The facts are now well known: while India and Nepal were both under COVID-19 lockdown the Indian defence minister in the presence of top military brass this month remotely inaugurated a road to Lipu Lekh pass on the Chinese border through Nepali territory. Kathmandu protested, issued its own map, and Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane insinuated that Kathmandu was being put up to it by Beijing.
What is not so clear is why India chose this particular time to open what it knew would be a can of worms. Why did the Army chief drag China into the picture? And is there a connection between the India-Nepal map war with tensions flaring at flashpoints along India’s own Himalayan border with China.
While the official Indian statement reiterated that the disputed region is its territory and rejected Nepal’s map, it also said it was hopeful that Nepal would create the environment to resolve the dispute through talks.
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However, the Indian media has taken a much more strident line, reminiscent of high decibel tv talk shows about Pakistan. Nepal is accused of being a Chinese puppet, and Prime Minister K P Oli is singled out for special vilification. Tv channels are rife with conspiracy theories by an array of talking heads.
The Indian mainstream media has been the pushing the narrative that tiny Nepal would not dare stand up to India like this without Chinese backing. They say that for the first time, the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of External Affairs, the Indian Army and intelligence, the ruling BJP and its progenitor RSS, are all on the same page on Nepal.
Without citing that it was India that for the first time incorporated Lipu Lekh into its official map in November last year and then inaugurated the border road, Indian commentators have played up Chinese and Indian eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in the Pangong Tso region in Ladakh concluding that the dispute at the Nepal tri-junction is also somehow part of this new Chinese offensive.
What the Indian editorialising has failed to notice is that there is unprecedented resentment in Kathmandu against China, too, for not backing Nepal’s position on the Lipu Lekh controversy, with op-eds and cartoons in the media openly ridiculing Beijing for being complicit.
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Independent analysts agree that India is using the China card at this time to distract domestic attention away from its economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus lockdown. Dragging China into the Lipu Lekh row also helps India deflect criticism that it is once more bullying a tiny neighbour.
For Nepal, there is no other option but to resolve this diplomatically, and successive governments in Nepal had been pushing for talks, which New Delhi has tarried.
After India produced its map in November, the Nepal government directed its Survey Department to update its own map that went beyond Lipu Lekh to also include the Limpiyadhura watershed east of the Kali River as Nepal territory. But Prime Minister Oli had kept the map under wraps, hoping for negotiations with India. It was only after the road was inaugurated that the new map was officially released.
While the Indian government is playing to its domestic gallery by magnifying Nepal as a national security threat, its unilateral move has united Nepal’s bickering political parties like nothing before. By demonising K P Oli, India provided unexpected relief to an embattled prime minister, defusing calls for his immediate resignation from a rival faction within the ruling party, and even got the opposition Nepali Congress to support the government.
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The row has also allowed Oli once more to play the nationalism card to the hilt, just as he had during the 2015 Indian blockade and which helped propel him to power in elections two years later.
Because of proximity and asymmetry, Nepal’s only recourse is negotiation, and the first step is to create a conducive environment for it by de-escalating the rhetoric. Nepal’s politicians and media commentators must not stoop as low as their shrill counterparts across the border. It is not necessary to react to every Indian punch with a counterpunch, and this is advice the sharp-tongued Prime Minister Oli should also heed.
The Nepal Communist Party had been pushing to fast-track a Constitution amendment to change the national seal to represent Nepal’s external boundary. This would have lead to further physical distancing at a time when Nepal’s strategy is to talk.
Such an amendment, though symbolic, would be irreversible, creating complications in future. Better sense has prevailed, and the amendment proposal was removed at the last moment from Parliament’s schedule on 27 May.
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Although India’s government and the security apparatus may share the same view on Nepal, op-eds by former Indian ambassadors and Nepal-watchers in the Indian media have expressed concern about New Delhi upping the ante during the coronavirus crisis, and eroding goodwill towards India in Nepal. They have been especially critical of the Indian Army chief’s statement dragging China into the picture.
In the background to all this is the larger battle within India between supporters of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindutva agenda and the secular-left forces. Some of the fallout of that confrontation is being felt in Communist-ruled Nepal as well.
The governments of India and Nepal would do well to spend more time addressing the fallout of their COVID-19 lockdowns — jump-starting their economies, and rescuing millions of jobless trudging across, and between, their territories.