The Indo-Nepal territorial dispute around the Kalpani-Limpahua-Lipulekh trijunction region stems from the ambiguity around the original border.
The current tension is the result of a combination of factors: India's strategic concerns; declined India- Nepal relations; Beijing's stable stance in Nepal; and worsening India-China relations.
A brief overview of Indo-Nepal border issues
The Indo-Nepal border was originally delineated by the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, which established the Kali River (Sharda, Mahakali) as a border, with the area east of the river going to Nepal.
Kalapani, Limpiyhura, Lipulekh Triangle Territorial Dispute Centre at the origin of Kalipani River.
Nepal's stance is that the river originates from a stream northwest of Lipulekh, which brings Kalapani, linpiyaxle, and lipulekh to its territory.
India's stance is that the river originates in springs beneath Lipulekh, and hence this area falls within Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand, India.
Both sides have maps of the British period to claim their position.
India recently inaugurated the Darchula-Lipulekh pass link road, cutting across the disputed Kalapani area, which is used by Indian pilgrims traveling to Kailash Mansarovar.
The Nepalese government protested this move, pointing out that the construction of the road amounted to territorial encroachment.
Nepal granted constitutional validity to its stance through the introduction of a constitutional amendment and began tightening border security measures.
The tension over this territorial dispute stems from the fact that it is a strategic trijunction between India, China, and Nepal. The Kalapani area is under India’s control.
Control of the Kalapani trijunction enables India to position itself at a physically strategic elevation, allowing Indian posts to monitor the Tibetan highland passes, which could prove crucial in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict.
This consideration was vindicated in the 2017 India-China military standoff in Doklam, during which Chinese officials stated that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could enter India with ease through other border trijunctions like Kalapani or Kashmir.
Recent political developments in Nepal, with the National Communist Party (NCP) coming to power, have increased China’s influence in Kathmandu.
Increasing Chinese investment in physical infrastructure like the trans-Himalayan railways, and Nepal joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), etc. point to Beijing’s growing economic influence as well.
On the other hand, despite the long history of bilateral relations, the India-Nepal relationship has often run into problems in the past decade. For example, being a landlocked country, Nepal depends considerably on India for access to essential goods.
The alleged ‘unofficial blockade’ of 2015, which led to the disruption of essential fuel supplies during the Madhesi protests in Nepal, further dented bilateral trust. This incident spurred Kathmandu to strengthen its alternative to India, thereby intensifying its tilt towards China.
In the big picture of deteriorating China-US relations, Beijing is increasing pressure along borders to deter India’s alignment with the US and to assert itself as an ascendant power in the post-COVID-19 world order.
The possibility of Chinese influence over the Nepalese government to exhibit hostility towards India also fits into the wider pattern of Beijing’s aggressive posturing vis-à-vis Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.
The spike in India-Nepal tensions coincides with India’s rising border tensions with China in Ladakh and Sikkim. Overall, clear indications are suggesting that Beijing is leveraging its relationship with Nepal to put indirect pressure on India.
The two countries had established a Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee to delineate their common borders and resolve territorial disputes. By 2007, this joint initiative led to 98 percent of the 1850-km border being delineated. The two sides have also used high-level bilateral channels to keep border disputes from flaring up in the past. Both countries should use that channel again to resolve the current dispute.
Centuries of social, cultural, political, strategic, and economic ties can only remain strong if they can remain relevant to changing times. The governments of India and Nepal must reset the narrative, modernize their policies, and get out of the way so that the ties between people thrive again.