International relations, National security | South Asia

25 August 2020

Given their strong ties, the border dispute between India and Nepal has a good chance of dying down, but both governments need to build trust to make this happen, Anurug Chakma writes.

In theory, interdependence and interstate cooperation can prevent destructive conflict. Nepal and India cooperate regularly with mutual dependency on a number of issues. These include but are not limited to tourism, climate change, water, trade, transit, connectivity projects, migration, trafficking, terrorism, tackling Maoist insurgency, and border management.

Currently, eight million Nepalese citizens are living in India, in addition to thousands of Nepalese soldiers in the Indian Army. But still, a ‘cartographic war’ has shaped recent India-Nepal bilateral relations. This raises a crucial question: will interdependence be enough to guarantee peace between India and Nepal?

Increasingly, the neighbouring countries are trapped in a tit-for-tat over their borders. Most recently, in response to the inauguration of a road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 8 May, Nepal recently approved a new political map in its parliament.

The map, which claims Nepal’s sovereignty over three areas – Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura in Uttarakhand – has intensified the dispute to an unprecedented level, but what explains the deterioration of relations between India and Nepal?

First, every state will always be primarily concerned with its national security, territorial integrity, and sovereignty in the anarchic international system. Both India and Nepal interpret their national security as partly the protection of their national borders.

More on this: Whither India-Nepal ties?

This was most clear when Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli recently outright accused India of encroaching on Nepalese territory by deploying its army, claiming it aimed to create an ‘artificial boundary’. Oli also linked India’s territorial encroachment to cultural encroachment, saying that Nepal is a victim of cultural encroachment and its history has been distorted.

He claims that Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh and the birthplace of Hindu Lord Ram, are inside Nepal. In doing so, he has mobilised his party by saying that it is the fundamental duty of the Community Party of Nepal to consolidate national unity, protect territorial integrity, and uplift of national pride of Nepal.

India, however, views this move from Nepal as an ‘artificial enlargement’ of territorial claims, engineered by Prime Minister Oli to politicise the boundary issue. India’s Foreign Ministry has urged Nepal “to refrain from such an unjustified cartographic assertion” and to “respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

India is attempting to delegitimise these territorial claims by espousing two main narratives.

First, that Prime Minister Oli, who accuses India for ousting him from his position, wants to divert the attention of the Nepalese people from his failures by stoking tension, and portraying himself as the saviour of the Nepali nation.

More on this: A crisis with opportunity for Nepal

Second, it often implies Nepal’s foreign policy is becoming more influenced by China. Sharad Sharma, one of the leaders of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party in India, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said that: “The prime minister of Nepal is making baseless and unwarranted statements at the behest of China. Nothing can be more absurd than this statement.”

Similarly, Indian Congress member Abhishek Manu Singhvi tweeted that the prime minister was “either mentally disturbed or the puppet of Chinese”. In the same way, Indian Army chief, General MM Naravane, also indicated Beijing as the instigating force for Kathmandu to raise its objection. This elite-driven conspiracy theory has also influenced many people in India to believe that Nepal’s territorial claim came at the behest of China.

On top of this, the two countries are facing a security dilemma. This means that any action, defensive or otherwise, one actor takes is viewed as offensive by the other. In other words, a country feels it is a threat to its national security when a rival country acts to increase its national security. This argument is evident in case of India and Nepal too.

For instance, when Nepal installed unidirectional cameras on the border in Champawat district, India raised concerns. These were expressed in a statement by Surendra Narayan Pandey, Champawat’s district magistrate, and even this simple action was viewed as a threat to security.

This security dilemma has its roots in a lack of confidence building measures as part of addressing the border dispute. Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali expressed his dissatisfaction with this, saying that Nepal had formally requested several times for diplomatic negotiations to settle the border dispute of the Kalapani region, but New Delhi did not respond in a timely way.

He said: “We had offered talks in November, December, January, and May but India rejected them, saying that they are occupied with COVID-19, and once both nations overcome the pandemic, formal talks can be initiated.”

In contrast, India accuses Nepal of disinterest in conducting a joint survey to demarcate the border. Ultimately, neither government can escape its liability for the deterioration of bilateral ties.

Despite these tensions, it is likely the border dispute can be resolved peacefully, for two reasons. First, both countries share similar religious and social traditions, in addition to family ties across borders with historical friendship, and high levels of interdependence.

Second, that Nepal has expressed interest in diplomatic negotiation with India shows it probably does not intend to internationalise this issue, despite Indian politicians invoking China’s apparent involvement in it.

If a peaceful resolution is to happen though, both governments have to realise that the peaceful settlement of interstate conflict relies on the enhancement of confidence building measures, and that they must do more to build mutual trust.

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