Failure to uphold a neighborhood policy
It is high time for a critical review of the policy India pursues
To put events sequentially, on 5 and 6 May, 2020, some 250 Chinese and Indian soldiers came to a hand-to-hand fight using iron rods, wooden batons and stones near a mountain spur called “Finger 5” on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh.
The fierce fighting left many injured on both sides. Indian fighter aircraft started flying over Ladakh, keeping a watch over the ground situation. It was a clear message to the Chinese that India cannot be intimidate. After the scuffle, both sides sent in more troops to the area. Five days after the Ladakh incident, on 9 May, 2020, there was another fight between Indian and Chinese soldiers in northern Sikkim in which fisticuffs were freely exchanged, leaving seven Chinese and four Indian soldiers injured. The Sino-Indian border in Sikkim also came to life.
Close on the heels of the two incidents came Nepal’s claim on the piece of Indian Territory on which India is building a new link road Lipulekh Pass in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand to facilitate the journey of pilgrims to Kailash and Mansarovar. Lipulekh lies at an altitude of 17,060 feet and connects Uttarakhand to the Tibet autonomous region of China. South of Lipulekh is the area known as Kalapani which is controlled by India. Nepal has now claimed this territory, approximately 400 square kilometers in area, as its own.
Geographically, Nepal has no reason to claim it because the Lipulekh Pass connects the Byans valley of Uttarakhand with Tibet. Obviously, Nepal is claiming this territory at China’s instigation. This is what General Naravane hinted at when he said that it seemed Nepal had staked its claim on this territory at “someone’s behest”. Now Nepal, taking the cue from China, has announced that it is going to issue a new map showing both the Lipulekh Pass and the Kalapani area within Nepal. Kathmandu claims the dispute (over the Kalapani territory) has been hanging fire for two decades.
The dispute was triggered in November 2019 when India issued a new map to indicate the changed status of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory. Nepal raised objections because the Kalapani area was shown as being in India.
India maps have always shown it that way; therefore, there was no change in the map. This was followed by Nepal’s objections to the inauguration of a road from Darchula to Lipu Lekh Pass, aimed at strengthening India’s defence supply lines as well as facilitating smooth passage for pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. Nepal said this road is an encroachment on its sovereignty.
There have been street posters, parliament has agitated and now the Nepal government has issued its map showing Kalapani as its territory. New Delhi has reiterated that the area belongs to India and would be willing to resolve the dispute through diplomatic negotiations after the corona virus disease (Covid-19) crisis is over. Nepal’s claims are rooted in the ‘Sugauli Treaty’ signed with the British in March 1816. In this, Nepal renounced “all claims to or connections (as in original text) with the countries lying to the west of river Kali….” (Art. V).The land east of the Kali thus remained with Nepal. This claim is reinforced by some old revenue records and gazette notifications.
India accepts this position, but its claim arises from the ambiguity in the treaty on the identification of Kali River and its origin. According to India, the river originates from Lipu Lekh and then merges into other streams and tributaries to become the Mahakali. Nepal’s contention is that Kali originates from Limpiyadhura and the stream originating from Lipu Lekh is called Lipu Khola. Hence the dispute. The area between these two streams is Kalapani. The treaty underwent some revisions to accommodate Nepal in the Terai (southern part) and was finally endorsed by British government on November 15, 1860.
The maps issued by the British between 1816 and 1860 generally favour the Nepal position. But, the maps issued afterwards endorse India’s position. It is possible that British administration changed this position through proper surveys or subsequently decided to manipulate this position, to serve its larger strategic and commercial interests in using the Lipu Lekh pass for access to Tibet. Independent India was handed over access to Kalapani and Lipu Lekh by the British.
Blaming India for any encroachment is baseless. It must be borne in mind that much before the British came, or the Gurkha kings’ annexed Kumaon and Garhwal regions – then surrendered under the Sugauli Treaty – Indians were using this route for the pilgrim-age to Kailash Mansarovar. The route has deep spiritual and civilisational significance for India. China accepted Lipu Lekh as one of the cultural and commercial transit points with India under its 1954 Peaceful Co-Existence Agreement. This was reiterated in 2015 in a joint statement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China.
Nepal has endorsed India’s position for nearly 150 years. It used Indian maps showing Kalapani, Limpiyadhura andLipu Lekh in India. Objections to this were raised in the 1960s, but were ignored by the royal regimes. Since 2000, the two surveyed the length of their boundary to resolve outstanding issues, except in two areas, including Kalapani. It is mutually agreed that these issues will be resolved through diplomatic negotiations.
Why then has the Nepal government turned up the heat on the Kalapani issue? Prime Minister K POli 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. He has consolidated his nationalist image since 2015 by fighting India’s ill-advised diplomatic intervention on the constitution issue and the counterproductive economic coercion (partial economic blockade) that followed. He perhaps hopes that this face-off with India on Kalapani will give him a new lease of political life.
The strategic community in India apprehends that Nepal is also being prompted by China to get India out of Kalapani. Indian Army chief General M M Navrane’s indirect reference in an Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses lecture may be recalled here. This apparently conflicts with China’s endorsement of the Indian position in 1954 and 2015. However, China is seldom straight in diplomacy. It is unhappy with India’s growing strategic proximity to the United States.
It has also objected to India’s defence infrastructure upgradation projects all along the border. The Darchula-Lipu Lekh road is one such project. Needling India and alienating Kathmandu from New Delhi serves China’s broader purpose. This explains why is it is playing an active role in preserving the unity of the Nepal Communist Party and protecting the Oli regime.
Briefly, this is the background to the recent escalation of tension in the Nepal and Sino-Indian border in Kalapani, Ladakh and Sikkim. The next question is why China has chosen this time, when both countries have been ravaged by the Corona virus pandemic, to raise the heat on the borders. One reason may be China’s apprehensions about India’s growing proximity to Washington.
During his visit to India last February, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a 53 billion deal with India under which the U.S. will sell India 24 MH 60 Romeo helicopters and Apache attack helicopters. The Romeo helicopters can detect and destroy submarines prowling deep underwater.
Russia is also expected to begin delivery of the S-400 Triumf missile system to India by October this year. This will greatly enhance India’s defence capability in the Himalayan border. Despite strong U.S. pressure to cancel the Triumf deal with the Russians, the Modi Government has so far stuck to its decision and refused to buckle under U.S. pressure.
The Romeos can engage in anti-surface, anti-submarine warfare and can also be used for search and rescue missions. They have advanced combat systems like missiles and torpedoes and powerful sensors that can track and destroy enemy ships and submarines. When these helicopters are delivered to India, they will be an effective deterrent to the Chinese Navy’s determined bid to establish its supremacy in the Indian Ocean. The recent border clashes may be one way of signaling Beijing’s displeasure with India acquiring such lethal military hardware from the U.S. that enables India to directly challenge China’s superior military strength. Chinese motives are as inscrutable as the Chinese mind.
But Nepal veering away from India raises questions about the success of India’s neighbourhood policy. Nepal has moved closer into the Chinese orbit. Our relations with Myanmar are at best so-so. General elections in Sri Lanka are going to be held on July, 2020. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa, known for his strong pro-China tilt, as President, the elections are likely to see the victory of his political party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (S.L.F.P.), taking the country closer to China.
Till recently, Bangladesh was entirely on our side. But the targeting of Muslims by the Hindutva brigade has had serious repercussions in Bangladesh. Harping constantly on the theme of “driving out all ghuspetias” (illegal migrants) has made Bangladesh apprehensive. If Dhaka prefers to move closer to
Beijing and away from Delhi, we have ourselves to thank. Even Bhutan is now demanding that it be allowed to have a Chinese embassy at Thimphu on reciprocal basis. Only Maldives, after the restoration of democracy there, is firmly set on the side of India. It is time to go for a critical review of our ‘Neighbourhood Policy”.