DH Deciphers | Border dispute between India and Nepal

DH Deciphers | What's this border dispute between India and Nepal? Why is Kathmandu so angry? 

The India-Nepal border dispute was revived after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-kilometre-long blacktop road in Uttarakhand earlier this month. It's one of the four strategic roads New Delhi decided to expeditiously build to make it easier to move troops to high-altitude mountain passes along the Line of Actual Control — the de facto boundary between India and China — after the 2017 stand-off between Indian and Chinese armies at Doklam Plateau in Bhutan. Nepal was incensed at the move as it claims that 19 kilometres of the road fall in its territory. It even published a revised map, showing the area as part of its territory, for the first time ever. Ordinary Nepalese staged protests against the road and the prime minister of Nepal made some rather offensive remarks about India. The border dispute has threatened to cast a shadow on India’s friendly relations with Nepal. Let’s find out its origins and see if India needs to worry about it: 


How come India has a border dispute with Nepal, its friendly neighbour?

India and Nepal have border disputes in two different parts of their 1,800-km-long porous border: Kalapani (comprising Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh) — in the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand — and Susta, in Bihar's West Champaran district. The Kalapani region is an especially sore point because of its strategic importance. Nepal claims that Kalapani lies in its Darchula district, Sudurpashchim Pradesh. 


Kalapani (black water) is a collection of springs near the Kalapani village. It represents the basin of Kalapani River, one of the headwaters of River Mahakali. Lipulekh is a Himalayan pass while Limpiyadhura is the tri-junction point where the territories of India, Nepal and China meet.

The dispute has its origin in the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, which Nepal had signed with the East India Company. Both New Delhi and Kathmandu are still committed to the treaty, which identified the Mahakali River as the India-Nepal border in the region. They, however, could not resolve differences in perception over the source of the river.

Kathmandu claims the river originates in Limpiyadhura and that is why Kalapani and Lipulekh on the eastern side of the stream are part of its territory. But New Delhi argues that what Kathmandu identifies as Kali River is a rivulet called Lipu Gad which joins the main river. It maintains that the Mahakali River begins where the Lipu Gad meets the stream from the springs of Kalapani and thus Lipulekh Pass, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura belong to India. 

How did India get to control the Kalapani territory?

Indian armed forces occupied Kalapani in the 1950s after China took control of Tibet. Nepal did not object and effectively ignored the dispute until 1996 when the two countries began talks to resolve all of their border disputes. Both India and Nepal claim to have records — old administrative documents, tax collection receipts and maps — to support their respective positions on the dispute.

What triggered Nepal’s outbursts?

In 2015, Nepal protested when India and China agreed to include Lipulekh Pass as a point for border trade. It was angry that neither side consulted it before reaching the agreement. The second flashpoint occurred in November 2019 when India issued a new political map following the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal alleged the new map shows Kalapani and Lipulekh pass as part of India. 

The biggest outburst came on May 9, a day after India inaugurated the Ghatiabgarh-Lipulekh Pass road. Nepal says the road's construction runs against the understanding reached between the two nations that they would resolve the boundary dispute through talks. Nepal then issued a map showing in its territory Lipulekh pass, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura. 

The territories are under Indian control and Nepal is unlikely to get them back. So why did it ratchet up the tensions?

A combination of Nepalese domestic politics and China’s geopolitical ambitions explains this. New Delhi’s spat with Kathmandu over the new Nepalese constitution and a blockade that choked the supplies of essentials from India to Nepal in 2015 whipped up sentiments against India and helped China spread its influence. China played a key role in giving birth to the Nepal Communist Party, which now runs the government in Kathmandu. When a rift between the party’s two chairpersons — Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal — came to the fore earlier this month, China’s envoy to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, brokered peace. With India’s road to Lipulekh pass whipping up nationalist sentiments in Nepal, almost all politicians issued statements criticising New Delhi – much to the delight of China. 

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