There are many small countries that have the misfortune of sharing a border with a much more powerful nation – think of Belgium, next to mighty Germany, or the Baltic States which have the Russian bear on their doorstep. But I can’t think of any country like Nepal, which is sandwiched between two of the world’s most powerful nations on earth – India and China – and has survived to tell the tale.
Most of the territories along the Himalayan mountain range have been swallowed up by China, India and Pakistan. If you look at northern India on Google Maps you’ll see that large parts of its northern border, which is marked by the Himalayas, is disputed with China and Pakistan. What this means in practice is that these areas (Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir) are closed, controlled by the military and the people are kept in poverty. Pakistan has its own version of this, a region called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Then you have the vast area of Tibet that was not only occupied by the Chinese in 1950, but large chunks of its territory were chopped off and assigned to other Chinese provinces. And Sikkim, once an independent Himalayan kingdom, was incorporated into India in 1975.
It would be easy to conclude that having a nation in the Himalayas is bad for your independence. The word Himalayas sounds quite romantic but the reality is rather grim. These territories are like peppercorns between the massive grinding stones of India and China.
Apart from Nepal, there is one other country that has managed to retain its independence from these global giants: Bhutan, a country I know very little about except that it is ruled by a king, has a well preserved Tibetan culture and getting a tourist visa is expensive.
It doesn’t take a great investigative journalist to realise that both China and India compete for influence in Nepal, spend large amounts of aid money and try to influence the government in Kathmandu. One of China’s aim is to make sure the Nepalese government keep their minority of Tibetan refugees under control; they don’t want them getting any ideas about an independent Tibet. India’s main concern seems to be economic – they are Nepal’s main supplier of food, electricity, fuel and vehicles and they want to continue to act like a big brother.
I was told that Britain and America used to have a lot of influence in Nepal but this has waned as both China and India have increased in wealth and power. I was also told that the Nepalese people don’t really like the Chinese or Indians but they do rather like the Pakistanis.
Nepal’s independence was first challenged in the sixteenth century when the Moghul Empire was being imposed on what is now Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The Moghuls conquered every area of the Indian subcontinent except for Nepal. Why not? Was it because of good leadership and the brave Gorkha fighters? Or that the country was protected by jungles and swamps in the south and high mountains in the north?
LA-based historian Rajiv Satyanarayana says that “since Nepal was not part of India in the eyes of the Mughals, no conquests were made…[the] British tried to invade Nepal because they were afraid of European conquests from the Himalayas. Mughals had no such worry and ignored it.”
How did the Nepalese Survive the British?
A question that has bothered me since getting to Nepal was how did it manage to retain its independence during the British Raj? Britain was at the height of its colonial power in India in the nineteenth century and, like the Moghuls before them, controlled every other part of the subcontinent.
Despite their power, the British were neurotic about their Indian dominion and suspected Russia of coveting it. They dreamed of Afghanistan and Tibet as buffer zones, attempted to invade both and failed. They looked on Nepal not so much as a buffer zone but the key to accessing Tibet, which they wanted to trade with. They particularly wanted to get their hands on western Tibetan sheep, for their much-loved Kashmiri wool.
I met a Nepalese mountain guide who had been educated in the USA. We were sitting round a campfire in the Himalayas and I asked him how Nepal managed to stave off the Brits. He told me that the British carried out a five-pronged invasion in the nineteenth century but got repelled by the plucky Gorkha fighters, wielding their curved Kukri blades.
Back in Kathmandu I put the same question to an American diplomat and he told me that the British invasion of Nepal wasn’t such a big operation and that the Brits weren’t really interested in taking Nepal anyway. What I know of Britain’s role in the subcontinent is that if the opportunity had come up they would have taken it simply, to quote George Leigh Mallory (first climber of Everest), “because it is there.”
But they did have a war and they signed an important treaty in 1816 — important in that is established the modern boundaries of Nepal. In true imperialistic style, the Brits did steal several chunks of Nepal including Darjeeling but maybe that was a price worth paying for their ongoing independence. They also set up the system whereby the Brits would recruit Nepalis for their regiments, a tradition that continues to this day
Last year was the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Sugauli and the British Embassy in Nepal produced this graphic to celebrate it:
Territories are often taken by their bigger neighbours during times of instability and war. When I was last in Nepal, in 1987, it seemed quite stable politically. But it then suffered two big shocks, either one of which could have resulted in political collapse and absorption by one of the neighbours.
In June 2001 Crown Prince Dipendra shot dead 10 members of the royal family, including himself. It was the biggest massacre of a royal family since the shooting of the Romanov family during the Russian revolution. Both the king and the crown prince were popular with the Nepalese public and many believe that the massacre was a conspiracy and the truth was covered up.
The royal massacre took place against a civil war with the Nepalese Communist Party, generally known as the Maoists. The guerrillas were based in the villages and mountains and more than 19,000 people were killed in the ten-year conflict. The war ended in 2006 with the Comprehensive Peace Accord that resulted in the Maoist guerrilla leaders taking up jobs in the government and army. One good thing that came out of the conflict was land reform – land was taken away from a few massive landowners and given to the people who work it.
Now, eleven years down the line, Nepal is relatively stable and I think they had a narrow escape. Tourism seems to be booming, business with China and India is flowing and the country holds its head high in international forums.
Although Nepal has some pretty big problems today, I’m impressed that they have retained their independence from some of history’s most powerful empires. I take my hat off to them. To keep this up for almost a millennium is an incredible feat.