On October 3, 2017, when the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) decided to merge, Indian government should have taken a note. And when the leader of this alliance, Khadga Prasad Oli, was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Nepal on February 15, 2018, this note should have been promoted to a level of ‘security warning in neighborhood’.
The present territorial dispute over Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani is not something that will escalate into anything major. But it surely can be a trailer for things to come. Nepal has been India’s oldest, social, cultural and military friend and ally. Hence it is more surprising than anything else as to why is Nepal raking up these issues now.
Across around 1700 km long Indo-Nepal border, the movement for citizens of both the countries has been free. The trade routes, well-defined, have been enabling bilateral trade at an average of around 6-7 billion USD annually. India is home to around 10-12 million Nepalese, spread across the country, settled permanent and temporarily and earning their livelihoods, which 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty has ensured. Around 25-30,000 Nepalese soldiers are on active duty in Indian Army in Gurkha Regiment. Indian Mission in Kathmandu also supports around 1.2 lakh pensioners and dependents in Nepal, amounting to around Rs 2800 Crore in 2016-17 alone, which is around 4600 Crore in Nepalese currency. There are number of scholarships for Nepalese students in India, and for students in Nepal, managed by Indian embassy. India recently gave 2 ALHs (Advanced Light Helicopters) to Nepal during PM Modi’s visit to the neighbouring country. All in all, India has always been a responsible and loving ‘Thulo Dai’ (Elder brother) to Nepal. There is a genuine warmth and affection when we deal with people from Nepal and it is the biggest the testimonial of our solid relationships.
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However, presently there is a dispute over territorial issue brewing up over area in Lipulekh area in Uttarakhand. Nepal has been claiming that the South part of the area belongs to them, as per the Sugauli treaty that was signed on 2 December 1815 and ratified on 4 March 1816 between the East India Company and Raj Guru Gajaraj Mishra for Nepal following the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16. British did a solid ‘Alsace-Lorraine’ to Nepal, taking away lot of territory and coming up with lot of one-sided clause in this treaty, amongst which the seeds of British India Gurkha regiment were sown. On territorial side, the Nepal’s border was limited between Mehakali river on west and Mechi on East with Himalayan range on North and Terai to its South. It is on the river Mahakali, that the Lipulekh territory is being contested by Nepal now. The river is joined by two tributaries in the area. While India wants to follow the original river’s route, Nepal is claiming area till extent of Westernmost tributary.
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The issue has been debated earlier too, but the vehement approach in which Nepal is taking it up now, including releasing maps with this territory included, is new. We should not be surprised. If the analysts in Indian government have been monitoring situation effectively, this was coming all along. And at perfect timing, with China flexing its muscles in Taiwan, South China Sea, Hong Kong, and recently Leh and Doklam. Why would China not throw Nepal in mix with Lipulekh pass? With world struggling against Covid-19 crisis, it is expected that flustered nations and governments would take rash decisions. China is banking on it. It would want that there is some border clash at Lipulekh road, where border posts are coming up. The road was built to shorten the long route to Mansarovar Lake in Tibet, which was via Sikkim till now. Plus, the road will be an excellent strategic asset during any Indo-China conflict. And that is what is bothering the Chinese. Suddenly, you see them getting aggressive at multiple places and this show of strength by Nepal is definitely happening on China’s behest. Otherwise Nepal has no reason to start these issues at this juncture where India is extending its help to fight Covid-19. But China hopes to turn the relationships between two nations sour and ready to bet anything to make it happen. It will not be just any border dispute because we have around 30,000 soldiers in active duty in Gurkha regiments. Imagine them going rogue! Wouldn’t that be a dream situation for China? We definitely need to secure Nepal because time and again it has been proven that the ISI has been using it as an active covert route for anti-India activities.
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India needs to handle this immediately and diplomatically. We tend to not pay attention to smaller issues especially with Covid-19 crisis on, but slowly it will snowball into a major issue if not attended to. In such a case, it will take a lot of effort to put down these fires. A Bureaucratic-Military Delegation is the best bet to have a dialogue with Nepal and resolve this and focus towards dealing with bigger concerns at this stage. Indian COAS General Narwane drew lot of flak for his comments, which in fact are quite precise. One should not forget that the people who are instigating and supporting these disputes, on both India and Nepalese side, are the same who would call his observations slander. The Chief is responsible for India’s border security and its integration. If he cannot speak on its issues, who else can?
Nepalese pride is as high as the Everest and India should not mistake size for competence. We need to sit on table like equals and banking on age-old traditional friendship, get things in order. Because if India would not be India without the Indian Army, India Army would not be this Army without Gurkha regiment. We should never forget that.
(The author is a decorated veteran, who now works in Energy Innovation and Rural Development. Views expressed are personal.)