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Surya P. Subedi

August 28th, 2023

Nepal–Britain Treaty of Friendship 1923: An International Legal Perspective

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Surya P. Subedi

August 28th, 2023

Nepal–Britain Treaty of Friendship 1923: An International Legal Perspective

0 comments | 10 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

This year marks the centenary of the Nepal-Britain Friendship Treaty of 1923. The LSE South Asia Centre and the Embassy of Nepal in the United Kingdom collaborated to mark the occasion with a special lecture by Surya P. Subedi on 14 June 2023. This is the edited version of his lecture.   

 

The Nepal-Britain Treaty of Friendship of 1923 is of historical significance for Nepal despite the fact that, in 1950, it was replaced by two separate treaties of peace and friendship — one with independent India and the other one with the United Kingdom — after Britain withdrew from South Asia in 1947. The 1923 Treaty remains significant for the following reasons:

  • It was the first formal recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Nepal by the United Kingdom, thereby attracting the application of the international legal principle of sovereign equality of nations in the conduct of relations between a mighty imperial power and a small Himalayan state. The doubt in the mind of some Nepali people that Britain may one day invade Nepal in the process of consolidating its grip in South Asia was removed. When much of South Asia was under British subjugation, Nepal alone held its head high like the Himalayas, and never had a foreign flag flying over it.
  • Although Nepal was not a member of the League of Nations, the fact that this Treaty was registered with the League in 1925 signified Nepal’s indirect admission to the galaxy of independent nations even during the time of the League. After the conclusion of the 1923 Treaty, Nepal began to come in contact with other nations, facilitated by this Treaty. Nepal was the first South Asian country to establish an embassy in London, and to establish diplomatic relations with the United States in 1946.
  • It helped Nepal obtain membership of the United Nations in 1955 when there was some doubt if Nepal had existed as a fully sovereign independent nation until that time. When making an application to the UN in 1949, this Treaty was submitted by Nepal as evidence of its independence during British rule in India since it explicitly ‘restated’ the country’s independence and sovereignty. Nepal maintained that the Government of Nepal had never considered that either the Treaty of Sugauli (1816) or any other treaties, agreements or engagements ever impaired its independence and sovereignty.
  • This Treaty ended any potential ‘suzerain’ claim by China over Nepal by virtue of the Treaty of Betrawati (1792) which stipulated (in Article 1) that China should henceforth be considered as father to both Nepal and Tibet, who should regard each other as brothers.
  • The 1923 Treaty helped Nepal to stay as an independent sovereign state in the immediate aftermath of the independence of India (1947) when senior Indian politicians like Vallabhbhai Patel were reported to have wished to annex Nepal within India during the process of creating a Union of India from the hundreds of principalities, fiefdoms and self-governing territories that existed in British India. Those like Jawaharlal Nehru seemed to have taken the view on the basis of, inter alia, the 1923 Treaty that Nepal had always remained independent and should thus be treated as such in future as well. Speaking in 2013, Andrew Sparks, former British Ambassador to Nepal, is perhaps right in saying:

Without it [i.e., the 1923 Treaty] with Indian independence in 1947 Nepal might have been hard put to retain its separate identity.

  • The 1950 treaties of peace and friendship between Nepal and India, and Nepal and the UK, which govern relations between these countries to this date, drew heavily on the 1923 Treaty or were actually modelled on it.
  • The conclusion of this Treaty represented a masterful display of diplomacy by the Rana regime in Nepal (no matter how autocratic it may have been) and especially by Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana himself, who skilfully cultivated Nepal’s relations and his own personal relations with the British royalty, the British rulers in India and especially the British Envoy in Nepal, William O’Connor.

The records of diplomatic correspondence from the colonial India Office of the British Government demonstrates the painstaking efforts made by both sides (Nepal and the UK) for the conclusion of the 1923 Treaty. When a young Chandra Shumsher met the young Viceroy of India Lord Curzon at the Coronation Durbar (1911), a ten-minute meeting stretched to an hour-and-a-half, and a lasting friendship was born. Chandra Shumsher understood how to deal with the British to safeguard the interests of Nepal. Many believe that were it 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, the 1923 Treaty ratifying Nepal’s full sovereignty would not have come about. No wonder Leo Rose (1971) goes so far as to suggest that

Jung Bahadur and Chandra Shumsher deserve recognition as two of the great nationalist heroes of Nepal.

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The 1923 Treaty was concluded when the UK was at the height of her imperial power. The first real encounter between the forces of Nepal and Britain took place when King Prithvi Narayan Shah halted the military advance of George Kinloch in the Battle of Kathmandu (1767), when the King was in the process of unifying Nepal. He laid the foundations of Nepal’s foreign policy stating that Nepal was a small country sandwiched between two Asian giants (China and India) and thus needed to maintain a policy of neutrality between the two.

However, when war broke out between China and Nepal and the Chinese came within striking distance of Kathmandu, a Treaty of Commerce was signed between King Rana Bahadur Shah and Jonathan Duncan, Governor of Bombay (and Representative of the East India Company), in 1792. Some provisions in this Treaty were designed to help Nepal in the event of a Chinese attempt to subjugate Nepal.

In 1789 the Tibetan government stopped the use of Nepalese coins for trade in Tibet, citing purity concerns over the copper and silver coins minted by the Nepalese government, leading to the first Tibet–Nepal War. Confronted with victory of the Nepalese army, the Lhasa Durbar asked for assistance from China, which led to the first Sino-Nepalese War (1789–1792) in which Nepal was defeated; Nepal was forced to sign the Treaty of Betrawati in 1792 whereby Nepal was required to pay tribute to the Qing court in Peking once every five years. The Treaty also stipulated that both Nepal and Tibet recognise the suzerainty of China which would be obliged to help Nepal defend against any external aggression.

For a while Nepal did use the Chinese connection to prevent any possible advances by the British from the south. But the bitter experience of war with the Chinese coming so close to Kathmandu had made the rulers of Nepal wanting to develop closer relations with Britain to seek assistance in the event of further Chinese aggression. However, since Nepal and Britain were in the process of expansion their interests clashed, leading to the outbreak of hostilities between the two in 1814, and China refused Nepal’s request (per the 1792 Treaty) to provide support to Nepalese forces in their war with the British. Any Chinese claim over Nepal should have effectively ended here, but the Chinese official position vis-à-vis Nepal did not change.

The dual insecurity of Nepal’s defeat at the hands of the British and the cloud of the Chinese claim of suzerainty over Nepal put Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa in a very difficult situation; this proved to be a turning point in Nepal’s  foreign relations. Thapa saw one Indian state after another come within the net of the British Empire, and his policy was steadily directed to save Nepal from a similar fate. Both Jung Bahadur and Chandra Shumsher, the Rana’s Prime Ministers, saw the world around them through the same lens.

The policy they pursued was of appeasement with the British: assisting them in the suppression of the Mutiny of 1857 in India; sending Gurkhas (sometimes even Nepalese troops) to fight for the British elsewhere; inviting members of the British ruling class to lavish big game-hunting in Nepal — rather than seeking shelter with  China. This led to the Nepal-Britain Treaty of 1860 in which Britain restored to Nepal the lowlands between the River Kali and the district of Gorakhpur that had been ceded to the British by Nepal under the 1816 Treaty.

Photo 1: British Envoy to Nepal William O’Connor and Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana after signing the Friendship Treaty on 21 December 1923 © Nepali Times archives; see copyright information below.

Photo 2: Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana with King George V during a 1911 hunting expedition in the Terai; 10 years later, he hosted Prince Edward on another epic hunt in Chitwan © Nepali Times archives; see copyright information below.

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When much of South Asia came under British colonial rule and Nepal under imperial influence, the British were pursuing a policy which regarded the Himalayas as the ultimate frontier vis-à-vis the Chinese empire. Consequently, Tibet, rather than Nepal, was regarded as a buffer zone between the two empires. The 1906 Convention between Great Britain and China provided that Great Britain will not invade Tibet, and China will not permit other states to interfere with the territory of Tibet. A similar provision was included in the Convention concluded between Great Britain and Russia in 1907 which recognised the suzerain rights of China in Tibet. In spite of the letters written by the German Imperial Chancellor and others during the First World War inciting Nepal against the British, Nepal remained true to her friendship with the British.

Soon after becoming Prime Minister of Nepal in 1901, Chandra Shumsher worked hard to improve relations with Britain on the basis of sovereign equality of states: he dispatched a letter to British India seeking closer ties, giving a clear message that Nepal and Britain are two sovereign nations and should be treated accordingly. He used Gurkha recruitment as a quid pro quo to acquire arms from the British, and eventually, to recognise Nepal’s independence.

The famous visit of the Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher to England in 1908 was crucial in cementing Nepal’s relations between the two countries. He was treated as the head of government of an independent country in the UK, and special arrangements were made for his visit including a strange special permission to bring two Mooltan cows with the delegation of the Nepalese Prime Minster. Chandra Shumsher was awarded state honours as well as an honorary Doctorate in Civil Law (DCL) from the University of Oxford, its highest accolade; he received it from Lord Curzon, former British Viceroy in India, who had become the Chancellor of the University. It was through careful cultivation of his personal relations with the British royalty, British rulers in India and the British envoy in Nepal that Chandra Shumsher was successful in concluding this treaty with Britain. On a personal note, nearly 112 years later, I received my Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford. I am the first Nepali to receive this highest award the University of Oxford can offer after Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher.  His DCL was of course an honorary one, while mine is substantive.

Photo 3: The author presenting his lecture at the Embassy of Nepal, London, on 14 June 2023 to mark the centenary of the Nepal-UK Friendship Treaty of 1923 © Nilanjan Sarkar; see copyright information below.

Chandra Shumsher was aware of the implied restrictions placed upon Nepal’s foreign policy by the Treaty of Sugauli. He may also have been aware of the discussion within the British establishment until as late as 1919 about whether Britain should gain full control of Nepal’s foreign relations. These must have been one of the reasons why he wanted Nepal to be recognised as a fully sovereign state by Britain. In 1921, when the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) came to Kathmandu, Chandra Shumsher raised the question of formulating a new peace treaty between the two countries, reminding the British that Nepali Gurkhas had given their blood for Britain in various wars around the globe. It was estimated that the Ranas sent 200,000 troops to defend the British during the first World War alone; there were a reported 24,000 Gurkha casualties in Gallipoli and in the trenches of Belgium and France.

Thus, the 1923 Treaty came at a very heavy price for Nepal. Although Nepal was getting an annual gift of Rupees 10 lakh from the British, the sacrifice made by the Gurkhas with their blood far exceeded anything that Britain was providing to Nepal. The details of the Treaty were discussed for nearly two years by the British authorities in Kathmandu and London (via the office of the British Viceroy in India) until it was signed on 21 December 1923 in Singha Durbar in Kathmandu.

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The 1923 Treaty was the first peacetime treaty concluded by Nepal with any foreign power, and it was done in style. A grand ceremony took place in the Grand Council Hall of Singha Durbar to mark the conclusion of the Treaty. The British Resident Lieutenant-Colonel William O’Connor was received with military honours, including a 31-gun salute fired from Tundikhel. A two-day national holiday was announced; prisoners had a remission of three months of their sentences, and Kathmandu was illuminated that night. Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher described the Treaty as ‘a magnificent dome crowning the whole’ in the relations between the two countries.

The main provision of the Treaty was the recognition of independence of Nepal by Britain. Article 1 of the Treaty stated that

There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the Governments of Great Britain and Nepal, and the two Governments agree mutually to acknowledge and respect each other’s independence, both internal and external.

The Treaty also allowed for the importation of ammunitions through India and stated that no levy would be imposed on the goods being imported into Nepal through India.

The diplomatic correspondence between the British Resident Representative in Kathmandu, the office of the British Viceroy in New Delhi and the India Office in London shows that the British were concerned about including the provision concerning the free import of arms by Nepal in the Treaty, though the formal recognition of Nepal as a fully independent sovereign state or the provision of customs concessions to Nepal did not cause concern. The India Office considered acknowledging Nepal’s right to import weapons under narrowly defined conditions through a formal letter rather than through a new Treaty. However, Chandra Shumsher wanted, inter alia, the abrogation of Article VII of the Treaty of Sugauli which imposed some restrictions on Nepal’s rights as a sovereign nation. He reminded the British that they had concluded a treaty with Afghanistan (1919) with more favourable conditions regarding the importation of arms and ammunitions and wanted to expedite the process to conclude a new treaty with Nepal.

From Nepal’s point of view, the most significant provision of the Treaty was that it secured Britain’s formal recognition of Nepal as a sovereign and independent country. Britain had already explicitly recognised Nepal as an independent state, had agreed to use the term ‘His Majesty’ for the King of Nepal, and was providing an annual gift of Rupees 10 lakh to Nepal. So, this was more of a symbolic Treaty as it did not change anything tangible. It was psychologically important for Nepal to secure this recognition. Unlike many peace treaties, this did not end any state of hostility. It was part of the package designed to reward Nepal for her help during the Great War. Territorial compensation was considered by Britain but was ruled out.

The other significant achievement for Nepal was that through the conclusion of this Treaty Britain officially denied China any claim of suzerainty over Nepal by virtue of the 1792 Treaty.

When Nepal strengthened her relations with Britain, she was less worried about China. The last tributary mission to China was dispatched in 1907. When China demanded another mission in 1912, Nepal declined. Britain came to the defence of Nepal and stated that it would also defend Sikkim and Bhutan against any Chinese claims over these kingdoms. Nepal received a consignment of ammunitions in 1912 from the British to defend Nepal against any potential Chinese threat.

It should also be noted that the 1923 Treaty was concluded after the Barcelona Convention (1921) had been concluded, providing freedom of transit for land-locked countries, and the British were perhaps also honouring the provision of the Convention and the tradition in her relations vis-à-vis Nepal, a land-locked country.

Conclusions

The 1923 Treaty is an instrument that kept Nepal free when the whole of South Asia went through a period of redrawing boundaries and creating new nation-states when the British were leaving India. It is this treaty which sent a clear message to China that its claim over Nepal was over. Although now merely a document of historical interest, this Treaty helped Nepal preserve its independence from both the British and the Chinese, which the people of the country enjoy today.

The spirit that governed the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli also governed the 1923 Treaty, which in turn governs the 1950 Treaty with India — a document of controversy in Nepal. Therefore, to understand the two 1950 treaties — one with India and another with the UK, by Nepal — we have  to understand the background to the 1923 Treaty and its provisions.

Although some commentators have said that Nepal did not capitalise fully on the provisions of the 1923 Treaty pointing to Nepal not taking a reciprocal move to establish an Embassy in London on the same day that the British mission in Kathmandu became an Embassy, or Nepal not applying for membership of the League of Nations (established in 1918) after the end of the war in which so many Nepalis were killed, Dr Dinesh Bhattarai, former Nepalese Ambassador to the UN in Geneva states that:

The 1923 Treaty of Peace and Friendship helped Nepal to be recognised internationally as an independent country and not just another Indian princely state […] It opened a new era for Nepal on the world stage.

I cannot agree more with him.

It should also be noted that it was through its dealings with Nepal, whether through war or through peacetime relations, that Britain was able to expand and consolidate its empire in South Asia. Had Nepal won the war with the British in 1814–15 or if the successive governments of Nepal had not provided the support (military, logistical or otherwise) to the British in the decades after the conclusion of the Treaty of Sugauli, history would have perhaps taken a different course for Britain in South Asia, and perhaps elsewhere too. Thus, Britain owes a lot to Nepal for its prosperity. Therefore, the 1923 Treaty represents Britain’s gratitude to Nepal and is important for Britain too. It was only fair that the mighty British empire built in South Asia partly with the bloodshed of generations of hundreds of thousands of Nepalis had come round to concluding the 1923 Treaty on the basis of sovereign equality of these two countries.

The diplomatic correspondence between Nepal and the British Resident Representatives or envoys to Nepal or the Office of the Viceroy in India or the colonial India Office in London demonstrate the mutual respect the nations had for each other, and represent the sophistication, dignity and decorum in the conduct of their diplomatic relations. The correspondence leading up to the concision of the 1923 Treaty represents the civilised character of the British in their dealings with Nepal, which was not necessarily always the case in the dealings between other European colonial powers and the nations in Africa or elsewhere. Therefore, Britain too can be proud of the 1923 Treaty with Nepal.

Former British Ambassador to Nepal, Andrew Sparks, has remarked that:

After the war [i.e., the war of 1814–15], the Treaty of Sugauli formalised in March 1816 established a full relationship with Britain as two independent nations. We chose not to try to colonise, but to partner and influence.

It is this partnership that eventually led to the conclusion of the 1923 Treaty, a partnership that continues to this day between Britain and Nepal; it is this partnership that we commemorate and celebrate in this centenary year. To conclude, what we are today is very much what we were yesterday, and history provides guidance as to how one should chart the future. We can hope that the 1923 Treaty will continue to serve as a significant historical chapter in Britain–Nepal relations and inspire the people of both these friendly states with a history of more than 200 years of diplomatic relations.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the ‘South Asia at LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy. 

Photos 1 and 2 © Used by permission of the author under the Creative Commons License/Fair Use policy of LSE blogs; Photo 3 taken by Nilanjan Sarkar. No photograph may be used/reproduced without written permission of copyright holders.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Sanjay Hona, Lumle, Nepal, 2019, Unsplash.

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About the author

Surya P. Subedi

Surya P. Subedi, OBE, KC, DCL, DPhil (Oxon) and Barrister, is Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds, and Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford.

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