Nepal-China: Case study of Shifting border

Nepal-China: Case study of Shifting border


Two Hands-up


Buddhi N Shrestha

Former DG, Survey Department/ Border expert, Nepal


On the north of Nepal lies the territory of China. Nepal had relations with the TAR of China since thousands of years, before unification of Nepal. Although the relation between Nepal and Tibet goes back to historical times there were of course antagonisms and aggressions. But those hostilities were basically for trade, economic and monetary reasons. Attacks and counterattacks on each other’s territory had made some changes in the boundary line. During those wars the Gorkhali troops had expanded their territory inside Tibet near to Lhasa.


Actually, the Tibetans wanted to expand trade to India through Nepal. Responding to Tibet’s proposal as an opportunity, Nepal sent a delegation to Khasa of Tibet located on the northeast of Kathmandu to talk to the Tibetans. The representatives of the two countries felt a need for an agreement. Then a trade agreement was signed between Nepal and Tibet at Khasa on 5 September 1775. This trade agreement is known as Khasa Agreement. The agreement also made a provision to let the previous border to remain as it was. The treaty felt the need to strengthen the borderline between the two countries.


During regency of Bahadur Shah, he sent a protest letter to the Tibet government expressing dissatisfaction with them for not complying fully with the terms and conditions of the trade treaty. In its reply the Tibetan government instead, made several accusations against Nepal. In the meantime, Tibet worked for attack on the pretext on Nepal that it gave asylum to Shyamarpa Lama who had fled from Tibet and had entered Nepal. So the environment was not congenial between two countries.


In the summer of 1788 AD, Nepal sent Gorkha troops under the joint command of Damodar Pande and Bam Shah to attack Tibet. The Nepali troops led by Damodar Pandey attacked Tibet. The Tibetans could not resist, and the Nepali troops pushed forward through Rasuwagadhi and Gorkha to the north capturing trekking passes like Kerung and Kuti and expanded Nepal’s borderline northward and also pushed up to Sigatsche (Tashilhunpo) which is located on the south-west of Lhasa. But the Tibetans proposed for treaty thinking that the Nepalese troops would be at Lhasa. There were several rounds of talks, and finally, Nepal and Tibet entered into an agreement on 2 June 1789, mediated by the Chinese representatives. This agreement is known as Kerung agreement. The agreement contracted Nepal’s territory, which had reached to Tashilhunpo during 1788.


In course of time, Tibet informed that the Kerung Treaty was controversial and proposed that it should be amended. They said that the treaty was still not ratified by the Lhasa palace. On the other hand, they also felt that Nepal might not agree to their reasoning and could make attack again; so they started preparing for war. Nepal became suspicious. All these initiated Nepal to start another war with Tibet.

Then Nepal sent its forces from two sides to attack on Tibet on 6 August 1791. The force pushed northeast and seceded further eastward and captured Digarcha, the capital of Tashi Lama. In this way Nepal’s border expanded to Sigatsche and Tashilhunpo.


In such a situation, Tibet asked China for military help. The Chinese force arrived in Lhasa to help the Tibetans. The Chinese force attacked the Nepalese and drove the Nepalese forces back from the expanded territory. The Chinese troops pushed further south and reached just 30 kilometers north of Kathmandu, capital city. But despite several efforts, the Chinese troops failed to cross the Betrawoti River. Taking this opportunity, the Nepalese troops launched a counter attack upon the Chinese troops with additional forces. The Chinese side suffered heavy casualty. They were weary and tired of the war. So the Chinese wanted to end the war and preferred a treaty. Talks were held between the two sides, and an agreement was reached on 5 October 1792 and the war ended. This agreement is known as or Nepal-Tibet Treaty (Betrawoti Treaty) of 1792.


Under the treaty, the border of Nepal was shifted back to the line north of Rasuwagadhi. In this way, the Betrawoti Treaty tried to keep Nepal’s northern border stable under the impartiality and fairness of China that made the present border of Nepal. So this was a kind of shifting border of Nepal during the era of late 1800.


Likewise, the Tibetan government was disinclined to provide security, under the Betrawoti treaty, to Nepali traders living and doing business in Tibet. By 1854, differences between the governments of Nepal and Tibet further widened. This was coupled with border disputes. Nepal had given the pastureland south of Khasa on annual contract to Tibet for grazing their cattle. But the Tibetans made settlements there and began collecting land tax from them. Tibetans intended to include the land within their territory. To materialize their intention, the Tibetans dug 80 feet wide trenches at different segments one mile south of the Nepalese border and began claiming that the land belonged to them. Knowing about their nuisance, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur sent officials to recoup the land-tax collected by the Tibetans, to restore Nepal’s claim to the territory and to collect the tax by Nepalese themselves. Tibetans did not accept Nepal’s claim that they had encroached upon Nepalese territory and had shifted the borderline. But Nepal was not satisfied. As a result, it worked as a background for yet another war between Nepal and Tibet.


In the mean time Nepal asked Tibet to return Kerung and Kuti areas which were previously under Nepal’s control; and also to hand over the Taklakot area in the north of Darchula along the route to lake Man Sarovar. The Tibet government responded, but did not mention anything about the demand raised by Nepal. Failing to get a clear reply, Nepal formally announced war against Tibet on 6 March 1855. Under the plan, Nepalese troops attacked Tibet from North, West and Far West. The troop pushed to the north and captured Kerung, Digree, and Jhungagadhi areas. The Nepali force that had pushed to northeast captured Khasa and Kuti on the north of Sindhupalchowk on 3 April 1855 and pushed further north to Sunagampa and remained there.


The Nepalese had remained for 8 months defending the newly conquered territories. But a combined force of the Tibetans and Chinese made a surprise attack at Kuti on the night of 5 November 1855. The Nepalese were defeated. In the mean time commander of the Nepali force that had withdrawn from Kuti asked for additional troops from Kathmandu, and the reinvigorated Nepalese troops attacked Kuti from three sides. Then Kuti was restored again within the Nepalese territory.

When the Nepalese troops gained success in all sectors, the Tibetans proposed peace talks at the border. Finally, both sides agreed to resume the peace talks, and the negotiation was held at the Thapathali Palace in Kathmandu. Both sides then reached an agreement for a treaty, and a treaty was signed on 24 March 1856. The treaty is known as Nepal-Tibet Peace Treaty. This treaty is also called as Thapathali Treaty. This contracted Nepal border with Bhairablangur Himal and Nepal’s border was fixed at Tatopani, which is also the present border of Nepal.


In this way, by the time of Thapathali Treaty, Nepal’s northern border had expanded and contracted to and from Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China and finally it was shifted to the Himalayan range. At that time, majority of the Himalayan range had remained within the Nepalese frontier. It remained for near about a century. All these events and incidents show that Nepal’s northern border line shifted seven times within a period of eighty-one years to and from Tibet.


Boundary delimitation

The relation between Nepal and China strengthened after Tibet was a part of the autonomous region of China. To enhance the relationship furthermore, it was agreed that formal settlement of the question of the boundary between China and Nepal is of fundamental interest to the peoples of the two countries. It was believed that formal delimitation of the entire boundary and its consolidation as a boundary of peace and friendship not only constitute a milestone in the further development of the friendly relations between Nepal and China, but also a contribution towards strengthening peace in Asia and the world. Both the governments agreed to delineate and demarcate the customary boundary line in a scientific way.


To materialize the boundary survey and mapping, Nepal-China Boundary Agreement was made on 21 March 1960. After making a detailed home work on both the sides, Boundary Treaty was made on 5 October 1961. The treaty was signed by the King of Nepal and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, after delineating the physical boundary line. Then the actual boundary line was demarcated physically. During the joint boundary demarcation on the Sino-Nepal borderline there were disputes, conflicts, debates, controversies, claims and counter-claims in 32 places; including the question of Mount Everest.


It is commendable that all the disputes, claims and counter-claims were settled forever in accordance with the principles of equality, mutual benefit, friendship, mutual understanding and accommodation. Besides, it was adopted by the parties, the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence; and a spirit of fairness, reasonableness, mutual understanding and most importantly respecting each other as Nepal and China have the equal rights and status in the international arena. According to its norm all the issues, except Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) had been settled from the Joint Boundary Committee. Regarding the question of Everest, the dispute was settled and ended while the visiting Prime Minister Chou En-Lai made a statement in Kathmandu on 28 April 1960 that ‘Mount Everest belongs to Nepal.’


Boundary demarcation

The demarcation of territory was made according to the delimitation of the treaty. Joint Survey Teams were formed to carry out border survey and they started to erect permanent pillars and markers from 21 June 1962 at different points of the borderline.


Under the treaty, the border areas have been adjusted to either country according to its traditional uses, possessions and its convenience. This adjustment was made on the basis of ‘give and take’ and the inclusion of some pasture land within the Nepalese territory. With this principle, Nepal had given 1,836.25 square kilometer of land to China and Nepal had taken 2,139.00 sq km, as it has been added 302.75 square kilometer of Chinese territory into Nepal.[i]   This is a kind of last border shifting between Nepal and China.


In connection to the demarcation of the boundary with the watershed principle, there were some problems of cross-holding occupation. For example, when possession of some land and pasture land owned by the citizen of one country felt on the other side of the border, he would become the citizen of another country. To solve this problem, it reached to an understanding on the choice of nationality.


The joint teams demarcated and established pillars and markers, specified serial number 1 to 79 from west to east. Among them, there were 48 larger and 31 smaller size pillars. In addition, they had established 20 offset pillars, where there were possibilities of disappearance of main pillars due to natural circumstances, so that the total number of pillars and markers constructed reached to 99 in total. The total length of the demarcated borderline was delineated as 1439.18 kilometers. Erections of border pillars were completed within a period of one year without making any discrepancy in words and actions.


The boundary treaty signed on 5 October 1961 determined the border line in a formal and scientific manner that had been remained undetermined for hundreds of years, but had been used according to tradition and conveniences between Nepal and TAR of China. The treaty also solved the minor scuffles that was left by history, and gave rise to the borderline as a symbol of peace and friendship. After signing the treaty, officials of both countries expressed satisfaction for resolving once and for all the problems that had remained with history. It was also felt that the treaty was a great contribution to the future generation of both countries.


It could be said  that the northern borderline of Nepal has been fixed at almost watershed of the Himalayan Range as the northern border consists of many Himalayan peaks, the borderline goes through the high peaks, mountains, passes, deuralis (terminal points of up mountain), gorges and the pasturelands. Finally, Nepal-China boundary protocol was signed on 20 January 1963. It was also mentioned in the protocol that there would be joint inspection of the whole length of the border by teams of both the countries every five years, but the inspection may be postponed whenever agreed upon by both parties.


To renew the protocol, the border was jointly inspected, repaired and maintained damaged pillars. After completing all the formalities, boundary protocol was renewed on 20 November 1979. In the same way, third protocol was renewed on 6 December 1988. To formulate the Fourth and the last protocol, joint inspection and border survey mapping was started on 9 May 2005. The joint teams inspected, repaired and maintained a total number of 99 pillars and markers. All the technical works, including the preparation of digital strip-maps have been completed. It has prepared 57 sheets of border maps based on GPS technology. However, it has a minor issues remained to be tackled. Regarding the boundary marker #57 it is found slightly placed inside Nepal, instead of what was previously presumed. It is the matter of a controversy of near about 6 hectares of land. So the joint technical boundary committee meeting, to prepare the fourth boundary protocol, has been stranded till this date. (Excerpts Only)


The author is a former Director General Survey Department of Nepal and Managing Director of Bhumichitra Mapping Co. Kathmandu, Nepal. He could be reached at The paper was presented at International Cross-Border Conference on Border Regions in Transition (BRIT)-XII Fukuoka (Japan)-Busan (South Korea) 13-16 November 2012.


The Telegraph Weekly, January 16, 2013. Page 4

Nepal: India Boundary delimitation and talk of land encroachment

Nepal: India Boundary delimitation

Two Hands-up

Buddhi N Shrestha

Former DG, Survey Department/ Border expert, Nepal



Now we come to the case study of the southern boundary of Nepal. Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great had started to unify 56 small kingdoms and principalities into a strong Himalayan State of Nepal in 1769. His successors completed the unification campaign and the territory of Nepal was extended from Tista to Kangra as Greater Nepal by 1806. In those days, the Britishers, who had entered into India with the intention of doing business there, were ruling India. They probably did not like the rise of Nepal. They began to turn their eyes towards Nepal. The British East India Company Government was looking for an opportunity to expand trade to Tibet. But, since the border of the then Nepali Kingdom had extended west to east covering the northern frontier of British India. The Indian businessmen did not have direct access to the then Tibet. All the easy access transit points to enter into Tibet from India were under the territory of Nepal. The Britishers did not see any way out to fulfill their wish to trade with Tibet through Nepal, except using military force. So they raised an issue of the boundary dispute of Seuraj and Butawal areas of Nepal as a pretext for them to go on war. East India Company thought to threaten Nepal with war.

The British sent a letter to Nepal in March 1814, giving her an order to abandon her occupation of the territory of Seuraj and Butawal. If Nepal did not send back a satisfactory reply to the letter within 25 days, they would capture these places by means of force. But Nepal did not respond. So Lord Hastings officially declared war against Nepal on 1 November 1814. Then a dreadful war between the Gorkhali and British army took place. Many fighters of both sides laid down their lives during the war. In the mean time, British proposed a treaty and Nepal government was also ready to negotiate peace terms. Finally, a treaty of peace and friendship was drafted and sent to Nepal by the East India Company on 2 December 1815. Nepal counter signed the treaty on 4 March 1816 at Sugauli. Now Anglo-Nepal war was ended.

This treaty became known as the ‘Treaty of Sugauli- 1816.’ It was mentioned in the articles of the treaty that Nepal shall give up the claim on all the territories that had become a matter of dispute before that war, he shall accept the authority of the Company Government over the Tarai (plain area) across the river Tista in the east; to Satlaj and Kangra in the west. This treaty largely shrunked the border of Nepal to the river Mechi on the east and river Mahakali on the west. Foot-hill of Siwalik Range was the southern border of Nepal with India. As a result, one third of the Nepalese territory was chipped off.

In fact, this treaty of Sugauli was in favour of the East India Company; and Nepal had to suffer a heavy loss of the territory. Nepal was highly dissatisfied to loose a large chunk of land from Mechi to Tista, where there was no war. So, to pacify Nepal and as indemnity, a Supplementary Boundary Treaty was made in 11 December 1816 to which Nepal restored the Tarai low lands from Koshi to Rapti River. In course of time, as a reward to Nepal that Nepal subsided the Sepoy Mutiny in India, raised against the East India Company government; British India returned the ceded western Tarai low land of Nepal from Rapti to Mahakali as new territory (Naya Muluk) signing the Boundary Treaty on 15 November 1860.

As a matter of fact, the Treaty of Sugauli (4 March 1816) and Supplementary Treaty (11 December 1816) are the bases to delineate and demarcate the eastern, western and portion of southern border of Nepal, even though the Boundary Treaty (15 November 1860) implied specially the south-western portion, as the restoration of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts as new territory (Naya Muluk). And this became the boundary of present day Nepal. It could be said that Nepal’s southern boundary line was expanded and shifted four times within a period of fifty one years.

After the restoration of low land, southern borderline of Nepal with India runs through fertile plains, jungles, rivers and settlements as well. On the east there is the Mechi River and the watershed of Singhalila Range with hills and hillocks stand as the border. On the west, the Mahakali River runs all the way as the border line between Nepal and India.

This is an interesting fact to mention that even after the Sugauli Treaty, there were disputes and differences at various places. But allowing to the Supplementary Boundary Treaty of 11 December 1816, it was envisaged that such disputes would be settled with mutual understanding on the basis of exchanges of land on equal quantity of area and such quantity of ground as may be considered mutually desirable for the new boundary. It further says, as it is impossible to establish desirable limits between the two States without survey, it will be expedient that Commissioners be appointed on both sides for the purpose of arranging in concert a well defined boundary on the basis of the preceding terms, and of establishing a straight line of frontier, with a view to the distinct separation of the respective territories of the British Government to the south and of Nepal to the north. In case any indentations occur to destroy the even tenor of the line, the Commissioners should affect an exchange of lands so interfering on principles of clear reciprocity.[i]

Additionally, there were also provisions to exchange any portion that jot in and out of the straight line on the principle of clarity and mutuality. They agreed that if the land of any individual fell across the boundary line, the issue would be put before the governments of the two countries to solve the dispute. The Commissioners were also given the authority to make agreements and to make exchanges of such land to allow the landowners to remain within their previous territory. It was also agreed to carry out a survey to establish border markers, and to exchange documents bearing the borderlines and to be approved by both the governments.

Boundary demarcation :

The border demarcation work between Nepal and India was started with the spirit of the Treaty of Sugauli (ratified on 4 March 1816). Surveying and demarcation of border with the erection of pillars had been started just after monsoon season of 1816. The boundary line between two countries was surveyed and demarcated from 1816 to 1860/182/85/1906/ 1940-41 dividing it into nine different sectors with the erection of 913 masonry boundary pillars.

During the demarcation, Nepal and the Company Government had disputes at several places over the border. For example, whether the border line should be taken at the top ridge or the southern or northern foot-hill of the Chure Range. In this regard, disputes had erupted in the area from Dunduwa Range of Dang to Arra Nala and Taal Bagoda in 1817. Similarly, there was a dispute in ownership of Antu Danda of Ilam in 1825. There was also dispute in 1838 on the origin of the Mechi River, whether the river originated from north-east or north-west should be delineated as the source of the Mechi River.[ii] There was also ‘mine-and-yours’ controversy regarding the border areas adjoining with Tirhut and Sarun districts of India. In 1840, there were claims and counter-claims on the ownership of several villages and settlements of the Ramnagar area.[iii]

The above mentioned examples illustrate that there were disputes on the border just after the Treaty of Sugauli, which showed Nepal’s disenchantment with the treaty. Disputes in several areas had been settled, but in so many other places the disputes still have been remained to be settled and there were debates, conflicts and controversies.

During the demarcation from 1816 to 1906, border pillars had been planted at a distance of one to 2.5 kilometer according to the terrain. Strip-maps were prepared in connection to the border demarcation. Some of the segments of border line were zigzag, some triangle-shaped sharp line, some other bending with acute angle. But no sufficient boundary markers were erected on these winding/bending lines and river courses. So the actual line of demarcation was obscure in some of the portions in some segments. No-man’s land with ten-yard width (Das Gaja) on both the sides was not maintained in those areas. This was the cause of disputes and conflicts on some spots.

In course of time, portions of the dense forest (Charkoshe Jhadi) along the Tarai plain border strip was cut off and cleared to provide settlement for the hill people. Besides, some border rivers changed its courses during monsoon flood and eroded the boundary pillars. So the border was obscure in due course of time. And it became a probability of encroachment from the adjoining densely populated frontier of India. At that time there was a population pressure in Indian settlement, especially Bihar State. So the adjoining Indian inhabitants started to make encroachment on the Nepali frontier for their livelihood; and migrated into Nepali territory. These were some of the causes of shifting border of southern Nepal.

In due time, government of Nepal was aware of this fact of encroachment and occupation by Indian side. So the Nepal government formed an inspection team consisting of the personnel from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs and Land Survey Department. They did field visit, inspected the location of border pillars, and supervised condition of No-man’s land during the dry seasons of 1965 to 1967. Finally, they submitted a report to the government mentioning that there is no clear demarcation in so many portions of some of the segments of the border. Hundreds of boundary pillars have been missing. A considerable number of pillars and monuments have been broken, destroyed, dismantled and smashed in a pitiable state. Many spots on No-man’s land have been cultivated and constructed animal-shed.

Nepal government realized that condition of its low land territory, consisting of southern belt and portion of eastern and western segment, are in deplorable and miserable condition that may create problem in future. Considering all these facts, Nepal moved and talked diplomatically with India to formulate Nepal-India joint border inspection mechanism to so keep the border clear and intact. The talk went on for almost a decade. After a long consultation and conversation, it was finally agreed on 25 February 1981 to work jointly to clear and maintain the border line between two countries. As a result, it was formed ‘Nepal-India Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee’ in November1981.

Various minor issues have been resolved and erected subsidiary/additional pillars and prepared strip-maps of the resolved areas. But the joint committee could not settle major issues of encroachment or disputed portions. In fact, the Joint Technical Committee (JTC) worked for 26 years and completed 97 percent of the boundary business. The remaining 3 percent of the border business or 56 km in various spots of the total span of Nepal-India border was beyond their capacity. This unsettled portion of border consists of Kalapani-Limpiyadhura encroachment 17 km, Susta 24 km and other various spots make 15 km. There are encroachment, cross-holding occupation, dispute, conflict, claims and counter-claims in 71 spots having approximately 60,660 hectare. The prominent areas have been identified as Kalapani-Limpiyadhura, Susta, Mechi riverine area, Tanakpur, Sandakpur, Pashupatinagar, Hile, Thori etc. The largest single chunk of encroachment is Kalapani-Limpiyadhura (37,000 hectare) of Darchula district and smallest portion is Fatak 0.025 hectare (240 square metres) in Pashupatinagar of Ilam district. It could be said that boundary treaty and the statement of delimitation do not have detail and clear description. So, it created doubt and suspicion on the mitigation of the boundary issue.

The JTC could not settle major issues of encroachment or disputed portions as there are issues in more than 71 places. The main reasons and issues of the boundary business with India is the border encroachments, disputes on mostly cross-holding occupations, divergence of opinion on basic materials such as maps and old documents for demarcation. The other reason is the slackness in joint survey field teams and lack of equal participation and so on and so forth.

(Excerpts Only) The paper was presented by the author at International Cross-Border Conference on Border Regions in Transition (BRIT)-XII Fukuoka (Japan)-Busan (South Korea) 13-16 November 2012. 

Weekly Telegraph, January 23, 2013 Page 4

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