The government of Nepal has finally tabled a bill in the federal lower house with the intent of amending Schedule-3 of the constitution in order to include the new territorial map in the national emblem. After the passage of the bill, the new map covering Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limiyadhura areas will become an integral part of the country’s constitution.
As per parliament procedures, lawmakers will have seven days to come up with amendment proposals. After that, the parliament will discuss possible amendments in the bill. There will then be theoretical discussions, followed by clause-wise discussions, before the bill is put up for a final vote.
If the parliamentary parties want to delay the amendment process, there are ways to buy time. For instance, the speaker can form a special cross-party committee to discuss the matter. But says a source at the Parliament Secretariat, “This time, as nearly all the parties have agreed to amend the constitution at the earliest, there could be no need for such committees.”
Except for the Rastriya Samajbadi Party, Nepal (RSPN), other parties are expected to vote in the bill’s favor. The RSPN has said that their long-standing demands related to the constitution should also be simultaneously addressed, and it has tabled a separate constitution amendment bill to that effect. The Nepali Congress (NC), the main opposition that had earlier sought some time for intra-party discussion, has already decided to vote in the bill’s favor. As things stand, the bill will garner two-thirds vote in the parliament even if the RSPN votes against it.
Cramped for room
Political analyst Chandra Dev Bhatta says that once the bill is approved by the parliament, the new map will not only be official but also constitutional. “The said territory then becomes an integral part of Nepal, which, as per the constitutional provisions, will have to be protected by the Nepal Army in case of outside aggression. But we also have to acknowledge that Kalapani has for long been a subject of Nepal-India discussions, and the said territory is still under Indian possession.”
The likely amendment will reduce Nepal’s room for flexibility on the border issue. Major political parties are united on the issue. Given the enormous public support for the bill, it will be hard for any of them to back away. Knowing that a majority support may not be easy to get in the future, both the government and opposition parties are intent on pressing ahead. In public, they affirm that they will convince India to withdraw its troops from Kalapani, as Nepal has ample evidence to establish its claim over the territory.
“India should behave responsibly. It never paid attention to Nepal's repeated requests for talks. For Nepal, there really was no other option,” says Bhatta, adding that the border dispute could further strain Nepal-India relations.
Meanwhile, constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari seconds Bhatta’s view that the amendment will make negotiations with India tougher. “The lower-level negotiators will not be in a position to compromise when the areas under discussion are constitutionally recognized,” he says.
India is sending mixed signals over its willingness for talks. On May 9, India stated that “both sides are also in the process of scheduling foreign secretary-level talks which will be held once… the two societies and governments have successfully dealt with the challenge of Covid-19 emergency.” But then on May 20, India urged the Nepali leadership to “create a positive atmosphere” for border dialogue.
Following this, on May 28, India stated its openness to engaging with all its neighbors on the basis of mutual sensitivity and respect, and in an environment of trust and confidence.
According to sources, India urged Nepal government to forestall the amendment, as it would narrow down the possibility of talks. For now, the Nepali side wants talks at the prime ministerial level. But right now foreign secretary-level dialogue is the only agreed mechanism to look after the disputed territory.
There is no discussion yet on alternatives for resolving the border dispute. According to government sources, Nepal is not going to stick to its stand of asking India to withdraw its troops from Kalapani as “the land belongs to Nepal”. The Nepali side reckons there is enough evidence to support Nepal’s position.
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali is publicly urging India to withdraw its troops from Kalapani. Officially, the Indian government has not spoken on solutions. Following the protests in Nepal over the 2015 India-China bilateral statement on trading through Lipulekh in Kalapani, the Indian side had informally floated a proposal of land swaps before Nepali leaders to resolve Kalapani. But the Nepali leaders rejected the offer.
In his article published on May 26 in The Wire, Ashok K. Mehta, a retired Major General of the Indian Army, said: “Only a political resolution of the dispute is the way forward. Although still not at that stage, both countries can consider the concept of joint sovereignty.”
Experts in Nepal say it won’t be easy to wrest back lost territories. To start with, as it is impossible for Nepal to lay a claim to the territories militarily, it has no option but to coax India to the negotiating table. But with the mood in New Delhi hardening, that may not happen anytime soon.
Yet all hope is not lost. Talking to an Indian television channel on March 31, India’s Minister for Defense Rajnath Singh said the chances of Nepal and India, who are like “family members and relatives”, finding an amicable solution were still high. So far India’s stand in future discussions, if and when they happen, remains unclear.