The story so far: The dispute over Kalapani, which lies on the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, 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. 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. On May 8, 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, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, to convey a formal protest.
Kalapani is a region located in the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. It shares a broder on the north with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Nepal in the east and south. The region resembles a slice of cake wedged in between Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani. The area is in India’s control but Nepal claims the region because of historical and cartographic reasons. 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 Kalapani region derives its name from the river Kali. 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. Here lies the historic origin of the dispute. 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 Limpiyadhura, which is higher in altitude than the rest of the river’s flow. Nepal claims that a land mass, high in the mountains that falls to the east of the entire stretch starting from Limpiyadhura downwards, is theirs. India on the other hand says the border begins at Kalapani which India says is where the river begins. The dispute is mainly because of the varying interpretation of the origin of the river and its various tributaries that slice through the mountains. 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.
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 nearby markets have been used by various mountain communities. 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 in case of an armed conflict with China.
The importance of Himalayan passes with the Tibetan plateau was amply highlighted in the 1962 war. During that war, Chinese forces used the pass of Se La in Tawang and reached the Brahmaputra plains in the east. The military defeat in the east clearly demonstrated that weakly guarded passes were a major vulnerability of Indian military preparedness against China. In comparison to Se La which was somewhat fortified, Lipulekh was vulnerable.
Nepali analysts say that King Mahendra was concerned that India would take military steps to forcefully take the region of Kalapani to secure the mountain pass. He reached an agreement with Delhi and handed over the region for security purposes to India. According to another interpretation subscribed to by Kanak Mani Dixit, India, worried over an aggressive China in the 1950s, got the King of Nepal to agree to a proposal to station 18 military outposts along Nepal’s northern frontier. In 1969, under bilateral negotiations all the posts were removed barring Kalapani.
Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad says the region was always a part of India and India’s claims to the area are based on British Indian maps dating back to the 19th century. When pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar paused with the takeover of Tibet by Chinese forces in the mid-1950s, India deployed troops at the Lipulekh pass in 1959, according to Mr. Prasad, who was part of the Eminent Persons Group formed in February 2016 to ensure frank conversation between India and Nepal on controversial issues.
India and China were in clear violation of Nepal’s concerns during the 2015 Lipulekh agreement between India and China which renewed India’s Mansarovar pilgrimage connection. Neither side consulted Nepal or sought its opinion before that agreement that boosted pilgrimage and trade to Tibet.