With the onset of winter every year, the residents of Chhangru and Tinkar villages in Darchula’s Byas Rural Municipality descend to district headquarters Khalanga to avoid the cold. When spring arrives, they return to their villages and their fields, ready for the new plantation season.
Ashok Singh Bohara, chairperson of the rural municipality’s Ward No 1, makes this same journey every year with his family. If all goes well, he is generally back in Chhangru by April. But things haven’t so gone well this year.
Nearly two months into the lockdown, around 400 individuals from these two villages, including Bohara, remain in Khalanga, waiting to make their way home. Chhangru, Tinkar and Khalanga are all Nepali territory but getting from one to the other requires traversing through India, as there are no roads or foot trails on Nepali land.
“We haven’t been able to return to our settlements due to the sealed border,” said Bohara. “There is no foot trail to reach the villages through the Nepal side.”
The local administration was preparing to help the villagers return to their homes when the Lipulekh dispute erupted in Nepal with India announcing the inauguration of a road link via Lipulekh to Kailash Mansarovar. Protests erupted in Kathmandu, worrying Nepalis living along the western border.
“We rely completely on India for transportation and supplies,” Bohara said, who worries that any drastic reaction from India will imperil their existence.
Chhangru lies east of the Mahakali river in Nepal with Gabryang across the river on the Indian side. There are less than two kilometres between the two villages but there is a stark difference between the lives of the residents of the two villages. Gabryang has easy access to daily essentials at a subsidised rate provided by the Indian government. According to Bohara, the Indian government provides rice at INR 2 to 5 (Rs 3.5 to 8) per kg in Gabryang while Chhangru locals pay Rs 110 to 130 for a kilo of rice. There is a marked difference in the prices of essentials like sugar, salt and oil too.
According to locals, Indian security forces in the area extend help when necessary to the local population, dropping foodstuff by helicopters and airlifting patients in need of medical attention.
“The Indian government shows that it’s always there for the villagers. It never lets its citizens go hungry,” said Dan Singh Bohara, a former Deputy Inspector General of the Nepal Police who was born and raised in Chhangru. “In comparison, there is nothing the Nepali government does for its citizens.”
Locals say there used to be an old horse track connecting Dumling and Chhangru but it was closed off during the Maoist insurgency and fell into disrepair. Meanwhile, a motorable road was constructed across the border in India and in 1999, India started constructing the link road that has so incensed Nepalis recently. The road begins in Tawaghat in India’s Dharchula, Pithoragarh district and ends at Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
As India started carving out roads, it began to disrupt the Mahakali’s currents, further damaging roads in Nepal. But Nepali authorities, all the way in Kathmandu, paid little attention, said Dan Singh.
Nepal claims Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura, which are lumped together in a region that borders Darchula in the northwestern corner of the country. But border disputes have continued for decades. India has stationed its troops in Kalapani since 1962.
Back in November, India reasserted Kalapani as part of its territory by placing it within its borders in a new political map published after New Delhi divided Jammu and Kashmir into federal territories. As protests erupted, Kathmandu sought a date for talks with India, twice, but Delhi failed to respond.
The issue eventually fizzled out, with no concrete progress.
Locals believe that politicians in Kathmandu employ the border dispute with India to their own benefit, but rarely do anything for citizens who have been living precariously on the border for decades.
“Protests against Indian encroachment continue in Kathmandu, but nobody comes here,” said ward chair Bohara. “Just what did the government do for the locals who are the most trusted guards of the border?”
As protests erupted in Kathmandu against India’s opening of the road link via Lipulekh on May 8, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli came under immediate pressure from leaders of the opposition as well as ruling parties.
On Monday, the Cabinet swiftly approved a new political map that includes all disputed territories within Nepali borders. A day later, Oli told Parliament that his government would reclaim those lands.
“Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limipiyadhura belong to Nepal and we will get them back,” said Oli.
Locals in the region, however, have their doubts. The longer they are neglected by the state, the more vulnerable they will become.
Dan Singh Bohara, the former Nepal Police official, sees a larger risk–that India will win over Nepalis and further encroach on Nepali land if Kathmandu fails to pay attention to its own citizens.
“As the state continues to ignore them, it will be hard for many to remain Nepali citizens despite possessing a citizenship certificate,” he said. “The situation is such that even if Nepal gets its land back, many might want to hold Indian citizenship.”
Political leaders and analysts in Nepal by and large have a unanimous position that Nepal should pursue dialogue and take diplomatic approaches to resolve the issue. But on May 13, the government sent an Armed Police Force troop to Gaga in Chharung, near Kalapani.
A day later, on May 15, Indian Army Chief MM Naravane not only made light of the protests in Kathmandu but also asserted that Lipulekh is Indian territory. He went on to claim that Nepal was objecting to the opening of the road link “at the behest of someone else”, hinting at China.
Some in Kathmandu believe the Indian army chief could have been reacting to Kathmandu’s deployment of APF personnel near the Kalapani region.
But experts say that a 25-strong APF troop won’t be of much help.
“The post was set up just to quell the criticism from locals decrying the government’s ineptitude to protect the country’s border,” said Rajendra Thapa, a former Nepal Army brigadier general. “The post is not placed at a strategically significant place and the number of security personnel is not large enough. This is meaningless.”
The disputed territory of Kalapani is about 20km uphill from where the APF has been stationed. There are border police posts in Chhangru and Tinkar but personnel are only deployed there for six months in a year. Locals had suggested the authorities to set up the posts in Kauwa, which is eight km uphill from Gaga, and more strategically placed to monitor Indian activity in Kalapani.
Whatever measures the Nepal government takes to reclaim the land, they will be of little significance to the locals in the area unless the region receives adequate attention from the state. As long as Nepalis are forced to rely on India for supplies and for safe passage to their homeless, reclaiming disputed land will be meaningless, say locals.
For the 400 or so villagers who remain in Khalanga, protests in Kathmandu are far from their concerns. They are more worried about planting their crops and tending to their livestock.
“A plight of this scale is unprecedented. The whole village is stuck in Khalanga with an increasingly uncertain future,” said Bohara, the ward chief. “We have to see this day because the government has forgotten that some of its citizens live in this area.”