by Anurug Chakma 12 August 2020
The recent Indo–Nepal border dispute, which analysts describe as a “cartographic war” between the two countries, can be conceived as the result of tit-for-tat policy. With unanimous support from the parliament and all the Nepalese political parties including India’s old allies Tarai-based parties, Nepal recently published a new map that includes three disputed areas – Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura in response to the inauguration of Dharchula–Lipulekh road by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 8, 2020, and adoption of the new political map by India in the last November 2019. The cartographic war has affected bilateral ties to an unprecedented level. India has accused the move of Nepal as “artificial enlargement of territorial claims” and “an unilateral action” mostly provoked by Nepal Prime Minister Oli who intends to politicise the boundary issue. Anurag Srivastava, the spokesperson of the external affairs ministry of India, has made a clear–cut statement that: “This unilateral act is not based on historical facts and evidence. It is contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue. Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India.”
With regards to the border dispute with Nepal, the Indian perspective, as revealed in the Hindustan Times and other media outlets, is dominated by two powerful narratives. First, India thinks that Oli is the mastermind of this conflict due to his anti-Indian attitudes. Second, India explains the unilateral action of Nepal as a conspiracy of China which has increased her level of influence in South Asia. In the following sections, I offer how India interprets the recent Indo–Nepal border dispute based on two master narratives as illustrated below.
First, India labels Oli as anti-India political establishment. When Oli talks about cultural encroachment with reference to Ayodhya and the birthplace of Lord Ram inside Nepal and territorial encroachment with reference to the deployment of Indian military and construction of a road in the territories of Nepal, India portrays Oli as an ultra-nationalistic leader who wants to show himself as the saviour of the Nepali nation against India’s aggression. Furthermore, Indian politicians reject the cultural encroachment complaints of Oli by saying that Oli is making baseless statements about the birthplace of Lord Ram. Besides, India uses the diversionary argument to explain why Oli wants to provoke India that Oli uses the Indo–Nepal border dispute as a trump card to strengthen his political position inside the party as well as his government. According to the Indian narrative, he is strategically intending to divert the attention of Nepalese citizens from the policy failures of his government to the border tension. Apart from this, India not only denies the accusation of toppling the government of Oli but also expresses her concerns over the ultra-nationalistic position of Oli who has called for the Communist Party of Nepal and Nepalese citizens to consolidate national unity, protect the territorial integrity and uplift national pride of Nepal. However, India’s narrative is mostly Oli-centred which overlooks how Oli is under pressure from parliamentarians who demand to take the border dispute issue to the International Court of Justice.
Second, the Communist Party of Nepal and the Community Party of China has tremendously enhanced the party-to-party level engagement which has created suspicions about the influence of China in Nepalese national politics. Indian political elites have already popularized the conspiracy theory that has politically motivated Indian ordinary citizens who now believe that Nepal’s territorial claim is intentional and came at the behest of China. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, one of the Congress leaders, tweeted labelling Oli as either mentally disturbed or a puppet of Chinese government. Similarly, Indian Army chief General MM Naravane has made a comment that Beijing has instigated Kathmandu to raise its objection.
To sum up, the blame game is damaging the current Indo–Nepal bilateral ties. The political leadership of Nepal blames India for diplomatic deadlock to settle problems over the Kalapani region. Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali said: “We had offered talks in November, December, January, and May but India rejected them, saying that they are occupied with Covid and once both nations will overcome the pandemic, formal talks can be initiated.” By contrast, India accuses Nepal of her disinterest in conducting a land boundary survey. Finally, I conclude by saying that India should pay careful attention to the historical grievances of Nepal instead of nullifying her legitimate demands. On the contrary, Nepal should employ both Track I and Track II diplomacy to enhance Indo-border bilateral ties which are founded upon political, economic, and cultural bondage. Above all, both sides must be respectful for peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbours.
Anurug Chakma is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. Prior to commencing his Ph.D. program, he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Dhaka. He can be contacted in the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org