Ever since the row over Nepal’s claims to 335 square kilometres of land in India erupted last November and intensified last month, Nepali politicians, diplomats and civil society leaders have been urging New Delhi to agree to foreign secretary-level talks to resolve the issue.
However, New Delhi has steadfastly refused to do so immediately, saying that such talks will be held only once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. There is, of course, good reason for India’s refusal to hold formal talks with Nepal.
New Delhi knows only too well that Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli who has whipped anti-India sentiments is following a script penned by Beijing. And his jingoism is a convenient tool to shield himself from growing criticism over his handling of the country’s flailing economy and his poor handling of the pandemic.
Oli has been facing a grave challenge to his chair from powerful rivals within the Nepal Communist Party and would have been unseated in late April itself had it not been for Chinese envoy to Nepal interceding with Oli's rivals on his behalf. Oli has been doing China’s bidding in Nepal and owes a debt of gratitude to Beijing for saving his chair.
New Delhi wants Oli to play himself out and paint himself into a corner from which he will find it difficult to extricate himself (read this and this). India knows that apart from ‘cartographic aggression’ (changing the map of Nepal to include Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura), there is very little Nepal can do to alter ground realities.
Delhi feels that holding foreign secretary-level talks at this juncture as requested by Nepal would amount to according legitimacy to anti-Indian moves by Kathmandu. The Indian diplomatic establishment feels that India’s lack of response to the dispute created by Nepal would ultimately frustrate Oli and the Chinese lobby and they will abandon their rhetoric.
South Block (which houses India’s Ministry of External Affairs) mandarins also feel that holding foreign secretary-level talks at this juncture will amount to playing into China’s hands. If the formal talks are held now, Nepal may demand China’s involvement in the bilateral dispute on the ground that Lipulekh lies at the border with Chinese-occupied Tibet (CoT).
Nepal is also likely to demand that India withdraw its troops from the ‘disputed’ area, a demand that India will obviously turn down immediately. India’s refusal will then fuel more anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal, which is exactly what Oli and his benefactors in Beijing want.
And, say Indian diplomats, there is no need to grant legitimacy to a dispute when none exists. “That (the 335 sq km claimed by Nepal) is Indian territory and has been so always. It makes no sense to concede that the area is disputed by accepting Nepal’s request for foreign secretary-level talks at this juncture. This issue can be discussed later on along with other issues involving the two countries,” said a senior Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer.
However, while all these arguments against holding talks at the level of the foreign secretaries of both the countries do hold water, New Delhi cannot lose sight of the fact that its continuing non-engagement with Nepal is leading to a hardening of anti-India attitudes in the Himalayan country.
Nepali Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali’s lament that India is engaging with China at multiple levels to resolve its dispute along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, but not with Nepal, has found a lot of resonance in Nepal’s civil society and political and diplomatic establishments (read this). Gyawali also bemoaned the fact that despite Kathmandu sending four diplomatic notes to New Delhi on the issue, New Delhi has not responded to a single one.
India’s traditional friends in Nepal are questioning New Delhi’s continued silence on the issue that is currently occupying a lot of mind space in that country.
“By ignoring Nepal, India is granting credibility to voices that say that India is displaying a big-brotherly attitude and only understands force. That is why India is talking to a powerful China whose soldiers have entered Indian territory, but is completely ignoring a less-powerful Nepal,” rued an opposition Nepali Congress leader, who is widely perceived to be very inclined towards India.
Even ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) politicians who are known to be well-disposed towards India say that India’s continuing non-engagement with Nepal at the formal levels is hardening anti-India attitudes.
“The imminent passage of the Constitutional amendment bill that has been presented in Parliament for discussion will take Nepal to a point of no-return. Oli’s successors, no matter how friendly they are towards India, will be able to ignore or overturn this amendment that is slated to receive unanimous approval in Parliament,” a leading NCP leader and former minister told Swarajya over the phone from Kathmandu.
The bill seeks to amend Nepal’s map in the country’s emblem (see this) to include Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. Once the amendment is passed — unanimously, since all the opposition parties have pledged unequivocal support to it — and the map in Nepal’s national emblem changed, it will become a permanent sore point that will bedevil ties between the two countries.
Even after a resolution of this seemingly intractable dispute, it will take another constitutional amendment to alter the map again.
“The ground reality is that India is most unlikely to hand over these areas (Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura) to Nepal. But the amended map in our national emblem will become a permanent feature once this constitutional amendment is passed. And that will become a major vexing point between the two countries,” said an opposition Nepali Congress lawmaker, who was a minister in the coalition Pushpa Kamal Dahal cabinet in 2016.
“Nepal, unlike Pakistan or even China which show parts of territories claimed by India in their maps, is a friendly country and India and Nepal have intricate civilisational ties. It will be very sad if the map of our country is amended in our national emblem, as it will be if India does not make some placatory gestures immediately,” said the NCP leader, who is also a parliamentarian.
New Delhi, says all those in Nepal’s political, bureaucratic and diplomatic establishments and civil society leaders, should immediately engage with Nepal at the political and diplomatic levels.
“A simple phone call from India’s foreign minister to his counterpart in Nepal assuring him of India’s intent to hold talks will strengthen the hands of those who do not want to precipitate matters with India,” said the NCP lawmaker.
“We understand that Prime Minister Oli’s stringent nationalism is a self-preservation tactic. But it is pushing Nepal to a point where relations with India will get damaged very severely. India, as the bigger neighbour, should display understanding and compassion and make a placatory gesture. Then all those who want good ties with India can argue that the (constitutional amendment) bill should be kept in abeyance till formal talks are held to resolve the issue,” said the Nepali Congress leader (read this).
A senior bureaucrat in Kathmandu who served in a diplomatic capacity in India a few years ago told Swarajya that while back-channel talks between New Delhi and Kathmandu are on, the gesture as mentioned by the NCP parliamentarian would lead to softening of attitudes and Nepal stepping back from the brink.
Nepal, he said, is hurtling towards the situation that arose after the alleged blockade of the country by India in 2015. Anti-Indian sentiments rose to a feverish pitch then and New Delhi had to spend a lot of political and diplomatic capital to mend ties. It will be truly unfortunate if New Delhi allows a return to that situation once again.
Hence, it is imperative that India engages with Nepal immediately in order to keep ties with the Himalayan country on an even keel and also to stymie China’s geopolitical moves in the Himalayas.
A placatory gesture from New Delhi will take the wind out of Oli’s jingoistic sails and expose him to political dissidence and mounting criticism over his handling of the pandemic and the country’s economy. Given his poor political and administrative skills, it will then be only a matter of time before Oli is forced to quit.
That will work in India’s favour: Oli’s fall from power will be good news for New Delhi.
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