The geopolitics of border posts between Nepal and India

Nepal’s Army Chief Gen Purna Chandra Thapa inspected last week the newly set-up border outpost at Changru near Kalapani, where the Indian military has occupied on the country’s northwestern tip

Jun 22, 2020

Nepal’s Army Chief Gen Purna Chandra Thapa inspected last week the newly set-up border outpost at Changru near Kalapani, where the Indian military has occupied on the country’s northwestern tip. The visit was largely symbolic, and went virtually unnoticed in Nepal’s mass media. However, the press in India picked up the issue as yet another proof that Nepal was upping the ante. It surmised that the establishment of a border observation post in Nepal’s own territory (not even in the disputed area) was a grave provocation.

‘Controversy Stalks Nepal Army Chief’s Visit to India Border’ read a headline in The Hindu, which went on to quote an obscure digital portal quoting a mysterious military source as saying that Thapa was reluctant to make the trip, but was pressured by Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel. Other Indian media were shriller.

This is not the first time that the Indian press has highlighted leaks aimed at creating a rift between the Nepal Army chief and the civilian leadership. Last month, some papers reported that Gen Thapa had refused to issue a statement rebutting his Indian Army counterpart for insinuating that Nepal was raking up Kalapani at China’s behest.

India and Nepal have been waging ‘cartographic warfare’, issuing official maps about the territory they claim, and now the spat has entered the phase of establishing border observation posts (BOP).

BOPs have a long history along the ill-defined Himalayan border between India and China, and have resulted in frequent skirmishes. The most deadly of occurred on 15 June in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh when 20 Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese troops.

The Nepal-India dispute over Kalapani has been partly overshadowed by the Ladakh violence. But it has been building up ever since India established a border outpost there in the 1950s, officially included 370sq km of Nepali territory in its new map in November, then inaugurated a road to the Chinese border on 6 June.    

Nepal has responded by pushing through a constitutional amendment with multi-partisan support to alter the map on its national emblem. It has also decided to upgrade its BOPs along both the India and China borders, including in the Kalapani region.

Nepal’s claim goes back to the 1816 Sugauli Treaty which designates the Kali river as the boundary between India and Nepal. India has named a smaller stream coming down from Lipu Lekh as the main Kali, whereas the watershed is actually on Limpiyadhura pass.

In 1962 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a letter to King Mahendra requesting to place an army base at Kalapani. King Mahendra, via Nepal’s ambassador in Delhi Yadunath Khanal, allowed a temporary border post.  

Such cooperation was not unusual. In 1952, freshly independent India  helped restructure the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) at the request of the Nepal government, and provided radios and operators at 17 border posts along Nepal’s border with China. Although the checkpoints had Indian personnel, they remained totally under RNA control.

Retired Lt Gen Krishna Bahadur Gurung commanded a 40-man border outpost at Kodari in 1966 when he was captain, and remembers that the Indian police communication unit under his command had a separate hut within the base.

Gurung’s uncle, Maj Chandra Bahadur Gurung used to command the post at Rasuwa, while Capt Mohan Singh Mahat was in charge of the Namche Bazar checkpoint. In fact, the coded message about the first ascent of Mt Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay was relayed to the world after a runner took the news from Base Camp to the Indian radio post at Namche Bazar in 1953.

Later, when the Dalai Lama was forced out of Tibet, Khampa guerrillas set up bases in Mustang, Manang and Ilangchung Gola and conducted frequent crossborder raids on Chinese military convoys. The Chinese army often made incursions into Nepali territory in hot pursuit of the Tibetan fighters.

In one such incursion on the Kodari border outpost, the Chinese were chased back and RNA’s Krishna Bahadur Karki was awarded for his bravery. He later joined the Paratroopers Battalion from which he retired as an Honorary Lieutenant.

In 1974, the RNA started a campaign to chase the Khampa out, and after the encirclement of their base in Mustang, pursued the guerrillas to Tinkar Pass, very near Lipu Lekh, from where the Tibetans were trying to escape to India. Under command of Gen Aditya Sumshere Rana, the Khampa were ambushed and their leader killed.

Nepal always maintained authority in its northern border, despite Indian presence in check posts. Eventually, in 1969 Prime Minister Kirtinidhi Bista got India to withdraw all its 17 checkpoints.

Contrary to what has been reported, the Kalapani base was not a part of those 17 border posts. It was an Indian Army base in Tisil Kharka (the original name of Kalapani) which commanded the access to the strategic Lipu Lekh gap on the Chinese border for which King Mahendra had granted temporary permission after the 1962 Sino-India war.

Indian scholars claim Kalapani is in Indian territory because its army base has always been there. But there is no record of them being there before 1962. To back up its claim, India says that the pond and Kali Temple at Kalapani point to Lipu Khola as the main source of the Kali.

But the Tibetan name for the main river flowing down from Limpiyadhura is Ku Ti, which means ‘Black River’. The pond and temple were built later and made to look ancient, while the Tibetan names were changed to Devnagari to support India’s claim that the smaller stream was the border, and to set up its border post there.

There is no need for Nepal to claim territory that is not ours. The least we can do for the moment is establish a permanent border observation post as close to Kalapani as possible while we try to get India to engage in negotiations on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

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