With both Nepal and India adopting tough postures on the border issue, and with India suspecting the hidden hand of China in the Nepalese stance, a prolonged stand-off between India and Nepal appears to be a distinct possibility.

With a partisan media and intemperate politicos whipping up public sentiment in both countries, fireworks on both sides of the divide are on the cards, making it difficult for diplomats and their political masters to take a sober view of the issue and have meaningful talks.

The Communist government in Nepal, led by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, along with the opposition Nepali Congress, is to amend the country’s constitution to validate a new map of Nepal showing the disputed territories as part of Nepal. The amendment is likely to be passed soon.

On its part, New Delhi has revised its earlier stand that talks could take place after the COVID-19 crisis is solved. It is now asserting that there can be no talks until a “positive atmosphere” is created. With India suspecting that its arch rival China is behind Nepal’s aggressive stance, chances of talks with prospects of a rapprochement appear to be slim at this point of time.

Nepal has resurrected the issue at a time when China has been flexing its muscles on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh and also Sikkim, raising suspicions in New Delhi of a coordinated move against India. But be that as it may, the saving grace is that both Nepal and India have categorically stated that talks alone can lead to a solution.

On May 30, the Nepalese Minister for Land Management, Padma Kumari Aryal, had said that her government is “steadfast in reclaiming Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulek.” These places had been included in the new map the government had published recently, she said.

“It has been proved by evidence and proofs that these territories belong to Nepal. The Sugauli Treaty is the major evidence related to the border. It is clearly mentioned in this Treaty that the river originating from Limpiyadhura is the Kali (aka Mahakali) river which is the border river,” Aryal said.

She pointed out that Nepal had prepared the map and carried out a survey of the land in question before 2027 Bikram Samvat (or 1971 in the Gregorian calendar). Aryal further said that the Nepalese Survey Department had gone to Limpiyadhura and Kalapani in 2045 BS (ie: in 1989) for carrying out a survey in that area but the team had to return after “obstruction by the Indian side.” According to the Minister, it was then stated that discussions would be held between the two governments.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, the supposedly pro-Indian Nepali Congress (NC) decided that its 63 members in the House of Representatives would vote in favor of the allegedly pro-China communist government’s proposal to amend the constitution to legalize the updated map including (the disputed) Limpiyadhura, Lipu Lekh, Kalapani.

This should enable the amendment to get the require two thirds majority.

In its statement of May 9, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that it would go for talks, but only after COVID-19 is tackled. But on May 20, it said that the Nepalese leadership will have to “create a positive atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues.”

In this context Anil Giri of Kathmandu Post reported that Nepal’s Ambassador to India, Nilambar Acharya, has been having a “difficult time getting in touch with any official at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.” According to Giri, Ambassador Acharya has been attempting to either meet in person or hold a phone conversation with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Joint Secretary (North) Piyush Srivastava, who is in charge of the Nepal-Bhutan desk, but to no avail.

According to Giri, New Delhi had not responded to the diplomatic note handed to the Indian Ambassador by Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali on May 11 protesting India’s inauguration of the link road in Lipulekh.

India inherited the boundary with Nepal, as stated in the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 signed by the Kingdom of Nepal and the East India Company which was then ruling India. According to the Treaty, the Kali or the Mahakali river was the boundary, with the territory to its East being Nepal, and that to its Wast being India.

However, the dispute relates to the origin of the Mahakali river. Near Garbyang village in Dharchula Tehsil of the Pithoragarh district of the Indian State of Uttarakhand, there is a confluence of different streams coming from the North-East from Kalapani, and North-West from Limpiyadhura. Early British survey maps identified the North-West stream, Kuti Yangti, from Limpiyadhura as the origin.

But after 1857, the maps changed the alignment to the North Eastern stream Lipu Gad. In 1879, it was changed to the North Eastern stream Pankha Gad, thus defining the origin as being just below Kalapani.

Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, writing in The Hindu said that Nepal accepted the change and India inherited this boundary when the British left in 1947.

‘The Maoist revolution in China in 1949, followed by the takeover of Tibet, created deep misgivings in Nepal, and India was ‘invited’ to set up 18 border posts along the Nepal-Tibet border. The Western-most post was at Tinkar Pass, about 6 km further east of Lipulekh. In 1953, India and China identified Lipulekh Pass for both pilgrims and border trade. After the 1962 war, pilgrimage through Lipulekh resumed in 1981, and border trade, in 1991,” Sood writes.

“In 1961, Nepalese King Mahendra visited Beijing to sign the China-Nepal Boundary Treaty that defines the zero point in the west, just north of Tinkar Pass. By 1969, India had withdrawn its border posts from Nepalese territory. But the base camp for Lipulekh remained at Kalapani, less than 10 km west of Lipulekh. In their respective maps, both India and Nepal showed Kalapani as the origin of Mahakali river and as being part of their territory.”

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police has been manning the Lipulekh Pass.

The issue of the origin of the Mahakali river was first raised in 1997. The matter was referred to the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee that was set up in 1981 to re-identify and replace the old and damaged boundary pillars along the India-Nepal border. The Committee clarified 98% of the boundary, leaving behind Kalapani and Susta (in the Terai) as being unresolved. It was subsequently agreed that the matter would be discussed at the Foreign Secretary level.

However, India’s project to convert the 80-km track from Ghatibagar to Lipulekh into a hardtop road began in 2009 without any objections from Nepal, Sood points out.

On November 2, 2019, the Survey of India issued a new political map (eighth edition) to reflect the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir as two Union Territories. According to Sood, Nepal registered a protest, though the map in no way changed the boundary between India and Nepal.

On November 8, the ninth edition was issued. Sood says that the delineation remained the same but the name Mahakali river had been deleted.

“Predictably, this led to stronger protests, with Nepal invoking Foreign Secretary-level talks to resolve issues. The controversy re-erupted on May 8, when Defense Minister Rajnath Singh did a virtual inauguration of the 80-km road. Subsequently on May 15, the Indian Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane, alleged that “Nepal may have raised the issue at the behest of someone else.”

Nepal retorted angrily and promptly produced a new map of Nepal, “based on the older British survey showing the Mahakali river originating from Limpiyadhura in the north-west of Garbyang. On May 22, a constitutional amendment proposal was tabled to include it in a relevant Schedule. The new alignment adds 335 sq km to Nepali territory.”

According to Sood, this territory has never been reflected in a Nepalese map in the last 170 years.