The evolution of Kalapani border dispute between Nepal and India
Nepal-India border row has flared up again despite the two sides repeatedly sitting down to resolve it at the top level. Perhaps, for the first time, the dispute has also percolated down to the level of the two peoples. Kalapani was mentioned as ‘disputed territory’ in bilateral agreements and joint press statements. Now both countries have included it in their national map.
India’s encroachment came to light during the Panchayat period, but no effort was made for negotiations. King Mahendra is blamed for allowing Indian troops into Kalapani after the 1962 India-China war, at India’s request, even though there are no official records or statements substantiating the blame. Former Nepali Ambassador to India, Bhek Bahadur Thapa, says King Mahendra did not personally allow Indian troops, “but he did maintain a studied silence, as raising the issue during the India-China standoff could have sent the wrong message that Nepal was taking a side”. According to Thapa, King Mahendra planned to take up this issue with India when the war ended, but he never came to it.
Some contend India had stationed its troops in Kalapani much before the 1962 war. A report submitted in 1988 by then Chief District Officer of Darchula district, Dilli Raj Joshi, mentions that India started encroaching on the Kalapani area as early as 1952. Similarly, former Brigadier General of Nepal Army Gopal Singh Bohara says Indian troops were in Kalapani at least since 1959. Both these instances appear in Ratan Bhandaro’s book, Atikramanko Chapetama Limpiyadhura Lipulek (‘Limpidyadhura Lipulkeh under Occupation’, 2015). It is hence hard to pin a date for the start of Indian occupation of Kalapani.
From the ground
In the early 1970s, State Minister for Forest Bahadur Singh Etwal, a politician from Darchula district, had publicly raised the issue of Kalapani encroachment for the first time. There were some efforts at the time to collect evidence on encroachment and keep an eye on border areas. On 16 July 1973, the Nagendra Prasad Rijal cabinet had formed a panel with representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to report on the encroachment from the ground. The report clearly mentioned that India had created an artificial Kali River to demarcate the border.
Eight years later, Dwarika Nath Dhungel, then Chief District Officer of Darchula (who would later go on to be a government secretary), visited Kalapani to prepare a ground report. The report asked the then government to clearly demarcate the Nepal-India border and deploy border security forces. “I submitted the report on encroachment to the home ministry. I later came to know that my report had been forwarded to the Survey Department for necessary action,” Dhungel says.
But formal talks on border demarcation started only in the 1980s. India and Nepal had discussed Kalapani and Lipulekh in 1981. In a November 2019 interview with Himal Khabarpatrika, former Director General of Survey Department Punya Prasad Oli talks of the border meeting: “In the meeting the Indian side, for the first time, said Lipulekh fell under their territory. They urged us not to raise the Lipulekh issue… and [said] they would not start the demarcation of the border from the disputed territory.”
There was no substantial progress till 1990. The dispute gained more prominence after left parties started broaching it that year—the year of the restoration of democracy. In 1992, lawmaker Prem Singh Dhami spoke about the Indian encroachment in the upper house. In his book, Ratan Bhandari writes of the ‘Mahakali Protection Commission Kailali-Kanchanpur’ submitting a memorandum to then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in 1991, objecting to the Tanakpur water-sharing agreement. The memorandum also denounced India’s encroachment of Nepali land in Kalapani.
Similarly, according to Bhandari, the then CPN-UML leader of Darchula Bir Bahadur Thagunna, had UML party general secretary Madan Kumar Bhandari take up the Kalapani encroachment issue. In response, Bhandari directed him to prepare a detailed report.
After that, following the signing of the 1996 Mahakali Treaty, the issue of the origin of the Kalai River entered public debate.
Summon to UN
On 29 June 1998, nine left parties wrote to then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, complaining about the presence of Indian forces at Kalapani. In response, the UN had replied that a proposal from Nepal could be considered if it came from the Nepali government. Similarly, the Maoist-aligned All Nepal Independent Student Union (Revolutionary) had in 2016 submitted a complaint to the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, this time over the recent India-China trade agreement via Lipulekh.
With these developments, subsequent Nepal governments were forced to take up Kalapani with India. During the 1998 SAARC Summit in Dhaka, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala reminded his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee of Nepal’s historical claim over Kalapani. Upon his return to Kathmandu from the summit, PM Koirala said talks with India on Kalapani “had been positive”.
Then there were efforts at raising awareness on Indian occupation of Kalapani. On 19 May 1998, the then CPN (ML) organized a ‘Kalapani march’. “It was a difficult journey, I remember. It took us over 18 days to reach the Kalapani area,” recalls Deepak Prakash Bhatta, then a student leader and now a member of the federal lower house.
Ganesh Singh Thagunna, another member of the march and currently a lawmaker from Darchula, credits the march with establishing Kalapani in national discourse. In the same year, the CPN (ML) student union had organized another Kathmandu-Kalapani long march. For all these reasons, in the 1998-1999 period Kalapani had become a hot topic of discussion in Nepali political, media, and civil society circles.
During the insurgency, the Maoist party had also repeatedly raised the issue of Kalapani, demanding the withdrawal of Indian troops from the area. It even threatened military attacks to remove the Indian army post there. But the party would drop the agenda when it came out of the hiding in 2006.
Before that, on 10 August 1998, CPN-UML leader KP Sharma Oli had registered a motion in parliament demanding the withdrawal of Indian forces. The same Oli as prime minister in 2020 took the lead in amending the national charter to make Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura internal parts of Nepal.
Kalapani was again discussed in Kathmandu during the fifth meeting of the Joint Working Group on the India-Nepal Boundary, on 17 July 1998. Point seven of the meeting minutes reads: “The two sides continued their useful exchange of the views on the examination of the relevant facts relating to the demarcation of the boundary alignment in the western sector including Kalapani area. The Nepalese side stated that the boundary between Nepal and India in the area was the Kali River as explicitly laid down in article 5 of the treaty of Segowlee and therefore sought clarification from India side…”
After 2000, there was no discussion on Kalapani, but it continued to be mentioned in bilateral documents. The issue again came to the fore in 2015 when India and China agreed to the use of Lipulekh as a bilateral trading point. After that, India, in November 2019, issued a political map placing Kalapani within its territory.
Curiously, the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s oldest democratic party, mostly remained silent on the Kalapani dispute during this period. But after India issued its new map in 2019, the NC fully supported the Oli government’s move to amend the constitution to include Kalapani in the national map.
Indian establishment says
As in Kathmandu, there have been many debates on Kalapani in New Delhi. Kalapani became a political agenda in Nepal after 1990 but debates in New Delhi after the time were still largely confined among bureaucratic, security, and academic circles. Some politicians had raised this issue in India’s parliament but public discourse on it was minimal—at least until now.
There are various views in New Delhi. Most Indian politicians believe the two sides should find a middle point, and this view also has adherents in the bureaucracy. In a 1998 interview with Kantipur newspaper, then Indian Ambassador to Nepal KV Rajan had said that India was ready to give up its claim on Kalapani if Nepal could persuade it to do so based on solid evidence.
Indian politicians say Nepal was never serious about settling the dispute through dialogue. In his recent article in The Wire, an online portal, former Major General of Indian Army Ashok K. Mehta quotes the then Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral as saying, “if Nepal can prove Kalapani belongs to it, we will give it up.”
Likewise, in 1999, foreign minister Jaswant Singh, on a visit to Nepal, said India was prepared to resolve the Kalapani issue through negotiations. Again, nothing happened.
On 26 July 2000, then member of Lok Sabha and current Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath questioned foreign minister Singh on efforts to resolve Kalapani amicably. Singh replied, “There is a difference in perception between India and Nepal on the boundary alignment in the western sector of the India-Nepal border, where the Kalapani area is located.” Singh said the Indian government was aware that some people might exploit such differences.
Similarly, on 7 December 2000, some members of India’s Rajya Sabha asked Ajit Kumar Panja, then Minister of State for External Affairs, about media reports on talks between India, Nepal and China to settle Kalapani. In his response, Panja questioned the veracity of such reports.
Then, on 6 December 2007, border issues were again discussed in the Indian parliament. This time, Pranab Mukherjee, then Minister for External Affairs, pointed the finger at Nepal: “The shifting of course in Susta region of the Gandak River, the mid-stream of which formed the boundary as per Treaty of Sugauli of 1816, has resulted in claims/counterclaims by both sides in this segment. The government is constantly monitoring the situation with a view to prevent encroachments by the Nepalese side.”
Security types differ
India’s security establishment, mainly its army, sees things differently. For it Kalapani is a strategic vantage point from which it would be unwise to withdraw. “Demarcation of two short segments of our boundary with Nepal—Kalapani and Susta—is yet to be completed. Of these, Kalapani is strategically important, as it determines the tri-junction between India, Nepal and China,” V.P. Haran, a former Indian ambassador to Bhutan and Afghanistan, said while speaking at a 2017 event organized by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs at the Central University of Tamil Nadu.
Kalapani as such is far more important to India than other disputed areas such as Susta. The security establishment has thus floated the idea of a land swap; India would not give up Kalapani but allocate the same area of land to Nepal in some other place.
Haran’s view is reflective of the Indian security establishment that argues that the militarily important Kalapani ‘should not be politicized’.
In his 9 Aug 2017 write-up in the Indian Defense Review, Lt Gen, (Dr) JS Bajwa of the Indian Army, says: “It [China] is also instigating Nepal to raise a dispute with regard to the Western Tri-junction of Nepal-Tibet-India in the Kalapani-Lipulekh Pass area where, in fact, none exists.”
Likewise, Lt Gen of Indian Army Chief, Prakash Katoch, in his recent article in the same publication, writes “aggressive actions of PLA are directly linked to Nepal objecting to the road in Pithoragarh district of Uttrakhand to Lipulekh Pass…” Katoch thinks Lipulekh Pass is on the LAC between India and China Occupied Tibet, and Nepal, as such, has no claim on it.
Nepal’s new map, he further writes, follows China’s pattern of cartographic aggression and has obviously been issued at China’s behest. “To hide its complicity, China gave a statement out of the blue that Kalapani is a bilateral issue between Nepal and India that both sides should resolve peacefully. There was no reason for China to issue such a statement since there neither was an India-Nepal standoff at Kalapani nor any physical fights like the PLA is indulging in.”
Likewise, elaborating on the strategic importance of Kalapani, Maj Gen Ashwani Siwach (retd) of Indian Army writes in the same magazine, “This road is not only important to India for movement of pilgrims to Kailash Mansarover, tourism and trade, but has significant strategic importance for logistic build up and fast induction of troops against China.”
Along with the political and security establishment, there has been a lot of discussions on Kalapani among Indian intellectuals and policymakers. In his paper published by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, a think-tank in New Delhi, Alok Kumar Gupta cites official sources in India as claiming that administrative and revenue records dating back to the 1830s—and now with the UP state government—show Kalapani area as traditionally being administered as a part of India’s Pithoragarh district.
Amid debates in Kathmandu and New Delhi, less attention has been paid on how local people in border areas around Kalapani see the issue. Lawmakers elected from border areas say local people are firmly against Indian encroachment, but they face great difficulty when tensions flare up between Kathmandu and New Delhi. People from these areas depend on India for jobs, day-to-day essentials, education, and health facilities.
“When there is a dispute, Indians treat locals badly and humiliate those who go to India to buy essentials,” says lawmaker Thangunna. The locals want all outstanding issues on Kalapani resolved diplomatically, rather than through street protests. They would like to see a quick resolution of the current dispute as well. But seldom does Kathmandu (or New Delhi) listen to them.
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