The dispute over the tri-junction of India, China and Nepal on the remotest northwestern tip of the country is the latest strain on bilateral relations.
The Sugauli Treaty of 1816 between the East India Company and the defeated Gorkhalis clearly stated that the main channel of the Mahakali River would form a shrunken Nepal’s western border with British India. But the Survey of India maps of 1850 and 1856 slyly tucked the area back into Garhwal.
Successive rulers in faraway Kathmandu were either unaware or did not care that the boundary had been moved. After the Chinese annexation of Tibet in the 1950s, Nepal allowed India to put up 17 military checkpoints along its northern border. China and India fought a fierce Himalayan war in 1962 during which the Indian military set a base on the strategic Lipu Lekh Valley. That base is still there.
In 1969, Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista got Delhi to remove all its checkpoints on the Nepal-China border, except the one in Kalapani. Was Lipu Lekh a quid pro quo for the removal of the other bases? Did King Mahendra sacrifice the region in return for Indian support for his takeover? Historians are divided.
Whatever the case, the elected rulers of Nepal after 1990 used anti-Indian nationalism for political benefit, but did little to press Nepal’s legitimate claim over the territory. K P Oli, who now heads the united NCP in government, was one of the most vocal in Parliament demanding that India return the area. Current Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattrarai even led a student group to Kalapani to raise the Nepali flag in the tract occupied by India.