A Welcome Reset in India-Nepal Relations Amidst Chinese Encroachment of Nepalese Territories
Rishi Gupta, Research Assistant, VIF
A New Beginning

Amidst the gloom and pessimism in India-Nepal relations in the past five years, the two countries now seem to be moving towards a reset in bilateral ties. Since taking office in July 2021, the newly appointed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, along with his cabinet, has been making efforts to reach out to the leadership in India and resume the talks in several sectors, including railways trade, hydropower, culture, and COVID-19. In reciprocation, India has also welcomed the Nepalese efforts. Among immediate actions towards the restoration of the positives of the bilateral relationship, India has assured the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to Nepal as it prepares to lift the ban on the export of vaccines.

In terms of political exchanges, a special delegation of the ruling Nepali Congress Party arrived in New Delhi on October 08. The three-member delegation included Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Prakash Sharan Mahat, former Minister of State for Finance Udaya Shumsher Rana, and former Assistant Minister in Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development of Nepal Ajay Chaurasiya. The delegation held meetings with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and BJP President JP Nadda. Foreign Minister Jaishankar, in a tweet, said, “Pleased to welcome Nepali Congress delegation visiting India at the invitation of @BJP4India. Appreciate the discussion with Shri Prakash Mahatji and delegation.” [1] During a reception in Delhi, the delegation expressed that the Nepali Congress aims to cement ties with India and stated that the Kalapani issue had reached a consensus.

The visit comes in the backdrop of the visit of Vijay Chauthaiwale, who heads the Foreign Affairs Department of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) to Kathmandu in August this year. Chauthaiwale had met Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, Maoist Party chief Prachanda, Madhesh leader Mahanta Thakur, and opposition leader KP Sharma Oli among other leaders, across party lines. Vijay Chauthaiwale’s visit to Nepal was among the various efforts of the ruling BJP in bettering ties with India’s neighbourhood, including Nepal. In 2014 and 2019 election manifestos, BJP had categorically mentioned ‘Neighbourhood First” as the India’s foreign policy vehicle in improving ties with neighbours.[2] While the government-to-government level interactions are ongoing, BJP has been an ardent advocate of the party level interactions in reaching out to India’s neighbours to promote cooperation, cohesion, democracy, and human rights. It was clearly visible when BJP had even reached out to former Prime Minister KP Oli to resolve the tensions with India through diplomatic channels. However, KP Oli showed no interest in discussing the matter in order to bolster his anti-India ultra-nationalistic outlook.

The Backdrop

Noteworthy is the fact that from September 2019, bilateral relations between India and Nepal had touched a new low due to an ultra-nationalist outlook of the former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli over a border dispute in the Kalapani region. The issue had become the only issue of prominence for KP Oli as it served his political agendas. Despite looming political instability and an immediate emergency challenge of COVID-19, Oli ensured that the age-old ‘small state’ card was put to use against India. Traditionally, India and Nepal have resolved misunderstandings through well-established bilateral diplomatic channels at the foreign secretary-level, but KP Oli was not much keen in using confidence-building measures. From 2015 onwards, Oli had left no stone unturned in creating an anti-India narrative and sponsoring anti-India social media tool kits like #BackOffIndia and #GoBackIndia.

Oli’s diplomatic misadventures against India were not limited to social media only. He unilaterally issued a new political map showing India’s sovereign lands as Nepalese despite the fact that the border issue was still being discussed. Oli also accused India of spreading COVID-19 into Nepal and presented distorted facts on the birthplace of Lord Ram. It all took place when Nepalese migrant labourers were stuck in no man’s land awaiting the Nepal government’s permission to enter Nepal. The agony of the migrant labourers intending to return to Nepal amidst COVID-19 had doubled due to the lack of quarantine and health facilities and food availability at its border with India. [3] Therefore, an issue that could have been resolved through diplomatic means was allowed to fester.

Oli’s Foreign Policy

With Oli’s failure in keeping the house in order, he had back-to-back legal defeats in the court of law against his unconstitutional moves to dissolve a democratically elected parliament twice. His nexus with the Office of the President not only weakened the democracy in Nepal, but his autocratic rise was indeed challenging to the fundamental rights of the people. Other than his policy of assertion against India, Oli had willingly ignored reports on China’s border encroachment of Nepalese territories in 2020. While Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been late in responding to India’s calls for border talks, Oli was too quick in refuting allegations against China. The Nepalese media had taken up the issue of border encroachment by China after the Chinese side had reportedly built 11 buildings in a remote part of Humla district that Nepal claims as its own territory. [4] Against this, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry stated that “the Department of Survey, Government of Nepal, based on the official records, reports of the joint field inspection and boundary maps, has verified and confirmed that the said buildings are not located within the Nepali territory.” [5]

However, the present administration has taken up the matter with all seriousness. On September 01, 2021, Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand had formed a committee to study the border issue with China. The committee included the Deputy Director-General of the Survey Department, SSP of the Nepal Police, SSP of the Armed Force Nepal, and Joint Director of the National Investigation Department. [6] The committee had submitted its report within twenty-five days on September 26 despite geographical difficulties in the border region. [7] As per the recommendations of the committee, “it has been found that the Chinese side has put up wires and fencing in the Nepali territory”. [8] Additionally, “the Chinese side was also trying to build a permanent canal 145 metres inside the Nepali territory. Accordingly, it also wanted to build a road. After Nepal’s Armed Police Force’s objections, the structures were destroyed and the covered rubble was visible.” [9]

Noteworthy, the 1963 Boundary Protocol identify the area from pillar number 5 (2) to the middle of the Kit Khola as the international border between Nepal and China. China has reportedly fenced the area. [10] Hence, these encroachments by China violate the agreement. It shows that KP Oli had compromised in the matters of national security in order for his political purposes. Nepal’s Home Ministry intends to take up the matter with China through diplomatic channels. [11] Amidst all this, China’s unease with the change in government in Nepal is clearly visible. Within days of Prime Minister Deuba’s appointment, Chinese state media had tagged him as a “pro-India” leader. [12]

The Communist Threat within

During KP Oli’s tenure as Prime Minister, the Communist Party of China (CPC) had sent several delegations to Nepal, and several virtual sessions between CPC and Nepal Communist Party(NCP) were held in 2019, 2020 and early 2021. KP Oli projected these interactions as regular diplomatic exercises between the two countries. However, the very nature of talks was extremely concerning with regard to Nepal’s political freedom. [13]

For instance, just before the Second plenary Central Committee Meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was to take place in January 2020, a delegation of the CPC arrived in Nepal to provide training to the Central Committee members of the NCP. In the follow-up, a Six-Point Agreement was signed between NCP and CPC in September 2019 where the two sides agreed that the “two parties won’t interfere in the internal matters of the other party”. [14] In contrast to the agreement, a high-level CPC delegation arrived in Nepal to push KP Oli to remain in alliance with Prachanda in December 2020. CPC was extremely concerned that if the NCP was to split, it would hamper China’s uncontested presence in Nepal, which had been flourishing under KP Oli. Therefore, Oli gave a free hand to China in micro-managing the political affairs of Nepal.

In sync with the Communist fashion, KP Oli saw himself as the Supreme Leader of the country. He even suppressed the democratic norms in the erstwhile NCP as he declined to step down as the Prime Minister amidst his failure in containing the COVID-19 and mismanaging the diplomatic ties with India. Even after the split of the NCP, KP Oli has sought absolute power in the UML Party. As a result, many old bastions of the UML have left the party, including Madhav Nepal and Jhal Nath Khanal, among others. As KP Oli desires to replicate the CPC model of socialism and authoritarianism in Nepal, he continues to disrespect the sacrifices of thousands of Nepalese people who lost their lives in fighting against the centuries-old autocratic Monarchy for more than a
decade. [ 15]

No Freebies from China

Soon after Chinese President Xi visited Nepal in 2019, the Oli government had removed pictures of Indian leaders from the website of its Foreign Ministry. The website continues to exhibit Nepal’s hollow bonhomie with China. However, on the tangible front, China’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative is witnessing its natural fall in Nepal against the euphoria that had overtaken the global media soon after the agreement was signed in 2017. Within a year, the 35 agreements signed under BRI were brought down to 9 by Nepal. [16] It was done under a feasibility mechanism of the projects. However, in reality, China has not been willing to offer any freebies to Nepal due to political instability. Among these 9 agreements, the ambitious Trans-Himalayan Railway Connectivity project connecting Tibet to Kathmandu remains in principle only. There were also agreements on new land transit routes between China and Nepal. However, the existing two transit routes Tatopani and Rasuwagadhi continue to face temporary closures. [17]

Road Ahead for India and Nepal

India’s freedom struggle influenced the very foundation of Nepal’s ruling Nepali Congress Party. Matrika Prasad Koirala founded the Nepali Congress in Calcutta in 1946, who was leading the movement against the Rana Oligarchs in Nepal. Therefore, Nepali Congress finds its political roots in India and the cultural commonalities in terms of democracy. Other than Nepali Congress, the Maoists fought a decade long war against monarchy where many Maoist leaders escaped to India. India’s all-party approach has been a contestant effort. Therefore, due to such deep-rooted political ties between India and Nepal, India stood as a staunch supporter of human rights and democracy despite the diplomatic compulsions during the Monarchy in Nepal. Thus, the present interactions between India and Nepal at the G2G and P2P levels are a welcome step towards deepening bilateral relations. Understandably, Sher Bahadur Deuba has a short-term spell at hand as Prime Minister, but these little steps will help to fill the vacuum left behind by KP Oli.

On the other hand, although Nepal has taken up the matter of China’s border enthronement very late, it is better late than never. The present administration must ensure that China respects the sovereignty and freedom of Nepal by not allowing the latter to micromanage Nepal’s political affairs.

References

[1] “Twitter account of EAM Dr. S Jaishankar” 08 October 2021, https://twitter.com/DrSJaishankar/status/1446485523267145735.
[2]BJP Election Manifestos, 2014 and 2019, http://library.bjp.org/jspui/bitstream/123456789/252/1/bjp_lection_manifesto_english_2014.pdf; http://library.bjp.org/jspui/bitstream/123456789/2988/1/BJP-Election-english-2019.pdf.
[3] “Coronavirus | Concern in Nepal over migrant labourers stranded in India” The Hindu, 01 April 2020, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/coronavirus-concern-in-nepal-over-migrant-labourers-stranded-in-india/article31222687.ece.
[4] “Border Issue with China Exposes Nepal’s Unstable Foreign Policy” Kathmandu Post, 03 September 2021,
https://kathmandupost.com/national/2021/09/03/border-issue-with-china-exposes-nepal-s-unstable-foreign-policy.
[5] “Press Statement on news reports about Nepal-China Boundary” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Nepal, 25 June 2020, https://mofa.gov.np/press-statement-on-news-reports-about-nepal-china-boundary/.
[6] “Nepal Government Forms Committee to Study Border Issues with China” Kathmandu Post, 02 September 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/nepal-government-forms-committee-to-study-border-issues-with-china/article36243836.ece
[7] “Border Study Committee Submits Report to Home Minister” Rising Nepal, 27 September 2021, https://risingnepaldaily.com/main-news/border-study-committee-submits-report-to-home-minister
[8] “Study panel says ‘there are issues’ along Nepal-China border in Humla” Kathmandu Post, October 25, 2021,https://bit.ly/3E4YvIk.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] “Press Release” Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of Nepal, 26 September 2021, https://moha.gov.np/en/post/press-release-2065; Border Study Committee Submits Report to Home Minister, 27 September 2021, Rising Nepal, https://risingnepaldaily.com/main-news/border-study-committee-submits-report-to-home-minister
[12] “China-Nepal ties solid despite pro-India leader” Global Times, July 19, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1229067.shtml.
[13] “China: A threat to Nepal’s democracy?” Kathmandu Post, 2 october 2019, https://tkpo.st/2npWm8n.
[14] “Nepal Communist Party and the Communist Party of China formalise relations” Kathmandu Post, 25 September 2019, https://tkpo.st/2kU0FHW.
[15] “Oli’s ‘endorsement’ of Xi Jinping Thought sparks new debate between Nepali parties” Online Khabar, 22 June 2018, https://english.onlinekhabar.com/olis-endorsement-of-xi-jinping-thought-sparks-new-debate-between-nepali-parties.html.
[16] “Is Nepal giving up on the Belt and Road Initiative?” Nepal Live Today, 28 July 2021, https://www.nepallivetoday.com/2021/07/28/is-nepal-giving-up-on-the-belt-and-road-initiative/
[17] “Closure of border with China due to Covid-19 hits livelihoods of Nepalis”Hindustan Times, 04 April 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/closure-of-border-with-china-due-to-covid-19-hits-livelihoods-of-nepalis-101617543411676.html.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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