The Kalapani issue first came into prominence in 1997 when the Indian and Chinese governments came to an agreement to open a route for the annual Kailash-Mansarovar yatra through Lipulekh pass. Nepal objected to the use of Lipulekh, writes Shubha Singh for South Asia Monitor
India-Nepal relations have taken a sudden dip with angry rhetoric against Indian actions filling the public discourse in Nepal. Nepal released a new political map and Nepalese Prime Minister K P Oli had harsh words to say about India in the Nepalese Parliament. India responded to the new Nepalese map with an uncharacteristically strong statement. An Indian official spokesperson described Nepal’s new political map as an “artificial enlargement of territorial claims” and called on Kathmandu to refrain from “unjustified cartographic assertion”.
What is the Kalapani issue that has roiled relations between India and Nepal at a time when the two countries are in the midst of a surging COVID-19 pandemic?
India and Nepal share a 1,880 km border that was settled and demarcated through bilateral negotiations over decades. But three small areas remain disputed. Nepal has for long claimed Lipulekh pass, Kalapani to the west and Limpiyadhura as part of Darchula district in its Sudurpashchim province. India holds it as part of the Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand.
Lipulekh pass is a strategically located tri-junction between India, Nepal and China and has been one of the traditional trade routes between India and Tibet till it fell into disuse after the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962. The dispute over Kapalani arises over differing perceptions of the origin of the river Kali which forms the boundary between India and Nepal in that region. River Kali originates in the many streams that flow from the Himalayas, some of which have changed their course over the years. India and Nepal have an agreement to resolve all boundary disputes through bilateral consultations. Nepal has objected to any change or activity in the Kalapani-Lipulekh region over the past two decades.
The Kalapani issue first came into prominence in 1997 when the Indian and Chinese governments came to an agreement to open a route for the annual Kailash-Mansarovar yatra through Lipulekh pass. Nepal objected to the use of Lipulekh pass claiming it as its sovereign territory. In 2000, during Nepalese Prime Minister G P Koirala’s visit to Delhi, the two sides agreed to hold discussions to resolve the issue. However, there has been little forward movement, not even after Kathmandu called for foreign secretary-level talks after India had issued a new political map last year.
In 2015, when India and China agreed to boost their border trade through the Lipulekh pass route, Nepal had raised objections and sent protest notes to both India and China.
The controversy erupted again in November last year when India's home ministry issued a new political map depicting the Union territories of Ladakh and Kashmir consequent to the abrogation of Article 370 and formation of the new union territories. Nepal objected to the map while the Indian government stated that “the new map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal” and that the boundary delineation exercise was ongoing with Nepal under the existing mechanisms.
The Kalapani issue has simmered in Nepal for some years but it became a raging dispute when India built an all-weather road in Pithoragarh to the Lipulekh pass to facilitate the journey of the Mansarovar pilgrims. The road was inaugurated virtually by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali summoned Indian Ambassador Vinay Kumar Kwatra to protest the construction of the road. There were angry public protests in Kathmandu with participants from ruling and opposition parties. There were demands at an all-party meeting for the government to issue a map depicting the contested areas, a demand that Oli rejected at that time.
Indian Army chief, Gen M M Narawane’s comment hinting at possible Chinese influence in Kathmandu’s recent assertiveness on the Kalapani issue further inflamed opinion in Kathmandu. A Nepalese border police team was sent to set up a border outpost near the Lipulekh pass. As the protests gained momentum, the Nepalese government published a new political map, drawing a particularly strong statement from New Delhi.
Nepal has been through a period of political instability in the past few weeks; dissensions within the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) had two of its factions pushing for a change in leadership. But the Nepalese media reported a few days later that the crisis was over. According to media reports, Chinese influence had been brought to bear to bring the Communist party factions together and shore up Oli’s position. It was said to be the result of Chinese Ambassador Hou Yangi’s hectic series of meetings in early May with CPN chairperson Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda and senior leader Madhav Kumar Nepal as well as Oli and Nepal’s President Bidya Bhandari. Even President Xi Jinping found time to have a telephonic talk with President Bhandari earlier this month to demonstrate Kathmandu's importance to Beijing.
Beijing was also believed to have helped bring the three main Communist parties together before the election in 2017. China’s influence in Nepal has been increasing as it is Nepal’s largest investor and has close ties with the Communists in Nepal.
The Kalapani area has an added strategic importance for India for its height and proximity to China and India maintains border posts in Kalapani to monitor the region. The Kalapani issue has been on the bilateral agenda since 2014 but has remained on the back burner despite Kathmandu’s expressed desire for talks. Political volatility and indifference have escalated the dispute into an emotive issue. As close and friendly neighbours with an open and porous border, India and Nepal need to tamp down the raised tempers and activate their border management mechanisms to negotiate an early resolution of their unresolved border disputes.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and foreign policy analyst. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)