Rajan Bhattarai, the foreign relations adviser to Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, says issuance of map is an expression of sovereign territory, nothing more and nothing less.
New Delhi: Rajan Bhattarai, the foreign relations adviser to Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, is seen as an influential voice when it comes to Nepal’s foreign ties. Bhattarai, who has been adviser to the Prime Minister of Nepal on Foreign Policy in the past from May 2009 to February 2011, did his PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and MA from School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
Bhattarai spoke to The Sunday Guardian. Excerpts:
Q: India published a map in October stating that Kalapani and Lipulekh were a part of its territory. Nepal has responded with its own map by incorporating the two points as part of its territory. Could not this topic be solved by carrying on with a dialogue that has been happening since 1998?
A: Exactly that’s what we are saying time and again. What Nepal wanted is the resolution of the outstanding boundary issues through dialogue. A bit of a backgrounder, the modern, comprehensive boundary mapping exercise by the joint survey teams of the two countries started back in 1981. From the Indian side, the work was led by the office of Surveyor General of India and from the Nepal side, the Department of Survey. The modern Strip Maps they prepared were derived from older maps, historical evidences, the existing geographical attributes and other mutually agreed bases. In most of places, this technical mechanism was able to ascertain the boundary alignment and prepare maps, while in a few locations, they could not agree. These outstanding boundary questions featured in the highest political level engagements as early as in 1997 and Nepal has been consistently pursuing that these issues should be settled with urgency and should not be allowed to fester, given the otherwise close neighbourly bonds the two countries share.
So, the issue of Kalapani and Lipulekh are not new and have not erupted all of a sudden. There is quite a few years’ history behind this.
Nepal, on its part, has not wavered from the conviction that these remaining boundary questions can be resolved through talks. Even after issuance by India of its new Political Map in November 2019, we wrote to the Indian side restating our concern and requested the Government of India for an early convening of the Foreign Secretary level talks, as mandated by our Prime Ministers in 2014. We wrote twice proposing the dates for the talk. We are yet to receive firm response from the Indian side on the meeting. While the talks did not happen, activities that would change the status quo in the Kalapani-Lipulekh area continued to take place from the Indian side. This triggered the urgency on our part that our map be issued without delay. I wish to underline here that our map depicts only the territory which lies east of Kali (Mahakali) River. In fact, one may check the new Political Map (8th edition) issued by the Government of India on 2 November 2019 and locate the Kali River. It is exactly that Kali River which serves as the boundary between the two countries as defined in the Sugauli Treaty of 1816.
Q: As per you, which document/treaty gives Nepal the exclusive right over the Kalapani area that is spread across 35 sq km?
A: As I already mentioned, the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 and other subsequent treaties, including that of 1860 define Nepal-India international boundary. On the boundary question of Kalapani-Lipulekh sector, a crystal-clear provision in Sugauli Treaty (Article V) is that the territory lying east of Kali (Mahakali) river belongs to Nepal. And based on the maps prepared during and in the proximity of the time of the Sugauli Treaty, the position of Kali river shows the places Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura to be in its east, meaning these places belonged to Nepal. Not only that, Government of India’s own Political Map of 2 November 2019 shows Limpiyadhura to be the origin of Kali river and Lipulekh and Kalapani to be on the east of Kali, which means the Nepal side.
Besides maps, there are historical documents that assert Nepal’s administration in Kalapani-Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura areas in the past. The presence of Indian military in Kalapani since 1962 complicated the issue. Nepal’s access to Kalapani and the territory west of it and east of Kali river was restricted due to the presence of the Indian Army.
There could also be a hydrological perspective in determining the main origin of Kali River and this also needs to be taken into consideration.
Q: Is there a bigger statement for Indian policymakers behind Nepal’s decision to release its own official map? If yes, then what is it?
A: There is no need, by any means, to over-read our issuance of map. It is the expression of our sovereign territory, nothing more and nothing less. By issuing the new map, the only statement we are making is about our territory, as provided by treaties, historical maps and documents and geographical attributes. The statement we are making is that territorial integrity is important to us and we are committed to preserve it. We are aware that our two countries have differences in certain sections of the boundary. However, we firmly believe that such differences can be settled through talks. The most important thing is that both of our countries should honour the letter and spirit of the Sugauli Treaty in respect of Nepal-India boundary.
Q: Would you agree, as some experts have been saying, that the diplomatic warmth between India and Nepal is missing for the last few years?
A: Given the vastness and at times complexity of Nepal-India relations, it is not appropriate and justified to make general statements like that. Our relations were not one day’s transient construct: these have a long history. Our proximity is unique; our engagements are multi-faceted. It is true that we had to face occasional differences, misunderstanding and misperceptions. We witnessed difficulties in our relations and in our people’s lives that could have been avoided. Nonetheless, the silver lining is that even in difficult times, we remained engaged and worked relentlessly to iron out differences. It is quite fair to say, therefore, that the undercurrent of our relations has always been solid and friendly.
One may recall the atmosphere of Nepal-India relations immediately after the historic visit of Prime Minister Modi to Nepal in August 2014. The level of optimism and enthusiasm reached its zenith. If there was anything between peoples of the two countries, it was warmth of friendship and goodwill. There was immense expectation that Nepal-India ties world embark into a new era of clarity, trust and confidence; expectation that issues which remained outstanding between the two countries and became irritants at times would then be resolved once and for all and relations would take an assured, smooth track. It would have been in the best interest of the two countries to maintain that atmosphere and carry on with that momentum, no doubt.
Nepal-India relations witnessed qualitative growth in the last few years. Prime Minister Modi visited Nepal four times in his first tenure. A number of new areas were added to cooperative partnership such as Raxaul-Kathmandu Railway link, inland waterways and agriculture development. Nepal-India relations immensely benefited from the vision, commitment and actions of the two Prime Ministers.
Prime Minister Oli’s vision is to expand friendly relations with our neighbours based on the principles of sovereign equality, mutual trust and mutual benefit. His focus is on expanding the scope of engagement and forge partnership for development and prosperity. When we look to the future of our relations and the vast potential that subsists therein, sorting out the issues that past have transferred to us becomes highly imperative. And this is what we have in mind when we emphasise on the importance of early settlement of the boundary questions.
Q: How would you like to address the concern among certain institutions in India that Nepal’s friendship with India has suffered due to its growing proximity with China?
A: Nepal pursues an independent and balanced foreign policy. Nepal has close and friendly relations with both the neighbours, India and China. It has been our principled commitment not to allow any activities on our soil that undermine the vital interest of both of our neighbours. We also expect similar treatment from our neighbours. We feel immensely privileged to be positioned between the two big countries that are making tremendous progress economically as well as on other fronts of development and prosperity. In their progresses, Nepal sees its opportunity.
Our clear policy is to cultivate and advance friendly relations with both the neighbours to serve its informed national interests. And the relations with one neighbour are not at the cost of relations with the other. It is not fair to see these engagements as zero sum game. What is fair is to see the merit of each relation on its own. There is no point in comparing how much Nepal engages with India and how much with China. The question of proximity with one or the other is irrelevant as we desire to increase proximity to both.
Truth is that Nepal wants to expand its connectivity with both of its neighbours; smoothen and expand trade and transit with both of them; and seek support and assistance that would help us meet our development goals.
It is not only the question of Nepal. In fact, the level of engagements between India and China is also expanding. And we have said time and again that we are encouraged to see this.
Q: What next? Do you believe that things have not moved beyond the salvageable point?
A: We are fully aware that whenever issues arise between our two countries, the only viable way is friendly conversation and dialogue. We have such track record of managing difficult situations. So, unequivocal answer to the question, what next is: dialogue. And for that, Nepal is constituently pursuing and the Government of India has also emphasized the need of diplomatic dialogue to resolve the issues. So, we are hopeful that the meeting of the Foreign Secretary level mechanism established for this purpose will take place soon and the conversation will start. We have seen that boundary issues many times larger and more complicated have been resolved, even in our neighbourhood and, therefore, it is not at all unrealistic to expect that our two countries are competent to reach an agreeable solution. When we talk about outstanding issues, we should not ignore the fact that the larger portion of Nepal-India boundary has been settled and Strip Maps have been agreed and initialled at Survey DG’s level. Nepal’s desire is to resolve the remaining segments as well at the earliest. Fully settled, undisputed, clearly understood and well-marked boundary alignment between the two countries will serve as a vital element of harmonious bilateral relations.