Saturday, 29 January, 2022
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OPINION

Nepal-India Border Issue A Long-drawn Affair



Prof Jiba Raj Pokharel

 

Nepal-India relation, of late, has been something like that of a recently estranged centurion couple. This is because of the recent souring of people to people relationship going back to times immemorial. Behind this meteoric downfall in relationship lies the incorporation of Limpiyadhura, Lipulek and the peripheral areas in the map published by India. Nepal had expressed its displeasure about this unfortunate move, and both sides mutually agreed to solve this outstanding issue diplomatically. The inauguration of the road passing from this territory by India has further aggravated the situation rather than improving it. Nepal maintains that the border river Kali has its origin upstream in Limpiyadhura as against the Indian stand that it is in the east in Lipulek. Nepal cites the provision of Sugauli Treaty signed with British India in 1816 in this regard. India has maintained that the land belongs to India due to its continuing use since quite a few decades if not from the immediate aftermath of the 1816 treaty.

Indian nonchalance
Border disputes between neighboring countries sometimes cannot be wished out of existence. But they should be resolved through bilateral dialogue and if that is not possible, through the third party mediation like Indo-Bangladesh maritime boundary dispute. Accordingly, Nepal approached India for a dialogue on several occasions in this regard. Nepal wanted to nip this thorn in the bud which has otherwise acted as a villain in the brighter relationship existing between the two countries since a long time. India has kept the dialogue door shut to Nepal, citing corona pandemic rife in both the countries. But it was hard to believe in view of India keeping its door totally ajar to China.
This indiscriminate dealing on the part of India triggered unusual tide of nationalism and unity between Nepali people and parliamentarians alike. Political parties which would not otherwise see eye to eye in usual circumstances came together to work hand in glove with one another. Nepali Congress lawmaker Dr. Minendra Rijal said that his party may be at daggers drawn with respect to the government's running of several of the national affairs, but it stands cheek by jowl in the case of Kalapani. What followed was the enshrining of the new map in the constitution backed by the entire federal parliament. One solitary dissent Sarita Giri lost her post over her disgusting posture. Her petition to the Supreme Court did not result in her favour. India made more than clear that the environment for the dialogue was vitiated by the inclusion of the new map in the constitution of Nepal. It was nothing more than a mere pretext because the incorporation or otherwise of any topic in the constitution is totally within the jurisdiction of the Parliament of that country.
Even if the relations thaw in future, the talks seem to be taking a very long time. One can glaringly see Bangladesh-India dispute of the maritime boundary in this context. It started in 1974 and went on till 2009. Eleven meetings held during this period did not lead to any agreeable conclusion to both the countries. India proposed for the method of equidistance from the very beginning till the end. Bangladesh, however, declined this stance of India. The principle of equidistance is a legal concept in the dispute of maritime boundary. It maintains that the nations' maritime boundary should confirm to a median line that is equidistant from the shores of neighbouring nations.
Later in 1975, Foreign Minister YB Chauvan proposed a modest adjustment of 1,000 square nautical miles over the maritime space. This token concession on the part of India as a high point in India's willingness to compromise did not address Bangladesh's concern. These were followed by further round of talks in the year 1978, 1980 and 1982. Talks were again held in 2008 after a lapse of 26 years. A further talk held in 2009 also did not yield any concurrence on the issue. India's insistence on equidistance led the talks to a state of impasse.
Bangladesh then moved to UN's International Tribunal to the Law of the Sea in 2009. It went to Permanent Court of Arbitration in the year 2011. In 2014, a permanent settlement came into being with Bangladesh receiving 80 per cent of the disputed land. India got the remaining 20 per cent. Both the countries gracefully accepted the Court's verdict. This way a peaceful resolution to 40 years of conflict was resolved. Bangladesh had encountered a similar problem with Myanmar which it won after filing petition at the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany in 2012. Bangladesh was thus sniffing a sense of victory after this achievement with Myanmar.
Give and take
The border dispute is not a cake walk as many rather enthusiastic people in Nepal believe it to be. It is harder for a landlocked Nepal to put pressure on India than Bangladesh because of the latter's access to the sea. The India-Bangladesh case lasted for four decades. This consisted of 35 years of bilateral talks and five years of international arbitration. We have not yet entered into bilateral talks. So, the Nepal-India border dispute seems to be headed for a long time to come. Even if a settlement is reached, the present map may need to undergo some change as some give and take obviously comes into the process as seen in the case of Indo- Bangladesh dispute.
Nepal has already enshrined the revised map in the constitution. People are naturally looking forward to the government to immediately initiate action in this regard. But as the past events show, Nepal will have to wait for a long time for this dream to come true. It appears to be yet another long-drawn affair. Nepal wants to solve this problem in a spirit of brotherhood and bonhomie which has been a hallmark of Nepal-India relation. But it may have to resort to international mediation if compelled to do so as in the case of Bangladesh in the maritime boundary dispute.

(Prof. Pokharel is former Vice Chancellor of Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.  jibaraj@gmail.com)