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01/06/2020 3:03 PM IST

How Nepal's New Map Bill Could Impact Ties With India: Former Diplomat Explains

Rakesh Sood, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, says the two countries should stop digging out old British survey maps to support sovereignty claims and engage in dialogue.

MONEY SHARMA via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepal Prime Minister KP Oli during a ceremonial reception in New Delhi on February 20, 2016. 

Even as India continues to have a border stand-off with China, another upset neighbour, Nepal, is moving ahead with a constitutional amendment bill to change the country’s map. 

The government of Nepal on Sunday tabled the bill to approve a new map which shows areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura—some of which also features on India’s map—as part of its territory.

India has rejected the map, which was released by Nepal on 20 May. In a media briefing, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had said that the “revision is a unilateral act and it is not based on historical facts and evidences”. “Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by us,” he added. 

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Nepal has also been upset over a new road inaugurated by Union Minister Rajnath Singh on 8 May which connects Dharchula and Lipulekh, The Indian Express reported. India had rejected Kathmandu’s protest over the construction of the road, saying that it “lies completely within the territory of India”.  

Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali said the country is in constant touch with India over the map row. “Date and modality of informal talks are not fixed yet, but we are in constant touch with the Indian side… We want to resolve the issue through diplomatic means,” The Print quoted him as saying at a parliamentary committee.

HuffPost India spoke to Rakesh Sood, who served as Indian Ambassador to Nepal from 2008 to 2011, over email about the way ahead for India-Nepal relations and what he thinks about reports that suggest Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is using this issue to distract from his government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis.

If the bill to grant constitutional guarantee to the new map is passed by the Nepal Parliament, how will it affect Delhi’s bilateral relations with Kathmandu?

If the Nepal Parliament passes the constitutional amendment bill, I am afraid it will make it more difficult to resolve matters, either now or in the future. Therefore I do hope that saner thought will prevail and both countries take steps towards dialogue and engagement instead of indulging in rhetoric and brinkmanship.

Do you think the statement by the Indian army chief that Nepal’s objections are “at the behest of someone else” has worsened the situation? Nepal’s Defence minister Ishwor Pokhrel reacted strongly to the statement.

I think that Indian Army chief Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane’s statement was insensitive. The Nepal Army showed maturity by not responding. Nepal’s Defence Minister Pokhrel’s reaction is unhelpful unless he wants to damage the relations between the two institutions.

(Ed—Naravane had said that Nepal’s objections to the new road in Uttarakhand were “at the behest of someone else”, alluding to China. Nepal Defence minister Ishwor Pokhrel responded that it was an “insulting statement made by ignoring Nepal’s history, our social characteristics and freedom”.)

Pokhrel said Nepal has been seeking talks on the border issue since November last year, when India published a revised political map. Why has India been dragging its feet on talks with Nepal?

I do think that India should have engaged in talks. It is also possible that the delay was not intentional but coincidental because the Indian Ambassador Manjeev Puri was retiring at the end of December and his successor only got to Kathmandu after two months. Further, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale was retiring at the end of January. Nevertheless, even with these changes, I do think that at least a telephone conversation or a video conference could have taken place. 

PRAKASH MATHEMA via Getty Images
Activists hold placards during a protest against India's newly inaugurated road, near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu on May 12, 2020.

With another border dispute (with China) raging, can India afford to delay resolving the issue with Nepal? Kathmandu has said that it cannot wait for the Covid-19 crisis to be over to hold talks over boundary issues.

Boundary issues take a long time to sort out. After all, Nepal did not raise the issue for 50 years after India became independent. The road construction began in 2008 and Nepal did not object to the road construction. The reason is that in such remote areas, roads help people in both countries because India and Nepal share an open border with free movement of people and goods. Creating artificial deadlines is not a helpful way to move forward.

What do you think is the way forward for both India and Nepal?

The way forward is simple — stop the rhetoric; refrain from unilateral actions that make the problem more intractable; stop digging out old British survey maps from 1820s and 1850s to support sovereignty claims because surveying techniques in those days were still developing; and, engage in dialogue with a view to resolving issues in a spirit of give and take.

Some Indian media reports suggest that KP Sharma Oli is using this controversy to hide his government’s “incompetence” and differences within his own party or may have responded due to domestic political factors. How do you see this issue?

India has always been a convenient scapegoat when Nepal’s domestic politics is passing through a turbulent phase. At such moments, politicians inevitably engage in donning a nationalist mantle and PM Oli is no exception. India should have sensed it and refrained from a provocative move such as the inauguration of the road in early May by the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh or the statement by Gen Naravane. Having been in government for nearly four decades, it is likely that the Defence Ministry would not have consulted the Foreign Ministry regarding the inauguration which was a virtual event anyway. However, the problem precedes PM Oli and if not this, I am sure that as a skilled politician he would have found another reason to invoke nationalism.

The way forward is simple — stop the rhetoric; refrain from unilateral actions that make the problem more intractable; stop digging out old British survey maps from 1820s and 1850s to support sovereignty claims; and, engage in dialogue with a view to resolving issues in a spirit of give and take.