategic horizons. They are meant to place Nepal as a critical connectivity pivot between China, South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
One agrees with C. Raja Mohan no less, who has identified several choking points in the territorial dispute as“a symptom of the structural changes unfolding in the external and internal context of the bilateral relationship” between India and Nepal. India’s reference to its exclusive sphere of influence or satellite statehood with a mindset of colonialism in the neighborhood no more holds the cogency particularly vis a vis China’s soft power interpositions. The economic delivery will be certainly more powerful to make the mare go and hold a sustainable relevance to the regional politics in South Asia. India needs to come up with something as substantive to remain vital in the regional politics of South Asia.