By Sneha Yadav
Geography stands to be an important factor in defining international politics as it is one of the key bases on which alliances are formed in international order. It provides a plethora of opportunities for geopolitically developing nations to design and direct its foreign policy to extract the best of both their resources. However, sometimes geopolitics has also led to contentions between nations. For instance, the recent India-Nepal relation is on the verge of such contention due to current geopolitical disagreements.
The science of geopolitics is commonly referred to as the study of spaces and places. The word has its genesis in the twentieth century, largely revolving around European politics. Geopolitics from its beginning is said to be interlinked with geography and international politics of the world system (Cohen 2009: 11). According to John Agnew, geography and foreign policy are vital elements in contemporary world politics. O’ Tuathail and Agnew further elaborate by stating that the practice of foreign policy is inherently geopolitical because it involves the construction of meaning and values of spaces and places (Agnew, 1998: 124-125). Instead of focusing on how, for example, the external environment influences foreign policy, critical geopolitics seeks to evaluate how geography constructs ideas and representation further adds to the presumed reality of places.
India- Nepal Relations: Background
For a long time India and Nepal have shared a close connection of history, culture, tradition and religion, which are thick, comprehensive and multidimensional. To add to the formal flavour of such historic relations, the two countries established diplomatic relations on 17 June 1947 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Indian cooperation with Nepal started in 1952 with the construction of an air-strip at Gaucharan (Kathamandu, Nepal). Since then India has been assisting Nepal primarily in the areas of infrastructure as well as capacity development of human resources. Such assistance received from India has boosted the overall development of the neighbouring state.
Political insight into the matter tells us that Nepal is ruled by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) which has political leanings towards China. It has been a persistent effort of China to actively pursue its foreign policy to decrease India’s influence over Nepal, thus gaining a strong foothold over the territory of Nepal. Since 2015, relations between India-Nepal have started to strain, more so from the time of shaping the current constitution of Nepal (which replaced the 2007 Interim Constitution). India tried to pursue Nepal to amicably address the grievances of the Madheshi, Janajati and other disadvantaged groups that constitute the bulk of the Nepalese population. Since then, misunderstandings, real or imaginary, have persisted between the two countries which have become an advantage to some third party players like China. This is also triggered by anti-India sentiments of communists or the pro-China political leadership, making it the new normal of Nepal’s domestic politics. This nationalist sentiment is now and then exploited for political mobilisation in the state.
What is the issue?
India and Nepal share a 1175 km border along the northern side of the subcontinent. Recently India- Nepal ties have experienced stress over territorial claims. India argues that the new road to Lipulekh falls within the Indian Territory but Nepal claims that at least 17 km of the stretch lies on its side. This issue comes after India, on 8 May 2020, announced inauguration of the Himalayan road link that passes through the disputed area of Kalapani which falls in Indian Territory. Since then Kalapani territory has become a bone of contention between the countries. Reacting to India’s initiative (over the Kalapani area) the Prime Minister of Nepal, Khadga Prasad Oli, soon issued a political map of the country that claims its geographical extent on three regions – Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpudhura – within its borders. Such instance of land expansion reminds of ‘geopolitics’ as a way of influencing foreign policy and thus drawing attention towards the tri-junction India-Nepal-China, which requires close analysis in order to keep a check on China’s growing influence in the neighbouring region.
This is not the first time the India-Nepal relations are going through a rough patch; rather, they were a subject of concern even in the 1990s. Officially, it was the Saguali Treaty (1816) that established both the territories. This treaty remains the foundation of cooperation between India and Nepal. According to the treaty, the Makhali River is marked on the western boundary of the Indian state. However, different British maps have shown the source of the tributary at different places due to the usage of underdeveloped and less-defined surveying techniques. This discrepancy in locating the source of the river led to boundary disputes between India and Nepal, letting each country produce maps supporting their own claims.
Another dispute, namely the Susta territorial dispute, between both the nations arose because of the shifting course of Gandak River. The Treaty of Sagauli defined Gandak as the international boundary between India and Nepal. When the treaty was signed, Susta was on the right bank of the river Gandak which falls in Nepal territorial control. However in due course of time, the river changed its course and Susta now falls on the left bank of the Gandak River, which is controlled by India.
The dispute is mainly because of the varying interpretation of the origin of the river and its various tributaries that slice through the mountains. While Nepal’s claim of the territory east of Kali is based on the Limpiyadhura origin, India says the river actually takes the name Kali near Kalapani. It is not the first time that India-Nepal relations are witnessing stress, as there have been various water disputes now and then. They have been dealt with thorough means of dialogues and agreements. However, this time India’s pessimistic approach in solving the dispute has just added fuel to the fire. China’s proactive push in Nepal for seeking its own interest is making matters worse. This third party conjecture has made the overall problem sour. Thus the pragmatic shift of time on one hand and the rebalancing of power on the other hand are leading to a psychological war with China and cartographical war with Nepal.
In times of the pandemic, Nepal exerting its claims on Indian Territory can be a reflection of Nepal’s failure in combating the Covid-19 situation on ground. The basis of this assumption can be drawn from the fact that earlier this month Nepal accused India of sprucing the virus in its territories via cross-border movements. By directing the media attention to the map and territorial dispute Nepal wants to shift the focus from the increasing number of corona cases and the failure of its administration in handling the situation. Amidst the pandemic situation where every nation is exploiting all its resources to control the virus, Nepal’s territorial claims over Kalapani comes with a serious threat to India-Nepal relations.
Dialogue can be the key in de-escalating the stress between India-Nepal which India is currently refraining from. India should maintain a policy of keeping away from the internal affairs of Nepal, while at the same time, in the spirit of friendship, India should guide the nation towards a more inclusive democracy. Since the free movement of people is permitted across the border, Nepal enjoys immense strategic relevance from India’s national security point of view, as terrorists often use Nepal to enter India. Therefore, stable and friendly relations with Nepal is one of the pre-requisites which India can’t afford to overlook.
India should also try to convey to Nepal’s leadership about the congenial and friendly environment that 6 to 8 million Nepali citizens living in India enjoy. Therefore, any thoughtless erosion of the centuries-old bond may prove difficult for both the countries. The existing bilateral treaties between India and Nepal have not taken the shifting of Himalayan Rivers into consideration. A primary reason for this is the lack of an approach where ecological concerns and needs of rivers are often dismissed. Therefore, India and Nepal should try to resolve the boundary dispute by taking into account all shared environmental characteristics. Politics, goodwill and the use of statecraft can better the ongoing situation.
Resolving the issue can take its course and time but dialogue is necessary from both the ends, which India doesn’t seem to be engaging with actively. This can further be a sign of non-cooperation, but it isn’t wise to stake age-old relations, especially when the world is fighting a pandemic. More so when China is actively involved in supporting and motivating Nepal’s territorial claims. China has repeatedly tried to encroach Indian spaces and this time the rift between India and Nepal can be instrumental. Nepal’s ruling communist party has already began reaching out to China for investment and better connectivity that can act as a threat both domestically and internationally to India.
Sneha Yadav is pursuing Ph.D. at the Centre for Inner Asian Studies (SIS), JNU, India.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.