Indo-Nepal relations: Army Chief Naravane’s bridge-building
November 16, 2020 12:14 PM
Home Minister of Nepal announced that 100 more border posts will be built over the boundary lines of the new map to confront the Indian army.
As immediate neighbours, India and Nepal shared a unique relationship of friendship. (PTI Image)
By Col J P Singh
As immediate neighbours, India and Nepal shared a unique relationship of friendship till the recent past which is characterized by a common culture, deep-rooted people-to-people, military-to-military and above all the traditional kinship (roti-beti relationship). But the Parliament of Nepal gave a stunning blow to this relationship at a time when India was grappled with deadly pandemic on the one hand and Dragon’s warmongering in Ladakh on the other. It was then that the Parliament of Nepal voted unanimously to amend the Constitution to redraw the country’s political map and include the key strategic areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, along the border with India, otherwise Indian territory, as Nepalese territory. As if the deadly pandemic was not enough to deal with, why was Nepal adding to mutual hardships and hatred remains to be answered.
There may be differing perception over these areas but there wasn’t any visible dispute. The simmering dispute, if any, finally erupted on 13 June 2020 when Nepal Parliament took the neighbour head-on by allowing Indian territory to be included in its map. Adding fuel to the fire were verbal accusations and targeting of India by top Nepalese leaders. Home Minister of Nepal announced that 100 more border posts will be built over the boundary lines of the new map to confront the Indian army. Reacting to Nepalese claim over these areas, India invited Nepal for talks to resolve the border issue through diplomatic means but the offer was rejected outright.
Indo-Nepalese relations have soured in the recent past because of various political reasons. Nepal alleges too much Indian interference in internal affairs of Nepal. Kalapani issue they say is an old issue. But unilateral altering the maps by Nepal was mischievous. Kalapani is close to Lipulekh Pass on the India China border. It is an approved border trade point and route to holy/spiritual Mount Kailash-Mansarovar the pilgrimage which is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Large number of Indian undertake a spiritual pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar every year through Kalapani. With Nepal’s unilateral action of declaring the crossing point as Nepalese territory accompanied by other actions, if any, to deny this route to the holy pilgrimage next post-Corona summer can lead to military clashes.
Nepal is a landlocked country and shares 1850 km long border with five Indian States ie Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh & Uttarakhand. Border with these states is open and there has been a long tradition of free movement of people across these states. And ‘India-Nepal Treaty of Friendship 1950’, which is the bedrock of the past special relationship opens Nepal to the world. This treaty allows free movement of Nepalese trade and transit. Long Indo-Nepal border is lightly policed which is invariably exploited by terrorist outfits and insurgent groups with impunity. Large scale fake Indian currency is smuggled through Indo-Nepal border. Internal Security threats from Nepal is a major concern for India.
Nepal is very important to India and approximately 6,00,000 Indians are living/working there as workers, seasonal/migratory labourers, businessmen, traders and professionals in health, construction & IT and many Nepalese work in India. About 250 small and large rivers flow from Nepal to India and constitute an important part of the Ganges river basin. They are major sources of irrigation and power for Nepal and India.
India-Nepal military relationship is equally unique because 40,000 Nepalese nationals are soldiers in the Indian army. They have fought alongside Indian soldiers in every war. Chief of the Indian Army holds the Hon’y rank of General in the Nepalese Army and a reciprocal honour is conferred on Chief of the Nepal Army. As of now, 1.23 lakh Nepali nationals, as ex-servicemen of Indian Army, are residing in Nepal who are paid their pension by India.
But there has been anti-India feeling among certain ethnic groups in Nepal which has grown ever since K P Sharma Oli came to power in 2018 riding on the crest of shrill nationalism with a loud anti-India overtone. He is from the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) which is closer to the Chinese Communist Party. Thereby establishment of close diplomatic relations between Nepal and China and its growing influence in the politics of Nepal has also resulted in misunderstandings and declining traditional Indian leverage in Nepal. In 2020 when the world was grappled with COVID, PM Oli whipped up the anti-India sentiment by blaming India of spreading pandemic in Nepal. When PLA tried to unilaterally alter LAC in Ladakh in May-June 2020, Nepal challenged Indian claim over Kalapani which is seen as china betted grave provocation.
Luckily special relations between two armies are intact. Cooperation between the two armies encompasses nearly all facets of military activity. Indian training facilities are open to Nepali officers & men. Joint military exercises are held periodically. Cadets of Nepalese army join NDA & IMA for pre-commission training and their officers attend various professional courses including prestigious National Defense College (NDC). Current Chief of Nepal Army Gen Purna Chandra Thapa is alumni of NDC. Hence Gen M M Naravane’s recent visit to Nepal despite Kalapani tensions is part of the long-standing and customary friendship between the Indian and Nepalese armies and allows for renewing these strong bonds. India-Nepal army ties are epitomized by a unique tradition of conferment of Honorary rank of General to each other’s Chief. Gen Naravane received this honour from the President of Nepal. He also called on the prime minister of Nepal. He addressed the Army’s Command & Staff College and laid a wreath at Kathmandu Bir Smarak. Gen Naravane gifted medical equipment for two army hospitals and additional ventilators for Hospitals over and above 25 Tonnes of essential medicines earlier sent by India, which has been appreciated by Nepal. Indian Chief’s visit is seen as a turn in the tide.
All in all, Nepalese past inimical actions were immature. They have alienated the people of India who are their traditional friends. The blame goes to Nepalese leadership, not the public. However, their gesture to invite the Indian army chief and Chief’s decision to accept the invitation indicate mutual interest in moving towards bringing back the relations to pristine glory. Visit of the army chief has received unusual media attention and the public connect in both countries. Hopefully, it will pave the way for the more frequent high-level military to military engagements between India, Nepal and other inimical neighbours. Let the armies which are seen as warmonger be the torch-bearer of peace in Indo-Pacific. Pandemic should also teach us a lesson to value human life and brotherhood. Let pandemic be the reason for spreading brotherhood and militaries be the torchbearer of peace.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views are personal)