Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Uppsala University, Sweden. An Indian-born academic, Swain received his PhD in 1991 from the School of International Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is also the UNESCO Chair on International Water Cooperation. An analyst of South Asian Affairs, Professor Swain has also been closely observing the Nepal-India relations for years and knows well the latest border imbroglio and Nepal's claim of its territories encroached by India since 1960s. Nepal has officially requested for bilateral meeting but India seems reluctant. He spoke to The Rising Nepal on the border dispute and Nepal-India relations. Excerpts:
How do you assess Nepal-India relations?
Nepal-India relations have seen several ups and downs in the past, but what we are witnessing for the last five years is unprecedented. With changing geopolitics in the region, India was required to adjust its foreign policy vis-à-vis Nepal but has not done that. India has refused to learn from its past mistakes and has been committing the same mistakes again and again. Threats can’t be used to make someone a friend, and you cannot also buy someone’s friendship. India has failed to treat Nepal with respect and that has led to serious deterioration of the bilateral relations.
You are well informed about the latest development - the border row- between Nepal and India. What is your comment on it ?
This border dispute is not new. Nepal, unlike some other neighbours, had always wanted to address the border dispute through bilateral talk and negotiation. Unilateral opening of the new road through the disputed area by India was absolutely unnecessary and highly provocative. When the world is struggling to survive COVID-19 pandemic and there are serious travel restrictions in place, what was the urgency to open the road to Mansarovar in China though Lipulek? But, the present Indian regime is obsessed only to keep its core Hindu nationalist supporters happy at home, and it lacks sensitivity to and respect for others, both at home and in the neighborhood.
Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulek are the territories both Nepal and India have been claiming. India has controlled these areas since 1960s. What is your understanding ?
This border dispute between India and Nepal, like most other border disputes in the world, is a matter of perception and interpretation of history and geography. There are different treaties and different maps if we go back to history. Where the Kali River originates and flows are also seen by the two parties differently. In the past, this disputed area was under Nepal’s control and then came to India’s control in 1962.
In the historic Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, the River Kali has been mentioned as the border river between Nepal and India. Therefore, the territories east of Kali are obviously Nepali. What is your take on it ?
The confusion and controversy arise over the disagreement over determining which tributary is the main River Kali. When there is a disagreement, it should be left to hydrologists and geographers to do the study and decide it. If there is a disagreement among the experts of the two countries, they can take the help of external experts and agencies.
Limpiyadhura is the origin of the River Kali, which separates both the countries. Nepal has many evidences to prove this claim. Why didn't India realize this?
As I have said earlier, Nepal has its evidence and India has its own. When there is a disagreement, they need to talk and negotiate.
In your opinion, how can Nepal and India solve these problems of border since both the countries have issued their new maps claiming the same territories ?
Both countries need to talk. They have settled 98% of their border disputes. Why can’t they talk and decide the remaining 2% issues? If Bangladesh and India can settle their long-drawn border disputes mutually, why can’t India and Nepal? If not, India and Nepal can approach the International Court of Justice and get a judgment. India and Pakistan had gone to the International Court of Justice and had got a verdict over the demarcation of the Rann of Kutch in 1960s. Nepal has said it has not issued a new map, rather an updated map to include its territories. Nepal has also been asking to sit for talks. But India has been evading this. Why is India reluctant to hold talks with Nepal ? It is self-defeating for India to not talk with Nepal. As I have said previously India has not learned from its past mistakes and is again trying to bully Nepal. India must realise the time has changed, the regional politics has changed and its geo-strategic influence also is not the same as it used to be.
Nepali people have been saying India is still demonstrating big-brother mentality while dealing with bilateral relations. Many things have changed and so have Nepal-India relations. But why is India resorting to such obsolete policy in the changed context ?
The reason is the mindset in Delhi has not changed along with the new reality. The present Indian regime has started believing in its rhetoric and behaving as the regional superpower without adequate money and muscle power to match China. India can’t and shouldn’t try to play the same power game as China, because it doesn’t have the same level of strength. Instead, India should use its moral and cultural capital and that requires a fundamental shift in present foreign policy thinking in New Delhi.
It seems India's priority is to get permanent membership of United Nations Security Council. But the contradiction is that India has not had good relations in the neighbourhood. What is your comment on this ?
Indian plan to get a permanent membership in UNSC has received a major setback after the Modi regime’s open alliance with the USA. That has annoyed China a great deal. Without China’s consent, it is not even possible for India to be a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, forget being a permanent member of the UNSC. A country can never be a global power when you have no friends in the neighborhood. If India’s Hindu nationalist regime can’t maintain friendly relations with an erstwhile Hindu country like Nepal, how do you expect to be good friends with others in the neighborhood?
If India constantly denies holding talks to resolve the boundary issues, what other options Nepal will have to raise the issue? Nepali people have been asking the government to internationalize the issue. Do you think Nepal should think about other options too ?
I think India will soon agree to talk. If not, Nepal has no option but to internationalise the issue. In the past, Bangladesh had internationalised the Ganges water sharing issue, and that somewhat pushed India to sign the Ganges water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh in 1996.
Nepal, as a nation sandwiched between two giant powers - India and China - has challenges and opportunities too. How can Nepal explore more opportunities minimising the challenges?
As they say, when two elephants fight or make love, the grass always suffers. The best option for Nepal is to stay neutral in China-India affairs and deal with each country based on its own national interest. Nepal needs to use its strategic position to bargain well and smart for itself while dealing with its two large neighbours and to think in long-term and sustainable security for itself.