The Cartographic Conflict: A Case of India and Nepal

By Richa Johnichan

By Richa Johnichan
Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune, India

The Cartographic Conflict: A Case of India and Nepal

The COVID-19 pandemic has kept countries around the world on their toes, in which India is also trying to find its grip. But India’s challenges have doubled with the heat it is receiving from its neighboring countries- Nepal, Pakistan, and China. India and Nepal have always shared a unique and close relationship, where open borders and deep-rooted cultural contacts are a testimony. The core of these connections is the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, accompanied by letters defining security relations, and an agreement on bilateral trade, facilitating unparalleled advantages and opportunities for both countries.

Underlying Causes

Despite India and Nepal being “two of the world’s closest neighbors”, both countries have not always had the most cordial of relations. Similar to India’s relations with its other neighbors, India-Nepal relations has also had its ebb and flow. An uneasiness was experienced in this relation in 2015 when India imposed an unofficial border blockade with the support of the Madhesi community in Nepal, creating an economic and humanitarian crisis. Among other challenges, with both countries sharing an open border of 1,800-km, the most contentious issue is their border disputes, especially in the regions of Kalapani, Susta, Limpiadhura, and Lipu Lekh pass. The relation between both countries deteriorated rapidly in May 2020, with the Indian Minister of Defence, Sri Rajnath Singh, inaugurating an 80-km long road linking Dharchula (Uttarakhand) to Lipu Lekh (China Border), a strategic tri-junction with Tibet and Nepal. This road curtails the pilgrimage time to Kailash Mansarovar (A Hindu pilgrimage site in the Tibetan plateau) and ushers better connectivity with the China border for trade. Conversely, the Nepal government condemns this as a unilateral act in which India ignored the longstanding dispute over the Lipu Lekh pass, Kalapani, and Limpiadhura through which the road passes, and has demanded India to refrain from conducting activities inside the territory of Nepal. Nepal is legitimizing its claim based on the Sugauli Treaty of 1815, and a census carried there during the 1953 parliamentary elections.

The Sugauli Treaty was signed to end the Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-1816), fought between the Kingdom of Gorkha and the East India Company. The genesis of this dispute lies in the interpretation of this treaty, as it demarcates the borders of Nepal based on two rivers- Kali to the west and Mechi to the east. Maps produced by the British in subsequent times had variations in addressing the source of the river. This “cartographic war” was stimulated with Nepal becoming a republic in 1990. According to Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, the former Director-General of the Department of Survey of Nepal, maps prepared by the Survey of India in 1850 and 1856 depicted the origin of Mahakali River from Limpiyadhura, proving that Kalapani belongs to Nepal. However, the map drawn by the British in 1875 depicts it as a part of the Indian territory. It stated the origin of the Mahakali River to the east of Kalapani. This discrepancy in the source of the river has led both countries to create maps supporting their own claim. According to the Indian interpretation, the river Kali begins from a rivulet named Pankhagad, which lies in the southern portion of Kalapani, whereas, the Nepalese contradict that the river which flows to the west of Kalapani is the main river, Kali. Additionally, these contested regions have been in India’s possession for around 60 years, and thus the population residing there are now tax-paying Indian citizens. India also has a Border outpost, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), at Lipu Lekh, established on 24 October 1962 in the wake of the India-China War.

Efforts Undertaken to Resolve

Although the subsequent governments of Nepal and India had repeated attempts to extricate this border conflict, it mostly turned out fruitless. The Nepal-India Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee (JTBC) was constituted in 1980, which resolved most of the minor disputes, but failed to settle disputes in the area of Kalapani and Sushta. In 2000, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to resolve the border conflict through an on-site study of the disputed area. But, the demand from the Nepal government to withdraw the troops from Kalapani cessed the whole process. Later, in 2014, a re-attempt to resolve the conflict at the Foreign Secretary-level was agreed upon, but it never made any progress.

Recent Developments

India’s actions had infuriated Nepal in the past, especially when India and China conceived a trade pact in 2015, enhancing their border trade at Qiangla or Lipu-Lekh pass and Shipki La. Furthermore, India published its new map in 2019, following the declaration of India-administered Kashmir as a Union territory, incorporating some of the disputed regions within Indian borders. Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately objected to this by releasing a press statement opposing the inclusion of Kalapani in India’s new map. However, Nepal has started articulating its rage overtly through upping its anti-India sentiments after India inaugurated its new road.

The Nepal government approved a new political map on 20 May 2020 that incorporated up to 335-km of the disputed area as part of its sovereign territory. These include the contentious regions of Limpiadhura, Lipu Lekh, and Kalapani, which India considers as a part of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. Subsequently, Nepal has also deployed armed police forces at 15 border outposts along the Indo-Nepal border. On 15 June 2020, the Nepal government contested the international border yet again through raising objections in fortifying embankments on the Lal Bakey River, situated in the East Champaran district of Bihar. Though India- Nepal relations took a turn with Nepal undertaking such unprecedented hostilities, India largely remained silent. Silence from India does not necessarily demonstrate its neglect towards Nepal, as it is overburdened with issues that require immediate attention.

Role of Chinese Influence

Nepal’s escalated aggression towards India could be on account of the strong economic backing it receives from China. Nepal is utilizing this opportunity to diversify its dependency and achieve its vision of economic development. China became actively involved with Nepal through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and further utilized the anti-India sentiment that arose in Nepal through the economic blockade of 2015 to tighten the rope. Aforesaid was accompanied by opening up their borders with Nepal and investing in their connectivity, infrastructural development, tourism, commercial farming, international trade, and other sectors. Moreover, Nepal’s dependency on India for international trade will reduce with the implementation of Nepal-China transit protocol, through which they can access the ports in Shenzhen, Lianyungang, Tianjin, and Zhanjiang. Consequently, China effectively challenges India’s traditional supremacy in the region by becoming Nepal’s largest source of development and economic support.

India increased its financial assistance from USD 50 million in the FY 2017-18 to USD 158 million in the FY 2019-20 to counter China’s large scale undertakings in Nepal. Furthermore, India also took the initiative for constructing the Raxaul-Kathmandu railway line and other border infrastructure development programs. The economic ties between both countries grew in the past decade, from USD 738 million in 2006-07 to USD 5.23 billion in 2016-17. Indian firms are also amongst the largest investors in Nepal, with foreign direct investment commitments of USD 785 million in 2018. India is also providing development assistance to Nepal with projects in the areas of infrastructure, water resources, health, and education, among others.

Although Nepal is head over heels with its new partner, sensitive sentiments towards the risk of debt distress with China are afloat as most countries that received infrastructure financing from China are facing debt distress. According to Christine Legarde, countries overburdened with debt could further aggravate the situation by receiving funds under BRI. For instance, the 287-km long Kyirong-Kathmandu-Pokhara-Lumbini railway project will cost Nepal around $8 billion, which will be too difficult for Nepal to repay, considering its low economic growth. Referring to the examples of countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Djibouti, and Laos, among others, that are undergoing debt distress due to China, Nepal should not overly depend upon China for its development. A solution to this could be Nepal mending its relationship with India, and finding a balanced relationship with both the countries.

Way Forward

In this situation, both India and Nepal should fill the communication gap through dialogues and come up with new active mechanisms for border management. Nepal should also reevaluate if they are in a position to tackle an escalation in the current dispute and its capacity to withstand the implications. India is the prime destination for migration from Nepal, with an estimate of 279,000 Nepalese migrant laborers working in India. Further, India is a major source of imports to Nepal, providing the country with two-third of its daily goods. Therefore, any strain in the open border relation with India can result in increased unemployment rates, decreased economic growth, and shortage of essentials, which can further lead to inflation.

India should also change its approach and deal with this problem more sensitively and respectfully as it would positively help the country to achieve a stronger position in the South Asian power dynamics. Though India re-activating the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) during the COVID-19 pandemic reasserted India’s leadership in the region, this effort by India will go futile if it does not deal with its border disputes sensitively. India's success in solving most of its longstanding border disputes with Bangladesh, and now it is time for India to pull up its sleeves and engage in cooperative negotiations with Nepal to end its bilateral border disputes. Further escalation of this conflict in the present scenario would be strenuous for both the countries and India cannot afford to lose a friendly neighbor. Thus, rather than having a myopic foreign policy with Nepal, India should keep in mind its persistence for leadership in South Asia, and build a better relationship with its neighbors. 

About the Author:

Richa Johnichan (ORCID: 0000-0001-8389-8482holds a Masters in International Studies from the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune. She worked as a Research Intern at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.

Cite this Article: 

Johnichan, R., "The Cartographic Conflict: A Case of India and Nepal", IndraStra Global Vol. 06, Issue No. 06 (2020), 0030,, ISSN 2381-3652

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.

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IndraStra Global: The Cartographic Conflict: A Case of India and Nepal
The Cartographic Conflict: A Case of India and Nepal
By Richa Johnichan
IndraStra Global
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