April 17th 2021
India and Nepal, two bordering countries, have been involved in a dispute over the Kalapani region, a strategic vantage point and a tri-junction between India, Nepal and China. Despite having close socio-cultural and religious relationship since ancient times, the issue of Kalapani, has strained this relationship over time. Both the countries lay their claim on this disputed area claiming it to be a part of their territory. The governments of both the countries have been releasing new maps showing the area to be a part of its territory, undertaking various projects in this area and giving official statements in the media. However, they have not been able to reach any agreement making it difficult to solve the issue.
Background of the Kalapani Dispute
Kalapani is a region located in the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district sharing border on the north with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Nepal in the East and South consisting of at least 37,000 hectares of land in the High Himalayas. The area currently is in India’s control but Nepal claims the region on the basis of historical and cartographic reasons. The Kalapani region derives its name from the river Kali. The Kali river is the key to the Kalapani dispute. The Kali river in the Kalapani region demarcates the border between India and Nepal. The Treaty of Sargauli signed by the Kingdom of Nepal and British India (after Anglo-Nepalese War) in 1816 located the Kali river as Nepal’s western boundary with India.
Nepal’s stand on the issue is that the Kali river originates from a stream at Limpiyadhura which is at the north-west of Lipu Lekh. Thus they are part of Nepal’s Dharchula district as they fall to the east of the river. The territory of Kalapani was offered by King Mahendra of Nepal to India after the 1962 India-China War who wanted to help India’s security concern due to the perceived threats from China. Thus, they argue that it was part of Nepal’s territory that the king had allowed India to use temporarily.
India, on the other hand, argues that the river Kali originated from a smaller rivulet named Pankhagad, which lies on the southern portion of Kalapani. The subsequent ridge on the eastern part of this area marks the border making it the territory of India. India also argues that the administrative and revenue records of the 19th century also shows Kalapani as being counted a part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand thus showing Kalapani as a part of India. During the India-China war of 1962, India had deployed security forces in the Kalapani region as it was regarded a ‘safe zone’ for its altitude of 20,276 feet as a defence against the Chinese. At that time, China recognized it as being a part of India. However, Nepal had conducted elections in the area in 1959 and collected land revenue from its residents until 1961.
In November 2019, the Home Ministry of India released a new edition of the Indian Political Map showing the newly created Union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. This was followed by the abrogation of Article 370 and 35 A of the Indian Constitution, which had given a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Government of India published a revised political map showing the disputed ‘Kalapani ‘ region in the greater Himalayas as being a part of the Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand to which Nepal immediately issued an objection as both Nepal and India lay claim to Kalapani. Nepal identifies the region as an unsettled territory of the Darchula district in the country’s Sudurpaschim Province. In November 2019, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry released a statement for the media stating that “the Nepal government is committed to protecting the country’s external borders and it is determined on its principled position that such border disputes with the neighbouring countries should be resolved through diplomatic channels after assessing the historical documents, facts and evidence.”
On May 8, 2020, India inaugurated the Darchula-Lipulakh pass link road that cut across the disputed Kalapanai area that is being used by Indian pilgrims to Kailash and Mansarovar. In response to this Nepal summoned the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, to convey a formal protest. Not only Nepal published a revised official map incorporating the territory from the Limpiyadhura source of the Kali to Kalapani and Lipulekh pass in the northeast of the triangular region as its territory, the Cabinet led by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli on May 22, 2020 also registered a constitutional amendment motion to grant constitutional status to the map. According to Indian analysts, such a move giving constitutional guarantee will make Kathmandu’s position inflexible , further rendering any future solution on the Kalapani issue nearly impossible. India in response, rejected the new map of Nepal saying that it involves artificial enlargement of territories, which is not based on historical facts and evidence. India claimed it to be a unilateral act, contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding border dispute through diplomatic dialogue. India has urged the Government of Nepal to respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by refraining from such an unjustified cartographic assertion.
As the Kalapani area is of strategic importance in South Asian diplomacy serving as a tri-junction between India, China and Nepal. Since, Nepal is a ‘buffer state’ between India and China, the Kalapani dispute needs to be solved at the earliest. The ties of India and Nepal has often been romanticized as one of ‘roti-beti ‘(food and marriage), therefore resolving of the disagreement is of utmost importance. Given the open border between Nepal and India, Nepal has immense strategic relevance from India’s security point of view. There India should consider it as a prerequisite to maintain stable and friendly relations with Nepal. Nepal and India have had a history of cultural and social affinity along with age-old politico-economic closeness. Therefore, both sides should be giving due consideration to the mutuality of interest in the relationship and the need to sustain the convergences while working together to address the irritants and divergences. Moreover, while resolving the border issues between India and Nepal, adequate consideration should be taken of the environmental concerns of the Himalayan region.
*The author is a M.A. 1st Semester Student at the Department of Political Science, Dibrugarh University