1923 - 2023

The centenary of the Nepal-Britain Treaty of Friendship reminds us of a time when Nepal’s leaders had strategic thinking

Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher with King George V during Nepal's 'tiger hunt diplomacy' to secure the 1923 treaty with Britain. Photo: MADAN PURASKAR PUSTAKALAYA ARCHIVES

After the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 that brought the Anglo-Nepal War to an end, Nepal was nominally independent, but was treated by the British as just another Indian princely state. 

Jang Bahadur Rana took power after the gory Kot coup in 1847, and to gauge if it was wise to go to war with Britain to wrest back territory lost in 1816, got himself invited by Queen Victoria — becoming the first subcontinental royalty to visit England in 1850. 

After inspecting cannon factories and military installations, Jang was awed by the might of the British Empire. He and his descendants who ruled Nepal for the next 100 years then became so devoted to Britain that they helped quell the Mutiny in 1857, offered troops for the Afghan Campaign and other warsof Empire. An estimated 20,000 Gurkha soldiers died in Flanders Field, Gallipoli and other battlefields of World War I

Through skilful diplomacy and two years of lobbying in Delhi and London, Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana leveraged the sacrifice of young Nepali warriors to get Britain to sign the 1923 Treaty of Friendship that formally recognised Nepal as a sovereign country. 

Chandra Shumsher himself visited London in 1908. Later, to soften the British military and royalty to sign the treaty he hosted Lord Kitchener, and invited King George VI and Prince Edward for elaborate tiger hunting diplomacy in Chitwan.

Prithvi Narayan Shah may have been Nepal’s founding king, but it was Chandra Shumsher who first gave Nepal its place in the world. In 1937, Nepal established an embassy at 12A Kensington Palace Gardens where it is located to this day. At that time, Nepal was one of only four Asian countries with a mission in London.

Things changed after Indian independence in 1947, and the Ranas were soon out of a job. The rest, as they say, is history. 

This year marks the centenary of the Nepal-Britain Friendship Treaty signed on 21 December 1923 in Singha Darbar — also called the ‘Treaty of Thapathali’. It went some way to address the historical humiliation for Nepal of the Sugauli Treaty. 

British envoy to Nepal William O’Connor was taken with a 20-horse escort from Lazimpat to Singha Darbar for the signing ceremony, an honour reserved only for kings.

The Rana regime declared two days of national holiday, ordered illumination of buildings at night, lifted the ban on gambling temporarily, and freed prisoners. British envoys in Kathmandu who were earlier referred to as ‘residents’ now became full ambassadors.

Although Nepal was never colonised, the Treaty finally helped the country to be accepted on the world stage as an independent nation. The treaty document is archived in Single Darbar and bears the signatures of O’Connor and Chandra Shumsher.

Chandra Samsher treaty
British envoy to Nepal William O’Connor and Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher after signing the treaty on 21 December 1923.

Among its seven articles, the treaty guaranteed Nepal’s sovereignty, reaffirmed the Sugauli Treaty, addressed security guarantees, opened the door for import of weapons by the Nepal military, and removed tariff barriers for bilateral trade.

The treaty was not welcomed by everyone, however. Anti-Rana dissidents and those who were against Gurkha recruitment opposed it. Chandra Shumsher died six years after the treaty signing, and his successors did not fully exploit its potential to, for example, join the League of Nations and push Nepal’s presence more forcefully.

Chandra Shumsher even used the security provision of the treaty to get the British in India to suppress activists engaged in anti-Rana and anti-Gurkha recruitment advocacy in India.  

Nepal is not a member of the Commonwealth, but having 8,000 or so of our nationals in the British Army should have made Nepal-Britain ties much closer to take greater advantage of political, economic and trade cooperation. 

Nepal has not been able to fully capitalise on the ‘soft power’ of Gurkha recruitment. And adventurers who researched and explored Nepal in the last two centuries are almost unknown in Britain: regent and Nepalophile  Brian Houghton Hodgson, botanist Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, naturalist Joseph Dalton Hooker, Himalayan explorers A W Tilman and Eric Shipton, or the ex-British Gurkhas Mike Cheney and Jimmy Roberts who made Pokhara his home.

Much of this is due to Nepal’s own inadequate diplomacy over the years. But while members of the British royal family have made multiple visits to Nepal, starting with Queen Elizabeth’s first tour in 1961, no serving British prime minister has bothered to come to Kathmandu.

The 1923 Treaty does not get much attention in Britain and India, and even in Nepal it is overshadowed in political discourse by Sugauli and the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty. There are also those across the border who maintain that the 1950 treaty with India supersedes 1923.

History moves on, empires rise and fall. Britain’s glory is now confined to history books. Next door, we have rising China. Nepalis must ponder whether we have lived up to the scope that the 1923 treaty provided us to do business with a country that was then a global superpower.

We have not. These days, the two big neighbours and the United States regard Nepal’s leaders with distrust and disdain. Our politicians are not true to their word, and sell themselves to the highest bidders. They are incapable of conducting the geopolitical tight-rope walk that is now necessary to keep Nepal stable and viable.

Nepal’s serial leaders either play the victim and grovel, or recklessly pit our neighbours against each other. They resort to hollow nationalism, or stoke populism to get to power.

Nepal borders two largest emerging economies in the world. The sooner we realise that they are not always fighting over us, the sooner we can take advantage of our location for national advancement.