New road triggers territorial dispute between India, Nepal

Bilal Afridi

KATHMANDU: A new road opened by New Delhi a day back which passes through the disputed territory has roused territorial dispute between India and Nepal, with Kathmandu asking new Delhi to refrain from carrying out any activity ‘inside its territory’.

The link road, opened a day earlier by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, connects Dharchula in the India state of Uttarakhand to the Lipu Lekh pass near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – India’s border with China. India says the new road will facilitate the movement of pilgrims to Kailash-Mansarovar, claiming that it will significantly cut down the duration of the journey. The southern side of the Lipu Lekh pass, called the Kalapani territory, is a disputed region between India and Nepal.

“Delighted to inaugurate the Link Road to Mansarovar Yatra. The (Border Roads Organization) BRO achieved road connectivity from Dharchula to Lipulekh (China Border) known as Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra Route.  Also flagged off a convoy of vehicles from Pithoragarh to Gunji through video conferencing,” Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted after inaugurating the road.

Nepal has asked India to refrain from carrying out any activity inside ‘its territory’, after expressing regret over New Delhi’s inauguration of the road in the disputed territory at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet, China.

Lipu Lekh Pass is on Line of Actual Contact with China and is of huge strategic importance. Observers believe that India’s move to open road aims at monitoring Chinese movements, though New Delhi claims that the road is to facilitate pilgrims.

“This unilateral act runs against the understanding reached between the two countries including at the level of prime ministers that a solution to boundary issues would be sought through negotiation,” Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

In a separate statement, Nepal’s ruling Nepal Communist Party accused India of undermining Nepal’s sovereignty.

India, however, rejected Nepal’s statement, claiming that the new road lies ‘completely within’ its territory. “The recently inaugurated road section in Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand lies completely within the territory of India.

The road follows the pre-existing route used by the pilgrims of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra,” Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, adding that both countries are in the process of planning foreign secretary-level talks, the dates for which will be finalised once the two governments successfully deal with the coronavirus crisis. “India is committed to resolving outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue and in spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations with Nepal,” the spokesperson said.

A treaty signed between Nepal and British India in 1816 determined the Makhali river, that runs through Kalapani, as the boundary between the two neighbours. However, the river has many tributaries that meet at Kalapani. For this reason, India claims that the river begins at Kalapani but Nepal says that it begins from Lipu Lekh pass, which is the source of most of its tributaries.

Last year saw fresh tensions between the two countries when a new map of India, released in November, showed Kalapani within its state of Uttarakhand, much to the distress of Nepal. The Lipu Lekh pass also serves a strategic importance for India as a key point to monitor Chinese troop movement.

On Saturday, several people gathering outside the Indian embassy in Kathmandu to protest against the road, despite a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. According to AFP news agency, at least 38 protesters were detained. Many people in Nepal also took to Twitter with the hashtag #backoffindia.

Experts and politicians in Nepal also took to social media and other platforms to oppose the Indian move soon after the news came out. “The Government of Nepal should immediately ask the Government of India in writing to stop construction or any activity that changes the status quo unilaterally in the Lipulekh area, which lies in Nepal’s territory, until the border point between Nepal and India is fixed bilaterally,” tweeted former foreign secretary Madhuraman Acharya.

Expressing serious concern over the Indian encroachment of the Nepali territory, former foreign minister Kamal Thapa urged the Nepal government to immediately take initiatives to hold talks with the Indian side.

“Limpiyadhura/Lipulekh is a sovereign Nepali territory. Instead of removing the Indian military forces from the territory, it has come to the light that a new road link has been constructed for transportation up to there. I condemn this type of act on the part of the Indian government. I urge the government to take necessary initiative for the same without any further delay,” Thapa tweeted.