Ambivalence of Nepali Congress about sovereignty on Kalapani

Many Nepali Congress leaders were vocal opponents of India’s move on Kalapani in 2019 and 2020. That was when they were in opposition. Now, they have chosen to respond with silence.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (File photo/RSS)

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 8 min.

The government led by Nepali Congress as well as Nepali Congress are on the receiving end of public criticisms, on social media and public sphere alike, for maintaining an eerie silence on recent remarks by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India constructed a road up to Lipulekh and work for further expansion from that point was underway.

As of this writing, neither the government nor Nepali Congress has made any formal official reaction to Modi’s statement. Main opposition CPN-UML, however, issued a strongly worded statement on January 11 drawing the attention of the government toward the illegal construction of infrastructures in Lipulekh by India.

“We actually waited for the government to speak about it first because there has to be a common official voice of the government on such a pressing issue rather than that of an individual political party,” Pradeep Gyawali, who was the foreign minister in the government led by K P Sharma Oli, informed me when I spoke to him for this article. “The Nepal government is being humiliated for staying silent on this matter and yet the government is not saying a word about it.”

Fury then, silence now

Nepali Congress leaders were among the vehement opponents when the government of India published the new map by incorporating in it the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura in November, 2019. They were equally vocal when India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the road to Lipulekh in May, 2020.

How much pressure, or solidarity, from Nepali Congress encouraged, or provoked, the government led by KP Sharma Oli to issue new administrative map of Nepal in what looked like Nepal’s ‘tit-for-tat’ response to India’s cartographic manipulation stands as a subject of study but Congress leaders back in 2019 and 2020 spoke out aggressively against Oli government until it decided to bring out the new map.

Social media users have unearthed some of their past tweets, apparently to pressure Congress leaders and the government to protest Modi’s remarks.

Entire Nepali Congress had thrown its weight behind the government of K P Oli when his cabinet decided to publish the new map and get it passed from the House of Representatives.

Among the fiercest defenders of territorial integrity at the time was Dr Minendra Rijal. He was the one who fiercely defended Nepal’s position in a television show with Arnab Goswami.  He said in no uncertain terms that his party may have differences with the government of the day on other matters but it firmly stands with the government on border issues.  The message resonated across the political spectrum. Rijal was showered with praises for standing up for the country.

Gagan Thapa drew the attention of the government equally strongly. “What kind of state mechanisms do we have that we come to know about India building roads in our territory from the Indian media?” He asked. This is the result of the government failing to strongly oppose when the Indian government published the new map incorporating our land in their map. “When will the government resist the encroachment from India?”

Nepal needs to stand politically united to establish sovereignty in the Kalapani area. In 2020, KP Oli led the process. Sher Bahadur Deuba should give it continuity.

Bishwa Prakash Sharma, then spokesperson of Nepali Congress, was as vocal. The country is looking for ‘government action’ on Kalapani highhandedness not ‘reaction,’ he wrote on Twitter and demanded that the government should immediately hold talks with New Delhi, Nepal should issue a new map and stand firm on it and India should remove its troops from Kalapani.

Dhana Raj Gurung would say he would rather be ready to bear the bullet on his chest but would not accept it when the neighbor encroached on even an inch of Nepali territory. He then demanded that the government of Nepal should immediately talk to the government of India and ask India to remove the Nepali territories from its (India’s) map.

One after another, Nepali political parties, intellectuals as well as civil society started to speak against India’s move—pressuring and perhaps also inspiring the Oli government to issue the new administrative map of Nepal.

None of these vocal critics of the yore—Thapa, Sharma and Gurung—looked up with great expectations across the political spectrum especially after they rose to the top posts of General Secretaries and Vice President (respectively) from the 14th General Convention, have been seen and heard in matters related to Modi’s remarks on Lipulekh road.

Since Nepal published the new map in May, 2020, there has not been any follow up except the Nepal-India Joint Commission meeting which “discussed the boundary matter.”

Misplaced priorities

The government, however, took up an unverified border encroachment issue with China promptly enough.  In September, 2021 the cabinet decided to form a High-Level Task Force to carry out a field study in Namkha area of Humla district “to determine whether China has encroached on Nepali territories there.”

This was at a time when whether China had actually encroached on Nepali territories was yet to be verified. Lawmakers from Humla had denied it. The government of K P Oli too had concluded, in June, 2020, that there was no border issue with China, while the Chinese side had dismissed it as  a ‘completely unfounded rumor.’

Perhaps to send a subtle message to both China and India, the government took up this matter with urgency. The study panel concluded its report and submitted it to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which, apparently, does not identify any encroachment but only mentions “some issues.” The Ministry of Home Affairs quickly responded by writing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking the latter to raise the matter with Beijing.

Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yanqi (L) calls on Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. (File photo)

Scholars have called it a misplaced priority of the government. Khadga KC, who is the professor of International Relations at Tribhuvan University, says that was an expression of bias by the government. “The way the government promptly picked up the Humla issue, even as evidence to prove the claim was yet to get by, clearly shows which neighbor this government is biased for,” he said. “While we had glaring issues with India to follow, the government went after an unverified claim of border encroachment by China.” For KC, the most important thing for this government to do would have been to take initiatives to follow up on border issues with India “at least for public posturing.” “But the first thing the government did was to pick an unproven issue with China,” he said.

To speak or not to speak

It can be imagined why the government has not spoken up on Modi’s fresh remarks on Lipulekh. Maybe there is a thinking among Nepali Congress leaders and those in the government that Modi was actually addressing an election rally and he was trying to influence the Uttarakhand constituency by presenting Lipulekh road as a success story of his government.

Or, maybe because the Indian side has rarely responded to Nepal’s protest notes, the government sees no value in sending one. For example, Nepal had sent as many as three protest notes to India after it published a new map in November, 2019 making appeal to resolve the border issues through dialogues. But India did what it would do—it kept building a road to Lipulekh and even inaugurated it.

Or the government needs to keep patience, it should think of the consequences of every move it takes and therefore it has chosen to remain silent.

Scholars of international relations do not accept such reasoning. Cost of silence on matters related to territorial integrity, they say, will be huge. “It will come to be seen as the Nepal government implicitly and quietly accepting India’s claims on Kalapani area,” said Khadga KC. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must immediately issue a statement reiterating Nepal’s position on the Kalapani area.” What else does the government’s silence mean? “It reflects poorly on lack of confidence, lack of popular legitimacy at home and lack of courage of the governing parties,” said KC. “It also shows the utter lack of sensitivity for the country.”

Entire Nepali Congress had thrown its weight behind the government of K P Oli when his cabinet decided to publish the new map and get it passed from the House of Representatives.

Dinesh Bhattarai, former diplomat and foreign policy expert, is of the opinion this is the issue about which Nepal needs to express concern. “Lipulekh is a territory of Nepal. When announcements are made that a road is being built through our territory, Nepal should not be seen unconcerned,” said Bhattarai.

If Nepal provided a consent to India to establish connectivity with China via our land, if Nepal had agreed to stand as a bridge for that connectivity, it would probably be a different matter, said Bhattarai. “No construction work on our territory can be carried out without our approval, consultation and consensus. As a sovereign nation, we need to be able to say this.”

 ‘Right place, right people’

Constructing roads or other infrastructures in Lipulekh and Kalapani area without Nepal’s approval is wrong even from the precept that India has set for itself. For example, India has long been opposing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) by saying that it passes through the part of Kashmir which India claims as its own and which is under occupation of Pakistan. Kalapani is in no way comparable to Kashmir. What the Indian side needs to understand is that when it builds infrastructure in the land that belongs to Nepal, Nepali people will surely react, it will surely breed resentment.

Kalapani is so deeply rooted in the collective consciousness of the Nepali people that Nepali political class can only stay silent about it for a short time because Nepal is a democracy and elections are scheduled for next year. As such the government is expected to issue a public notice, even if only symbolic. But the most important thing for the Nepali political parties to do is to prevent that patriotic spirit they exhibited in May, 2020 from dying down. When they stood united something substantive came about—both in terms of symbol and substance for unity for sovereignty.  Nepal needs to stand politically united to establish its sovereignty in the Kalapani area.

In 2020, K P Sharma Oli was in the government so he had a greater responsibility. Sher Bahadur Deuba will also have to lead that national unity process now.

In an interview with Nepal Live Today in October, 2021, Prakash Sharan Mahat (he was Deputy General Secretary of Nepali Congress then) told us what sounded like a logical argument. He had just returned from an India visit on the invitation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Did you raise the border issues and death of Jaya Singh Dhami during your meetings with Indian leaders?” We asked.

“Congress believes in communicating Nepal’s concerns with India “in the right place and with the right people,” he said. “We do not raise the issues that need to be discussed between the leaders of the two countries in the streets. We are not like those who stoke ultra-nationalistic rhetoric in the streets but keep silent when they meet the leaders with whom they should actually raise the issues.” He was hinting that UML chief KP Oli was raising a radical nationalist narrative in Nepal, projecting himself as the only nationalist leader, but was not really talking to Indian leaders about it. He also told us that he raised Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura’s territorial concerns with Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar. “I told him that we believe in raising our issues with the right persons in the right place. We don’t believe in creating hue and cry in the streets.”

Agreed. But is the government and Nepali Congress raising these fresh concerns with the ‘right persons’ now? 

Protecting the sovereignty of the Kalapani area is a collective responsibility of all parties now, especially that of Nepali Congress because it leads the government.  If we fail on this, the whole Kalapani episode will appear like a mere stunt, to the happiness of many.