As Sam Cowan, an ex-British Army officer and a scholar with an intimate knowledge of Nepal, has pointed out, this is not the first time a political map issued in India has shown Kalapani as Indian territory. British India had first published such a map in 1879, he says, a map which independent India inherited. Successive governments of Nepal, whether the autocratic ones under Ranas or the democratic ones later, over many generations, ignored the inclusion of Kalapani in Indian maps. They had various favors to curry with the Indians, whether for themselves or for their country, and the de facto loss of Kalapani was apparently a price worth paying.
So Cowan does not understand the fuss around the new map of India issued by its Home Ministry. He is right to an extent. But any real or perceived loss of a country’s territory, even a teeny bit, can be an explosive development in this social media-controlled, alternate-fact reality world. The Chinese take the cases of publication of China’s map without Hong Kong or Taiwan mighty seriously (and I speak from experience). The same has traditionally been the case with the Indians and publication of the de facto map of Jammu and Kashmir in international outlets. In fact, no government today can countenance any real or perceived loss of national territory.
And just like the mainstream media elsewhere, Nepali media know how to whip up a good nationalist story, however old, to get maximum eyeballs. The old public suspicion of India does not help. After three blockades, Nepalis have come to instinctively mistrust New Delhi. Interestingly, the map now brought out by the Indian Home Ministry was strictly for domestic use and not an international map, as even Nepal’s survey department officials have clarified. Yet the uproar over it refuses to die down.
India is unlikely to give up Kalapani, which gives it a vital strategic advantage from which to closely monitor the movement of Chinese troops in the region. As Kalapani also falls on the route to the Kailash Mansarovar, an important Hindu pilgrimage, the Hindu nationalist government in New Delhi will be keen to retain it. Perhaps the most it will do is agree to keep the maps ambiguous while continuing to occupy Kalapani. If the push comes to shove, it might even agree to a land swap for Kalapani with Nepal. As an immediate sop, the spokesperson for Indian foreign ministry has said that there has been no change in status quo on the border with Nepal and all disputes will be settled through later negotiations. But will that suffice?
It is a hard fact of geopolitics that the interest of smaller countries like Nepal are often compromised in the larger strategic battles between bigger powers like India and China. In the worst case, the big powers completely overlook the interests of small powers (cue: Lipulekh). The ongoing protests over the occupation of Kalapani is a diplomatic tinderbox for the communist government. It was the mother party of KP Oli that first officially informed India of its ‘illegal occupation’ of Kalapani back in 1996. The prime minister who came to power on the back of the 2015-16 blockade can ill afford to be seen as weak before the old hegemon on the eve of important by-elections.