Geopolitics of Border Dispute in South Asia: A Case Study of Nepal-India Border Dispute

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By Saroj Kumar Aryal

This article aims to analyze Nepal-India border disputes row of 2020 from a perspective of changing geopolitics of South Asia. The sphere of ‘geopolitics’ as a subject of study has evolved extensively in the 21st century. The classical definition of geopolitics can be coined as it is the study of how the political and geographical environment in which a force is projected — whether ideological, cultural, economic, or military — affects and is influenced by it. However, now each activity in the world system that involves great powers is connected with geopolitics. For instance, geopolitics of space and  the sea, which does not necessarily have to be connected with geography. The existing border disputes in South Asia have always been subjected to a geopolitical study including the one between Nepal and India.

Intractable and actual territorial disputes exist in South Asia just like they do elsewhere in the world. Regional political rivalry and competitions affect them both directly and indirectly. But most of the major border disputes that exist in South Asia are an outcome of the colonial past. The first border dispute due to colonial mismanagement was the Durand Line, which split Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1893, was the first major border dispute in contemporary South Asia. Without any consideration of ethnicity or history, drawing a line on paper was simpler than doing so on the ground. It essentially “cut the Pukhtoon people in half” and “sliced through tribes, villages, and clans.” As a result, the Pashtun people were split between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. The second dispute is the ‘Radcliffe Line’. In the west, India and Pakistan are divided by the Radcliffe Lines, and in the east, India and Bangladesh. Since the moment they were established in 1947, at the time of India’s separation from Great Britain, the country’s two borders have been a source of conflict. In a very remarkable turn of events, the line was set solely by one man, an Oxford University law professor with little background in geopolitics, international relations, or governance — but most significantly, in the South Asian region. The Hindu and Muslim populations of India were to be divided into two countries, and Sir Cyril Radcliffe was called upon by the British government in India to determine the boundaries within five weeks. The border dispute in ‘Kashmir Region’ is considered as one of the major border disputes in the world. And the third dispute is the ‘McMahon line’. Since Tibet is considered to be a part of China, the McMahon line, which separates India from Tibet, is essentially the root of the territorial dispute between India and China. Again, due to this boundary issue, India and China fought a brief war in 1962, and there have already been significant conflicts in the disputed territory between India and China that have the potential to escalate to a major conflict. The line was chosen in 1914 at the Shimla Accord and named for Henry McMahon, the then-foreign secretary of British India and principal negotiator on their behalf. One thing in common with these border disputes is that they are the main source of geopolitical anchor of South Asia till date. The India-China competition, Pakistan-India relations, small state-big state complexities in the region are all the outcome of the existing border disputes between the states in South Asia. The similar pattern of border dispute and the geopolitical tussle can be traced in Nepal-India relations as well.  

112824198 nepal disputed areas map 10km b 640 nc

The 2020 border dispute between India and Nepal in the Lipulekh-Limpiadora-Kalapani region has harmed the two countries’ long-standing ties. The Sugauli Treaty, made in 1815 with the British East India Company, established the boundaries of modern-day Nepal. It claimed that the western boundary of Nepal, the subject of the current dispute, was marked by the Kali River’s course, known as the Mahakali downstream. However, it didn’t come with a map, and if there was one, it hasn’t been located. Two tributaries of the Mahakali begin at Lipukekh and Limpiyadhura, respectively. Which of these two tributaries would be used to draw the boundary according to the treaty’s definition of the Kali? Both India and Nepal claim that the Kali River originates in Limpiyadhura.

The conflict was not just localized at the state level; it also affected the relations between the two nationals on a personal level, causing a rush of hostile feelings. A political map published by the Indian government in November 2019 shows the Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura-Kalapani region as a section of the Pithoragarh district in the Uttarakhand state. The Government of Nepal protested this action because the map belonged to the country’s Darchula district. Additionally, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali reaffirmed that diplomatic channels should be used to settle border issues and outlined the government of Nepal’s position on the protection of the nation’s external boundaries. These tensions between the two nations dominated discussions among participants, who cited various archival records, the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty between India and Nepal, China’s role, and other boundary disputes between the two. On May 8, 2020, the Indian Defense Minister effectively opened the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, a connector road that runs through the disputed territory from Dharchula to Lipulekh. While China was explicitly referenced by Indian army chief Naravane, Nepal denounced India’s action and said that it was done at China’s “behest.” The Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage route across the Lipulekh Pass, according to Nepal’s incorrect accusation of China, was the consequence of the 2015 India-China quid pro quo agreement. Second, New Delhi attempted to incorporate China in the Nepal-India border disputes since they coincided with a border standoff between the two Asian giants, viewing the entire Himalayan frontier in South Asia through the prism of great power conflict.

The geopolitics of the Nepal-India border dispute have three broader facets. First, the convergence of geopolitics and nationalism. As a philosophy or political ideal, nationalism assumes the presence of a constrained “imagined community” with a unique set of interests that is closely connected to a state, as denoted by the hyphen in “nation-state.” One of the main principles of this conceptual method of politics is the territorial integrity of that state, or the notion that its physical borders cohere to the bounds of the “imagined community.” The state is therefore tasked with defending the interests of its unique national community by preserving its sovereignty and acting as a barrier against foreign rule, while also promoting the welfare of its citizens and ensuring their equality before the law. For both Nepal and India, the silver lining between geopolitics and nationalism has played a vital role in shaping the perception toward each other after 2020. On the one hand, India’s imagination of their source of nationalism is based on the civilizational greatness of the ancient subcontinent. And on the other hand, Nepal’s source of nationalism was based on the socio-political oppression of India in the modern political system. Thus, both the sources of nationalism and the overlapping geopolitics somehow contributed to the hostility.

Second, the rise of China factors into South Asian geopolitics. Especially after the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China’s presence in the whole of South Asia has increased massively. The second-largest and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world is China. China is the world’s largest crude oil importer, thus it needs to take comprehensive steps to guarantee its energy supply. China intends to set the pace for economic development in Asia through the BRI. Nepal being too dependent on India historically, found a new partner in China as it offers the alternative to the one way dependency which has become counterproductive in few stances in the past. Thus, the 2020 border dispute has mostly been seen by Indian scholars as an outcome of China’s growing political influence in Nepal. Despite the fact that these statements undermine Nepal’s capability to make decisions for itself, the statement holds little truth. The increasing hostility between India and China has a splash over impact on Nepal-India relationship as well.

Third, small state-big state complexity. In comparison with its giant neighbor India, Nepal is very small in terms of every socio-political indicator. Thus, India’s action and intention toward Nepal, always has been perceived skeptically. The big state- small state complexities in South Asia is one of the major factors that hampers regional integration. So, same factor also has a major role in playing when we intend to analyze Nepal’s stance and the response on the border dispute of 2020.

*Saroj Kumar Aryal is a Ph.D. researcher at Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


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