The new map of Nepal, incorporating areas like Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura in Uttarakhand, which are Indian territory, unanimously approved by the Himalayan nation’s Parliament through a constitutional amendment bill on Saturday, is a provocative step that is certain to worsen ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi.
This crisis was building up over the past few weeks, since the K.P. Singh Oli government had released the new map in May, and it was then the Indian government should have fast-tracked the long-delayed foreign secretary-level talks to defuse the issue.
Now, while Mr Oli sought a dialogue with India after the bill’s passage, New Delhi is unlikely to respond positively to such sledgehammer tactics. It is quite certain Mr Oli who has been under huge pressure domestically for some time, including a challenge to his leadership from rivals in his Nepalese Communist Party is exploiting the territorial issue to whip up nationalistic fervour.
It is due to this that all other Nepal parties found themselves compelled to support the bill in the lower house.
Now it will go to the upper house, the Rashtriya Sabha, which is expected to be a formality. Then things will further deteriorate.
There is also the China factor. Mr Oli’s government could survive earlier this year, fending off a challenge from some predecessors like Prachanda and Madhav Nepal, because the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu, presumably on Beijing’s instructions, interceded on his behalf to urge they don’t bring down his government.
Mr Oli had a huge political debt to pay to the Chinese, who have been systematically raising their profile for decades in the landlocked country sandwiched between China and India. With their deep pockets, they have also, often successfully, tried to displace India from its traditional role in Nepal.
And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the fresh crisis in India-Nepal ties is happening when Sino-Indian relations are on the edge following the People’s Liberation Army’s incursion in Ladakh.
But even if Mr Oli is playing the nationalism card for domestic reasons, or is being instigated by the Chinese (as Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane hinted some time ago), the cartographic crisis with Nepal also represents a huge failure for Indian diplomacy.
Granted that Kathmandu was acting difficult, to say the least, and violating all norms on the resolution of boundary issues, it was still the responsibility of India’s foreign office to act more mature than our smaller neighbour.
Historically and otherwise, Nepal and its people occupy a very special place in our hearts and given the open border and free movement between the two countries, the Nepalese are an intrinsic part of every aspect of Indian life. Nowhere is this more so than the Indian Army, whose seven Gorkha Rifles regiments have over half their soldiers coming from Nepal.
The Indian Army chief is traditionally a general in the Nepal Army, and vice versa. For reasons of ethnicity, culture and otherwise, Nepal’s daily life is intertwined with India’s in a way it never could with China’s.
And the Oli government knows well it will take far more than passing a few bills in its legislature to get control of territory that is historically Indian. It may therefore be time for the diplomats to get down to brass tacks.