The Escalation of Tensions between India and Nepal


The history of relations between India and Nepal are ancient. There is enough evidence of shared faith, religion and culture between the two nations to support this argument. However, in today’s ravishingly unscrupulous world, the weight of this baggage has greatly reduced. A more pragmatic and progressive relationship has been forged and this relationship is completely based on the dynamism of the political economy of Nepal as well as India.

Nepal is a land-locked nation and this forces it to bare a high duty to avail access to the services of the ocean. The nearest useable port being in the Bay of Bengal, under the Indian jurisdiction. Therefore, there is a massive need for this relationship to be stable since trade forms a significant part of the Nepalese economy. It also has strategic importance in the geopolitical context since Nepal is on undulating, hilly land and this access to the ocean through the Indian landmass provides them access to level ground and easy access to several East and Southeast Asian states. Several reports indicate that these regions constitute the largest proportion of revenue brought in by Nepal through waterways.

These issues are addressed quite often at bilateral meetings. For instance, Nepal has in-quired about a possible review of the Indo-Nepal Trade Treaty at such as bilateral meeting but the governmental response from India was rather nonchalant and complacent. However, India continues to support Nepal in infrastructural development especially by fostering bus and rail links to usher in long-term growth and development by way of enhanced trade and tourism between the two culturally rich nations.

A large number of people move across the border regularly seeking employment opportunities and both the countries comprise a Hindu majority. This is seemingly important to note since one of the two governments in question has been quite vehement in quantifying politics in the name of the Hindu religion. No wonder that contrary to what most Western theorists interpreted earlier, the relationship between these two countries has become openly conflictual in recent decades. There has been strong opposition from a few sections of the Nepalese population towards the Indian culture’s excess religious baggage and its coercive cultural conservatism.

This anti-India agency in Nepal has been growing for decades and this has been bolstered by the emergence of China as a global economic power. This has emboldened the conservative political elites of Nepal to openly challenge the system of governance in India. Several political leaders from Nepal are using anti-India political jargon to strengthen their political base regularly which has left India in a well with an open tap.

In recent years, India’s support for the ethnic Madhesi community in Nepal has also become a major irritant in foreign affairs in the neighbourhood. The marginalisation of this community has been overlooked by Nepal for decades until India’s bold move in support of the minorities coerced Nepal to act and not merely look. However, a close analysis of the bilateral relationship between India and Nepal reveals that the most consistent reason of Nepal’s resentment towards India has been the perceived exploitation of Nepal’s water resources by India for meeting its agricultural and energy needs. This continues to remain an integral part of this bilateral relationship even today.

The origin of this water sharing issue dates back an era before India’s independence back in 1947. The colonial administration under the British Empire signed the Sarada Treaty with Nepal in 1920, based on which India constructed the Sarada barrage on Mahakali River after receiving 4,000 acres of land. However, as time passed, the indigenous people of Nepal showed widespread resentment to this construction; India faced stiff criticism. After independence, India again pushed Nepal to sign similar agreements to build the Kosi barrage in 1954 and the Gandak Barrage in 1959. The increasing public agitation within Nepal against ‘Indian’ water projects delayed the implementation of several of the proposed projects. The current government has also failed to begin the construction of the promised Pancheswar Dam Project under the provisions enshrined in the Mahakali Treaty, which has triggered a new series of public agitation in Nepal against India.

On the developmental front, the two prime ministers launched the 900-megawatts Arun III project and agreed on the construction of a railway line between Raxaul and Kathmandu. The two prime ministers also launched a bus service from Janakpur, the alleged birthplace of goddess Sita to Ayodhya is which fabled to be the birthplace of Hindu god Ram.

India’s economic restrictions towards Nepal after the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution in September 2015, led to an unprecedented energy crisis in Nepal which led to a shift from its support of Indian policymaking and ignited Nepal’s innate desire to forge closer diplomatic and trade ties with China. However, just before the 2017 elections in Nepal, the government under Nepalese Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba succumbed to Indian pressure had to cancel the 2.5 billion dollar agreement with China’s Gezhouba Group to construct the Budhi Gandaki Hydro Electric Project. This project was only however revived by Nepal’s Prime Minister succeeding Prime Minister, Khadega Oli in 2018.

Current Situation

India’s current issue with the border has been with an enraged China while simultaneously they are being coerced into planning a strategy for the resolve a land dispute with Nepal. While the standoff with China has seen a growing military involvement, the problem with Nepal is primarily diplomatic. India’s current diplomatic row with Nepal began on May 8 when the government in India announced the inauguration of a Himalayan road link that would pass through Kalapani, a disputed region under the Indian administration as an integral part of the Pithoragarh district in the Uttarakhand while it is also claimed by Nepal since 1998 wherein they claim that it lies in the Darchula district of Sudurpashchim Pradesh.

Under immense pressure from the formidable opposition and the press alike, Oli approved the issuance of a new political map of Nepal that distinctively showed Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani, within its borders. There was considerable opposition to this move from India. However, a further review reveals to us that this dispute originates in November 2019 with the release of India’s new political map, which showed Kalapani within India. This announcement led to protests in Kathmandu. While Nepal requested a high-level bilateral meeting to resolve the dispute diplomatically, India continued to remain nonchalant and largely silent on this issue. This resulted in an escalation of tensions between the two neighbouring states as Asia witnessed a new paradigm of ‘cartographic war’.

There were some angry exchanges between India and Nepal after this dispute became a significant threat to Indian security with the alleged involvement of China in this shift in the foreign policy of Nepal. Making India’s relations with Nepal a crucial one. However, this relationship seems to have frayed remarkably since the Indian Army Chief, General Manoj Naravane’s public comments that suggested Nepal had acted at the behest of China. This led to a response from Nepal’s Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel who stated that this comment was an insult to the Nepali soldiers committed to working in the Indian Army as nearly 40,000 Nepali Gurkha soldiers are part of 40 battalions stationed in the Indian Army.

Oli has taken a predominating nationalistic approach towards institutes governmental de-crees, statements and reforms. He even went on call Covid-19 as ‘Indian Virus’ further stating that it is this ‘Indian Virus’ that is the cause of the pandemic. This was perhaps a third world reiteration of Donald Trump’s remarks on deliberating terming the Covid-19 as ‘China/Chinese Virus’ in his speeches at least 20 times between March 16th and March 30th.

India has argued that the Himalayan-link road is completely in its territory while Nepal at least 17km of the proposed road traverses Nepal’s territory. Nepal argues that the road crosses over to the East Bank of the Mahakali River which based on the 1816 Sugauli Treaty falls under Nepal’s jurisdiction. Akhilesh Upadhyay, former editor of The Kathmandu Post, aimed at Nepal’s objections to the 2015 bilateral agreement between India and China that opened up Lipulekh for trade and also that Nepal’s position had remained consistent despite multiple governments changes in the recent past. Nepal backs its claim with evidence of five British-Indian maps published between 1819 and 1894 that show Limpiyadhura as the headwaters of the Mahakali, a letter drafted by the erstwhile Prime Minister Rana Chandra Shamsher to village chiefs dated 1904 and the evidence of a 1958 voter list and the 1961 census by Nepali authorities in the disputed region. Nepal also possesses land registration records and tax receipts from the disputed territory.

According to Upadhyay, at the heart of the dispute lies the differing cartographic interpretations about the headwaters of the Mahakali river. Nepal continues to argue that Limpiyadhura is the location of the headwaters, India regards a stream flowing down from Lipulekh as the river’s headwaters. The dispute is further affected by the presence of Indian troops in Kalapani stationed there even before its 1962 standoff with China.

The Nepal-India border has been demarcated through a joint boundary committee except for the southern districts of Kalapani and Sustal due to the historic political agreements and impending disputes. This border issue appears to be easy to resolve, as long as there is a positive political will on both sides. There are new tensions due to the hardening of positions on both sides. Although India incidentally wants to defuse the crisis by calling for ‘constructive and positive efforts’ it fails to understand the potential gravity of this border dispute turning into a full-scale conflict with increased Chinese military involvement and hardening of the Indian stance against such involvement in the region.

Sudheer Sharma, editor of Kantipur Daily stated that this dispute has become far more complicated after both the parties hardened their respective positions on the matter. While Nepal’s demands previously focused on the withdrawal of Indian troops from Kalapani, its recent focus now includes the demarcation of Limpiyadhura as the headwaters of the Mahakali river. The growing presence of the Indian Army at the junction connecting India, Nepal and China further complicates the resolution of this conflict. A few analysts suggest that it is difficult to call for a complete withdrawal of troops since the situation acquires a larger security dilemma against the background of an imminent India-China border standoff, along a border that remains un-demarcated till date.

This issue is further complicated by Nepal’s current Communist Party government’s stance in reaching out to China for investment and diplomatic support in recent years. Needless to state, this has continued to trouble India since both India and China continue the conquest to be regarded as the Asian powerhouses towards the goal of regional dominance putting at risk the diplomatic and political survival of the smaller states like Nepal. However, China’s position on the Kalapani dispute continues to remain ambiguous. This means that the only solution to this issue right now is a bilateral one, much to Nepal’s chagrin and India’s most preferred outcome.

Ayush Banerjee
Ayush Banerjee
Ayush Banerjee is a postgraduate student at the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur university, Kolkata, India. He has worked under the UN Online Volunteering banner for research related projects in organizations like the CAMAAY, GLOWA, UNICEF Nigeria, IDMC, UNITAR etc. His interests lie in contemporary politics, diplomacy and non-traditional security.


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