To placate his detractors and please the Maoists, who have strong links with Beijing, Oli brought out a new map of Nepal which included Indian territory.
India-Nepal relations have always witnessed an element of positive atmosphere in their bilateral approaches towards each other. There have always been more convergences than divergences in their bilateral perceptions. Sometimes, the divergences in India-Nepal relations have become more visible to the rest of the world. The China factor remains the fulcrum of Nepal’s foreign policy. Balancing both India and China becomes an arduous task of Nepalese foreign policy establishment, despite knowing that tension with India will derail the Nepalese economy and the consequences will be challenging in every sphere.
No two countries in the world are culturally as close to each other as India and Nepal are. Yet, it has been a chequered relationship since India’s Independence in 1947. Various dispensations in the former Himalayan kingdom have never ceased to surprise New Delhi, with as many different reactions as there are differing political hues. The latest in the series is the Nepal Communist Party Chairman and Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s statements on subjects ranging from Covid-19 to Kalapani. According to K.P. Oli, who is Prime Minister for the second time, Covid-19 has spread in Nepal because of people pouring in from India. He has also brought up the issue of taking back Kalapani from India.
As for Covid-19 cases in Nepal, the Prime Minister’s statement blaming India does not pass the truth test. It was unethical on the part of the Leader of the House to make such an irresponsible statement without verifying the facts. In the first week of April, Nepal reported just 12 cases of Covid-19 and promptly extended the 24 March lockdown until 15 April. The last time Nepal reported new Covid-19 cases was on 11 April, which resulted in placing the entire Birgunj as a strict “no go zone” and a hotspot. The total cases due to poor contact tracing crossed 83 in a month’s time and the national tally rose to 217, still a manageable number. As of 21 May, Nepal media reported 444 cases, with all additions traced to locals none of whom could have travelled to and from India. Incidentally, in the Birgunj Covid cases, three Indian nationals out of 21 staying in a mosque in Chhapkaiyanear Raxaul Border Post were present there for the last four months, long before the Wuhan virus pandemic was announced. But the larger question is what were these Islamic clerics doing in Nepal for four months?
India has raised the issue of madrasas and mosques mushrooming all along the porous Indo-Nepal border, some of which were being used as transit hubs for ISI sleeper cells and centres for illegal and anti-India activities. The “Country Report on Terrorism 2018”, released in 2019 by the US State Department said that the Indian Mujahideen (IM) had developed close ties with Pakistan based terrorist groups like LeT, JeM, Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami and is using Nepal as a hub to carry out terrorist activities against India. Taking advantage of the political instability, weak political institutions and continued violence by Maoist groups, a number of anti-social elements had infiltrated the political institutions. The Nepal Police (Counter Terrorism Cell) arrested several Pakistani nationals with deep links to ISI allegedly staying illegally and closely working with Yunus Ansar, son of a former Tourism Minister of Nepal and Nepal Communist Party leader, Salim Miya Ansari.
While the security situation in Nepal is deteriorating, there seems to be no end to the political squabbles within the ruling coalition comprising Communist parties and the erstwhile (violent) Maoist groups now part of the political mainstream. The Nepal Communist Party, which met early in May this year, showcased the internal fissures and decided to meet again, but did not. The party Chairman and Prime Minister, Oli came in for strong criticism for two controversial ordinances and other unilateral decisions. Twenty out of the 44 members of the Standing Committee of the party are said to have demanded the exit of Prime Minister Oli, whose ruling alliance has 174 seats in the 275-member Parliament, including 121 of CPN-UML and 53 of the Maoist Centre who are also said to be very critical of Oli’s leadership.
To placate his detractors and please the Maoists, who have strong links with Beijing, Oli brought out a new map of Nepal which included the Indian territory at the trijunction of India-Nepal-Tibet (now under Chinese occupation), referred to in the 200-year-old Sugauli Treaty. The immediate provocation for the new map and controversy ostensibly seems to be the inauguration by the Indian Defence Minister of the newly constructed 80 kilometre long Kailash Mansarovar Yatra route built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). The new all-weather road connects Dharchula in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand to Lipulekh. The road, constructed under the supervision of the China Study Group and funded by India-China Border Road (ICBR), was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) of the UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh in 2005.
Besides handing over a protest “diplomatic note” to the Indian ambassador, slamming the construction of the link road in what Kathmandu claims as disputed territory, Nepal is said to be considering putting up a security post in the area so as to prevent the pilgrims from moving ahead. This is clearly a prescription for a further rift leading to unnecessary tension.
Meanwhile, the map issue has widened the schism within the Communist Party, with Prime Minister Oli’s bête noire, Bamdev Gautam, Vice Chairman of the Nepal Communist Party issuing a statement warning the Prime Minister not to hog the limelight and appropriate the entire credit for the new map.
Incidentally, Nepal desk in the foreign office in Beijing was well aware of the fissures in the ruling coalition and began parleys to pressurise the warring coalition partners not to pull down the government. It is no secret that some days before the crucial meeting of the Nepal Communist Party, Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi held a series of meetings with senior Nepal Communist Party leaders. Beijing had reasons to be concerned over the ongoing strife within the ruling coalition as it is not in the interest of China, which has invested heavily in Nepal’s Left parties and needs a stable government in Kathmandu to create as many pinpricks for New Delhi as possible. All said and done, the present truce seems to be temporary. Sooner or later, the parties supporting the government will demand a change in leadership, which will then bring down the Oli government in order to form a new government under a new leader.
India will have to closely watch the emerging conflict in the ruling party and wait for the outcome. The present map controversy seems more of Oli’s one-upmanship to consolidate his own position. Soon after both countries overcome the present crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, there can be a meeting at the diplomatic level to sort out the differences. It would be prudent on the part of both New Delhi and Kathmandu to avoid knee jerk reactions.
India has strongly objected to Nepal’s new map move map. Such action by Nepal will lead to mistrust and irritate India-Nepal relations greatly.
Dr. Arvind Kumar teaches Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. Seshadri Chari is a well known political commentator and strategic analyst.