On 13 June 2020, Nepal, a generally peaceful neighbour of India in the Himalayan region, passed an amendment in its House of Commons to include in the Constitution a map of the country that included three areas that had previously not been part of the country. These are the Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura areas, all part of the mountainous Indian state of Uttarakhand. This action came after Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-kilometre road from Dharchula to Lipulekh on the Mansarovar Yatra Trail on 8 May 2020, which led to protests throughout Nepal. These protests were further fuelled after the Indian Army chief, General M.M. Naravane, declared that the protests in Nepal were directed by a third party, by which he meant China.
According to the Nepalese with the publication of the new map, an additional 335 square kilometres of land have been added to Nepal’s geographic area, increasing the total area from 147,181 square kilometres to 147,516 square kilometres. Earlier treaties between India and Nepal, such as the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816, and a treaty of friendship between the two countries of 1950, contain no reference to an apparent border dispute.
A Pilgrimage Route
The Darchula-Lipulekh link road is known as the Kailash-Mansarovar-Yatra route. It is an extension of the Pithoragarh-Tawaghat-Ghatiabagarh road. It originates in Ghatiabagarhand and ends at the Lipulekh Pass, the gateway to the Kailash-Mansarovar. India’s idea in building the road was to shorten the Mansarovar pilgrimage route for Indian pilgrims by six days. It is an arduous pilgrimage, undertaken by thousands of Indians every year in the hilly terrain and lasts about a month.
New Delhi immediately reacted to Kathmandu’s cartographic aggression, calling it untenable and not based on historical facts, and urged the Nepalese leadership to create a “positive atmosphere for a diplomatic dialogue to solve the open border issues.”
Meanwhile, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at a virtual rally of BJP supporters in Uttarakhand that “if there is any misunderstanding among the Nepalese people about the road built from Dharchula to Lipulekh, we can find a solution by sitting down together.”
Once the new map card is approved in the Nepalese House of Commons, it must be approved in the House of Lords before it reaches President KP Sharma Oli for final signing. What New Delhi presumably meant by creating a “positive atmosphere of discussion” was to hold talks before the map is presented in the House of Lords.
There are reports of visits by Nepalese military leaders to the border and also of an apparent military deployment at the Indo-Nepalese border, such as a helicopter landing pad and the deployment of further Nepalese troops.
Skirmishes with China
The actions of communist Nepal must be understood in the context of the recent Chinese skirmishes over territory on the Indo-Chinese border. President K.P. Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal came to power in February 2018 and is said to be close to Beijing.
In view of the historical ties between India and Nepal, the open borders and the fact that India is the largest investor in the small country of 28 million inhabitants, 80% of whom are Hindus, the Nepalese action has not been well received by New Delhi.
Emboldened by the backing of Beijing, Kathmandu has shown inconsistency in its claims for disputed territories. The former diplomat Professor S.D. Muni commented, “former Nepal[ese] Kings and governments accepted Lipulekh as the point of contact between India and China, after both countries signed the Tibet Treaty in 1954, but now Nepal refuses to accept [it]. Nepal did not attach this new map in 2015 when it came up with its new Constitution, then why now?”
And Nihar Nayak of the Institute of Defence Analyses and Studies said, “In 2007, the Joint Boundary Commission completed its study and Nepal refused to sign it in 2008.” In 2008, during the visit to Nepal by India’s former External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Joint Statement mentioned Lipulekh, which was again rejected by Nepal.
Nepal’s trade with India has grown exponentially over the years and accounts for more than two-thirds of Nepal’s external trade of around US$12Bn annually. Interestingly, it may be noted that presently there are 39 Gurkha battalions serving in seven Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army. The Gurkhas are originally Nepali natives.