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Indo Nepal Relation: A Need for Reboot
Maj gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM
India and Nepal which have civilizational relationship are having strains in their relations. Recent flash point is opening of road to Lipulekh Pass by India. Nepal claims that the road passes through area which belongs to her. India denies Nepal’s claim. Nepal has precipitated the issue by issuing a fresh map of the area which shows the disputed area of Kalapani as part of Nepal. The current protest is a culmination of a hostility which has been brewing up for quite some time. It is also believed that the current hostile attitude of the Prime Minster of Nepal; Sri KP Sharma Oli is on account of intra party problems of the Nepali Communist Party. China; who has been trying to become an important player in Nepal with the aim to reach Indian heartland has also been adding fuel to fire. In the change socio-political and socio economic environment where social media plays an important role, time has come for India to have a fresh look at her Nepal Policy.
Key Words: Indo-Nepal- china relations, Lipulekh pass and kalapani
Map-1: Latest Political map of Nepal
India’s relations with Nepal have hit the Nadir in recent times. Although for some time they were drifting but the Border dispute on account of virtual Inauguration of an 80 Km road to Lipulekh pass on the Indo Tibet border on 08 may by the Defence minister of India; was the latest flash point in the Indo Nepal relations. The latest issue is actually based on a dispute over an historical accuracy or of otherwise of a geographical territory. It has been brewing between the two neighbouring countries for the past several decades now. The bone of contention is the Kalapani-Limpiadhura-Lipulekh ‘Trijunction’ between Nepal-India and Tibet ( now part of Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region). Located on the banks of the river Kali (Mahakali) at an altitude of 3600m, the Kalapani territory lies at the eastern border of Uttarakhand in India and Nepal’s Sudurpashchim Pradesh in the West. India claims the area is part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, while Nepal believes it to be part of its Dharchula district.
Nepal Protested that the road was in the area which is part of Nepal. It needs to be noted that the new road alignment is along the Kali River which is the boundary between India and Nepal. The end point of the road is at Lipulekh Pass with China which is near the tri-junction of India, China and Nepal.The construction is expected to end by March 2021. The Road from Ghatiabgarh to Lipulekh is 80 km long new road (greenfield) under construction by Border Road Organisation (BRO) with a deadline of December 2022.Nepal’s foreign ministry summoned the Indian envoy last week to protest against the construction of the road. New Delhi has rejected Kathmandu’s protest, saying the Lipulekh region is “completely within the territory of India” and that both sides could resolve such boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue. The Nepal Government on 20 May unveiled a new political map of the country that depicts Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiadhura as part of Nepalese territory. Nepal’s lower house passed the constitutional amendment seeking to replace the old map with the new map on 13 Jun 2020 and Upper House passed the bill on 17 Jun 2020. The Law Minister of Nepal informed the house that they had enough facts and evidence to support their claim and will resolve the issue with India through diplomatic negotiations.President of Nepal gave her accent on the same day after the passing of the constitutional amendment by the Upper House. India, which controls the region – a slice of land including Limpiadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani areas in the northwest – has rejected the map, saying it is not based on historical facts or evidence. India is prepared to discuss it but does not have the same urgency. It also needs to be noted that India’s new road, up to the Lipulekh pass, is not an unprecedented change in the status quo. India has controlled this territory and built other infrastructure here before, besides conducting its administration and deploying military forces up to the border pass with China.The area of Kalapani is of strategic importance to India because it provides shortest route to Tibet from Delhi besides it would be an important and convenient route for Man Sarovar and Mount Kailash. It is of significance that China appears of have accepted the sovereignty Of India on this route as in 2015 she had agreed to do trade with India through Lipulekh pass.
Map-2: Alignment of Dharchula- Lipulekh
Map-3: Area Showing Disputed Area
This indeed is a nadir in the relationship between India and Nepal. More so with China gaining upper hand in Nepal makes the situation quite worrisome for India, because presence of China in a hostile Nepal will directly threaten heart land of India. An obvious question is whether such a low in the relationship is desirable in the national interest of India.
Border Dispute between India and Nepal
Map-4: Disputed Area
The problem has its origin in the interpretation of the Treaty of Seagull of 1816; between the East India Company and Nepal post Anglo- Nepali War (1814-1815), which stipulated that the Kali (India call it Mahakali) river would mark the western border of Nepal with India. Kalapani is located on its East bank. The pilgrim-cum-trade route here from India to Tibet runs for the most part on the West bank of the Kali, but, at Kalapani it crosses briefly to the East bank. India asserts that old British surveys and maps show this section as part of India. But Nepal points to other maps and documents to support her claim. Nepal has laid claim to all areas east of the Lipu Gad the rivulet that joins the river Kali on its border, a Tri-junction with India and China . Total area which Nepal claims is 355 km2of the Dharchula District of Nepal.The tributaries of the Kali River comprise a number of streams, including the Lipu Gad, which merge into the main river at the Kalapani temple near the tri-junction. The Nepalese contention is that the Lipu Gad is, in fact, the Kali river up to its source to the east of the Lipu Lekh Pass.Nepal based on several other maps published in 1827, 1835, 1846, 1850, 1856 had also confirmed that the river originating from Limpiadhura is Kali. Their argument is based on their interpretation of the river science perspective postulated by John Playfair (1802), R E Horton (1945) and AN Strahler (1964). Nepal argues that the main river at any confluence is distinguished from its length, its water volume, its watershed area and number of tributaries to it. The average water flows, the river length and the watershed area of Kali (Kuthi Yanti) are about three times larger, 2.5 times longer, and three times greater than Lipu (or Kalapani) stream respectively at the Gunji confluence.
Map-5: Nepal’s Interpretation of Origin of Kali river
Ref: Dr Jagat K Bhusal, “India’s Cartographic Manipulation Of Nepali Territory A Case Of Limpiadhura To Lipulekh”, published in The Rising Nepal dated 20 Dec 2019.
Notwithstanding the current protest, it needs to be noted that the Road to Lipulekh has not been built overnight. In fact the road was under construction since 2008 and as such it is unbelievable that the Nepal government was not aware of its progress.In this connection it is relevant to note that the Nepal Government raised the issue during last November, when India issued its new political map based on new reorganisation of its own states’ boundaries in post Article 370 abrogation scenario. Thus May 08 announcement by India about the new road provided an opportunity to Nepali PM, Sri KP Sharma Oli to strengthen his position within his party as well as to divert attention of the nation from the problems staring in the face. He was swiftly able to mobilise public opinion, play up nationalist sentiments against India, get his internal party rivals on board, and divert attention from his failed ordinances and challenges to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Land in any case is an emotive issue but since the blockade of 2015, anti-Indian sentiments have been gaining ground in Nepal and as such average Nepali felt quite aggrieved. The argument of ROTI-BETI relations and religious and traditional cultural relations no longer impress the new generation of Nepal. In fact when they see pictures of Shanghai and Beijing and compare them to adjoining areas of Bihar and East UP; whom they find as impoverished as they themselves are; they do not relate to India to their dreams. Such public sentiments; PM Oli finds easy to exploit to strengthen his position within the party and within the country. Some of the recent actions of the Nepal Government display the tilt of the present government which is Anti Indian and leans towards china. Two examples would suffice. First is; Nepal choosing not to attend the BIMSTEC Conference hosted by India, terming it as an anti-China military alliance driven by India in Jan 2020 and second is that the Nepali Communist Party has created obstacles to the implementation of a United States-sponsored MCC grant that would upgrade Nepal’s electricity transmission system and connect it to the Indian power grid.Nepal is also trying to chart a more independent Foreign policy course. They are now trying to project themselves not as a ‘land locked country’ but a ‘land connected country’. The public sentiments and attitude of the current Nepal Government brings out that more than Chinese interference it is on account of exploitation of the public sentiments of Anti India stance by the current govt where China is only fishing in the troubled waters.
The dispute over the location of the river, and consequently that of the territoriality of Kalapani, was first raised by the Nepalese government only in 1998,after the ratification of the Mahakali treaty with India by Nepal ’s Parliament.It may be noted that even when Indian military units occupied the Kalapani area during the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Nepal did not raise any objection. Nepal ignored the Kalapani issue from 1961 to 1997, but for domestic political reasons it became a convenient India-Nepal controversy in 1998. It is interesting to note that The Kalapani, is just a 35 square km area claimed by both India and Nepal.According to Nepal, after the India-China war in 1962, Nepal allowed Indian troops to occupy some posts in Nepal as a defensive measure. India has withdrawn from all of them, except Kalapani. This has raised nationalist hackles in Nepal. Now Nepal has demanded that the border post be removed and the area restored to it. Nepal ’s claims first surfaced during the negotiations resulting in the Sino-Nepal Border Agreement (1961), Sino-Nepal Border Protocol (1963) and, the subsequent 1979 Border Protocol, and it continues to seek adjustments on the western extremity of the border, about 5.5 kms. westwards towards the Lipulekh Pass.
India, on the other hand, claims that certain revenue records dating back to the 1830s show that Kalapani area has been part of the Pithoragarh district.In this connection India cites that the British India conducted the first regular survey of the upper reaches of the river Kali, in the 1870s.A vintage map of the 1879 shows that Kalapani was part of India. The stand of Indian government has been that the 1879 map should be considered in deciding the borders between the two countries. In this connection the shifting course of the Kali(Mahakali) river in the area has added to the problem.Nepal had disputed the source of the river Kali, as claimed by India. During July-August 2000, it was agreed between the PMs of the two countries that field-work for the demarcation of the boundary will be completed by AD 2001-2002 and final strip maps will be prepared by 2003.
Besides Kalapani, there are two more land disputes between the two countries. One is in the Susta river border region which is part of West Champaran District in Bihar and Nepal claims it to be part her of Susta Rural Municipality under West Nawalparasi District of Province No 5.
and the second little less known is at the Eastern Tri- Junction in Sikkim.
Changing Dimensions of Indo Nepal Relations
Transformation of Nepal-The Constitution of Nepal, adopted in 2015, affirms Nepal as a secular federal parliamentary republic divided into seven provinces. Some parts of the Terai region were gifted to Nepal by the British as a friendly gesture because of her military help to sustain British control in India during the First War of Independence of India in 1857. In 1923, the United Kingdom and Nepal formally signed an agreement of friendship that superseded the Seagull Treaty of 1816.
Both governments agreed during Modi’s 2014 visit to discuss the issue through Foreign Secretary level talks. At the root of the issue is the differing interpretations of what exactly warrants a diplomatic dialogue. While Nepal considers that certain territories which belongs to Nepal but is under occupation of India, the latter considers it to be an issue of technical nature focused on delimitation, boundary pillars etc.
There is no doubt that China rarely shies away from exploiting the disputes of India with her neighbours. It is a matter of concern that the appeal of China’s authoritarian system is growing amongst those new fledgling democracies like Nepal.
Although with their Act East policy India has been investing in upgrading its cross-border infrastructure and economic assistance to Nepal for example; there are now new rail and road links, an electronic cargo system for Nepali goods to transit via Indian ports, inland waterway navigation plans, and a new cross-border pipeline for petroleum products. These are just some examples of the many projects that India has undertaken/are being undertaken. As far as financial assistance is concerned the details are as tabulated below:-
Table-1: Indian Financial Aid to Nepal
|Ser No||Year||Amount in Crores|
Ref: Jayant Jacob, “ Nepal Top Recipient of India Aid with 253 Crore”, published in Hindustan Times 06 Apr 2018
While this approach is;‘work in progress’; the traditional approach, focused on security, military and other geostrategic factors, continues to prevail, especially in moments of crisis and tension such as now.
Madhesi Problem and Blockade of 2015- Madhesis form 39 % of the population of Nepal but when the then seven-party alliance of the mainstream political parties and the CPN-Maoist jointly announced the Interim Constitution in 2007, it totally ignored the concept of federalism. This triggered a decade long Madhes movement. It was for demanding equal rights for Madhesis, Tharus, Muslims and Janjati groups in Nepal. Although the interim constitution of 2008 ensured the demands of Madhesis to be considered, the 2015 Constitution of Nepal failed to address any of those issues. One of the major trigger was unfair formation of seven federal provinces under the new Constitution. The other one was the issue proportional representation or inclusion in all organs of the state (Madhesis being higher Indian population and yet have lesser number of members in Parliament).” The constitution states that 45% of all jobs in state organs and public employment are reserved. Madhesis did not accept this amendment. The third issue was related to gender discrimination as it denies single woman to pass on citizenship to their children. As per the amendment, clauses in the constitution draft say that both parents have to be Nepali to acquire citizenship. Likewise, a Nepali woman married to a foreign may not acquire citizenship but if the father is Nepali, the child is given citizenship regardless. Madhesi Communities, who often have marital ties with Indians across the border, will be disproportionality affected because they are ethnically and socially connected with the northern Indians. There was a strike based on this disaffection and it resulted into an economic blockade, which began on 23 Sep 2015. The blockade was an unmitigated disaster which quickly degenerated into a humanitarian crisis. The blockade choked imports of not only petroleum, but also medicines and earthquake relief material. Nepal accused India for the blockade. Although India denied the charge but it did not cut ice with suffering Nepalis especially in view of Indian reservations about the constitutional provisions which India felt were Anti Madhesis. The blockade turned average Nepali hostile to India. There was a campaign on social media:hashtag#BackoffIndia as well as street agitations. Blockade affected distribution of relief material and stoppage of international flights from Kathmandu Airport. The government of Nepal failed to ease this fuel crisis and could not bring petroleum from China on time although it signed an agreement to buy one third of Nepal’s petroleum requirement from the northern neighbour. This agreement was seen as a cornerstone for Nepal to end the full dependency on only one country for petroleum imports. China donated 1.3 million litres of petrol to Nepal after the fuel crisis through the Kerung border point. India repeatedly kept suggesting to Nepal to solve the issue with the Madhesi people because they are the ones who were blocking the border points and disrupting supplies. Some Nepali scholars started asking the government to Internationalize the issue as India had moved back from the Nepal India friendship treaty and violated the various International trade, transit and commerce laws. India officially informed that 4,310 trucks were sent to the border, where they had been stranded. He argued that from there onwards, it was Nepal’s responsibility to ensure that the trucks entered Nepal safely.Madhesi parties also criticized the Nepali media reports blaming the blockade on India. It was said that the blockade had been done by the Madhesi people and that India had nothing to do with it.Finally the blockade ended on 04 Feb 2016 when Madhesis backed down. There is no doubt that the blockade damaged the Indo Nepal Relations substantially and it will take a long time to repair it.
Nepal’s Neutrality-The 1950 military occupation of Tibet by the PLA raised significant concerns of security and territorial integrity in Nepal, drawing Nepal into a close relationship with extensive economic and military ties with Republic of India.The 1950 Indo- Nepal Treaty of Treaty of Peace and Friendship that had established a close Indo-Nepalese relationship on commerce, and foreign relations, is being increasingly resented in Nepal, which began seeing it as an encroachment of its sovereignty. During the War of 1962, though Nepal maintained neutrality, however allowed Indian troops to establish 18 border observation posts (BOPs) along the Sino-Nepal border.After the war, Indian army acquiesced to Nepal governments request and pulled out from all but one border observation post. India still maintains military presence in Nepal’s Kalapani area. Subsequent Nepal since 1990 has been urging India to remove Indian troops from Kalapani area, which has however not been agreed by India.
Growing Chinese Influence in Nepal
Nepal established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China on 1 August 1955, and signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1960; relations since have been based on theFive Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (PANCHSHEEL) . Nepal maintains neutrality in conflicts between China and India. It remains firmly committed to the ‘One China’ Policy, and is known to curb anti-China activities from the Tibetan refugees in Nepal. Citizens of both countries can cross the border and travel as far as 30 km without a visa. China is presently viewed favourably in Nepal owing to an absence of any border disputes (things appear to have changed since then), coupled with its assistance in infrastructure development and aid during emergencies; favourability has increased since China helped Nepal during the 2015 economic blockade alleged to have been imposed by India. Subsequently, China granted Nepal access to its ports for third-country trade, and Nepal joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
As mentioned earlier, the bilateral relation between Nepal and China has been friendly and is defined by the Sino- Nepalese Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1960. From 1975 onward, Nepal has maintained a policy of balancing India and China. In recent years, China has been making an effort to gain entry into SAARC, and, Nepal has been supporting them. In recent times Since 1975, China is the largest source of FDI to Nepal. India on the other hand remains one of the major source of remittance to Nepal. It is estimated that there are around 1 million Nepalese migrant workers in India while the number of Nepalis in China is minuscule (3,500 in Mainland and 15,950 in Hong Kong) as of 2017.
Chinese Interference in Nepal’s politics- Since April there is a rift growing within the Nepal Communist Party; due to creeping differences between various factions who are threatening to unseat PM Oli. It came to Chinese Ambassador to mediate between the factions. Although fight stopped for a while but it is again becoming intense when PM Oli blamed India for the internecine fight. Now Other factions’ leaders are demanding PMOli’s Resignation.The interference by Chinese Ambassador has not gone unnoticed. Local Media is alleging that China is trying to micro manage the political affairs which is a red line. Thus china is penetrating besides society in Nepali politics also. For the last two years at least, there have been regular interactions between the NCP and CPC on these issues. In recent months, unlike in the past, ideology often figures prominently in the bilateral relationship. In fact, ‘Xi thought’ has become de facto official doctrine for the NCP and Xi somehow is in the process of making himself de facto leader of the NCP. China however gives the impression that she is open to working with any political dispensation in Kathmandu as long as it is prepared to take strong action against political activities of the Tibetan refugees. It may be a matter of further alarm to India that China has also begun taking an active interest in Terai politics.As China’s political influence grows in Nepal, Beijing may have, encouraged Prime Minister Oli to take a bolder stance against India during the current crisis. By playing the China balancing card as a last resort, Nepali leaders have often hoped to get Delhi to pay attention to festering problems that Indian diplomacy neglects or forgets about. It is risky because it assumes China is always willing to extend indefinite support to Nepal at the cost of its relations with India.
Attempts to Counter India’s Cultural Dominance –India’s soft power influence in Nepal has always remained a challenge to pro-China forces in Kathmandu and Beijing. Bollywood’s connect with the millennials in Nepal is extraordinary. More often than not, it engulfs itself in discomfort exhibited by the Nepali nationalists. Recent order of restricting screening Indian movies to only six months in a year is case in point. There is a growing demand in the Madhes region to become independent from Nepal. These kinds of sentiment make decision makers in Nepal quite apprehensive about India.In this connection Indian support for amending the constitution gave grind to these fears. To counter these fears Nepal has accepted a Chinese offer of paying the salaries of teachers if Nepal introduces Mandarin in schools.
Impact of Tension between India and Nepal
The largely unguarded border with Nepal has been taken by the Chinese and Pakistani intelligence to their advantage to smuggle arms, goods and carry out attacks in India and return to Nepal to seek shelter. Nepal has been used as a transit point for carrying out such attacks on Indian soil. The thick jungles in Nepal empowers the scope for cross border terrorism. The ISI of Pakistan has increased its assets in Kathmandu over the years. Nepal has become a comfortable launch pad for the sleeper cells that aim to target India. Nepal has also been a victim of this scourge.
Chinese Investment in Infrastructure Development– The Chinese areinvesting in ‘hard infrastructure’ that can help them boost connectivity to Nepal. This includes railway lines (it has not even started), highways, bridges, airports, hydroelectric projects. In the fiscal year 2019-2020, over 90% of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Nepal is from China. Beijing pledged nearly $500 million in financial aid to Nepal in October last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Himalayan country. However keeping in view the examples of other countries, Nepal needs to realise that it would be a debt trap and may lead to Nepal becoming an economic colony of China in future.Also such connectivity will destroy Small Scale Industries not only in Nepal but even in border areas of India due to open border. Oblivious to future shocks Nepal is increasingly becoming enamoured with China’s economic diplomacy. In this connection the case in point are hydroelectric projects which are increasingly getting transferred to China with likely disastrous consequences for India- Nepal power sharing arrangements. It may be noted that China has an insatiable need for power and therefore while China might get benefited Nepal definitely will be a loser. In this connection the recent attempts post 2015 blockade, Nepal has diversified its supply of petroleum products from China by signing an agreement with Petro China, it ended the monopoly of IOC to supply petroleum products to Nepal.Economic viability of the proposal notwithstanding, China has also permitted the use of four of its sea ports and three of its land ports to Nepal for its trade. However it will not be easy to replace totally by China based on many factors but mainly on account of economy.
China as a Quid pro quo has asked Nepal to increase monitoring on its border and apprehend those Tibetan who run away from Chines oppression in Tibet. Nepal has already signed several security agreements with China in this regard and has committed to ‘One China’ principle.Further Nepal has committed that it will not allow Anti- china activities on its soil and operationalized border security cooperation over the course of several years. With 20,000 Tibetans living in Nepal is likely to become a source of problem in Future.
New Delhi is become aware of the growing influence of China in Nepal. As part of India’s “neighbour-hood-first” policy, New Delhi is stepping up its political, economic and even military engagement with its neighbours.However, India is lagging behind China. The only area where India continues to have an upper hand over China is its presence in Nepal’s culture, language and social life. In this connection besides Mandarin teachers China is also establishing Study Centres to enhance its cultural connect .
Nepal Likely to become a Victim of Chinese Expansionism
Claims by China on Nepalese territory were first made in 1930 when Mao Zedong declared in the original version of the Chinese Revolution and the Communist Party, that “the correct boundaries of China would include Burma, Bhutan and Nepal”.He also postulated in his ‘Five fingers of Tibet’ policy that Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) are the five fingers attached to that palm (Tibet).
In November 2019, encroachment by China of 36 hectares of Nepal’s territory was reported and that there was a further risk of losing several hundred hectares of land.. It has alsobeen reported that road construction work in Tibet Autonomous Region has caused change in the course of common rivers like Arun and expand China’s boundary into northern territories of Nepal.
In May 2020, Chinese media, called Mount Everest as Mount Qomolangma claimed it as part of Chinese territory. There is an outrage on this issue in Nepal. 
One of the things which irks Nepal is that India tries to micro manage Nepal’s politics. It will be better for Indian policy framers to realise the changing paradigm of Nepal and they need to work on the principle of India Frist but remain sensitive to Nepal’s aspirations. India needs to assure and keep reassuring that she respects Nepal’s sovereignty.
The Nepalese have started getting aware of Chinese intentions as cases of Chinese nationals indulging in human trafficking and Cyber-Crimes have started coming to light. Also there are border disputes coming up with China too. A change in New Delhi’s attitude is required in order to pursue our diplomacy in Nepal. Projects need clearances, funding at a pace that can be matched up to the Chinese.
India and Nepal need to work hard to keep their relationship stable, even if not special. For example, India can no longer afford to remain fixated on its traditional approach towards Nepal and expecting Nepal to give India the right of ‘First Refusal’. India needs to become aware that Nepal has been embracing a policy of strategic diversification to safe guard its national interests. The rising presence of China across the Himalayas, especially after Nepal having decided to join BRI has called for a paradigm shift in India’s Nepal policy.In this connection the report prepared by an Eminent Persons Group from both the countries to assess the state of bilateral relations mandated in 2015 by Indian and Nepali PM is gathering dust since its submission in 2018. Such indifference on the part of India is being taken negatively by Nepal.
Even after political trust is restored and diplomatic dialogue begins, whether in a few days, months or years, both sides will have to compromise. The border dispute has now turned into a permanent political irritant between both countries. To thwart Chinese attempts to fish in the troubled water it is important that India settles the issue with Nepal. In this connection the historical, technical and cartographic claims from both sides will probably lead to a dead-end, with never-ending, clashing interpretations about river alignments and other contentious criteria. The only possible solution is to go for co management and if possible shared sovereignty. Such a possibility may appeal to Nepal as it would offer them easy access to Mount Kailash and Man Sarovar. If India in past could offer to Pakistan Joint management of Siachen it would not be such a difficult proposition.
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