Though tensions between India and Nepal over a few disputed pockets along the border have persisted for more than three decades, the first half of 2009 witnessed an increase in the frequency of border disputes. An obvious fallout of the disputes was the drumming up of anti-India feelings in Nepal and tension in bilateral relations. The issue was reflected in the Joint Statement released on 22 August 2009 at the end of the four day state visit of Nepalese Prime Minister, Madhav Nepal, to India, which stated that the two countries have agreed to “consider steps to further facilitate cross-border arrangements in order to resolve border related issues.”
The first event in the latest series of border tensions can be traced to January 30, 2009, and the second to June 1, 2009, when some sections of the Nepalese media claimed that the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) had encroached upon Nepalese land and constructed camps. News reports claimed that around 1800 Nepali villagers were driven out of around 22 border villages in Dang district by the SSB. Subsequent reports spiked up the number of displaced villagers from ‘Dang-Kapilvastu border area to Dang-Banke point’ to more than 6000. Quoting local sources, the news reports also alleged that Darjeeling forest officials had also tried to build infrastructure in Nepal’s Ilam district.
India strongly denied these news reports and claimed that they were false and fabricated allegations by certain people aimed at disturbing friendly relations between India and Nepal. The Indian embassy in Kathmandu also issued a statement asserting that it has cross-checked the facts from Indian and Nepalese district authorities and they had clarified that no such violation of the international border had taken place. Supporting India’s stand, Foreign Minister of Nepal also dismissed reports of Indian encroachment in Dang and Bara districts and stated that the investigation team sent by the Nepalese government did not come across any such incident. Despite these strong denials, passions in Kathmandu were ignited by certain anti-India elements such as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and by Chinese sponsored non-governmental organisations. Rejecting the official statement, a team of eighteen parliamentary parties of the Constituent Assembly headed by legislator Amik Sherchen inspected 22 border points from Bera to Dang to investigate the allegations. A second team comprising members of the Foreign Relations and Human Rights Committee of parliamentarians headed by lawmaker Padma Lal Bishwakarma also visited the ‘affected’ areas. Both teams concluded that SSB personnel had indeed violated the international border, encroached upon Nepalese territory and had also harassed Nepalese villagers. Similar incidences of Nepalese people encroaching upon Indian land in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been reported in the Indian media in the past few years.
The main reason for the eruption of such border disputes between India and Nepal is the ever shifting course of the turbulent Himalayan Rivers, which define the international boundary between the two countries in many areas. These rivers keep changing their courses every now and then, thereby throwing up new territories and submerging old land. Although the riverine boundary is determined on the principle of a fixed boundary, the shifting course of rivers results in adverse possessions. In other words, because the river dissolves old lands and creates new ones, the new lands are “illegally” occupied by people beyond the border. So, what was once Nepalese territory is occupied by Indians and vice versa. This process creates confusion and tensions among people residing in these ever changing border landscapes. The problem is compounded by submergence, destruction and removal of border pillars, a fact also noted by the parliamentarians’ team in its June 2009 report. Also, the deployment of SSB and construction of watch towers, check posts and border outposts along the border, which is a regular border management activity, is many a times misconstrued by Nepalese as aggressive posturing by India. This impression gets reinforced because there is no corresponding border guarding force on the Nepalese side. The absence of a border guarding force on the Nepalese side also makes it difficult to establish an institutional mechanism for interaction between local commanders, which helps mitigate misunderstandings and nip in the bud such rumours of border encroachment. Although Nepal is committed to deploying a border guarding force along the Indo-Nepal border, till date it has only made half-hearted attempts in this regard.
Interestingly, prior to independence, a joint team comprising officials from India and Nepal used to inspect the boundary every year to detect encroachment, ill-defined boundary, missing or displaced boundary pillars, and rectify these. Unfortunately, this practice was abandoned after independence with deleterious consequences. Tensions along the disputed tracts of the border gradually started mounting and in the absence of a bilateral mechanism to address them they began to adversely impact on bilateral relations. It was amidst such a situation that efforts were undertaken to resolve the contentious border problem. In this direction, the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee (JTC) was set up in 1981 to resolve the border dispute and complete the demarcation of the Indo-Nepal border. The JTC, in turn, constituted the Joint Working Group (JWG) in 1994, which was mandated to examine the relevant facts regarding the western sector including the Kalapani issue, and if necessary, suggest measures to resolve the problem.
After years of painstaking surveys, deliberations and extensions, the JTC was successful in delineating 98 per cent of the border on strip maps, which were signed by experts from both countries in December 2007. Now, the Indian government is awaiting the Nepalese government’s consent to formalise the strip maps. Once these maps are formalised, demarcation of the boundary on the ground would start by checking and reinstalling border pillars. This would solve all the problems along the border except in two disputed pockets, viz. Kalapani and Susta, which can only be resolved through a political dialogue. Meanwhile, notes of dissent could be heard in Nepal regarding the validity of the strip maps. Some Nepalese experts have questioned the competence of the Nepalese officials in the JTC for accepting to adopt the ‘Persian Map’ (maps with urdu script made in 1874) for delineating the Indo-Nepal border. They allege that in doing so Nepal has lost 1630 hectares of Nepalese territory to India. If such dissenting voices gain prominence, the Nepalese government might find it difficult to formalise these maps soon.
In the interim, to find solutions for such border disputes as witnessed in January and June 2009, both governments have agreed to set up a high-level bilateral mechanism. This, it is believed, would help in mitigating misunderstandings, countering false allegations and in tackling anti-India propaganda in Nepal arising from such border disputes. It is to be emphasized here that such a mechanism should, at best, be treated as ad hoc. For a long term solution of the border dispute, proper and early demarcation of the Indo-Nepal border is a must. Any procrastination in this regard would have adverse consequences for bilateral relations. As it is, the process of delineation of the boundary by the JTC has been a long drawn process and a hostage to political instability in Nepal, and marked by complacency and poor coordination between the expert teams.
Border disputes are not only a manifestation of deteriorating bilateral relations but, in many cases, a cause for strained relations. The need of the hour, therefore, is speedy implementation of the delineated boundary on strip maps and an early resolution of the Kalapani and Susta disputes. Only when the boundary is demarcated, other issues of border management between India and Nepal can be tackled effectively.