India and Nepal share an open border that allows for the free movement of people and goods with little restrictions. The border is 1,751 km long and largely unmonitored. However, despite the close relationships, there have been territorial disputes between the two countries from the time the borders were delimited. The current border between India and Nepal was created after the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816 between Nepal and the British.
The Treaty of Sugauli:
The Treaty of Sugauli establishes the borders of Nepal and was signed on December 2, 1815 and was ratified and came into effect by March 4, 1816. The treaty was signed between the British East India Company and the King of Nepal following the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-16. Under the treaty, Nepal surrendered to the British and ceded their western and eastern territories, corresponding roughly to the present-day borders, to the British East India Company and became a protected state of the British Empire.
“Negotiations for a general settlement produced a draft which was initialled at Sagauli in Bihar in December 1815 and required Nepal to give up all territories west and east of its present-day borders, to surrender the entire Tarai and to accept a permanent British representative (or ‘resident’) in Kathmandu”.Historian John Welton
The areas of major territorial disputes between India and Nepal are the Susta area and the Kalapani territory.
- Susta Area
The disputed area of Susta is under Indian administration as a part of the West Champaran district of the state of Bihar. It is also claimed by Nepal as belonging to the West Nawalparasi District of Province No. 5. The reason for the dispute is that according to the Sugauli Treaty, the Gandak river (known as Narayani in Nepal) is considered the boundary between Nepal and India, with the land east to the river belonging to Nepal and the land west to it belonging to India. However, over the years the river has changed course and shifted the village of Susta which was to the east, within Nepalese territory, towards the west and is thus now claimed by India. Despite attempts by both countries to resolve the issue, a satisfactory outcome has not yet been reached. Nepal insists that the previous border according to the Sugauli Treaty be treated as the fixed border whereas India considers the land west to the river its own as per the treaty. Expert opinion on the issue is divided.
- Kalapani territory
Kalapani territory comes under the administration of India and is considered to be a part of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand state. Nepal, however, claims the area to be a part of the Darchula district of Sudurpaschim Pradesh. According to the treaty/agreements with the British Raj, the Kali river is considered the western border of Nepal with India. However, the British had re-defined the borders as starting from the drainage basin of the Kali river rather than higher up in the mountains, stating that it was at that point the river took on the name of “Kali”. This revision is considered to have been done for strategic reasons.The dispute thus arises from the difference in what each country views as the source of the river.
Since independence India has acted on the basis that the area, including the now disputed areas of the Lipulekh pass and the Kuthi valley, falls within their jurisdiction. Kalapani has been controlled by India’s Indo-Tibetan Border Police since the Sino-Indian War of 1962 with China. India and Nepal had set up joint military outposts along the borders following the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951 and the Kalapani area is widely presumed to have contained one such outpost.
Nepal first raised the issue of the disputed area in the year 1998 and both countries agreed to resolve disputes through bilateral talks. However, it can be considered that the dispute started in the year 1997 over a proposed hydroelectric project. The two countries could not come to an agreement over the source of the Kali river that marks the boundary. The Nepalese claim is that the Kali river starts from a stream in the Lipulekh Pass whereas the Indian side claims that the Kali river only begins after the stream has been joined by others. Both countries have produced maps that support their respective claims.
A political faction led by politician Bam Dev Gautam laid more expensive claims than the Nepalese government. Their stance was that the “Kali” river is actually the “Kuthi Yankti” river that arises below the Limpiyadhura range and thus lays claim to the entire Kuthi Valley region of about 400 km2 as Nepalese territory. Though these claims found much support, the government of Nepal had not endorsed it at the time.
- On November 2, 2019 India released new maps of their territory following the creation of the new Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.
- On November 6, 2019 Nepal raised its objections, stating that the Kalapani territory included in the Indian map belongs to them.
- On May 8, 2020 India’s defense minister Rajnath Singh inaugrated an 80 km long road that cuts through the Lipulekh pass.
- Nepal disagreed with India’s claim that the road is within Indian territory.
- On May 20, 2020 the Nepalese government released new maps that show the Kalapani territory within their own boundaries.
- On June 10, 2020 the Parliament of Nepal moved to approve a new map and emblem that includes the disputed territories.
- On June 18, 2020 the revisions were approved by the Upper House of the Nepalese Parliament.
- India opposed the move stating that the revisions were not done in accordance with historical evidence or facts.
- On June 19, 2020 Nepal started deploying troops near the disputed areas and has begun construction of camps and a helipad.
- The Ministry of External Affairs has insisted that the proposed ‘Link Road’ lies completely within Indian territory and that it follows the pre-existing route used by pilgrims of the Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra.
- India has stated that it is committed to solving boundary issues with Nepal through diplomatic talks.
- Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane had rejected the notion that the road was built in Nepalese territory and suggested the possibility of Nepal’s stance being taken at the behest of “someone else”; however these claims are unverified as of now.
- Nepal accuses India of having breached agreements made between the Prime Ministers of the two countries in 2014 to resolve existing border issues.
- The Nepali Army Chief, Purna Chandra Thapa has stated in June that the Nepali army will begin building army barracks and border outposts near the Kalapani area.
The Path to Resolution:
Multiple attempts have been made to resolve the border issue over the years however none have managed to come to a satisfactory conclusion. In 1981, The Joint Technical Level Nepal-India Boundary Committee (JTLNIBC) was set up to conduct a survey of the border pillars. The committee submitted a report in 2007 that delineated approximately 98% of the border excluding the disputed areas of Kalapani and Susta and submitted the report for ratification by both countries. However Nepal refused to ratify the report and maintained their stance that the border cannot be demarcated without resolving the disputed areas. On the other hand, India awaited Nepal’s ratification and endorsed the report as a confidence building measure towards resolving the dispute. In the absence of ratification the survey failed to solve the issue.
The Road Forward:
The Kalapani area is an important strategic point for India in the presence of its neighbour China with whom relationships have been less than ideal and has been souring recently. For Nepal on the other hand, it is an important political tool and point of contention among the general populace. It is therefore natural that neither country would be willing to give-in to the other easily. However, despite the decades of conflict both countries have retained cordial relationships with each other. This was seen to have become rocky in the past few months, however recent developments such as Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli’s phone call to India’s Prime Minister Modi on the day India celebrates its Independence and a recent meeting between officials of both countries to discuss various development projects is seen as a sign of thawing tensions that pave the way forward to more diplomatic approaches and resolution.
“India-Nepal border issues appear to be easily solvable, as long as there is political goodwill and statecraft being exercised on both sides. The way to move forward is to formally approve the strip maps, resolve the two remaining disputes, demarcate the entire India-Nepal boundary, and speedily execute the work of boundary maintenance”.Jayant Prasad- Former Indian Ambassador