UK-Nepal bilateral ties in last 200 years

Without the 1923 treaty of peace and friendship with the British it would have been hard to establish Nepal’s sovereignty abroad.


By Biswas Baral–

David Beckham was recently voted the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ by People magazine. He’s certainly got the looks, added to his unmatched talent for bending football and multi-million-dollar sponsorship deals. He has Posh for wife—and English for native language. Although Pax Britannia is long dead, the soft power of the United Kingdom—epitomized by the likes of Beckham and Bond—has never been stronger. So it was perhaps fitting that the British footballing icon should come to Nepal on the eve of the 200th anniversary of formal relation between Nepal and the UK.

The start of the relation was not auspicious for Nepal, for it was built upon the hurt of losing a third of the country’s territory after a humiliating war, by the end of which the British were able to confine the mighty Gorkhali forces to Kathmandu Valley. Had Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa delayed the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli, virtually dictated by the British, even by a few days, the far-superior fighting machinery of the East India Company may have taken Kathmandu, too. So the treaty imposed on it by the British on December 2nd, 1815 offered nothing to celebrate for Nepal.

The ultimate humiliation for Thapa was that the 1815 treaty didn’t envisage Nepal as a completely sovereign country. It provided that any dispute between Nepal and the then Kingdom of Sikkim would be referred to the arbitration of the East India Company. Nepal, likewise, would not be able to employ foreign subjects without the consent of the British government. Moreover, Nepal and Britain, according to Sugauli treaty, would exchange ‘accredited ministers’ instead of ambassadors, as happens in the case of two sovereign countries.

Blood test

If the Treaty of Sugauli had been in effect when India, the legal successor of the East India Company, achieved its independence in 1947, the new Indian government could have invoked the old treaty to argue that Nepal should, like Sikkim, be an Indian protectorate. The reason that didn’t happen owes to two figures: Jung Bahadur Rana, the first Rana prime minister and Chandra Shumsher, Jung Bahadur’s nephew.

Both Jung Bahadur and Chandra Shumsher had decided that the best way to gain the faith of the firangis was to suck up to them. Ever ready in the services of the crown, both became ready accomplishes in the many pogroms of the East India Company. Jung Bahadur sent Nepal Army to help the British suppress the 1857 movement for Indian independence (800,000 dead). Chandra Shumsher later offered the services of the same army to loot ancient monasteries and massacre up to 3,000 subjects of imperial China during the 1904 British mission to Tibet. There were many instances of such help being offered by the uncle and nephew duo to the blood-soaked military campaigns of the British.

In return for Jung Bahadur’s unending devotion to the British crown, Nepal was returned five districts the British had captured after the Sugauli treaty. Chandra Shumsher’s fealty was rewarded in 1923 with a new treaty of peace and friendship between Nepal and Britain—the first international treaty to recognize Nepal as a completely sovereign country.

“All previous treaties, agreements and engagements, since and including the Sugauli Treaty of 1815,” according to the new treaty, were “hereby essentially cancelled.” Nepal and Britain would henceforth respect each other’s “internal and external independence” and agree to an exchange of residential ambassadors, instead of resident ministers. Without this change in Nepal’s de jure status prior to Indian independence—and its acceptance by the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations—it would have been hard to establish Nepal’s sovereignty abroad. Chandra Shumsher, it might be argued, single-handedly saved Nepal from oblivion.

More recently Nepal and Britain have shared mostly amicable ties, even though controversy has never been far.

The United Kingdom is the biggest bilateral donor in Nepal; its international development arm, DFID, pumped 86 million pounds in Nepal in 2014/15. DFID in Nepal works “to improve efforts to reduce political instability, boost economic growth and economic inclusion, provide basic services and increase resilience to natural disasters.” While DFID insists that its support for various ethnic groups is in keeping with its commitment to political stability and inclusion, Nepal wants it to invest more in ‘hard’ infrastructure projects rather than ‘soft’ areas like democracy and ethnic rights.

Sparkes fly

Britain has at other times needlessly complicated things, for instance by arresting Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama on British soil in 2013, on charges of war crimes during the Maoist rebellion. As foreign minister Kamal Thapa rightly pointed out during his recent UK trip, Nepal now has transitional justice bodies in place to look into war-time crimes and Britain should trust these bodies. Otherwise, there will continue to be frictions.

When the British wanted to send their multipurpose Chinhook helicopters to help with relief and rescue after the April 25th earthquake, Nepal politely declined. Nepal was reported to have acted on the behalf of the Chinese, who, it was said, were sensitive about British helicopters hovering so close to their borders. The real reason was Nepal Army’s displeasure over Colonel Lama’s continued detention in Britain. If not, the American aircraft deployed for similar relief and rescue efforts would also have been grounded.

In 2014 it was the turn of the British ambassador to Nepal, Andrew Sparkes, to poke a spoke in Nepal’s constitutional wheel by suggesting, in an article for Republica, that the right to change religion should be protected in the new charter Nepal was in the process of drafting at the time. The ensuing furor over his undiplomatic conduct cost him his job.

In fact, Britain has been solely responsible for all the recent upheavals in British-Nepali ties. British Prime Minister David Cameron had no business asking, in a joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, that Nepali constitution be made more inclusive. Yes, there may be flaws in our constitution. But highlighting these flaws in a bilateral statement that has nothing to do with Nepal was in poor taste when you are celebrating the bicentenary of a valued relation.

Again, it all began with the 1815 Sugauli Treaty which, among other things, started the tradition of recruiting Gurkha soldiers into British Army. Two hundred years on, many in Nepal continue to see British Gurkhas as the most important link in Nepal-Britain ties. But this link may soon be broken. The British government has been ruthlessly cutting down the size of its famed Gurkha Brigade, from 13,000 in 1994 to 3,000 today. With Gurkha soldiers now liable to comparable salaries and perks to their British counterparts, and with Britain looking to reduce the size of its army to match its diminished military status, it might only be a matter of time before Gurkha recruitment is completely stopped.

So what could be the new, lasting basis of friendship between Nepal and Britain? Beckham and Bond, the British Council and the BBC World Service, of course! These are the most suitable vehicles with which to carry British soft power abroad in the 21st century. That should suffice for Britain to remain in good books of countries such as Nepal where it has no direct stake. Heavy-lifting like the forced joint communiqué with India and Mr Sparkes’ labored op-ed are not just useless, they are also counterproductive.
(This article was originally published in Republica Daily on Dec. 31, 2015 . The write can be contacted at  [email protected]

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