On May 20, Nepal published a map asserting ownership over the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura, which it disputes with neighboring India, upsetting ties with New Delhi. Similar Indian moves in the recent past had sparked public outrage in Nepal as well as diplomatic ire from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kathmandu’s more aggressive stance here is unprecedented, as it had previously sought to address border issues diplomatically. The Nepal-India Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee worked for close to three decades and resolved 97 percent of their boundary disputes.
Kathmandu’s latest move is indicative of a broader souring of India-Nepal relations. Nepal has traditionally shared a close relationship with India, built on the bedrock of longstanding cultural and civilizational ties. Yet geographic and economic asymmetries between the two countries have made Nepal concerned that it is “India-locked.” A growing trust deficit between the two neighbors—especially since the 2015 unofficial Indian blockade crippled Nepal’s economy—has exacerbated this dynamic. The Modi government has attempted to mend ties through high-level visits and connectivity initiatives, even declaring Nepal the “centerpiece“ of its Neighborhood First policy, largely without success. The Indian media’s sensationalized reporting about Nepal recently, irresponsible statements by Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli, including unsubstantiated allegations of India plotting to remove him, and Nepal border police fatally shooting an Indian man have added to tensions and created a hostile environment for meaningful engagement.
The assertiveness reflected in Nepal’s map has generated unease in Indian strategic circles, especially as Chinese influence in the country is increasing, exacerbating India’s anxieties about its position as the dominant regional power. With the Lipulekh dispute representing a new low in India-Nepal relations, New Delhi should reassess its approach towards Kathmandu. In order to do so, the government should address the negative impact that Indian resurgent ethnonationalism has on its relationship with Nepal. In addition, India should consider restructuring its approach to bilateral cooperation with Nepal by not treating it as a pawn in the larger South Asian geopolitical chessboard only warranting attention when regional tides seem to be changing.
The China Factor
Indian Army Chief M.M. Naravane’s recent comment that Nepal was acting at the behest of “someone else,” a thinly veiled reference to China, is the latest example of how the China factor has made India uneasy about the future of its influence in Nepal.
India should consider restructuring its approach to bilateral cooperation with Nepal by not treating it as a pawn in the larger South Asian geopolitical chessboard only warranting attention when regional tides seem to be changing.
It is true that certain sections of Nepal’s strategic circle have warmed to China, but this is largely of India’s own making. The 2015 blockade forced Kathmandu to reassess its dependence on India, and China provided an easy and lucrative alternative. Until 2015, Chinese engagement with Nepal was limited, but it moved fast to fill the vacuum through enhanced security cooperation and cultural diplomacy. Economic and political political engagement, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative, has replaced early fears of Chinese expansionism within Nepal, a driving force behind Kathmandu signing the 1950 Treaty on Peace and Friendship with India.
New Delhi’s unease about China has not boded well for its standing in Nepal. The Nepal Army did not receive Naravane’s comment well, perceiving it as insensitive and unnecessarily politicizing a diplomatic crisis. It has especially damaged morale among the 30,000 Nepali Gurkha soldiers who have formed the backbone of India’s national security for decades. Military integration and camaraderie run deep between the two armies, both at the highest ranks as well among foot soldiers who conduct battalion-level joint military exercises. Negative rhetoric can subvert this relationship.
Unilateral Indian moves—including publishing a map in late 2019 showing Kalapani as a part of its own territory, and Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurating a new road between Dharchula and Lipulekh on May 8, which invited widespread local protests in Nepal and anger on social media—have already complicated the tenor of this integration. Kathmandu has largely and consistently used diplomatic channels to lodge protests against India’s unilateral moves, but New Delhi has dismissed its concerns, with Indian officials reportedly even refusing to meet the special envoy sent by Nepal’s former prime minister late last year to discuss the longstanding border row. This context is necessary and undercuts India’s credibility to criticize Chinese involvement in the Lipulekh dispute.
How Hindu Nationalism in India has Contributed to Souring Ties
As Hindutva has come to dominate political discourse in India, with the election of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it has triggered concerns within Nepal that Hindu nationalist groups with backing from the government are undertaking efforts to extend their ideological agenda beyond India’s borders. This is seen as a particularly troubling development for Nepal, which was under the control of a Hindu monarchy until 2008, and is especially vulnerable to Hindutva proselytizing. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization closely affiliated with the ruling government in India, has long had a Nepal chapter, strong links with the Hindu monarchy, and has previously supported a Hindu state in Nepal. Pro-Hindu parties in Nepal, inspired by those in India, had attempted to push their agenda by demanding the word “secular” be removed from the draft constitution in 2015. In recent years, the RSS through its anti-minority stance has stoked fears among Nepalis that external forces may support a return of the Hindu royalist forces they long struggled to remove. Statements by high-level Indian government officials—including a 2010 remark by current Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh that he would support the restoration of Nepal as a Hindu state—only aggravate these fears.
As Hindutva has come to dominate political discourse in India, with the election of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it has triggered concerns within Nepal that Hindu nationalist groups with backing from the government are undertaking efforts to extend their ideological agenda beyond India’s borders. […] Statements by high-level Indian government officials—including a 2010 remark by current Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh that he would support the restoration of Nepal as a Hindu state—only aggravate these fears.
Sections of the Indian media seem to support this narrative, endorsing hyper nationalist sentiments at home and drumming up Islamophobic sentiment in Nepal, which has a long tradition of religious tolerance. In India, nationalism and anti-Nepal sentiment are also increasingly being defined in anti-China terms. Baseless print and TV reports in India have claimed that Prime Minister Oli was “honey trapped” by Chinese ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi. This claim prompted Nepal Cable TV Association, in an effort to prove their “nationalism,” to block some Indian channels. An infuriated Nepal government lodged its protest to India via a diplomatic note. This in turn has created a conducive environment for political opportunists in Nepal to play up nationalist sentiments against India in an effort to mobilize public opinion, divert attention from domestic issues, and consolidate their own positions.
Unsettled political relations have translated into growing intolerance towards Nepalis living and working in India, which has undercut the historic reality of a vibrant common culture shared by both countries. Diaspora forms a crucial pillar of India-Nepal relations, with a Nepali population of nearly 6 million residing in India. This increasing intolerance is also reflected in Indian pop culture. For instance, the recent Indian web show “Patal Lok” used a demeaning Nepali stereotype in a dialogue that seriously hurt the Nepali diaspora community in India. The Gorkha Youth Association took legal action against the show’s producers, in yet another example of how racism is overshadowing years of long nurtured cultural ties.
A Reset in Relations
Within the delicate balance of power equations in the region, Oli’s pro-China posture has undoubtedly complicated resolution of India-China bilateral disputes. But the recent escalation should be seen independent of realpolitik considerations and instead reflective of structural challenges in India’s approach towards Nepal, as Indian strategic affairs expert C Raja Mohan points out. India has fostered these foundational challenges through years of ignoring Nepal’s legitimate anxieties as the smaller country in the bilateral relationship. Now, there is growing fear in Kathmandu of strings being attached to Chinese aid and Nepal potentially facing the same fate as Sri Lanka, which fell for China’s debt-trap diplomacy, especially since almost no progress has been made on existing BRI projects. By decoupling its Neighborhood First policy from considerations of Chinese involvement in the region, India will be able to move beyond the rhetoric of everlasting friendship and develop a mutually beneficial agreement irrespective of third-party influence.
Indo-Nepal ties are built on a strong bedrock of a civilian bond, an openness unlike any other, cultivated through years of citizens freely working and living on either side of the border, until recently without visa requirements. Compared to Chinese alternatives, Indian connectivity options are geographically more feasible for Nepal and economic ties with India more deeply embedded. Acknowledging Nepal’s fundamental concern to act independently and preserve its autonomy could go a long way in arresting the downturn in India-Nepal relations. If the current hyper-nationalistic narrative continues, the Indo-Nepal relationship will remain a source of tension, rather than a mutually-beneficial partnership.
Image 1: Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: Bikash Karki/AFP via Getty Images