By Sanjay Jha, ITV News, New Delhi
A new road constructed recently by India connecting Kailash Mansarovar, a sacred Hindu-Buddhist pilgrimage site in Tibet, has thrown two of the world’s closest neighbours, India and Nepal, into a bitter political and diplomatic feud.
Soon after the Indian defence minister inaugurated the new road stretching around 80km from Darchula to Lipulekh, the tri-junction of the India-Nepal-China borders, Nepal sharply reacted and said the new road passed through its territory and viewed its construction as an example of “bullying by its much larger neighbour”.
India insists that the road falls within its territory and has said it is committed to resolving all outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue and in the spirit of close and friendly bilateral relations with Nepal.
This clarification from India has not helped much and protests have erupted in Nepal over the new road.
The friction between the two neighbouring countries comes against the backdrop of India issuing its own new map last November that showed the Kalapani region within its own territory. Nepal protested that time, too, and India had agreed to talk, but it didn’t happen.
Nepal felt that that India was not serious about mutually resolving the issue and this has led to anti-India sentiments once again, and the Indian army chief has commented that Nepal may have raised the issue “at the behest of someone else", hinting at a possible Chinese instigation, which further infuriated the Nepalese leadership.
“India is increasingly worried about China’s rising influence in Nepal. But, instead of doing self-introspection, it has taken the easy route of blaming Nepal. "Friendship is always based on trust, not on coercion or covert operations,” says Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University.
This border dispute is very old dating back to the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli which states that all the land that lies east of the Mahakali river is part of Nepal. Kathmandu’s claim over the disputed area lies in the fact that the territories of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani fall south-east to the source of Mahakali.
Nepal has published a new political map that includes a small stretch of the disputed land, toughening its stance on a decades-long row over the territory with India. The Indian officials immediately chided Nepal for the publication of a revised map which includes parts of Indian territory.
“This unilateral act is not based on historical facts and evidence. It is contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue,” said Indian foreign ministry spokesperson, Anurag Srivastava.
Diplomatic analysts say domestic political compulsions have forced Nepali Prime Minister K P Oli to take a hardened stand against India.
Speaking in Nepal Parliament, Mr Oli said: “The India virus seems more lethal than Chinese or Italian.” He further said that Nepal would wrest control of the disputed areas through political and diplomatic initiatives.
“Nepal endorsed the Indian position for 150 years. But now it is raising the stakes due to politics and China,” writes S D Muni, a former Indian diplomat in India’s leading newspaper, the Hindustan Times.
“Prime Minister KP Oli faces serious internal opposition at the moment, including from within his ruling Nepal Communist Party. This is largely on account of his governance failures and lack of action on combating the pandemic,” Muni adds.
Analysts say that Mr Oli is hoping that this face-off with India on Kalapani will give him a new lease of political life.
Former Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, says: “India has been negligent on this issue but why Nepal has upped the ante which makes a negative atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues?"
Notwithstanding this new territorial dispute, India and Nepal have shared a long history of cooperation and have successfully resolved, in the past, all territorial ambiguities through diplomatic dialogue.