Kalapani is a 372-sq km area at the China-Nepal-India tri-junction. The territory represents the basin of the Kalapani river, one of the headwaters of the Kali River in the Himalayas. India claims Kalapani as a part of Uttarakhand while Nepal depicts the area in its map. The border dispute flared up again when India released its new political map, following the reorganisation of J&K, showing the area as its own.
According to the Sugauli treaty signed between Nepal and British India in 1816, the Mahakali river that runs through the Kalapani area is the boundary between the two countries. However, British surveyors subsequently showed the origin of the river, which has many tributaries, at different places.
While Nepal claims that the river west of the disputed territory is the main river and so Kalapani falls in its territory, India claims a different origin and includes the area in its territory.
Why Kalapani is important for India?
Strategically, Lipulekh Pass in Kalapani serves as an important vantage point for India to keep an eye on Chinese movements. Since 1962, Kalapani has been manned by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
The valley of Kalapani, with the Lipulekh Pass at the top, forms the Indian route to Kailash–Manasarovar, an ancient pilgrimage site. It is also the traditional trading route to Tibet for the Bhotiyas of Uttarakhand and Tinkar valley.
A joint technical committee of Indian and Nepalese officials have been discussing the issue since 1998, along with other border issues. But the matter has not yet been resolved.
Competing claims to the territory
Nepal virtually ignored the Kalapani issue from 1961 to 1997. In 1998, it became “convenient” to Nepal to raise a controversy about it for domestic political reasons. In September of that year, Nepal agreed with India that all border disputes, including Kalapani, would be resolved through bilateral talks.
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. They wanted the western border shifted 5.5 km westwards so as to include the Lipulekh Pass.
India responded that the administrative records dating back to 1830s show that the Kalapani area had been administered as part of the Pithoragarh district (then a part of the Almora district). India also 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 river near Kalapani and follows the high watershed of the streams that join it.
The area between the Lipu Gad/Kalapani River and the watershed of the river is the disputed Kalapani territory. Despite several rounds of negotiations from 1998 to the present, the issue remains unresolved.
In May 2020, India inaugurated a new link road to the Kailas-Manasarovar. Nepal objected to the exercise and said that it was violative of the prior understanding that boundary issues would be resolved through negotiation. India reaffirmed its commitment to negotiation but stated that the road follows the pre-existing route.
On 20 May 2020, Nepal released a new map of its own territory that for the first time claimed all the area up to the Kuti Yangti river, including Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. The Nepalese maps show this area, measuring 335 square kilometres as part of Nepal’s Darchula District.