Nepal-India crisis a making of the Modi government?

The ties between India and Nepal came under strain after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on May 8.

– Dr Satish Misra

Nepal on 13 June gave a serious blow to India by getting its Parliament unanimously to vote to amend the Constitution to update the country’s new political map, laying claim over the strategically key areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura along the border between two traditionally close neighbours. Kathmandu has directly poked New Delhi in eyes.

Though India has debunked Nepal’s “artificial enlargement of claims” not based on historical evidence and therefore not “tenable” but now another area has come under dispute and another headache for the Modi government.   

Was the six year old Modi government that came on the promise to improve relations with a country with which India has long historical, rich cultural and familial ties caught unaware or got trapped in the crisis of its own making like the Chinese action on the borders of capturing land on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LOC) last month?     

What has surprised long standing experts of India-Nepal relations is that the resolution was adopted unanimously which clearly means that the entire political spectrum in Nepal has come to rally behind the Communist government in Kathmandu.  

Developments in Nepal are a serious setback as New Delhi lost valuable time and did not initiate any steps for bilateral talks with Kathmandu on the issue. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was virtually talking to different world leaders on video links, why could he not talk to Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli on phone?    

Major Opposition parties including Nepali Congress (NC), Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N) and Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) voted in favor of the government bill to amend Schedule 3 of the Constitution to update the national emblem by incorporating the new controversial map.

On June 9, the Parliament unanimously endorsed a proposal to consider the Constitution amendment bill to pave way for endorsing the new political map amid the border row with India.

Now, the bill will be sent to the National Assembly where it will undergo a similar process. The ruling Nepal Communist Party commands two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

The NA will have to give lawmakers 72 hours to move amendments against the bill’s provisions, if any. After the National Assembly passes the bill, it will be submitted to the President for authentication, after which the bill will be incorporated in the Constitution.

The government on Wednesday formed a nine-member team of experts to collect historical facts and evidence related to the area. Diplomats and experts, however, questioned the government’s move, asking why the task force was formed when the map has already been released and approved by the Cabinet. Can India do something while the nine-member committee collects historical facts?

Should Army chief have spoken and used the words that he used on May 15 giving the ruling party in Nepal to use it to rally all opposition parties against India, is a question that needs to be asked today.

The ties between India and Nepal came under strain after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road connecting the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on May 8.

Nepal reacted sharply to the inauguration of the road claiming that it passed through Nepalese territory. India rejected the claim asserting that the road lies completely within its territory.

Nepal last month released the revised political and administrative map of the country laying claim over the strategically key areas. India has been maintaining that these three areas belonged to it. This was the juncture, India should have immediately intervened and offered to talk but no such move was made.

Instead, India sternly asked Nepal not to resort to any “artificial enlargement” of territorial claims after Kathmandu released the new map. The new map – made public last month – shows a sliver of land on the east of river Kali, jutting out from the northwestern tip of Nepal. The area includes the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand and also Limpiyadhura and Kalapani, which are highly strategic areas which India has been guarding since the 1962 war with China.

New Delhi maintains that these are part of Uttarakhand. “Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India,” Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, had said last month. “Nepal is well aware of India’s consistent position on this matter and we urge the Government of Nepal to refrain from such unjustified cartographic assertion and respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he had added.

Army Chief General M Naravane had said on May 15 that Nepal’s protest against a newly built Indian road in Uttarakhand, up to Lipu Lekh pass on the China border, was at “someone else’s behest”.

His statement has been widely taken to mean that Nepal was acting as a proxy for China, at a time when tensions have spiked sharply on the LAC between the Chinese PLA and the Indian Army at Ladakh.

General MM Naravane said that India has a very strong relationship with Nepal. “We have a very strong relationship with Nepal. We have geographical, cultural, historical, religious linkages. We have very strong people to people connect. Our relation with them has always been strong and will remain strong in the future,” General Naravane told media.

Should Army chief have spoken and used the words that he used on May 15 giving the ruling party in Nepal to use it to rally all opposition parties against India, is a question that needs to be asked today.

Normally, Armed Forces are not supposed to speak out of turn and they speak when they are asked by the government of the day to speak. Did General Naravane speak out of turn without the government’s approval?

Notwithstanding General Naravane’s comment, New Delhi knew for long that there is an assertive government in Kathmandu that acts independently.

Playing Hindu card by stressing on religious links with Nepal as demonstrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his several visits to Nepal has obviously not paid. Communist Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli played tactically by initially accepting the Modi’s stress on Hindu links but he had not done so willingly and had acted only reluctantly as part of the tactics. The Nepalese Prime Minister did it for pragmatic reasons as bilateral ties are a fact of daily life for two peoples but now at the first opportunity has hit back putting the Modi government in a quandary.

Undoubtedly, relationship between India and Nepal has undergone a paradigm shift between 2015-19 particularly after the long economic blockade of 2015 during which Sino-Nepalese ties underwent a strategic change as Kathmandu held New Delhi” responsible for the ferocity of the Madhesi agitation and the violence” and “invested heavily, since 2015, in building relationship with China”. 

In 2016, the Oli government had signed a framework agreement with Beijing that was “loaded with a message to New Delhi”.

India did not keep pace with developments and seems to be paying a price for its neglect?

(Dr Misra is an author, researcher and senior journalist)

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