India and the BRI | The Himalayan Tango

China focuses on capacity building in Nepal

Smruti D

A young Nepalese journalist (named withheld on request), who had known Nepal-India relations to be cordial, growing up, was taken aback during the 2015 blockade. She could see people’s perception towards India changing when the entire country was left helpless without essential goods due to the blockade at India-Nepal border. “That built-up anti-India sentiment,” she says. “Even today, people are so terrified of the blockade that they think India may end up imposing a blockade given the current tension, as if it’s a tool for blackmailing.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli addressing the press after signing of agreements at Hyderabad House, New Delhi, 2018

Recalling the blockade, she says, “We were just recovering from the 2015 earthquake. People who had lost their family members were in mourning. Those of us who were fortunate to have our families by our side were trying to overcome the fear. Normal life had just started and Dashain (Dussehra) was around the corner. This was the first big festival for us after the horrific earthquake. Even though people were still in trauma, they were looking forward to the festival, despite the fact that even basics like sugar and milk powder were in short supply. Many were still living in relief camps. And suddenly the blockade was announced.”

She adds, “I used to take the bus to the office. After the imposition of the blockade, the frequency of buses reduced. One couldn’t find any public transport. We knew of the blockade but were unaware that the consequences would be so huge. People born after 1989 had rarely heard the term ‘Nakabandi’. Weeks passed and one could see less vehicles moving and more in queues outside fuel stations. People used to take three to four hours break from work to fill their vehicles. Some left them overnight and came early in the morning to stand in the queue. I personally took a 45-minute walk to office daily.”

People shelled out thrice the amount they usually pay to get fuel and gas cylinders. To keep themselves afloat, restaurants served only sandwiches and salads. Hospitals gradually started cutting down on surgeries because of medical shortages. People adopted novel methods of protesting against India’s involvement in Nepal’s internal matters. They donated petrol to the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu and organised a mock puja at Pashupatinath temple. “We felt betrayed because just a year ago the Indian Prime Minister had come to Nepal and instilled confidence among the people here by saying kind things about Nepal.”

Nepal, a Himalayan landlocked country with an area of 1,47,181 square kilometres lies between the two Asian rivals India and China, making it a strategic buffer. India borders with Nepal on the east, south and west. Tibet, now Chinese territory after its annexation in 1950, is north of Nepal. India’s deteriorating relations with Nepal are inversely proportional to China’s growing influence. As Nepal sought to curtail its dependence on India, China stepped in with aid, investment and easy loans. Nepal has also joined China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).


Current Tensions

Nepal borders Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The two countries have a total border of 1,751 km. The recent tension at the border arose when India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh on 8 May 2020, inaugurated the 75km Kailash Mansarovar road link in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh.

The new road from Dharchula in Uttarakhand to the Lipulekh Pass, the trijunction of India, Nepal and China will cut down the travel time of around three weeks to just one week for the pilgrims heading to Kailash Mansarovar from Delhi. Lipulekh serves as an entrance to Kailash Mansarovar. The pilgrims earlier took the route either via Nepal or Sikkim, both of which were longer and required arduous trekking through a high-altitude and dangerous mountainous terrain.

The new route will also connect security post at Indo-China border in Vyans valley of Pithoragarh district with mainland India. The new road comes as an extension of Pithoragarh-Tawaghat-Ghatibagarh road. According to the ministry of defence, “The road originates from Ghatiabagarh and terminates at Lipulekh Pass, the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar. In this 80-km road, the altitude rises from 6,000 to 17,060 feet.”

However, Nepal called the opening as India’s ‘unilateral act’. The Lipulekh pass, which lies to the west of Kalapani is claimed by both, India and Nepal. India claims that the region is an integral part of its Pithoragarh district whereas Nepal insists that it is part of Darchula district. In 1962, at the time of Sino-Indian war, India established its check-posts there and has been guarding the region to this day. Recently, Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli made a statement against Indian occupation of the Kalapani region in Nepal’s parliament. He said that India had ‘encroached’ upon the Nepali territory since 1962 by deploying its force in the Kalapani region. He also asserted that India had ‘built Kali temple and created an artificial Kali River to prove its claim on Kalapani’.

Nepal’s foreign ministry stated, “The government of Nepal has consistently maintained that as per the Sugauli Treaty (1816) all territories east of Kali (Mahakali) River, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh, belong to Nepal.” Nepal had taken offence at the inclusion of the disputed area in the new map that India had published in November 2019. In 2015 too, the country had raised objections against India-China opening a trading post at Lipulekh pass.

The lingering tension culminated in Nepal government releasing a new map depicting Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as its own territory in May 2020. In June, the lower house of Nepal’s parliament unanimously agreed to adopt the new map of the country. India called it ‘untenable’. Despite India’s protests, Nepal passed the bill in its Upper and Lower Houses unanimously after President Bidhya Devi Bhandari gave her assent to the Bill within hours of its passage in the Rastriya Sabha on June 13. Finally, for the first time, Nepal deployed troops at the border with India, and Nepal Army started building a helipad in the region.


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