Modi’s ‘neighborhood first’ a fiasco in Nepal
Bhim Bhurtel
Sometimes, maintaining the status quo in international relations is far better than change if the latter would make a situation worse. A typical example is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to move forward by breaking the status quo in India’s neighborhood after he assumed power in 2014. Despite Modi’s “neighborhood first policy,” India’s relationship with its immediate neighbors is at a nadir unseen since its independence and has become a fiasco.
Modi has visited Nepal four times during his five-year tenure with full pomp and noise, yet relations between the two countries have touched a record low again. The view in Kathmandu is that India tries to advance its core interests while Nepal is suffering hardship. Facts corroborate this general perception, as two examples show.
Most recently, on May 9, India undermined Nepal’s territorial integrity and sovereignty claim over the disputed Kalapani region by inaugurating a newly built 80-kilometer-long road that connects the Indian town of Dharchula to Tibet through the Lipulekh Pass. This took place at a time when all of South Asia is facing the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nepal has always wanted dialogue to resolve the border issue, but India has continuously delayed such talks because it has no concrete evidence to support its claim over the Kalapani, Lipulekh and Lipiyadhura regions.
For instance, The Hindu quotes Rajan Bhattrai, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s foreign-affairs adviser, as saying, “We have sent two diplomatic notes to India seeking dialogue at the level of the foreign secretaries, but India has responded without offering a date for holding the meeting. To make the matter more complicated, they have taken unilateral steps like the building of infrastructure on the territory of Kalapani.”
Earlier, Modi’s India imposed an economic blockade to express displeasure over Nepal’s promulgation of the constitution on September 20, 2015, when Nepal was struggling to bounce back from a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake the previous April.
Historical facts of the dispute
Historical documents support Nepal’s claims over Kalapani, Lipulekh and Lipiyadhura. First, Article 5 of the Sugauli Treaty says, “the Rajas [sic] of Nepal renounces for himself, his heirs, and successors, all claim to, or connection with the countries lying to the west of the River Kalee and engages never to have any concern with those countries or the inhabitants thereof.”
Second, the British Raj returned four districts in the Terai region of western Nepal, namely Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur, as a gift after Nepal’s prime minister at the time, Junga Bahadur Rana, extended support to the British in suppressing the Shipoy Mutiny in northern India in 1857.
Another treaty between the British Raj and Nepal to include the gifted land on the map was signed in 1860. Article 3 of the treaty also mentioned that the British India-Nepal western border was the River Kali (aka Kalee). A map published in Calcutta in 1837, known as the Anglo-Persian map, and another map published by the British Raj in India, shows the now-disputed areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Lipiyadhura on the Nepali side.
Fourth, the Department of the Archive of Nepal possesses proof of land-revenue collection from the inhabitants of the disputed territory before 1962. The residents of the disputed area were included in the voter list for the 1958 general election in Nepal. Nepal’s population census of 1901 also included the people of these areas. The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and independent India replaced all the treaties and agreements between the British Raj and Nepal by owning liabilities created by those previously signed accords.
A recent report of the BBC Hindi Service corroborates the claims mentioned earlier made by Nepal with additional evidence.
India’s policy until 2014
During the king’s despotic rule in Nepal from 1960 to 1990, the people had no civil and political rights. The king’s absolute regime suppressed the issue of Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Lipiyadhura. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Indo-Nepalese border dispute again resurfaced as people enjoyed free speech.
The areas of Lipulekh, Lipiyadhura and Kalapani were territories that King Mahendra had allowed India to use temporarily. Nepal’s prime minister at that time, Kriti Nidhi Bista, told me in an interview in 2015, “The Kalapani area was offered to India after the 1962 India-China war by the King Mahendra, who wanted to solace India psychologically from their terrible defeat with China and assuring India’s security concerns due to perceived prolonged Chinese threats.”
Senior Indian journalist Ananda Swaroop Verma corroborated Bista’s assertions in an interview with Aajtak Radio on Friday by saying, “The territory was provided to India by Nepal’s king upon Indian request.”
Once the India-Nepal Mahakali Treaty was signed on January 29, 1996, the border issue caused loud public debate within Nepal. In September 1997, Nepal and India agreed to solve all border disputes through the technical committee level.
In 2004 Manmohan Singh became the prime minister of India, and he appeared to want to solve the dispute in his early days in office. For instance, the joint statement issued after the conclusion of Nepalese prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s state visit to Delhi on September 12, 2004, lauded the progress made by the technical committee.
Until 2005, India’s neighborhood policy was primarily guided by the Gujral Doctrine that tries to improve India’s relationship with its immediate neighbors on a non-reciprocity basis.
By and large, being mindful of India’s evident inability to lead the South Asian region, Manmohan Singh applied a “status quo policy” to defer outstanding issues with all its neighbors for the time being and encouraged allies and partners, including Pakistan, to engage in the rest of the areas of cooperation.
However, after calculating the strategic importance of the Lipulekh Pass, India changed its mind. Consequently, it proposed to restore the status quo on the border issue. Under Indian pressure, Nepal was compelled to keep the status quo, leaving the border dispute unresolved in 2005. Under that status quo agreement, neither side would publish maps including the area until the dispute was settled through a technical-level committee.
Modi’s Hindu revivalism
Modi replaced Singh’s “status quo policy” with his “neighborhood first policy” after being elected prime minister in May 2014. However, Modi faced one foreign-policy debacle after another in the neighborhood.
In 2015, India and China signed an agreement to open up the Kailash-Mansarovar border without consulting Nepal. Nepal protested to both countries. China responded immediately to clarify that it would not get involved and that India and Nepal should resolve the issue bilaterally.
Despite Kathmandu’s tireless protests, India continued to take Nepal for granted and continued the road construction. Finally, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the partially completed road on May 8 to expand the political support from the devotees of Shiva because the road reduces the cost and time to reach the Kailash-Mansarovar area, where Hindus all over the world believe that their deity Shiva resides.
Nepal protested the unilateral act of India that runs against the understanding reached between the two countries at the prime ministers’ level to resolve boundary issues through negotiation. India’s move was a gross violation of the agreement between Modi and Nepal’s then-prime minister Sushil Koirala in 2014 for the two countries’ foreign secretaries to work out outstanding boundary issues on Kalapani, Lipulekh and Lipiyadhura.
On August 5, 2019, Modi revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which provided Jammu and Kashmir special status, after winning the general election for a second term in May. India reorganized Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as a union territory on October 31, and issued a map showing the new union territory on November 2, 2019. That new map included three districts – Muzaffarabad, Punch and Mirpur – that are under Pakistan-administrated Kashmir and Lipulekh, Lipiyadhura and Kalapani of Nepal into the Indian part of the map.
Weapon of last resort
Nepal’s move to issue new political maps, including of the disputed region, is not a choice but a necessity, as the weapon of the last resort.
On May 9, Nepal issued a strongly worded statement against India’s action. Responding to Nepal’s reaction, the Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, on May 15 said Nepal had raised the issues “at the behest of someone else” indirectly and unnecessarily dragging in China.
In her annual speech at the joint session of Parliament, Nepalese President Vidhya Devi Bhandari stressed the new map’s issuance and reclaimed territory on the same day. Speaking at the Parliament on May 19, Prime Minister Oli opposed India’s bullying attitude toward Nepal.
In a reconciliatory but firm tone, he warned, “We won’t let go of the issue of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani. This is our land, and we will reclaim it. It is not a disputed land. It is our land. India created unnecessary controversy by claiming it as theirs. This government will make substantial efforts to reclaim the territories.”
The following day, Nepal officially unveiled a new national map, as India had been unilaterally violating the agreement not to show disputed territory in maps of either side.
Although India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded to Nepal’s move as “unilateral” and lacking in “historical facts and evidence,” and said “India will not accept such artificial enlargement of territorial claims,” it didn’t refer to any historical document to counter Nepal’s claims.
India must step back again, as it had to do in 2015 to renounce its economic blockade against Nepal. If India doesn’t resolve these issues soon, it will lose its credibility as a regional and aspirant global superpower.
India has been trying to persuade its immediate neighbors, friends and allies to support its push for United Nations Security Council reform, seeking a permanent-member role. But a country that doesn’t respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a small nation runs the counter to the spirit of the UN Charter.
The international community will keenly observe India’s loss of soft power due to the border dispute with Nepal. It will take a long time for India to fight against its image as a bully. Thus an early return of the occupied territory to Nepal will prevent further damage to Indian credibility.