Despite growing domestic pressures on the two governments to settle outstanding border issues through diplomatic means, Nepal-India talks are unlikely anytime soon.
In Nepal, both ruling and opposition party leaders have been urging Prime Minister KP Oli to use his diplomatic skills to bring back Nepali territories through negotiations with India. Similarly, there is growing domestic pressure on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to talk with Nepal without delay. Ex-diplomats and opposition leaders in New Delhi are also criticizing Modi for ignoring Nepal’s talks offers. In a June 15 statement, senior Indian National Congress leader Karan Singh said: “Although the dispute in question is a long-standing one, it was, if I recall correctly, raised by Nepal in November last year. Surprisingly, we did not seem to take the matter seriously.”
According to the popular Indian portal aajtak.com, the Indian PM-led Cabinet Committee on Security, the highest body in India to decide on matters of national security, had recently concluded that it was meaningless to hold talks on Kalapani after Nepal’s constitution amendment. According to the same report, the meeting concluded that India would not accept the Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report, and that the ‘special ties’ with Nepal would be revised.
“The chances of specific talks on the border are indeed slim,” says an ex-Indian ambassador to Nepal. “But there may yet be phone conversations between prime ministers or foreign ministers to give a message that bilateral ties are on track.”
As the two sides know resolution of the border dispute will take time, both Oli and Modi seem to be in a mood to ‘normalize’ bilateral relation via phone conversations. The goal is to ensure that the border issue will not have spillover effects in other areas of bilateral ties, according to a senior leader in the ruling Nepal Communist Party.
Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had said on June 15 that it was still possible to settle border issues with Nepal, with which India shares ‘special ties,’ in a clear indication that India’s political leadership wants to keep talking to Kathmandu—if not on the border.
One story, two versions
India’s Ministry of External Affairs recently briefed its media that India had proposed foreign secretary-level talks just before the constitution amendment process started. “Our offer of talks as well as our response to their offer was positive. In fact, we offered foreign secretary-level phone call and also visits of the two foreign secretaries as recently as just before the tabling of the bill,” Indian government officials told the Indian media on June 15. Indian officials said the onus was on Kathmandu to create conducive atmosphere.
The Nepali side, however, says it has gotten no formal request for talks from India. According to sources in New Delhi, India had communicated through various informal channels that foreign secretary-level talks could be organized if Nepal postponed the constitution drafting process, but there was no official request for talks. The Nepali side understood this as no more than a ploy to stop constitutional amendment.
After the amendment, Nepal’s priority has been to initiate dialogue with India. Speaking to reporters after constitution amendment, PM Oli said talks with India would start soon.
“Dialogue is always our priority. We have been proposing foreign secretary-level talks since November last year but India has not responded,” says Rajan Bhattarai, PM Oli’s foreign affairs advisor.
After India came up with its new political map in November, Nepal twice sent diplomatic notes to India, offering foreign-secretary level talks. India did not respond positively. Foreign-Secretary level talks are the only mutually agreed mechanism to deal with border disputes.
India’s position on dialogue is inconsistent. India first said talks could be held once the Covid-19 crisis is over. It urged Nepali politicians to create a positive atmosphere. But in the latest statement issued on June 13, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said: “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.”
During the April 10 phone conversation between PM Oli and PM Modi, the former had briefly broached the border issue, stating that the two countries needed to sit for dialogue without further ado. The next phone conversation between Oli and Modi was scheduled for May 18, the date Nepal’s cabinet endorsed the new political map including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. “The scheduled phone conversation was canceled by the Indian side at the eleventh hour,” says a source close to PM Oli.
Nepali Ambassador in New Delhi Nilambar Acharya has been in constant touch with officials of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. He is also in personal contact with some ministers of Modi cabinet but he too has been unable to persuade them for border talks.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has categorically said that the cartographic change inscribed in the Nepali charter is permanent. In its future dialogue with India, Nepal is preparing to present evidences and historic facts that show Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura belong to Nepal. The country’s bottom-line is the withdrawal of Indian troops from Kalapani.
In the coming days, PM Oli will be under pressure to convince India to withdraw Indian forces from Kalapani. All political parties, including main opposition Nepali Congress, have put the onus of border talks on PM Oli.
At the same time, the military standoff between India and China over their disputed border in Ladakh is escalating. India says 20 of its army personnel died in a hand-to-hand clash with PLA personnel on the night of June 15. This has further negated the possibility of Nepal-India dialogue to settle Kalapani.
“Nepal may now find it difficult to raise its case strongly, especially as a section in India had already been blaming Nepal for raising border issues at the behest of China,” says Pramod Jaiswal, Research Director of Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement, a Kathmandu-based think tank. “India could adopt a rigid stand while negotiating at the moment, as Kalapani is of strategic importance to it during the conflict with China.”
Jaiswal says Nepal would be wise to remain silent on border issues for a while. “It can raise them again when things calm down,” he advises.