The dispute over the Lipulekh Pass may quite possibly turn into a permanent lever that Nepal’s governance deficit politicians and their allies in China and Pakistan can turn against India at will
In the past, no matter what the ups and downs of our relationship with Nepal, they have always been sorted out one way or the other. The dispute over the Lipulekh Pass though has been the perfect storm, and may quite possibly turn into a permanent lever that Nepal’s governance deficit politicians and their allies in China and Pakistan can turn against India at will.
The incident started out with an innocuous tweet from defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 8 stating a road had been built to Kailash-Mansarovar considerably easing the perils of pilgrims visiting that region. Normally this would have gone unnoticed, save for Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli trying desperately to cling on to power. This gave him the ultranationalist rallying call he needed to ring-fence himself.
The demarcation issue depends on how one reads the relevant treaties. The Sharda/Mahakali River was deemed as Nepal’s western boundary. The problem as can be seen in the maps (Figure 1 and 2) is that how do you define the boundary where the Sharda ends?
The piece of land in question is just into Nepal and this is for a very good reason. As the red square marked in Figure 2 (below) shows, the Sharda’s origin ends well short of China. India interprets its border, therefore, to be the mountain ridge on the south (marked as Om Parvat), while Nepal interprets it to be the higher ridge on the north of the river source.
Till last week Nepal had a policy of not marking disputed areas on maps to avoid escalation. That changed with Oli.
The Chinese Angle
To note is the current Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, is a fluent speaker of Urdu with deep ties to Pakistan’s military and intelligence community. Her appointment in many ways marks the emerging compact of China taking the lead in Nepal under careful Pakistani tutelage.
Pakistan, of course, has been much more involved in local politics and knows the lay of the ground much better. Generally aligned to the Nepal Communist Party for ideological reasons, the recent political turmoil has seen unprecedented and blatant Chinese interference with Yanqi essentially mediating between the factions of the Nepalese communists.
All of this dovetails perfectly into Oli’s agenda. If rumours from Beijing are to be believed he’s told them that he is on China’s side. Rumours from Nagpur (the RSS’ headquarters) indicate that he’s played the ‘I’m a Brahmin being discriminated against by the mountain nobility’ card. However, his comment in Nepal’s parliament labelling India a worse virus than the one that is believed to have originated from Wuhan in China, has definitely won him a lot more friends in Islamabad than he’d cultivated over the last decade.
All of this was fine up until the point Oli raised Lipulekh, because now the genie is out of the bottle and it simply can’t be put back in. Every politician wanting to divert attention to a foreign hand will do so and neither country can now back off publicly. To note is that a (now deleted) tweet similar to Singh’s was put out by Chinese official broadcaster CGTN, but it was ignored by Nepal and its ultranationalist Prime Minister.
Sadly the best that can be expected from here on is that the consensus of India-Nepal not discussing border disputes, given the high economic integration and free flow of people has now ended. While other Nepali politicians have been much more responsible than Oli, there is no guarantee that they too won’t use it to their advantage. Complicating this is Pakistani guile and Chinese purchasing power, which will be happy to turn on the unidirectional tap of Nepalese nationalism to suit their own purposes, the hope of opening up a third front against India.
Whatever happens from now on, despite India’s responsible behaviour in not responding to Oli, a border dispute with Nepal is the new normal, and we might as well get used to it.Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.