Nepali journalists in Kathmandu have faced pressure of a different kind in the last two weeks: to match the vitriol of some TV channels in India.
Since the Bollywood actress and Nepali citizen Manisha Koirala has been vilified by several channels in India and even told something unspeakable, Bharaat ka khaaogi aur Chin ka gaana gaaogi? (You eat India's and sing Chinese song) The temperature on Kathmandu social media has risen to the level that would beat the summer heat of New Delhi. This vilification came hot on the heels of Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Navarane’s assertions that anti-India protests are raging in Nepal at the behest of China. As if that was not enough, some Indian TV talk shows invited guests from Kathmandu and far from asking questions, started lecturing them on why Nepal should not ditch New Delhi for Beijing. Discussions on one of the TV talk shows last week focused on overthrowing the KP Oli government!
Since the mainstream Nepali media—be it TV, print or online—have largely ignored the relentless cacophony of the repugnant Indian TV channels, the Nepali audience is angry that Nepali journalists have not been up to the fight. Some of them have taken to social media and have gone as far as questioning the loyalty of Nepali journalists to the Nepali state!
Thankfully, the leaders in the mainstream Nepali media are aware that those cacophonous TV channels do not represent the vastitude of the Indian media. Nor do the chest-thumping former army generals or some self-serving Babus and politicians represent today’s diverse India.
From across the border, we have watched in utter dismay how some of these TV channels routinely vilify minorities in India, incite religious and ethnic tensions, sabotage the opposition voice against the government, drumbeat support for it, and promote jingoism when it comes to foreign relations, especially with close neighbors. What they are doing now amid the rising boundary tensions between Nepal and India is therefore not surprising to us, nor does that worry us as much. We know that they are sourcing it very much from their DNA.
What has begun to bother us lately is the China angle that almost all the Indian mainstream media and intelligentsia bring in – even peddle – on almost all issues related to Nepal. The current boundary row could not have been an exception.
The facts on the ground are completely different.
Long before China had risen to today’s prominence, economically and politically in the global stage, Nepal had raised the boundary issue with India. It is also important to note that Nepal’s relationships with India were less rocky at that time, which points to the fact that it wasn’t raised out of an impulse but with a measured hope to correct the historical wrong.
It was during his July 2000 visit to India that Nepal’s late Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala raised the issue with late Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The then Nepali bureaucrats, especially in the New Delhi embassy, had advised Koirala that raising the Kalapani boundary issue would overshadow other agenda of the visit. Given Nepal’s good relationship with India at that time, and the personal rapport that Koirala enjoyed with Vajpayee, the former overruled the bureaucrats and raised the boundary issue, particularly the stationing of the Indian Army at Kalapani.
Kathmandu and New Delhi agreed to conduct a field survey to demarcate Kalapani. A Joint Boundary Committee was given the task of providing reports, which was never completed and the Indian troops continued to stay there. Meetings between the Boundary Committee of the two countries since then have resolved boundary disputes in several places along the 1,800-km long Nepal-India border, except for Kalapani and Susta, another disputed boundary point between Nepal and India.
The Kalapani dispute remained in a limbo for long despite Kathmandu’s continuous efforts to resolve it since the turn of the century.
It again came to the surface in 2015 when India and China agreed to develop Lipu Lekh in the Kalapani region as a trade and pilgrimage route between the two countries.
As soon as Kathmandu learnt with shock about the understanding between India and China on Lipu Lekh, the then Sushil Koirala government sent protest notes to New Delhi and Beijing.
By conveniently ignoring these historical facts the Indian Army chief imputed the China angle to the publication of new Nepali map that includes Limpiyadhura, Lipu Lekh and Kalapani. In doing so he did not only vitiate the environment but also provided fodder to the jingoistic Indian media and intelligentsia.
Many in India seem to wonder why Nepal chose to raise this issue now while it has been there for so long. The fact is, Nepal didn’t choose the timing. She was merely responding to two unilateral actions by India—first, the ‘cartographic aggression’ in November 2019 and second, the construction of the road in the Nepali territory.
India published her new map in November 2, 2019 that included Kalapani region within India and on May 8 Union Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the road that passes through Nepali territory. After the publication of the new map by India, Nepal had urged for immediate dialogue to settle the dispute. The Indian side repeatedly postponed the proposed secretary-level talks. When India inaugurated the ‘link road’ two weeks ago, without heeding the calls for talks, Nepal responded by publishing her new map that included the Kalapani area within her boundary.
Therefore, there was no China angle in Nepal’s action, least she was acting at the behest of China.
Instead, the sentiment in Nepal, on this particular issue, is against China too.
Nepalis see China as complicit in this. One top diplomat told me that China was aware of our concern on the Kalapani-Lipu Lekh region and yet it reached an understanding with New Delhi. Officials say Nepal’s boundary agreements with China include Limpyiadhura as a border point. Therefore, there are rising calls in Kathmandu to immediately engage China as a follow-up to the protest letter sent to Beijing in 2015 and solicit assurance that it will not enter into further agreements with India on Lipu Lekh unless Nepal-India resolve the boundary issue amicably.
Once the Indian establishment, media and intelligentsia learn not to be distracted by the imaginary ‘China hand’ on the boundary dispute with Nepal, we can sit together, look at the historical evidence, can see what is in our best interests, and resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.
India should also do well to understand how Nepal has evolved over the years, particularly after the Indian blockade of 2015-16. Indian media and intelligentsia often complain that Nepal is tilting toward China and using a ‘China card’ against India.
How I wish there were a ‘China card’ or for that matter, ‘India card’ that we could use as we choose!
We fully understand that India and China are not just two countries, but they are resurgent civilizations in their own rights. They have huge stakes in the evolving geopolitics in the region and beyond. Their rivalry will continue in the years to come but so will their collaboration and bilateral trade. With bilateral trade approaching close to 100 billion dollars and the two economies poised to become world number one and two in the future, their economy and destiny will be intertwined more than ever in the coming years.
In this scenario, can Nepal, a small neighbor sandwiched between the two giants, use one against the other?
Is it possible that India agrees to be used by Nepal against China? If that is not possible, what makes New Delhi think that Beijing will agree to be used by Nepal?
Nepalis fully understand these geopolitical realities and do not have any illusions about a ‘China card’ or ‘India card’.
At the same time, we do have a genuine commitment not to be used by either of our neighbors against the other.
We will maintain the best of relationships with China and India, and we have the best intentions to benefit from their rising economic stature. I know the real politics is not as clean as this, nor it is as simple. But I am also confident that the collective Nepali conscience will not allow politics to veer off the track or relapse to old ways.
Therefore, New Delhi worrying too much about Nepal tilting toward China or using ‘China card’ is an unnecessary waste of emotions and energy. At the same time, any effort to bring Nepal back into its orbit is a futile exercise.
Once New Delhi reconciles with the fact that Nepal will pursue her best interests, unhinged by the burden of pleasing one or the other neighbor, India will become realistic in dealing with Nepal. Then Nepal and India can look at the border dispute or any other dispute in the light of their own merits and will be able to solve them in the best interests of the two countries. It’s then the history and evidence of the boundary dispute will come into play.
History and Evidence
The 1816 Sugauli Treaty between Nepal and East India Company determined Nepal’s present day eastern and western borders with India. In the east, the Mechi River serves as the Nepal-India border. In the West, the Mahakali or the Kali River plays the same role.
It’s the origin of the Mahakali River that is in dispute today and is complicating things. This complication again dates back to the time of the British India.
The maps produced by the British India in the 1820s, after the Sugauli Treaty, identifies Limpiyadhura as the origin of the Kali River. Any land East of the Kali belonged to Nepal and to its West belonged to India.
Several decades later, some of the maps produced by the East India Company in the 1860s started showing a relatively small river emerging from Lipu Lekh as the Kali River. But then there are maps of Garhwal and Kumaon regions from that era those still show Kali River originating from Limpyadhura as the boundary river between the two countries. Nepal has collection of those maps.
Perhaps oblivious to this new map issued by the East India Company, Nepal continued to assert her sovereignty over the area east of the Kali River that originates from Limpiyadhura. And neither the British India nor the Independent India staked claim to any area east of the Kali River. There are evidence that people living in this part of the land were included in the census conducted by the Nepali state, they took part in the first parliamentary elections of Nepal in 1959 and local elections three years later. The government records show they owned land registration certificates issued by Nepal.
Things, however, changed after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Since then an Indian Army post has been stationed at Kalapani. There are two theories about when India did set up the military post there.
Following the end of the 104-year Rana oligarchy in Nepal in 1952, New Delhi convinced Nepal to establish 18 temporary military posts along her northern border under the pretext of the imminent threats from the Communist China. Since China had annexed Tibet in 1949 the threat seemed real to Kathmandu.
Nepal, therefore, conceded to the Indian demand on June 9, 1952. What were supposed to be temporary posts turned out to be permanent ones; the Indian Army showed no sign of leaving Nepal’s northern frontier long after the end of the Sino-Indian war.
Hosting the Indian army for 18 years along her northern border, Nepal finally sent them packing in August 1970.
One theory is that, only 17 posts were removed and one was allowed to remain in the Kalapani region at India’s request, given its security concerns about China following the war.
The other theory is more plausible. The military post at Kalapani was different from the 18 posts stationed along the Nepal-China border in 1952.
In the build-up to the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the Uttar Pradesh Armed Constabulary established its post in the Kalapani region. It is assumed that it was done with verbal consent of King Mahendra. It was soon replaced by the Indian Army post. Although India agreed to withdraw the 18 military posts stationed along Nepal-China border in 1970, the Kalapani post continued to remain there. The king had told his ministers that he had given permission for a temporary post and it would be removed in due course. The king perhaps relented to Indian demand to station a military post in Kalapani to assuage Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, who had sent a personal letter to King Mahendra urging him to restore multiparty democracy and release jailed leaders, following the 1960 royal coup. Since then the post has remained there. Gradually, the military post started to cut off Kalapani-Limpiyadhura region from the rest of Nepal.
It is for this reason Nepal has evidence of asserting its sovereignty over the Kalapani region only until 1960. After that Nepal has evidence of scant connections and communications with her own people.
The role of the media
As the tensions grow, we in the mainstream media in India and Nepal, must emphasize on dialogue and peaceful settlement.
We should press our respective governments to bring historical evidence to the table and negotiate in earnest.
I would like to request friends in the Indian media—those who I know personally and those I trust to use their best judgment—not to allow the public discourse on this issue be overtaken by jingoism and short-term narrow interest that will harm our centuries-old friendship.
There is no reason why the two countries, which share civilizational linkages and have a unique relationship, cannot resolve this amicably.
We are aware that Nepal needs India perhaps more than India needs Nepal. Our economy is intricately linked to the Indian economy more than any other economy in the world. And our relationship with India will have a large sway in our future prosperity. Alternately, flaring of tensions with India will have ramifications for the families living on the edge of the economy.
As much we acknowledge this, the Indian intelligentsia will also do well to realize that India needs Nepal too. An aspiring regional power, India cannot be without friends in her immediate neighborhood. Despite the current boundary tension, India and Nepal have a good chance of solving it and retaining their friendship unique to South Asia.
Sometimes, India takes this friendship for granted and uses economic leverages to settle differences, as it did during the 2015-16 economic-blockade imposed in Nepal.
As much as Nepalis value friendship with India, they also zealously guard their self-respect and independence. That’s why they showed resolve and unity in facing the hardship caused by the months-long economic blockade.
In imposing the economic blockade, India failed to read the Nepalis and the Indian media, by and large, failed to report the event and the Nepali sentiment.
I just hope this time around, the Indian government understands Nepal’s genuine interest to settle the border dispute in the Kalapani region in the light of historical evidence and my friends in the Indian media will give a fair and nuanced coverage on the issue.