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Nepal-India Open Border: Prospects, Problems and Challenges

Vidya Bir Singh Kansakar, Ph.D.
Professor and Head
Central Department of Geography
Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu


Note: This document is updated version of the papers presented in a series of seminars organized by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and FES in Nepalgunj, Birgunj, Biratnagar and Kathmandu. 2001 .



The Evolution of Nepal's International Boundary with China and India

Like most of the countries of the world, the existence of Nepal had been recognised even before the international boundaries had been fully and finally established. Mention of Nepal is found in the ancient history of both China and India. Nepal-China boundary is as old as the history of the two countries, but in contrast to the very ancient cultural, social, political and economic relations, Nepal-India boundary has a comparatively recent origin and its present boundary demarcation and delimitation took place after the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16. In contrast to Nepal's boundary with India on three sides: west, south and east, the boundary between Nepal and China lies in the north only. However, the demarcation of Nepal-China boundary had been a problem in the past, because more than 90 percent of the frontiers run through high altitudes with rocks and snow, glaciers and ice fields which are entirely uninhabited. Both countries have respected and continue to respect the existing traditional and customary boundary line and have lived in amity. No remarkable or noticeable territorial dispute has existed between Nepal and China. The few territorial disputes that existed were over rival claims for the settlements of Kimathanka in the Sankhuwasabha and Taplejung districts, the area adjoining the border of Rasuwa, and Nara Nangla of Humla district with the origin of dispute dating back to 1815, 1818 and 1834 respectively (Nepali, 1964:1).:These disputes were resolved by the Nepal-China Joint Boundary Commission on October 5, 1961.

The ruggedness of Nepal-China boundary is clearly revealed by its length which is 1415 kilometres, while Nepal-India boundary which runs along three sides of Nepal is only 1850 kilometers, 465 kilometers longer than Nepal-China boundary. The 1415 kilometre length of Nepal-China boundary is based on measurement in the maps ( for details on Nepal-China Boundary see Annex). If the actual measurement is made on the ground along the slopes and ridges of the mountains, the length of the boundary will be more than that indicated by the measurement in the maps. So far as Nepal-India boundary is concerned, the mountainous portions of the boundary lie in Sikkim State and Darjeeling district of West Bengal State in the east, while rest of the boundary runs along the plains in the south and along the Mahakali River in the west.

The Delineation and Demarcation of Nepal-India Boundary

Prior to the domination of India by the British East India Company, both Nepal and India were divided into petty kingdoms and principalities. As such, very little information is available regarding the extent of border as well as border disputes between Nepal and India. The British East India Company had already started the colonisation, expansion and consolidation of Indian states and principalities through invasion, and was planning to invade Nepal after the death of King Prithvinarayan Shah. The plea for invading Nepal was their false claim over the control of Butawal, which in reality belonged to Nepal. The Anglo-Nepal War of 1814 and the subsequent treaty of peace signed between Nepal and the East India Company on December 8, 1816 resulted in the delimitation and delineation of Nepal-India border. The Mahakali River formed the western boundary, while the Mechi formed the boundary in the east along with ridges in the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim. Accordingly, Nepal had to forsake the areas lying to the west of the Mahakali River and the areas lying to the east of the Mechi River including the return of the territory of the Rajah of Sikkim occupied by Nepal. The East India Company delineated and demarcated the southern boundary on its own. But no demarcation was made for the Tarai region lying between the Mahakali River and the Arrah Nala, which was ceded to the British India in 1816. Moreover, the entire western Tarai was almost covered with dense forests, and, at the same time, there was no physical basis to discern the northern limit of Tarai. Nepal and India had a dispute over this ill-defined and ill-demarcated boundary. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur spent the last two decades of his rule in solving these problems. In his lifetime, he settled all the problems affecting the boundary between Nepal and India, because he was apprehensive that in the future such problems might lead to friction between the two states (Husain, 1970:108). A straight line between the two pillars was drawn for the demarcation of the border in the forest areas, while demarcation in the cultivated land was made on the basis of village boundaries on the principle of mutual give and take. Major disputes and problems arose in the case of river boundary due to erratic changes in the river courses in the Tarai region. In recognition of assistance of Nepalese army in quelling the 1857 mutiny in Lucknow, and because of the fact that the western Tarai, which was ceded to India under the Treaty of 1816, was retrocede to Nepal, the Boundary Commissions of the two Governments met in North Oudh at Bhagura Tal in February 1860 to survey and demarcate the boundary. After the completion of the survey and demarcation, the King of Nepal and the British Resident signed a formal treaty on November 1, 1860. Even after that, the dispute over the river boundary between Mondia Ghat to Bunbasa along the Mahakali (Sharada) river arose immediately after the treaty and was resolved in December 1864. Nepal made the claim over the Dudhawa Range up to the foot of the hills, while the British insisted on the Range watershed forming the boundary and the area along the Southern slopes of the watershed belonging to India. The Agreement endorsing the claim of Nepal was ratified on June 7, 1875 (Tyagi, 1974:88-98). For the Nepalese territory of 2800 acres ceded to India for the construction of the Sharada Barrage in the early 1900s, a total of 4000 acres in Taratal area to the south of Bardia district was given to Nepal. Later, the survey and review of the territory ceded to India by Nepal revealed that an excess of 31 acres had gone to India. India had agreed to compensate for that area, but it has not yet materialised.

The actual scientific demarcation of Nepal-India boundary started during the topographical survey of the whole of Nepal carried out by the Survey of India in 1926-27. As the survey was carried out from the lower altitudes in the mountain areas in the north, it failed to delineate Nepal-China boundary in the north. This survey produced topographical maps for Nepal indicating Nepal-India boundary including the location and number of each boundary pillar together with topographical details of the Indian side in the maps as well. The scale of topographical maps was 1 inch to 4 miles. The topographical survey of 1955-58 conducted again by the Survey of India provided more detailed survey of Nepal both through aerial and ground surveys and resulted in the publication of maps to the scale of 1 inch to a mile. This map also indicated the boundary line and boundary pillars with their respective numbers. However, the Indian territory across Nepal-India boundary was left blank. One notable fact about the topographical maps of Nepal and Bhutan is that the Surveyor General of both was Brigadier General Gambir Singh, and in the case of the topographical maps of Bhutan, details across the India Bhutan border on both sides have been shown. The absence of landmarks onon the topographical maps on the Indian side across the Nepal India border has been the major reson behind the encroachment of Nepalese territories across the border. Since the demarcation of Nepal India border after the Treaty of Sugauli, there has been tremendous change in the landscape on either sides of the border with tremendous change in man made features as compared to the natural landscapes. There has been no attempt so far to up date the boundary treaty maps according to these changes. In case of the Nepal China boundary, the boundary treaty maps contain detailed land features both natural and man-made features on either sides of the border and provided basis for the adjustment of the border to its original position if some discrepancies occurred due to natural or man made causes. It is due to this fact that since the signing of the boundary protocol between Nepal and China since 1961, there has not been any problem regarding the boundary between Nepal and China

There has been several delays in making available the topographical maps by Survey of India to Nepal. .It took more than 25 years to secure the topographical maps of Nepal as they were provided on piecemeal basis. The Survey of India has not make available 17 sheets of which 12 sheets pertain to Nepal India barder area including that of the Kalapani, and 5 sheets pertaining to the Nepal China border.

Under the Sugauli Treaty, Nepal withdrew from all the territory it had occupied in Sikkim as Nepal had no formal treaty with Sikkim regarding Nepal-Sikkim boundary. The British East India Company, under the Treaty of Titaliya on 10 February 1871 with the Government of Sikkim restored the territory ceded by Nepal. A Sunnud dated 7 April 1817 regarding the granting of the territory to the Rajah of Sikkim stated:

"The honourable East India Company, in consideration of the services performed by the Hill tribes under the control of the Rajah of Sikkim, and of the attachment shown to him to the interest of the British Government, grants to the Sikkimputtee Rajah, his heirs and successors all that portion of low land situated eastward of the Meitchie River , and westward of the Maha Nuddee, formerly Possessed by the Rajah of Nepaul, but ceded to the Honourable East India Company by the Treaty of Segoulee, to be held by the Sikkimputtee Rajah as a feudatory, or as acknowledging the supremacy of the British Government over the said lands, subject to the following conditions."

Moreover, there has not been any formal treaty between Nepal and India on Nepal-Sikkim Boundary after the independence of India, and even after the annexation of Sikkim with India in 1975. It is to be noted that Nepal has not yet formally recognised the annexation of Sikkim by India,. and, at the same time, India has not sought recognition from Nepal.

Before the independence of India, there existed a system of regular survey and supervision of Nepal-India boundary jointly conducted by the officials of both countries every year to oversee and find out encroachment, if any, on the boundary, ill-defined boundary, missing and broken as well as displaced boundary pillars with the objective to fix and place them in their original position. Accordingly, while Nepal has been entrusted to look after the pillars having odd number, India looks after the pillars having even number. After the independence of India, no joint boundary survey has been conducted until the formation of a Joint Boundary Commission in 1981 with the composition of six boundary survey teams. Delay in the formation of a Joint Boundary Commission resulted in several boundary disputes, which remain unresolved, because the activities of the Commission are going on at a very slow pace. There is provision for two meetings of the Joint Boundary Commission every year. Twenty years have elapsed since the formation of the Commission in 1981 and accordingly, there should have been 36 meetings up to 1999, but so far only 22 meetings have been convened (Shrestha, 2000:168). Boundary survey of almost al