The simmering tensions between India and Nepal led to an bloody incident on their common border on June 12. Media reports say Nepali border guards opened fire after a group of Indians crossed the frontier, killing one man and wounding two. The latest flare up is not new in India’s relations with Nepal, which has stepped up border security along its 1,100 mile frontier.
The tensions stoked after India inaugurated road in the disputed region and Nepal approved a new map of a relatively smaller section of the Himalayas. India’s defense minister virtually inaugurated the new 80 km-long road, connecting the border with China, at the Lipulekh pass. Nepal protested the Indian move, contending that the road crosses territory that belongs to it and accused New Delhi of changing the status quo without diplomatic consultations.
And then came a consequential legislation by Nepal’s parliament on June 13 when it unanimously passed a constitutional amendment bill to change the country’s boundary that reflects nearly 400 square kilometer of territory on its northwestern border tri-junction with India and China, a territory that extends west from the Lipulekh Pass.
India reacted with caution, saying it had “noted’ Nepal’s decision. “This artificial enlargement of claims is not based on historical fact or evidence and is not tenable. It is also violative of our current understanding to hold talks on outstanding boundary issues,” said Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
The two countries have been trying to reset their often troubled relations by enhancing high-level exchanges. However, the publication of a new political map by India after New Delhi repealed the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir last November, prompted protests in Nepal, as it placed Kalapani within India’s own border. Nepal complains that New Delhi has been ignoring all its calls for bilateral talks to resolve the issue.
The situation has created a firestorm in India which has already seen embarrassing military retreats in its ongoing tensions with China. Indian military commanders, according to media reports, acknowledge that Chinese troops have pushed and occupied 60 square kilometers of territory that India claims in eastern Ladakh. Nepal’s unusual reaction and constitutional action has taken aback the Hindu nationalist leadership in New Delhi which is not accustomed to receiving such high profile rebuke.
The June 12 border incident and approval of amendment to Nepal’s constitution a day later has put New Delhi in a quandary. A no reaction will show India’s weakness and put new questions on the leadership of Narendra Modi. the Indian prime minister is being widely accused of gross human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, thrusting his country’s hard power on its neighbors, especially China and Pakistan, and destabilizing the region as far as Afghanistan through his Hindutva-driven policies. Tension with a neighbor much weaker and smaller than China and Pakistan has brought New Delhi to some difficult choices to make.
But saner Indians, including the media, are advising Modi to tread a careful course of action in dealing with the situation.
“…, the Narendra Modi government needs to shed its fond expectation that Nepal’s affinity with India because of its Hindu heritage is sufficient to consolidate political relations with that country. Neither is that shared heritage sufficient to prevent Nepal’s penchant to wave the China card in India’s face whenever it seeks to advance its own interests. And putting all eggs in the Oli basket, and in the bargain alienating other important political constituencies over the recent past, has proved to be costly,” wrote Shyam Saran in an opinion article in The Indian Express.
Landlocked Nepal, which was never been under colonial rule, has long claimed the areas of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh in accordance with the 1816 Sugauli treaty with the British Raj. However, all the three contested areas have been firmly under India’s control since India fought a war with China in 1962. The people living there are now Indian citizens, pay taxes in India and vote in the Indian elections.
Also unnerving for the Indian establishment is the growing clout of China in Nepal. That’s because Beijing considers Nepal a key partner in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is looking to invest in infrastructure there as part of its $1.5 trillion plan to exert its influence around the world.
Nepal’s Uneasy Relations with India
Nepal has remained an important player in India’s South Asian security calculus. It has supported unrest and instability in the tiny Himalayan country for more than seven decades to maintain an iron-fist on the region that borders China.
It was India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who was a strong proponent of an undeclared policy that all the regions of South Asia that were under British occupation or domination must remain under India’s influence if not complete control. To that end Nehru signed the ‘Treaty of Peace & Friendship’ with Nepal in 1950. Landlocked Nepal did its best to maintain a friendly relation with India, even compromising its own interests. It allowed the Indians to enter Nepal at will without any passport or visa, open businesses, and use Indian currency in Nepal. Nepal’s markets are still flooded with Indian goods. Its external and internal trades, even military supplies, are still largely controlled by India. Above all, because of it “special relations” with Nepal, India doesn’t need to deploy its forces on its northern border that saves it billions of dollars.
Availing Nepal’s geographical limitations, India always considered Nepal as its strategical and political backyard — squeezes and exploits it. None of Indo-Nepal agreements served Nepal’s interest. India, despite having agreements, didn’t allow Nepal to use Indian roads for its regional and international trade via Bangladeshi ports; as it would benefit Nepal and Bangladesh, but not India. History is a testimony that whenever, Nepal tried to pursue an independent policy, India imposed a blockade for months that damaged Nepal economically.
Analysts opine that Nepal’s emerging close economic and strategic relations with China are weakening India’s 70 years (1950-2020) hold on the Himalayan country. Nepal is not just resisting the Indian dictates but also asserting its sovereignty with authority never seen before and could very well become a strategic headache for New Delhi.
Will there be a war?
The situation shows that Nepal is no longer under India’s influence. The myth of “special relations” stands exposed and the garb of India’s friendship is no longer convincing the Nepalese on the streets that their next door big neighbor is really interested in their progress and prosperity. Nepalese in New York opine that compromise is possible if India withdraws from the disputed areas. Analysts believe if Modi remains adamant, Nepal will further lean towards China, that will be happy to sit on the neck of India via Nepal.
Given the heightened tensions between the two countries, any miscalculation on either side can throw the situation out of control. A full-blown war remains a distant possibility, because India is in no position in the new strategic realities to assert its military muscles against Nepal. New Delhi, however, will do everything under the sun to destabilize Nepal in its quest to find politicians who can serve as its pawns in Nepal’s government. For now, that also remains a gigantic objective given the anti-India sentiment Nepal is resonating with. In fact a resurgent Nepal ready to react to any provocations from New Delhi means more bloody incidents on the two countries borders will remain a real possibility.
Mohammad Zainal Abedin is a New York-based Bangladeshi journalist and researcher.
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