The impact of a Nepal-Britain treaty on the political map of the subcontinent - Hindustan Times
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View from the Himalayas | Impact of a treaty between Nepal and Britain on the political map of the subcontinent

Dec 23, 2023 08:29 PM IST

The treaty signed on December 21, 1923, at the height of England’s imperial power has served as a guardrail against both India and China

A centennial review of the Nepal-Britain Treaty of Friendship offers an opportunity to examine not only the historical significance of the agreement for Nepal but also the impact that this piece of colonial history has had on the Indian subcontinent.

A photograph of King George V (right) with Nepal's Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana in 1911, shown at the 1923 Nepal-UK Treaty Centenary Conference organised at Yala Maya Kendra, Lalitpur, Nepal(Akhilesh Upadhyay) PREMIUM
A photograph of King George V (right) with Nepal's Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana in 1911, shown at the 1923 Nepal-UK Treaty Centenary Conference organised at Yala Maya Kendra, Lalitpur, Nepal(Akhilesh Upadhyay)

From Nepal’s perspective, the treaty turned out to be a diplomatic milestone. It helped safeguard its independence and sovereignty at a critical juncture in the early 20th century. The turn of events during the run-up to signing the treaty offers insight into the price Nepal played to further the British imperial ambitions. Casualties in the First World War remain debatable, but it’s estimated that over 6,000 Nepalis died and close to 20,000 sustained injuries. The war recruitment, together with the influenza epidemic of 1917, led to a reported decline in Nepal’s population between 1911 and 1920, from 560,000 to 550,000.

Scholars attribute the fruition of the 1923 treaty to tight-rope negotiations between Nepali and British-India officials, and Nepal’s hereditary Rana prime minister’s contribution to the war efforts of the preeminent imperial power. Had things taken a different course, researchers say, Nepal could have well been pushed into the orbit of either of its powerful neighbours, China and India, 24 years later, when the British withdrew from the subcontinent.

Yet the events that led to the treaty are less discussed and dissected compared to the two other treaties. One is the Treaty of Sugauli which came about after Nepal’s defeat in a long and bloody Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816). The treaty gave Britain a firm upper hand: Nepal was forced to accept a resident British representative in Kathmandu, cede a third of its territory — a vast swathe west of the Teesta River to the east; Kumaon and Garhwal in the current-day Uttarakhand to the west; and the disputed Tarai to the south.

Not long before, the Gorkha conquests started in 1743 with the unifier-king Prithvi Narayan Shah, who subjugated some 54 petty principalities, settlements, and kingdoms. The conquest of the most prosperous of them all, Kathmandu Valley (the seat of current-day capital), a major trading centre and entrepôt to Indo-Tibet trade, was completed in 1769. The Sugauli Treaty also ended the expansion of the Gorkha empire.

The second is the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India, which many believe was inked during the tenure of the last autocratic Rana prime minister, Mohan Shamsher, to appease Delhi. To many, the treaty signed in 1950 was a desperate bid for survival to stave off a pro-democracy mass movement.

Nepali Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana and Indian ambassador to Nepal, Chandeshwar Prasad Narayan Singh signing the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 31 July 1950(WikiCommons)
Nepali Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana and Indian ambassador to Nepal, Chandeshwar Prasad Narayan Singh signing the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 31 July 1950(WikiCommons)

Formal recognition of Nepal’s sovereignty

Yet, the 1923 Treaty remains significant for several reasons. First and foremost, it was the first formal recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Nepal by the United Kingdom. This meant that the international legal principle of sovereign equality of nations in the conduct of relations between an imperial power and what was until then an inconsequential Himalayan state would come into play. This also went a long way in removing doubt in the Nepali mind that Britain would invade Nepal someday while consolidating its grip on the subcontinent.

“When much of South Asia was under British subjugation,” observed Surya Prasad Subedi, a British-Nepalese Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds, in his lecture delivered early this year to mark the Treaty centennial. “Nepal alone held its head high like the Himalayas, and never had a foreign flag flying over it.” Though Britain never colonised Bhutan, it controlled its foreign relations.

After Indian independence, several prominent leaders, including Vallabhbhai Patel, the deputy prime minister and home minister in Nehru’s cabinet, reportedly stood against Nepal’s independence. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, however, seemed to believe that the 1923 Treaty had already laid the foundation for Nepal as a sovereign state and should therefore be treated so in future as well.

Although Nepal was not a member of the League of Nations (which would later evolve as the United Nations), the fact that the Treaty was registered with the League in 1925 signified Nepal’s ‘indirect admission’ to the galaxy of independent nations. After the conclusion of the 1923 Treaty, Nepal would become the first South Asian country to establish an embassy in London. This paved the way for Nepal’s membership in the United Nations in 1955. When Nepal made a bid for UN membership in 1949, the 1923 Treaty became major evidence of its independence.

The Treaty also ended any potential ‘suzerain’ claim by China over Nepal. The Treaty of Betrawati in 1792 stipulated that China (which had come to Tibet’s rescue after a Gorkha invasion) should be “considered as father to both Nepal and Tibet, who should regard each other as brothers.” The Treaty effectively recognized the suzerainty of China over Nepal and Tibet, and that China would be obliged to help Nepal defend against any external aggression.

When a young Chandra Shumsher, Nepal’s Rana prime minister, met the young Viceroy of India Lord Curzon at the Coronation Durbar in Delhi in 1911, a lasting friendship was born. If it were not for the quid pro quo as demanded by Chandra Shumsher at the end of the First World War for the sacrifice made by the Gurkhas in battlefields around the globe, as Professor Subedi argues, the 1923 Treaty ratifying Nepal’s full sovereignty would not have come about. A fair argument perhaps.

Akhilesh Upadhyay is a Senior Fellow at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank and former Editor-in-Chief of The Kathmandu Post. Views expressed are personal

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