Cartographic assertions are precarious for a landlocked country like Nepal, with India and China as its neighbours. Out of the 77 districts in Nepal, 26 share borders with India while 15 share borders with China. Of the 26 sharing borders with India – an estimated land area of more than 60,000 hectares – 21 have experienced Indian encroachments. The most disputed area is the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura region (37,000 hectares), of which the Lipulekh Pass is of strategic importance.
The disputed territory
In November 2019, the Home Ministry of India released a new edition of the Indian political map, with the disputed Kalapani region as part of the Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand. This map was published after Jammu, Kashmir and Ladhak were bifurcated into two union territories following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India. This immediately sparked heated debates in Nepal and neighbouring China. The government of Nepal issued an objection to the map, as it identifies the region as an unsettled territory of the Darchula district. Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali also stated: ‘The Nepal government is committed to protecting the country’s external borders and it is determined on its principled position that such border disputes with the neighbouring countries should be resolved through diplomatic channels after assessing the historical documents, facts, and evidence.’ In June 2020, the lower house of Nepal's parliament unanimously passed the Second Constitutional Amendment Bill guaranteeing legal status to the updated political map of Nepal, which declares the Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh region as its own.
Nepal’s territorial boundary was defined by the Sugauli Treaty ratified in 1816 with the British East India Company. According to article I(II) of the Treaty, the Kali River is a point of demarcation of the boundary between Nepal and India. At the heart of this dispute is the origin of the Kali, which is not demarcated. Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, former Director-General of Nepal’s Land Survey Department, has stated that the west of Kalapani is the main River Kali, originating at either Limpiyadhura or the nearby Lipulekh pass, both within the Nepalese territory, thus confirming the area to be an inherent part of Nepal and adducing documents to this effect. On the contrary, the Nepal-India Technical Level Joint Boundary Working Group (JTBC 1880) and the Embassy of India in Nepal dispute the origins of River Kali, connecting it with a smaller rivulet named Pankhagad and thereby making a different territorial claim to Kalapani.
Mitigating the dispute in the long run
Key to unpacking the complexities caused by the Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh dispute is understanding the Chinese factor and the quiet diplomacy between India and China regarding the use of Lipulekh. The Maoist revolution of 1949 and declaration of the Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China created a security dilemma for neighbouring Nepal. India set up 18 border posts along the Nepal-Tibet border, with both India and China identifying the Lipulekh pass as a crossing point for pilgrims and traders. This free movement of people and services was hindered by the Sino-Indian War of 1962 but resumed in 1981 and 1991 respectively. During the war in 1962, Indian troops were stationed in the Kalapani area. China at the time recognised Kalapani as India’s and had entered into mutual understandings regarding the use of Lipulekh without consulting Nepal on multiple occasions: the bilateral statements of 1953, the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, 1965 Indo-Pakistani War and Lipulekh agreement in 2015.
The internationalisation of the dispute would call in independent international actors such as the International Court of Justice to adjudicate. Nepal could rely on hard facts such as elections held in the area in 1959 and the collection of land revenue from citizens until 1961, which demonstrate a prolonged practice of statehood. This move could, however, be complicated by Nepalese authorities threatening to station troops along the border and both Indian and Nepali construction work, the latest being the Darchula-Tinkar road project by the Nepalese army. The Nepali call for internationalisation, although bold, stems from how India and China have neglected Nepali concerns in the disputed region in their state practices. In most recent times, with clashes between Chinese and Indian troops along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and Aksai Chin, the Sino-Indian rivalry has intensified and Nepal must also consider quiet diplomacy and revive the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Article 1 of this treaty states: ‘The two governments agree mutually to acknowledge and respect the complete sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of each other’. In the long run, Nepal must call on its neighbours to follow these principles and values.