Demystifying the road in the heart of the Indo-Nepal border dispute

Nepal claims the road goes through its territory and referred to the Sugauli treaty with the British in 1816 as proof. India rejects the claim and points out that the road was not built overnight

 Illustration by Bhanu Bhattarai (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
Illustration by Bhanu Bhattarai (Photo Courtesy: Twitter)
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Anand Lal Banerjee

The recent inauguration of a 75 Km road by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh appears to have soured Indo-Nepal relations. The road, which will shorten the time taken to reach Kailash Mansarovar, has resulted in a public and diplomatic protest by the Nepal Government, a new map released by Nepal and establishment of a Nepal Armed Police Force border outpost in Changru village district Darchula, Nepal.

Helicopters were used to transport personnel to the outpost in a show of determination by the Nepal government, owing to hostile terrain and lack of roads. Nepal had to flex its muscles for the benefit of its citizens, who felt aggrieved over reports that the Indian road had gone through Nepalese territory.

Nepal claims that the Lipulekh pass, Kalapani and Limpadhura, areas through which the newly inaugurated road passes, fall in Nepali territory. India’s position is that road falls in the district of Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand and in the Dharchula subdivision headquarters at the tri-junction of the Tibet and Nepal border at Lipulekh pass, where one crosses over to Tibet. Across the pass is the Tibetan town of Taklakot, where Indian traders have traditionally bought and sold goods. India and China actually have a formal agreement to this effect. In this sector this is one of the openings into Tibet. Lipulekh finds a mention in Kalidasa’s Meghadutam, where it was described as Randhradhara.

The genesis of the dispute lies in the interpretation of the Sugauli treaty of 1816 between the East India Company and the King of Nepal. The EIC and Nepal fought the Gorkha war between 1814 and 1816. Nepal prior to this had acquired Garhwal and Kumaon and the western flank of Nepal was Kangra. In the Gorkha war, the armies of Patiala, Garhwal and Sikkim combined with the East India Company to drive back the Nepal army with the war ending with the treaty of Sugauli.

The Western boundary of Nepal was fixed as the eastern bank of the Kali river. The present point of contention is differing interpretation on the watershed of the Kali river. This difference of opinion goes back to 1962. India claims Kali river begins after all the tributaries meet to the east of Lipulekh, whereas Nepal contends that the river originates in Limpiadhura to the west of Lipulekh.

The importance of Lipulekh is strategic as it has historically linked this region to Tibet for trade and pilgrimage by Buddhists and by Hindus on pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar. The Indian government established an armed border outpost at Kalapani in the aftermath of the 1962 conflict with China. Nepal had protested then as well.

India had established 18 such posts across the area but after negotiations, removed all but the one at Kalapani. Over the years, the surging river Kali changed its course, altering the border marginally. The eastern border of Pitoragarh is the Kali river, which is on the Indo-Nepal border.

There were only two points of crossing at Jhulaghat and Dharchula. Incidentally the areas across these towns are known by the same name in Nepal too. But being far from Kathmandu and difficult to access from the Nepali capital, they resembled the last outposts.

In 1857 the King of Nepal offered his help to the East India Company, which was gladly accepted. Nepali troops played a large role in the recapture of Lucknow. After the war, the British government gave away a large part of Western Terai including Janakpur and Kapilvastu to Nepal in a subsidiary treaty. However, the western boundary of Nepal was not changed and remained the Kali river.

For India, building the road from Tawaghat to Lipulekh was more a military and strategic necessity rather than to ease the arduous climb the pilgrims had to take to reach Kailash Mansarovar. This is an old, ancient route to Kailash and the most used till the Yatra was first stopped and subsequently resumed in 1981.

As Superintendent of Police at Pithoragarh in the mid-eighties, I am familiar with the route and topography of the area. The reason this road had remained a mud track was the earlier reading of Chinese military intentions. The view was that on the Tibet plateau, heavy military equipment could be brought up to Kalapani and if a road existed, then the Chinese could drive right up to the foothills of Kumaon, hardly a couple of hundred kilometers from Delhi.

Since the last decade or so, however, this reading has changed and roads like this are being built across the Indo China border on the Indian side. The road to Lipulekh that leads to Shiva’s abode is one of the many such roads.

In the mid-eighties and till much later the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims would spend their night at Dharchula, an Indian sub divisional headquarters, where they would engage ponies and porters and start trekking the next day from Tawaghat, about three kms from Dharchula.

On the eastern flank of the river Kali in Dharchula was the Nepali district headquarters of Darchula of the Nepal Sudoor Paschim state. The trek was along the Kali river and would go through Sirkha, Gala, Budhi, Malpa, Gunji , Kalapani, Nabidhang and finally Lipulekh. Kalapani at around 10000 feet and then Lipulekh at more than 16000 feet were formidable climbs at the time.

The trek was always hazardous and the window to cross the pass was limited. Mishaps invariably took place and during my tenure Prof Yudhisthir died while coming back, after getting caught in a very severe snowstorm. In the late nineties, almost 200 people including 50 pilgrims on the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra including actor and model Protima Bedi died in a mountain collapse that decimated the Malpa village with the entire area collapsing into the swirling Kali river. The route was then changed after these mishaps.

The road that the Indian government has constructed, is primarily for security considerations. The ITBP maintains permanent all-weather posts in this area and commands the Lipulekh from Kalapani by physical patrolling. That the road eases the Kailash Mansarovar yatris by saving them time and an arduous and dangerous climb is just the icing on the cake.

The controversy is unlikely to die down soon, given the realities of the neighbourhood and the domestic politics of Nepal with a Communist Government and a Maoist K P Sharma Oli as the Prime Minister. There will be renewed calls for a Greater Nepal and the controversy might well get prolonged.

(The author is a former Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh with experience of working on the Indo-Nepal border. Views expressed are his own.)

To get Nepal’s perspective on the dispute, readers may look up this opinion piece published in Nepali Times:

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