Who said what on Nepal-India border row?

Anil Sigdel and Saurav Raj Panta

Part I  and II – full version (June 12, 2020)

Back in November 2019, India had released a new map to update the status of Kashmir; it had also included the area of Kalapani—which has been the disputed land between Nepal-India. In May 2020, India had inaugurated a new road section that goes through Kalapani to China /Tibet border, which caused an unprecedented level of reaction from Nepal against India’s unilateral change of the status quo. Nepal’s PM Oli’s government endorsed a new political map that includes entire areas in the region under disputed area – Lipulekh Pass to Tibet, the source of Mahakali or Kali river Limipiadhura and Kalapani area. This new map has given “extra” 335 square kilometers of land to Nepal. Now Nepal’s parliament unanimously passed the constitution amendment bill to replace the map in its coat of arms by the new one.  Such strong step by Nepal has undoubtedly come as a painfully surprising blow to India, but what action India would take against it has left Nepal preoccupied while the small neighbor explores possibilities to move forward with its claims. In the following, this article will show what statements from both governments have been made on the matter that explain their position and preferences, political parties and politicians’ statements, and some evidence talked about by practitioners and scholars, to briefly examine how the issue is framed the perception and preferences of each side.

As seen in the Map 1 and Map 2 (maps are for visual aid purposes are not accurate), Nepal’s new map claims a strip of territory along the Kali river reaching up to its origin Limpiadhura.  The new map covers the areas between the river and the China border to the north, thereby including all points that have been dragged into dispute.  Map 2 shows the Lipulekh pass where India’s new road reaches to Tibet, and the source of the river Limpiadhura, and the areas inside the dotted lines seen on the Google map is Kalapani. These areas altogether make about 392 square kilometers. The exact new addition to Nepal’s territory as per the new map except Kalapani is 335 square kilometers as mentioned earlier. The new map has also necessitated new measurement along the China border in the claimed area for accuracy of Nepal’s surface.

The principal document that defines the border between India and Nepal is the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 which defines the Kali river as the boundary. Over the years, different maps had been issued, however, they were not signed by two sides nor were there any active disputes regarding these bordering areas given the sparsely inhabited high altitude mountainous terrain. But in the 1960s this started to be a controversial matter — see this article by Nepal Matters for America for more details.

Leadership statement on Lipulekh issue

India’s Defense Minister Raj Nath Singh, accompanied by Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat and Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukunda Naravane, inaugurated the completed road section between Darchula to Lipulekh. On the occasion, the minister tweeted: “Delighted to inaugurate the Link Road Mansarovar Yatra today.” Map 1 shows the pilgrimage Lake Mansarovar in Tibet. As India has been building strategic roads towards the China border over the last two decades, this section in particular delights the Hindu nationalist BJP leaders as they take the opportunity to present this road to their Hindu constituents and show that Modi has not only provided the shortest route for the pilgrims, but also that most part of the travelling will be in “Indian territory” unlike the existing Nepal route or Sikkim’s Nathu La pass route. The convergence of interests between defense establishment and the Hindu leaders is seen at the remote inauguration as Minister Singh sits with the CDS and CAS.

In response to India’s new map, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release stating that the government “firmly believes that Kalapani is a part of Nepal” and that “any unilateral decision” on the border related issues outside of the existing mechanism at the ministerial levels by India will be “unacceptable” for Nepal. It says that Nepal is firm in its determination that the problem should be resolved through diplomatic channels on the basis of historical documents, facts and evidence.  However, then Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson responded by saying that, “India’s “map accurately depicts the sovereign territory of India. The new map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal.” Similar to the Nepalese line in terms of resolving the matter through talks, the spokesperson further said that the “boundary delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing under the existing mechanism. We reiterate our commitment to find a solution through dialogue in the spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations.” Nevertheless, it should be noted here that India had recognized  earlier that Kalapani was a “dispute” but this time takes a sharp turn to claim the accuracy of its map. Anyways, Nepal’s requests for talks fell on deaf ears despite PM Oli’s rhetoric that not just India would reverse its map, that he will get Nepal’s land back.

Nepali Prime Minister Oli during his third address to nation on May 2020 had said about “Indian virus looks more lethal than the Chinese or Italian virus.” This has also caused severe cut in bilateral relationship at a time when two countries are skirmishing for land dispute. In his parliament speech, he also had said “I want a cordial relationship with India, but I would ask it, “Seemameva jayate or satyameva jayate?” [Does the lion (signifying strength) alone prevail, or does truth alone prevail?”].   Senior Indian Journalist Shekhar Gupta in his show, “Cut the Clutter” had said, “It’s not in Nepal’s interest to become any country’s client states in this situation. Nepal should not tempted by looking at Pakistan. Pakistan is benefiting so much with relationship with China and it is helping China to triangulate India. The language that KP Sharma Oli has used is bad and objectionable.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian had said, “The issue of Kalapani is between Nepal and India. We hope the two countries will resolve their differences properly through friendly consultations and refrain from taking any unilateral action that may complicate the situation.”

In a popular talk show hosted by noted journalist Mr. Tika Ram Yatri; Former Minister of 1960’s Mr. Biswo Bandhu Thapa had said “ There might be agreement between the then King Mahendra and Nehru regarding the use of Kalapani land by India. This might have been communicated with India by the then Ambassador Yadu Nath Khanal. There might be any letter of exchange either in former Narayanhiti Royal Palace or Nepal Embassy, New Delhi”. But in his statement, he also showed that he is not 100% sure about it.

Some Nepali parliamentarians demanded of fencing Nepal-India border by stating that that India had repeatedly troubled Nepal due to the border issues which had raised questions over Nepal’s sovereignty time and again, they condemned the construction of road by India by breaching Nepal’s territory in Lipulek.

In line to General Naravane statement; Nepali Defense Minister Iswor Pokharel had said in an interview with Rising Nepal on May 22, 2020: “Such a statement is an insulting statement made by ignoring Nepal’s history, our social characteristics and freedom. With this, the Indian CoAS has also hurt the sentiments of the Nepali Gurkha army personnel who lay down their lives to protect India. It must now become difficult for them to stand tall in front of the Gurkha forces,”

Ambassadorial level statement on Kalapani-Lipulekh

Former Nepali diplomat and former Ambassador to India, Lok Raj Baral had said, “Treaty of Sugauli, Kali river was agreed as the demarcation line for the boundary between India and Nepal. But there are two theories on the origins of Kali river, which created the scope for different interpretations by the two neighbours, Nepal did not have the capacity to produce maps, so it depended on maps published by the British India. The first boundary claim by Nepal was made in 1962,”

Rakesh Sood, Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal had said in his article published on The Hindu, “The urgent need today is to pause the rhetoric on territorial nationalism and lay the groundwork for a quiet dialogue”.

Nepali expert on Kalapani-Lipulekh issue

Nepali Border expert, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha says, “ The river which flows to the west of Kalapani is the main Kali river which originates from Limpiyadhura. He also mentions that the ‘Old Atlas of China’ a map published during Qing Dynasty (1903), depicts in Chinese characters Limpiyadhura as the source of the Kali river. The word ‘Nepal’ is scribed in the map for the north-eastern part of the river.”

Indian expert’s version on Lipulekh issue

Indian expert, Prof. Rajan Kumar, School of International Studies, JNU had said, “At a technical level, this controversy is about the origin of the river Kali (Mahakali). Nepal claims that this river originates in Limpiyadhura, and not from the stream which comes to Kalapani from the Kali temple, as claimed by India. Nepal shows historical maps of 19th century to support its claims. This claim, however, is disputed by India by showing its own maps. The official map of Nepal did not include these territories up until this decade.”

Prof Ajay Dubey, Chair Special Centre for National Security Studies, JNU had said, “Being cornered globally, China is now using its weight on influential countries like India to moderate its position on it being responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. It is also asserting pressure on countries like Nepal where Beijing is considered to be a big donor. Nepal is being cajoled to pick issues with India and it finding it easy to position with China to oppose India’s historical, cultural and geographical weight on Kathmandu, which that country sees as a real challenge,”

Ranjeet Kumar, senior journalist and China watch says, “ The issue of boundary demarcation in the Lipulekh area of India China Nepal trijunction has been lingering since decades. India should have taken care to resolve this issue much earlier. Nepal has been able to convert a non issue into a hot issue , which Indian diplomats should have visualised long ago. Especially when Nepal is looking towards China for deeper engagement and ignoring its centuries old cultural and social relationships with India.”

Western experts on Lipulkeh-Kalapani issue

In 1998, The American Scholar Leo E. Rose in an article titled, “ Nepal and Bhutan in 1998: Two Himalayan Kingdoms” had said, “ Nepal virtually ignored the Kalapani issue from 1961 to 1997, but for domestic political reasons it became a convenient India-Nepal controversy in 1998.” This remarks put as per western perception, Nepali establishments raise this issue for domestic consumption.”

But as South Asia goes into lockdown due to Covid-19, Nepal gets a double blow as India made public its completion of the road between Pittoragarh via Gunji to Lipulekh pass. Nepal immediately summons Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu and hands over a note to protest India’s move. Exacerbating the matter, India’s CAS Naravane insinuated Chinese role in Nepal’s reaction. He stated: “The area east of Kali river belongs to them. The road that we built is on the west of the river. There was no dispute. I don’t know what they are agitating about.” The Army Chief further said, “ there has never been any problem in the past. There is reason to believe that they might have raised the issues at the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility.”

In fact, there is no dispute that the border is along the Kali or Mahakali river, but the problem was caused when India’s interpretation of the source of the river differed to Nepal’s understanding on the basis of the 1816 treaty — the only comprehensive boundary treaty so far between British India and King of Nepal. Counter statement was also made by Nepal Army’s spokesperson General Bigyan Dev Pandey in response to the CAS Naravane statement; Nepal Army will put forth its views in “appropriate time and appropriate forum”. Again, Nepal’s plea for talks or any other response from India would not happen, and the streets of Nepal witnessed fierce agitation, the Oli government decided to issue a new map.

However, the Indian CAS later made a “corrected” statement by saying:  “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.” In the meantime, as Nepal parliament approved the change in the map, India’s MEA in a “subdued statement” responded by saying that India has taken note of the change. But such tone makes Nepalese suspicious of India’s next move as it had the same tone when Nepal issued its new constitution and India responded by blockade in 2015. Finally, since both sides have hardened their positions with seemingly no backtracking, uncertainty looms.

Map 1.

Nepal’s Claim of Indian Occupation of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiadhura



Map 2 – Nepal’s Claim and India’s Road – A close-up view



Illustrations by Anil Sigdel, Source: Google Map


Dr. Sigdel is the founding director of Nepal Matters for America in Washington DC.

Saurav Raj Panta is the Nepal Matters’ Associate in Kathmandu, Nepal – He is a PhD candidate at Tribhuvan University, Nepal.

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