May 24, 2020
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In Dark Waters

Domestic politics puts Kalapani at the centre of a border dispute

In Dark Waters

HELL was raised, as expected, when Nepal's new session of Parliament kicked off on June 28. It was the first time the minority government headed by Nepali Congress Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was facing the House, and Opposition parties were expected to make the most of the government's vulnerability—in view of the stubborn economic downturn and worsening law and order situation.

 But the uproar, when it did break out, was over Kalapani, a barren, rocky area of about 35 sq km, at the trijunction of the 16,000 ft high India-Nepal-China border. The name comes from the black water springs there, said to be the source of the Mahakali River. India says ever since the '50s, the area has been patrolled by the UP police.

And in 1976, a small Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) post was also set up—for Kalapani controls the route to Lipi Lake pass, which leads to Kailash Mansarovar in China. Nepal argues that India posted its troops there after the 1962 war.

 In 1996, after the Mahakali Treaty—which deals with mutual cooperation in the region's development—was signed, the first signs of differences arose. The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-UML) started making noises about Kalapani being part of Nepal.

 There are two main reasons for Kalapani coming up once again at the forefront of Nepali politics. First, domestic political compulsions. The country goes to polls by next year; and India remains the most enduring political theme in Nepal, where parties are still defined by their perceived proximity with India. Simplistic adjectives like 'pro-Indian' and 'anti-Indian' are widely used, even by savvy analysts while speaking of political motivations in Nepal.

The immediate provocation, many feel, is a diplomatic faux pas by the Indian ambassador K.V. Rajan, which saw him step on a political landmine on June 3. Following charges that India was occupying Nepali land at Kalapani, he issued a statement stressing that successive British-Indian and Nepali governments had acknowledged Indian sovereignty over Kalapani.

Nepali media immediately lambasted the Indian envoy, arguing that his claims contradicted border maps drawn by British India in 1837, 1854 and 1905 which "show that Kalapani lies inside Nepal since it is situated east of the Mahakali river"—the source, and the exact course, of the river in the Kalapani area is itself under debate.

Historically, the Sugauli Treaty, signed in 1816 between Britain and Nepal, says that all land west of the Mahakali would be part of British India. The first regular survey was undertaken in the 1860s. In the 1920s, a second survey was done in association with Nepal, and in 1929 the status of Kalapani as Indian territory was reconfirmed by Nepal.

The latest agitation is being spearheaded by the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), formed after splitting from the CPN-UML,which wants to "sensitise the public to the Indian aggression". CPN(ML) students exploited the issue with a Kathmandu-Kalapani march amid much fanfare.

Embarrassed, Rajan issued another statement saying his remarks were "misinterpreted". On June 8, Koirala joined the other political parties by publicly expressing his displeasure over Rajan's remarks, which he said, could "nullify the whole process" of border negotiations.

 "There is widespread apprehension that India will get what it wants with Nepal which has little diplomatic leverage over the big neighbour," says Dhruba Kumar at the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies.Under pressure from the Opposition and media, the PM's office presented Nepal's official position on Kalapani to Parliament. It reiterated Nepal's claims over the area but pointed out "Nepal and India have been holding bilateral talks" on the border issue.

 The Kalapani issue was first raised by Nepal's then deputy PM Bamdev Gautam in 1997 during the visit of the then prime minister I.K. Gujral, to Nepal. The two leaders had agreed to refer the issue to the joint technical level boundary committee, headed by surveyors-general of both nations. The same Gautam now heads the breakaway CPN-ML. A joint working group was set up to "examine the facts relating to the demarcation of the boundary in the western sector". Its third meeting is scheduled this week in Nepal.

A few politicians, especially those who represent Darchula district near Kalapani and have much to lose if India seals the border points, are urging caution. "Political parties are still to sit down together to hammer out the nuts and bolts of the issue," says C.P. Mainali, a top CPN-ML leader and MP. "But we all agree that Kalapani is ours." That just about sums up the whole issue from every side.

With Ramananda Sengupta in New Delhi

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