Why is India Eager to Talk Borders With China but Not Nepal?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as his Nepali counterpart Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli looks on during a photo opportunity ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, February 20, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Nepal’s parliament  has endorsed a constitutional amendment bill tabled by the government to revise its political map to include the areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura as part of its territory.

The passage of the Bill marks a historic move for Nepal and a tough blow for India, which is seen as acting as a regional bully or ‘big brother’ in Nepal. And nothing underlines this attitude better than its willingness to hold to talks on the border issue with China at both the military and even diplomatic level, but not with Nepal.

Nepal has always wanted to hold bilateral discussions with India to diffuse the border issue, but India has never shown any interest to that end, notwithstanding media reports of an eleventh hour proposal for a phone call between the two foreign secretaries – one that the Nepali side saw as merely a ploy to derail the tabling of the constitutional amendment.

The Nepali government’s move to publish an authoritative political map came after India unveiled a new political map more than six months ago, including the Lipulekh and Kalapani areas in its territory. Tensions between the two nations deepened further after India inaugurated a road connecting India to China via Lipulek, as part of the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage route, without consulting Nepal. This is an example of a more powerful country bullying its smaller neighbour.

Nepal claims that the new road traverses its territory. Nepal has long claimed the regions of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipulekh in accordance with the 1816 Sugauli treaty, which was signed between the British East India Company and the King of Nepal following the Anglo-Nepalese war. The Nepal government says the treaty clearly established that the regions in question belonged to Nepal.

Of course, India disputes this and claims these areas as its owb. If India has concrete evidence to support its claims, then why has it ignoring Nepal’s proposal for a dialogue all this while? Either India doesn’t have any historical evidence or it wants to move forward ignoring Nepal.

Nepal’s decision to revise its political map is the first substantial move the Himalayan nation has taken to oppose India’s claims. All these years, Nepali leaders were reluctant to discuss border issues seriously so as not to antagonise India due to its strong influence in Nepal’s domestic politics.

The time is opportune to hold bilateral talks. There should be an effective and high-level dialogue. Even as Nepal wishes to talk and resolve its issues with its neighbour, the Indian side is busy discounting Nepali sentiment by dismissing it as “China inspired” or a product of the K.P. Oli government’s decision to pull domestic public opinion behind it.

This is a crucial time when cooperation is needed to check the spread of COVID-19 but unfortunately, the two neighbours are engaged in a border dispute. India should respond to Nepal’s proposal for dialogue and solve this issue through mutual understanding.

India’s failure to do so will damage its credibility as a regional leader. China is seizing the opportunity to win the support of neighbouring countries by mounting a humanitarian assistance blitz in South Asia. But India is losing the trust of its neighbours.

When Nepal suggested the two sides talk, India said it did not want to talk to Nepal about border issues until the coronavirus outbreak is under control. Yet, the Indian side had no problems holding detailed negotiations with its larger neighbour, China, over the recent boundary differences. Is coronavirus the problem here? Or is ‘might is right’ the pathology affecting Indian diplomacy?

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