Last week, Nepal’s Army Chief Gen Purna Chandra Thapa inspected the newly set-up border outpost at Changru near Kalapani, where the Indian military has occupied on the country’s northwestern tip.
The visit was largely symbolic, and went virtually unnoticed in Nepal’s mass media. However, the press in India picked up the issue as yet another proof that Nepal was upping the ante. It surmised that the establishment of a border observation post in Nepal’s own territory (not even in the disputed area) was a grave provocation.
‘Controversy Stalks Nepal Army Chief’s Visit to India Border’ read a headline in The Hindu, which went on to quote an obscure digital portal quoting a mysterious military source as saying that Thapa was reluctant to make the trip, but was pressured by Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel. Other Indian media were shriller.
This is not the first time that the Indian press has highlighted leaks aimed at creating a rift between the Nepal Army chief and the civilian leadership. Last month, some papers reported that Gen Thapa had refused to issue a statement rebutting his Indian Army counterpart for insinuating that Nepal was raking up Kalapani at China’s behest.
India and Nepal have been waging ‘cartographic warfare’, issuing official maps about the territory they claim, and now the spat has entered the phase of establishing border observation posts (BOP).
BOPs have a long history along the ill-defined Himalayan border between India and China, and have resulted in frequent skirmishes. The most deadly of occurred on 15 June in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh when 20 Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese troops.
The Nepal-India dispute over Kalapani has been partly overshadowed by the Ladakh violence. But it has been building up ever since India established a border outpost there in the 1950s, officially included 370sq km of Nepali territory in its new map in November, then inaugurated a road to the Chinese border on 6 June.
Nepal has responded by pushing through a constitutional amendment with multi-partisan support to alter the map on its national emblem. It has also decided to upgrade its BOPs along both the India and China borders, including in the Kalapani region.
Nepal’s claim goes back to the 1816 Sugauli Treaty which designates the Kali river as the boundary between India and Nepal. India has named a smaller stream coming down from Lipu Lekh as the main Kali, whereas the watershed is actually on Limpiyadhura pass.
In 1962 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a letter to King Mahendra requesting to place an army base at Kalapani. King Mahendra, via Nepal’s ambassador in Delhi Yadunath Khanal, allowed a temporary border post.
Such cooperation was not unusual. In 1952, freshly independent India helped restructure the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) at the request of the Nepal government, and provided radios and operators at 17 border posts along Nepal’s border with China. Although the checkpoints had Indian personnel, they remained totally under RNA control.