The pandemic may have seized the formal attention but border issues continue unabated. While the dialogue with China has hinted towards effective disengagement in Ladakh, Nepal and India appear to be at a diplomatic deadlock. On Saturday, Nepal's lower house unanimously passed the second constitutional bill that legalises a new map including Indian territory. As per the map which got a unanimous nod from Nepal's lower house, the triangular-shaped land made by Limpiyadhura–Lipulekh–Kalapani features as part of Nepal sovereign territory. India's response that the artificial enlargement is not based on historical facts and hence "not tenable" effectively puts both countries at loggerheads over the border issue. The triangular piece of territory that Nepal vehemently claims is not a new topic in the bilateral talks. However, it is the first time that Nepal has made a significant stride towards those claims. It is unclear if Nepal's novel surge of enthusiasm to legally pursue territorial expansion stems from domestic political ambitions or repeated failure to hold bilateral discussions between foreign ministers of both countries. But the step surely puts neighbours at a tough spot. In fact, the current push for a territorial claim at a time when the pandemic has dampened economic indicators and distressed the medical infrastructure for both countries appears mistimed. But that is from a humanitarian point of view. From the anti-India rhetoric that might have played a hand in Nepal's latest push, there could not have been a better moment to put India at unease as the country disengages with China. Either way, Nepal's unilateral act, sidelining historic and cultural ties, does not augur well for regional harmony and friendly ties. It might give PM Oli political mileage in Nepal's ruling Communist Party but does not augur well for the ties that the South-Asian neighbours have cherished since historic times. And, with China lingering in the Himalayan shadow, the bilateral fallout could be a severe one.
As is the case with most border disputes, history serves as an important source in arguments placed for or against any claim. In this case, the Sugauli treaty of 1816 throws light on the land claim. The treaty was a result of a Nepalese defeat at the hands of British East India company and defined the origin of the Kali river as the Indo-Nepal border. However, as matters stand today, the neighbours differ on the origin of the river, subsequently cementing the basis for a contest. While India has controlled the area since independence, Nepal's late assertion of claim might stem from its decades-long political crisis which was not conducive for the country to facilitate border settlement with India. While Nepal's better-late-than-never stance hardens the country's ambition to claim the territory, it puts it at a disadvantage with its most-influential neighbour — India. Geographically landlocked, Nepal has been reliant on India for a lot more than they may boldly acknowledge in the face of newfound nationalism. And, India, on the other hand, should extend a hand to facilitate dialogue which it has conveniently resisted in the build-up to the amendment. Since the disputed territory has the crucial Lipulekh Pass which serves as an alternative route to Kailash Mansarovar, there is enough reason for India to resolve the territorial dispute with Nepal. More so since the Lipulekh Pass is also a strategic border point with China. However, with the Oli government taking the most drastic step — the second constitutional amendment — on their end to achieve their aspirations, the urgency, if there was any, for a bilateral meet to resolve the heat may have simmered altogether. Nepal might score full points in its diligence to pursue its territorial ambitions, however, it threatens a rather harmonious and cordial relation with India in that pursuit. Should India decide to take bold measures against Nepal in this regard, the latter could be isolated, allowing China to provide a helping hand that could very well be a debt trap as is evident from its expeditions across the continent. Hence, it is important for India to deliberate on the border dispute and facilitate a dialogue to at least calm things down, if not entirely resolve the issue.