"Nepal virtually ignored the Kalapani issue from 1961 to 1997, but for domestic political reasons it became a convenient India-Nepal controversy in 1998."
Author and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Leo E Rose's observation in an article titled, 'Nepal and Bhutan in 1998: Two Himalayan Kingdoms' that appeared in the 1999 edition of Asian Survey is a good starting point to try and understand Nepal's latest move. But first, a short recap would be helpful.
On Wednesday, Kathmandu released a revised political and administrative map showing Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani as part of its territory. Only a day earlier, Prime Minister KP Oli had said, "The issue will not fade away any more, we are least bothered if any one gets angry and we will reclaim that land at any cost." Oli went on to seemingly thumb his nose at India and the national motto by suggesting he would ask New Delhi, "Simhaeva jayate or satyameva jayate? [Does the lion (signifying strength) alone prevail, or does truth alone prevail?"].
In response, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava called the move an 'artificial enlargement of territorial claims' and stated, "Nepal is well aware of India's consistent position on this matter and we urge the Government of Nepal to refrain from such unjustified cartographic assertion and respect India's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Somewhere along the way, Oli remarked that the "Indian virus looks more lethal than Chinese and Italian now". Although he spoke in the context of people coming from India 'through illegal channels' and the 'local representatives and party leaders' who are bringing in people without proper testing, the remark is unlikely to have gone down well in New Delhi. Or for that matter on that corner of social media inhabited by tens of thousands of self-appointed protectors of India's honour, who have had and continue to have their say about Nepal. That Oli's outburst comes just a couple of days after his foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali extended his 'sincerest thanks to the Narendra Modi government for providing medical logistics and COVID-19 testing kits for 30,000 tests seems stranger still.
Historical origins of disagreement
Going back a little further, cartographic disagreements between India and Nepal have been simmering ever since coming to the fore in November following the division of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. On the map subsequently released by India to illustrate this change, the Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani areas were shown as being part of India. Nepal released a statement rejecting the map and added, "Nepal government is committed to protecting its international border." The then-MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar responded in a media briefing, "Our map accurately depicts the sovereign territory of India. The new map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal."
As Rose notes in his 1999 article, the topic of Kalapani " a tri-junction between India, Nepal and China, ergo, a strategically-significant area " remained virtually ignored by Kathmandu until 1997, which is believed to be the first time Nepal objected to the area being under Indian governance. It was then that New Delhi and Beijing agreed to open the Lipulekh Pass " a route that had remained shut since the 1962 war " to facilitate movement for pilgrims making their way to Mansarovar. The pass is a far-western point near the Kalapani region.
In order to understand why the topic of the Kalapani area is so contentious, it's worth revisiting the 1815 Treaty of Sugauli between Nepal and British India. According to the treaty, the original text of which has reportedly gone missing, the Mahakali river forms the boundary between the two countries. However, this proved to be a major source of disagreement, since in later years, British surveyors would depict the origin of the river at different places. Interestingly, during the 1962 war, the Chinese had recognised Kalapani as Indian territory. And that remained the unwritten status quo until 1997.
Nepali leadership emboldened or embattled?
The Nepali scholar Hari Bansh Jha opines that since "Nepal has already resolved 98 percent of its boundary-related issues with India, there is no reason why the remaining two percent of boundary issues would not get resolved through diplomatic channels". There's certainly no reason why these wrinkles should not be ironed out through dialogue, but then what explains Oli's claims to being "least bothered if any one gets angry" and threats to reclaim the land "at any cost"?
A clue to one of the possible reasons lies, once again, in Rose's statement: '[For] domestic political reasons'. Alleged corruption in the procurement of medical equipment from China, the tasking of the Nepal Army with the job of importing medical equipment and the passing of two problematic ordinances have seen the ruling Nepal Communist Party come in for criticism from the Opposition and the national media. As an opinion piece in The Himalaya Times points out, the Oli government "is caught up in a bitter power struggle, forcing it to issue two ordinances related to that power game, covering up malpractices and corruption cases, and enforcing draconian measures to curb civil rights and liberties, including an attempt to kidnap a Member of Parliament from another party".
In Nepali politics, parties flip from pro-India positions to anti-India ones depending on whether they are in the Opposition or in power respectively. As pointed out in this 2018 piece, rhetoric changes accordingly. And when a ruling party senses that it is losing the confidence of its electorate, there appears no better way to arrest its declining popularity than by indulging in some India-bashing.
Like their neighbours to the south, Nepali politicians have learned over time that nationalism sells, but ultranationalistic fervour sells a whole lot more. Especially if there's a neighbour at whom one can go hammer-and-tongs.
Another possible reason for Kathmandu's sudden bellicosity could lie in what's happening elsewhere on India's land boundaries where Chinese troops are ratcheting up their presence on the Line of Actual Control at Sikkim and Ladakh. Chinese aggression and transgressions on the LAC are normally linked to high-level exchanges " usually State visits by the Indian prime minister or Chinese president or premier " between New Delhi and Beijing.
This time, however, while there's no meeting or visit on the cards, China is facing worldwide criticism over its handling of the coronavirus and its perceived lack of transparency since the detection of the first case. And even though it's been the European Union, the US and Australia that have been most vocal about Beijing's mishandling of the whole situation, India has been silently making its own moves. After calling out China for its faulty COVID-19 testing kits, New Delhi tweaked its FDI policy to limit its economic dependence on the mighty Renminbi. Elsewhere, after abiding by a One-China policy for the longest time, India appears to be improving its relationship with Taiwan " the biggest spanner in the works of the One-China policy. Most recently, India was among the 60-odd countries at the World Health Assembly to call for an 'independent' inquiry into the pandemic's origins. And with Union health minister Harsh Vardhan set to take charge as the chairman of the World Health Organisation (WHO) executive board on Friday, the possibility of a probe into COVID-19 that proves a little uncomfortable for China cannot be ruled out.
In the face of all this, what's a disgruntled and bruised China (in terms of public perception, at any rate) to do apart from finding creative ways to put pressure on India? And for this task, Nepal proves ideal. Especially when its own leadership is facing a tough time at home.
Where does India go from here?
India, under the Modi government, has proven to be firmer with Nepal than during the time of the two successive Manmohan Singh governments. This is a fact. After all, the 2015 economic blockade that was covertly put in place to reflect India's displeasure at the Nepali Constitution was made of sterner " or more muscular, for want of a better term " stuff than the bilateral had seen for some some time. Similarly, the sharp rhetoric emanating from South Block also reflects a decreased acceptance of misadventure or loose remarks by other countries. A case in point is the way the external affairs ministry responded to Turkey and Malaysia for their concerns about the abrogation of Article 370.
While the exact nature of India's next move remains to be seen, there will likely be a thaw as soon as Oli's purpose " not to forget China's purpose " with this latest spell of belligerence has been served. Afterwards, the leaderships of both countries are likely to declare that they are 'like a family' and that these misunderstandings happen from time to time. And everything will be pushed under the rug until the compulsions of domestic politics require these prickly matters to be dug up once more.