The India-Nepal row over Kalapani area on the strategic India-Nepal-Tibet (China) tri-junction took a sharp turn for the worse on May 19, when Nepalese Prime Minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, told the country’s parliament that the “virus from India is far more lethal than the one brought by China and Italy.”

Reflecting the mounting anti-India sentiment in Nepal, Oli said: "Those who are coming from India through illegal channels are spreading the virus in the country and some local representatives and party leaders are responsible for bringing in people from India without proper testing. It has become very difficult to contain COVID-19 due to the flow of people from outside. The Indian virus looks more lethal than Chinese and Italian now. More are getting infected."

Although the subject was coronavirus, Oli’s anger stemmed from New Delhi’s ominous silence or nonchalance on the intense anger in Nepal about the road which India had built through Kalapani, an area Nepal has been claiming for long.

The recently inaugurated controversial road stretches from Dharchula in Uttarakhand to the Lipulekh Pass on the border with Tibet. As Indian Army chief Gen.M.M.Naravane put it, the road is on the Western side of the Mahakali river which is India’s as per the 1816 Sugauli Treaty between the then Kingdom of Nepal and the then British rulers of India, a treaty which still stands. But Nepal says that Kalapani and Lipulekh are disputed portions of the Indo-Nepal border. It points out that after the Sugauli Treaty was signed no effort was made by the two countries to identify and demarcate the border on the ground.

India’s obduracy or prevarication over going for talks with Nepal on the issue is adding to the already existing anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal. Not being stitched in time, many Nepalese want Oli to take up with India other disputed parts of the Nepal-India boundary. And he has responded with a pledge to recover these all these areas “at any cost”

Some radical Nepalese want to re-negotiate the 1816 Sugauli Treaty itself, as it had taken away a third of the Nepalese empire unjustly and arbitrarily. There is a theory that the Sugauli Treaty had ceased to exist after the British left India in 1947. They say that a new treaty is needed also to take into account contemporary conditions and get rid of the inequities in the 1816 treaty. A few have even voiced a demand for “Greater Nepal” including parts of Uttarakhand, which the British in India had seized following the Anglo-Nepalese Wars in the second decade of the 19 th.,Century.

India says that it is ready for talks at the Foreign Secretary’s level, as sought by Nepal, but it wants them to take place after the COVID-19 crisis is resolved. This is not acceptable to the Oli government because it is under mounting pressure from the Nepalese public to take up the matter with New Delhi urgently. People consider construction of the road through a disputed territory as brazen and a resounding slap on Nepal’s face.

The long-standing issue came to a head in October 2019, when India published a new edition of its political map to take into account the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State into two Union Territories. This map showed the Kalapani area, including the Lipulekh pass, as being in India. In a tit for tat move, the Nepalese government published a map which showed all the “encroached” territories as being parts of Nepal.

India refers to the 1816 Sugauli Treaty between the then Kingdom of Nepal and then the British rulers in India to buttress its case. According to the Treaty, the land West of the Mahakali river belongs to India and the land to the East of the river belongs to Nepal. The road in question is on the West of the river it is pointed out. But Nepal claims that Kalapani and the Lipulekh are in Nepal as the residents are Nepalese and the people had been paying taxes to the Nepal government. A similar claim is made by the Indian side too.

The border row has actually added to Oli’s domestic political woes, and to overcome these he has had to take a hard stand on the issue. Only recently, he was badgered in parliament for his “dictatorial” actions, issuing Ordinances with a political end in view, and disregarding consensual politics. His attempt to split an opposition party, the Samajbadi Party Nepal, and the blind eye he turned to the alleged abduction of Surendra Yadav, MP from the Samajbadi Party Nepal had come in for sharp criticism. “Morality counts the most in politics. Oli should make a self-confession and retire to rest,” said Baburam Bhattarai, leader of the Samajbadi Party, and a former Prime minister. “Let's give the younger generation a chance to lead the government,” Bhattarai said, rubbing it in. There is opposition to Oli within his own communist party also.

In a situation where Oli is forced to act tough on the Kalapani row, an obdurate Indian stance will only force him to up the ante and play to the gallery, further exacerbating tension with India. India’s stand will give this avowedly pro-China Oli, a further lease of political life, says Biswas Baral, editor of the weekly Annapurna Express. Baral described this as Oli’s “phoenix-like political resurrection.” In 2015-16 the India-backed economic blockade had giving him a similar shot in the arm.

Talks should not be a problem for India because New Delhi has officially recognized (as evident in an answer to a question in parliament) that the India-Nepal border is undefined in some places and that this issue remains to be resolved. However, India would not be able to barter away Kalapani and the Lipulekh Pass for two reasons: Firstly, these places are indisputably within India as per the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, and Secondly, these two places at the tri-junction of India-Nepal and China are strategically important.

India has been having a military presence here since 1950. In 1970, under pressure from Nepalese King Mahendra, it had vacated 17 posts, but had held on to Kalapani. India has been turning a deaf ear even when post-monarchy elected governments sought border talks.

China Factor

Political unrest in Kathmandu with anti-Indian overtones will only help China, which is waiting in the wings to fish in the troubled waters to India’s detriment.

Currently, China is playing safe by calling for Nepal-India talks to settle the issue. Its envoy in Kathmandu is said to have advised the Nepalese Foreign Secretary to settle the matter with India through talks. And most importantly, President Xi Jinping had agreed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to build the controversial road across disputed Kalapani area. While Modi saw the road as an ideal route to the Hindu pilgrimage destination of Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet, Xi saw it as a good trade route between Tibet and India, to be a part of the grand silk route he is trying to re-create across the Asian continent to increase trade and economic cooperation. China, therefore, has a vested in the road being there in Kalapani and it wants a peaceful settlement of the dispute to ensure the road’s operability.

However, at the broader level, China has an interest in the exacerbation of Nepal-India tension. Behind the bonhomie Xi and Modi display in their periodic meetings, Beijing and New Delhi are involved in a Great Game for influence in Nepal. New Delhi should therefore go the extra mile to prevent Nepal spinning out of its sphere of influence. It has to talk to explain its case on Kalapani.

New Delhi’s way to keep Nepal under its thumb is to be a factor in Nepalese domestic politics. Engineering regime changes has been one way, though such changes have not prevented that country from going closer and closer to China in the last decade. Additionally, a regime change on the Kalapani issue will not change the Nepalese stand on it as the demand for talks has come from across the political board, including the pro-Indian Nepali Congress.

However, Oli cannot go very far in pressing his case, though he has pledged to get back the “encroached” territories “at any cost”.

For one, the Indians will never give up Kalapani and the Lipulekh Pass because of their strategic value in the context of a long history of Sino-Indian tensions on the border.

For another, India cannot envisage the abrogation or drastic revision of the Sugauli Treaty as it would open the Pandora’s Box by putting in question the integration of several areas into India under British rule.

Third, China’s stand on the Kalapani issue is neutral, if not unfavorable, to Nepal. And China cannot be alienated because it is a major development financier and a politico-strategic counterpoise to India.