We all know about a certain kind of toxic relationship where at one point your friend or partner realizes they have had enough of your dominance and they have the option to choose somebody else over you.
India and Nepal relationship has gone through this trajectory. In India, the recent government’s actions have activated many disputes which were lying like the bacteria under ice sheets in the Arctic.
The unexpected aggression by Nepal has given the Indian government an added task while combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The area under dispute, is the same location where Nepal allowed India to have a military base during the India-China war of 1962. So, why is Nepal miffed with India now and what has gone wrong in the past decades that changes brotherly friendship between the two countries that have free movement across the border.
The answer to this lies in a series of events that pushed Nepal away from India and brought closer to China.
What is the real issue?
The current dispute is much hyped by the national and international media. A article in The Diplomat has gone far and attempted to draw parallels with the Palestine issue. It is however just a rhetorical dispute where Indian government’s actions create a security dilemma in Nepal.
Thanks to the British legacy in the subcontinent, this dispute is also around 200 years old. The East India company signed the Treaty of Sugauli with Maharaja of Nepal marking the borders between British controlled provinces and Nepal.
The British colonizers were notorious for marking vague borders, leading to multiple interpretations, only to be called as disputed territories in the future.
Similarly, Mahakali River was declared as the western border for Nepal. It has two interpretations of its origin, a wider source and a narrow source of the river. The wider source of the river was accepted as the border; however, the area was strategic for the Britishers in order to continue trade with China. Hence in around 1860s the East India Company unofficially started using the area, as for Nepal it was of no specific use.
Nepalese monarchs, had agreed to this arrangement and after the Indian independence in 1947, the area naturally fell in Indian Territory. During 1962, India-China war, the Indian Army used the same area to station its military base as approved by the then Nepalese monarch.
As soon as Nepal became democratic in 1990, its friendly relationship with India witnessed many frictions; since Nepal’s ambition to become a powerful and significant democratic nation, compelled it to initiate dialogues with India to define its borders.
India has always assumed the big-brother position with reference to Nepal and has faced little opposition from it. The stance has been changing recently as India witnessed the rise of a nationalistic approach by its government, while Nepal saw the rise of a communist regime.
India has ignored Nepal at multiple occasions and the loss of respect in this brotherly relationship has pushed Nepal more towards China and away from India. Let us explore the series of events where Nepal felt snubbed by the Indian government.
What miffed Nepal?
Tracing some of the recent events, right after the Modi government was sworn in, India’s approach has been that of a domineering elder brother.
During the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake, hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia was trending over twitter as the way India’s rescue operation was covered by Indian media was considered insensitive. As India provided aid to Nepal, PM Modi’s name was much popularized to allegedly ‘show-off’ the New Delhi’s move.
While India mostly focused its efforts on rescuing Indians in Nepal, Indian journalists hyped the role of BJP-led government in ‘saving’ Nepal from further destruction. The sourness towards the current government vaguely started from this point in time.
Another hashtag that was trending later in the same year was #BackOffIndia when India allegedly tried to influence the Nepalese government to make amendments in its constitution. Minorities in Nepal were upset and protested against this alleged intervention.
It was also alleged that India blocked fuel imports to the landlocked nation. However the Modi-govt. maintained that it was due to protests organized by minorities along the Indo-Nepal borders.The minorities also include Madheshis who belong to the Indian ancestry.
It was at that time the then Nepalese Ambassador to India, Deep K Upadhyay, known for his economy of words stated: “not to press Nepal to the wall”. Multiple anti-India pieces of news were making rounds like “Nepal is angry with India, so it turns off the TV’.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist – Leninist) is also known to be anti-India and ideologically inclined towards China. The nationalistic Indian government refused to take these incidences and concerns seriously and did not feel threatened by a smaller neighbour. This was a classic case of taking once friendly neighbouring nation for granted.
The Kalapani region, declared as ‘disputed’ after Nepal attained democracy was said to be negotiated bilaterally. However, in 2015 itself, India and China came into an agreement to increase the trade through Lipulekh pass which borders all these three countries.
It was negotiated during Modi’s visit to China where Nepal was not consulted and the Nepalese parliament raised objection towards it. Sequentially, the sentiment of suspicion reached its peak when India released its updated official map marking Jammu & Kashmir as a Union Territory.
This map showed Kalapaani region, which is considered by Nepal as the disputed territory as a part of India. This was met with a strong dissent from Government of Nepal. This grievance however, got suppressed due to violent situation in India.
On 8th May, the Indian defence minister inaugurated the Himalayan link road connecting Dharchula, Uttarakhand and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China via the Lipulekh Pass, (Nepali territory).
It is to be the shortest route to the popular Hindu shrine, Mansarovar. This decisive move infuriated Nepal which had a history of being ignored at during Indo-China trade talks and map disputes.
The ongoing dispute is a created war of rhetorics and power and does not seem to escalate into a real conflict. The statement by the Indian Army chief, calling this move a China backed action is again an act of denial. The fact remains that India with its Big Brother Syndrome has grossly ignored Nepal’s grievance and its sovereignty.
The issue has to be resolved bilaterally and immediately, before Nepal completely turns toward China for help. With Chinese Army’s aggression near Ladakh, it is imperative that India pays more attention towards Nepal’s grievances.
Recently, with Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and Doordarshan adding the region of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in their weather forecasts, India’s ignored neighbour is suspicious than ever.
It is necessary that India considers Nepal’s concerns and skepticism towards the current government and resolves this through peaceful dialogue instead of a rhetorical blame-game.
(This post first appeared here in The Tilak Chronicle.)
Sugandh Priya Ojha
Sugandh Priya Ojha is the co-founder of a political consultancy startup. She is also an IR professional and a polyglot with interest and experience in Political Analysis, Culture, International Security and Climate Governance.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.