Context: Recently, the Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said India is open to dialogue with all its neighbours responding to sharp comments emanating from Kathmandu regarding the Kalapani territorial dispute. 

Current scenario:

  • The dispute over Kalapani between Nepal and India was revived in November 2019 when India published a revised political map showing the newly created Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. 
    • The delineation remained identical but the name Kali river had been deleted.
  • Nepal has published a revised official map incorporating the territory from the Limpiyadhura source of the Kali to Kalapani and Lipulekh pass in the northeast of the triangular region as its territory.
    • The new alignment adds 335 sq km to Nepali territory, territory that has never been reflected in a Nepali map for nearly 170 years.
    • Nepal’s Parliament has taken up the constitution amendment bill that would give constitutional status to the new Nepali map, which includes the Kalapani region. 
  • Underlying reasons are far more complex: Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s exploitation of the matter, by raising the banner of Nepali nationalism and painting India as a hegemon, is part of a frequent pattern that indicates that relations between the two countries need a fundamental reset.
    • Nepali nationalism: Under the Nepali Constitution, a new Prime Minister enjoys a guaranteed two-year period during which a no-confidence motion is not permitted. 
      • This ended in February unleashing simmering resentment against Mr. Oli’s governance style and performance. His inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic added to the growing disenchantment. 
      • Within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) there was a move to impose a ‘one man, one post’ rule that would force Mr. Oli to choose between being NCP co-chair or Prime Minister.
    • The China card has provided Nepal the leverage to practise their version of non-alignment. China is pursuing a more assertive foreign policy and considers Nepal an important element in its growing South Asian footprint.
  • “Neighbourhood first”: But the relationship took a nosedive in 2015 when India first got blamed for interfering in the Constitution-drafting in Nepal and then for an “unofficial blockade” that generated widespread resentment against the country. It reinforced the notion that Nepali nationalism and anti-Indianism.
    • India has ignored the changing political narrative:India remained content that its interests were safeguarded by quiet diplomacy even when Nepali leaders publicly adopted anti-Indian postures.


  • Both India and Nepal lay claim to Kalapani: The map showed Kalapani as part of Pithoragarh district. Nepal protested immediately and drew attention to the lingering issue.
  • India inaugurated the Darchula-Lipulekh pass link road, cutting across the disputed Kalapani area which is used by Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar. Nepal hit back by summoning the Indian Ambassador to Nepal.

“KALA PANI” area: 

  • Kalapani is a territory disputed between India and Nepal, but under Indian administration as part of the Pithoragarh district in the Uttarakhand state. 
  • It is marked by the Kalapani River, one of the headwaters of the Kali River in the Himalayas at an altitude of 3600 meters. 
  • The valley of the Kalapani forms the Indian route to Kailash–Manasarovar, an ancient pilgrimage site. Kalapani lies at a tri-junction of India, China and Nepal. 
  • The trijunction of India–China–Nepal borders was on the dividing line of the Kali River watershed and Tinkar River watershed.
  • The area is the largest territorial dispute between Nepal and India consisting of at least 37,000 hectares of land in the High Himalayas.

The Dispute: The dispute is mainly because of the varying interpretation of the origin of the river and its various tributaries that slice through the mountains.

  • Nepal’s view: Nepal laid claim to all the areas east of the Lipu Gad/Kalapani River. The Nepalese contention was that the Lipu Gad was in fact the "Kali River" up to its source. Nepal wanted the western border shifted 5.5 km westwards so as to include the Lipulekh Pass.
    • Nepali authorities claim that people living in the low-density area were included in the Census of Nepal until 58 years ago.
    • Five years ago, Foreign Minister of Nepal claimed that the late King Mahendra had “handed over the territory to India”.
    • Recently, a committee formed by the Nepal government to study this claim submitted a report to the Prime Minister Oli during his first tenure. It claimed that India had “occupied” an additional 62 sq km land.
  • Indian view: India denied the Nepalese contention that Lipu Gad was the Kali River. In the Indian view, the Kali River begins only after Lipu Gad is joined by other streams arising from the Kalapani springs. Therefore, the Indian border leaves the midstream of the river near Kalapani and follows the high watershed of the streams that join it.
  • The 38 km2; of area between the Lipu Gad/Kalapani River and the watershed of the river is the disputed Kalapani territory.
    • Administrative records dating back to the 1830s show that the Kalapani area had been administered as part of the Pithoragarh district (then Almora district). 

Causes of the dispute:

  •  Treaty of Sugauli 
    • Nepal’s claims to the region is based on this river as it became the marker of the boundary of the kingdom of Nepal following the Treaty of Sugauli signed between the Gurkha rulers of Kathmandu and the East India Company after the Gurkha War/Anglo-Nepal War (1814-16). The treaty was ratified in 1816. 
    • According to the treaty, Nepal lost the regions of Kumaon-Garhwal in the west and Sikkim in the east.
    • According to Article 5, the King of Nepal gave up his claims over the region west of the river Kali which originates in the High Himalayas and flows into the great plains of the Indian subcontinent. 
    • According to the treaty, the British rulers recognised Nepal’s right to the region that fell to the east of the river Kali.
    • Near Garbyang village in Dharchula Tehsil of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, there is a confluence of different streams coming from north-east from Kalapani and north-west from Limpiyadhura. 
    • The early British survey maps identified the north-west stream, Kuti Yangti, from Limpiaduria is the origin, but after 1857 changed the alignment to Lipu Gad, and in 1879 to Pankha Gad, the north-east streams, thus defining the origin as just below Kalapani. Nepal accepted the change and India inherited this boundary in 1947.
  • After Maoist revolution in China in 1949:
    • Created deep misgivings in Nepal, and India was ‘invited’ to set up 18 border posts along the Nepal-Tibet border. 
    • The westernmost post was at Tinkar Pass, about 6 km further east of Lipulekh. In 1953, India and China identified Lipulekh Pass for both pilgrims and border trade. 
    • In 1961, King Mahendra visited Beijing to sign the China-Nepal Boundary Treaty that defines the zero point in the west, just north of Tinkar Pass. By 1969, India had withdrawn its border posts from Nepali territory. 
    • The base camp for Lipulekh remained at Kalapani, less than 10 km west of Lipulekh. In their respective maps, both countries showed Kalapani as the origin of Kali river and as part of their territory. 
  • After The 1996 Treaty of Mahakali :
    • The Pancheshwar multipurpose hydel project, the issue of the origin of Kali river was first raised in 1997. 
    • The matter was referred to the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee that had been set up in 1981 to re-identify and replace the old and damaged boundary pillars along the India-Nepal border.
    •  The Committee clarified 98% of the boundary, leaving behind the unresolved issues of Kalapani and Susta (in the Terai).
    • It was subsequently agreed that the matter would be discussed at the Foreign Secretary level. 
    • The project to convert the 80-km track from Ghatibagar to Lipulekh into a hardtop road began in 2009 without any objections from Nepal.
  • Different interpretation:
    • According to Nepal’s experts, the east of the Kali river should begin at the source of the river. The source according to them is in the mountains near Limpiyadhur.
    • While Nepal’s claim of the territory east of Kali is based on the Limpiyadhura origin, India says the river actually takes the name Kali near Kalapani.
    • India on the other hand says the border begins at Kalapani which India says is where the river begins. 

Why is Lipulekh Pass important ?

  • The region juts into the Himalayas and is connected to the other side of the mountain range through the Lipulekh pass, which has been used for centuries by Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims and tourists on their way to Kailash Mansarovar. 
  • The Himalayas have several passes that connect the Gangetic region with the Tibetan plateau but Lipulekh is strategically located as it is nearest to the heart of the Indian state or the National Capital Region and can be of particular concern.

Source: the tribune

  • Significance of Lipulekh was highlighted during the 1962 war: During that war, Chinese forces used the pass of Se La in Tawang and reached the Brahmaputra plains in the east. 

Where have China and India erred?

  • 2015 Lipulekh agreement between India and China: It renewed India’s Mansarovar pilgrimage connection. Neither side consulted Nepal or sought its opinion before that agreement that boosted pilgrimage and trade to Tibet.

Political maturity is needed to find creative solutions that can be mutually acceptable.Such brinkmanship only breeds mistrust and erodes the goodwill at the people-to-people level. 




Image Source: the hindu