Looking back at the 1923 Nepal-Britain Treaty
Nearly 100 years ago, the Rana ruler of Nepal signed a treaty with British India that redressed some of the humiliation that the Gorkha Empire suffered after its defeat in war and the Sugauli Treaty of 1816.
To celebrate the new treaty on 21 December 1923, Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana decreed two days of national holidays, freed prisoners from jails, and temporarily lifted the ban on gambling.
‘The signing of the 1923 treaty with British India was a national festival with public buildings illuminated and joy on the streets,’ Nepali diplomat Bhim Bahadur Pande writes in his memoir ‘त्यस बखतको नेपाल’. ‘Nepal had finally managed to erase the disgrace suffered 107 years ago with the Sugauli Treaty.’
Historian Pramod Shamsher Rana agrees in his own book ‘राणाशासनको वृत्तान्त’ that the 1923 treaty went a long way in ‘healing the wounds of 1816’. Indeed, the Sugauli Treaty forced the Gorkha Empire to cede two-thirds of the territory it had conquered to British India.
However, the treaty did not happen overnight. It took much skilful diplomacy and lobbying by Chandra Shamsher, who worked hard to prove to the British that Nepal was worthy of being declared an independent country. Drafts of the treaty went back and forth between Calcutta, London and Kathmandu for two years before being finalised.
Part of the reason the British agreed to sign a treaty so favourable to Nepal was because Nepalis paid for it with their own blood. The Ranas sent 200,000 troops to defend the British during World War I. There were 24,000 casualties in Gallipoli and in the trenches of Belgium and France.
Pande writes that Nepal also helped British India in its dealings with Afghanistan at a time when the October Revolution rocked the Russia, and assisted the Younghusband expeditionary force to enter Tibet.
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Besides, there was also symbolism to ingratiate the British to Nepal. The British envoy in Kathmandu, for example got a 20-horse escort and a 31-cannon royal salute when he travelled from Lainchour to Singha Darbar to sign the treaty. By treating the British ambassador as a king, Chandra Shamsher was buttering him up.
‘The 1923 Treaty Peace and Friendship Treaty helped Nepal to be recognised internationally as an independent country and not just another Indian princely state,” explains former ambassador Dinesh Bhattarai. “It opened a new era for Nepal on the world stage.”
The Sugauli Treaty had allowed the East India Company to appoint a resident in Kathmandu, and after the 1923 the envoy was re-designated as ‘ambassador’.
Although the 1923 treaty is regarded as the main foreign policy achievement of Chandra Shamsher’s rule, historians say Kathmandu did not capitalise fully on its provisions, and Nepal’s ruler also went on to misuse the treaty to suppress dissent in India.
For example, Nepal should have taken a reciprocal move to also establish an embassy in London on the same day that the British mission in Kathmandu became an embassy. Neither did Nepal apply for membership of the League of Nations established in 1918 after the end of the war in which so many Nepalis were killed.
The 1923 Treaty had seven articles: the first deals with the establishment of friendly ties and guaranteeing each others’ sovereignty, the second said the Sugauli Treaty would remain in effect, the third required both to inform the other if there were problems with neighbours, the fourth disallowed the use of the territory of one country to be used against another, the fifth allowed Nepal to import weapons for its security, seventh removed customs duty for Nepal’s imports and exports.
A copy of the Treaty is preserved in Singha Darbar and bears the signatures of British Resident William O’Connor and Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher.
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Chandra Shamsher used this article to ask the British to suppress Nepali pro-democracy activists in India at the time, and the British did stop publication in 1922 of the Gorkhali newspaper from India that opposed Gurkha recruitment.
Nepal’s lobbying for the treaty started three years after the war ended, and Chandra Shamsher hosted British Crown Prince Edward on a lavish hunting expedition in Chitwan during his India tour in 1921. This ‘hunting diplomacy’ served its purpose.
‘During the 1921 hunting expedition in Chitwan, Nepali and British officials reached a new understanding about Nepali independence,’ wrote historian Tom Robertson in an article in Nepali Times last week. ‘They formalised things two years later in the Treaty of Friendship. Nepal would get weapons and a formal acknowledgment of its independence.’
Despite its importance for Nepal, the 1923 treaty does not get as much attention in Nepal, in Britain or India. Researcher Tika Dhakal thinks this is because it is squeezed between two other treaties, the 1816 Sugauli treaty and the 1950 Treaty of Friendship between Nepal’s last Rana rulers and newly independent India.
Indeed, there has been criticism about the 1923 treaty, even from the very day it was signed. They came from those who opposed the Rana oligarchy in Nepal, or those against Gurkha recruitment by the British, and later from officials who maintained that the 1950 treaty superseded 1923.
However, former ambassador Bhekh Bahadur Thapa says: “Of course, here are questions about the 1923 Treaty but that does not diminish its importance and relevance for Nepal.”