By changing the political map and whipping up anti-India rhetoric, Nepal appears to have crossed the red line and allowed itself to be manipulated by China whose dominating presence is already altering the geopolitics of the region. The unanimous approval by Nepal’s House of Representatives for tabling an amendment to the country’s constitution, depicting nearly 400 sq km of Indian territory as its own sovereign territory, smacks of Kathmandu’s brinkmanship. The Communist coalition government, headed by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, has painted itself into a corner over the cartographic war with India, making it increasingly difficult to resolve the border dispute through dialogue. The new political map shows the disputed territories of Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani in Uttarakhand within its borders. The unilateral territorial claims run contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue. By getting the approval of the House of Representatives, the Oli government has etched the territorial claim in stone which would make any concession by future governments of Nepal virtually impossible. Though Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali claimed that bilateral dialogue would start soon to resolve the problems, his country’s actions amounted to forcing India to accept the fait accompli determined unilaterally by Kathmandu. The diplomatic options have thus become narrow. However, India-Nepal relations, nurtured on strong civilisational links, are far too important to be derailed by temporary setbacks due to reckless policies of some leaders. No doubt, India needs to tread carefully.
While India must stand its ground on the territorial issue, it should be willing to look at ways in which Nepali sentiments could be assuaged. Despite the recalcitrant attitude of the Oli government, India must never change its friendly policies towards the people of Nepal, like recruitment of Nepali citizens into the Indian Army and unrestricted work policies for Nepalese citizens. The fact that Oli has taken such a hard stance against a friendly neighbour like India, especially amid a pandemic, is indicative of the fact that his Nepal Communist Party is facing severe opposition from rival factions and opposition parties. It must be pointed out that India has been in effective possession of Kalapani at least six decades. India’s new road, up to the Lipulekh pass, is not an unprecedented change in the status quo as it has controlled this territory and built other infrastructure here before, besides conducting its administration and deploying military forces up to the border pass with China. In a 2015 statement, China also recognised India’s sovereignty by agreeing to expand trade through the Lipulekh pass. The region is of strategic importance and the new road is one of the quickest links between Delhi and Tibetan plateau.
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