The Pulse | Society | South Asia

How Nepal Got Its Borders

After the Anglo-Gorkha War in 1814, the British and the Gorkhas had different understandings of what exactly a border meant. 

By Sridhar Krishnan for
How Nepal Got Its Borders
Credit: Unsplash

On June 18, Nepal’s Parliament unanimously passed a constitutional amendment that redrew its frontiers. The new map incorporated within its territory three strategically important areas (Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura) that are effectively Indian territory. 

Diplomatic tensions had emerged between the two countries after Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road between Dharchula and Lipulekh. 

The next day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal released a statement protesting the move and asserting its claim over these areas. The statement read, “[t]he Government of Nepal has consistently maintained that as per the Sugauli Treaty (1816), all the territories east of Kali (Mahakali) River, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh, belong to Nepal” (emphasis added). 

Nepal asserts its claims upon these territories based on an 1816 treaty, but the original copy of the treaty is missing and no one is quite sure where it is. What was the Sugauli Treaty about? Why is it significant to India and Nepal’s borders? 

Background: The Anglo-Gorkha War

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In the early 19th century, the territorial ambitions of the Gorkha kings with regard to the terai (plains) that were under British control brought them to loggerheads with the East India Company. They claimed the territories of Gorakhpur, Bareilly, and more and began occupying parts of what they claimed. The company saw viewed this as encroachment and was not pleased with their actions. Furthermore, the British were also worried about Nepal falling under the Chinese sphere of influence. 

For the British, Nepal was a part of an important trading route to Tibet and China. In 1814, a dispute soon boiled over the extradition of dacoits (bandits) and criminals who ran away to Nepal seeking refuge. The British decided to dispatch police to occupy the areas under contention. The Nepalis sent their soldiers, and the resulting clash killed members of the company’s forces. All of this culminated in what came to be known as the Anglo-Gorkha War in November 1814, when the company declared war on the Gorkha Kingdom. 

After initial setbacks, the tide turned in ways that favored the British. Fighting fiercely, company troops came to be merely 30 miles from Kathmandu. Exasperated, the Gorkhas decided to give up, and on December 2, 1815, they concluded a treaty of peace with the British at Sugauli. This came to be known as the Treaty of Sugauli. The treaty was ratified in early 1816. 

Owing to their superior military position, the treaty was virtually dictated by the British. The treaty took from the Gorkha kings nearly one-third of their territories, especially most of the disputed terai, the low-lying plains. Nepal also ceded Garhwal, Kumaon, and all of the terai that lay west of the Gandak River. The British government initially agreed to pay a sum of 200,000 rupees as compensation, but this was annulled after the British returned a part of the terai in December 1816. The treaty also forced Nepal to accept the British as the sole arbitrators in its dispute with Sikkim. Additionally, the treaty enabled the British to station a resident in Kathmandu (incidentally, the premises of the residency are now occupied by the Embassy of India). The treaty, most importantly, compelled the Nepalis to agree to a drawing of a new, permanent border. 

Colonialism and Borders

The idea of having a fixed, static territorial demarcation seems common sense today. However, such an understanding of borders is an outcome of colonialism. Borders were not understood in South Asia the same way as they were in contemporary Europe. Sovereignty for the Gorkhalis was based on jurisdictional terms. Jurisdiction encompassed various realms – military, spiritual, commercial. The realm was different from the territorial possessions of the king because it referred to a spiritual domain. For instance, Hindu kings would honor alms and grants made to temples and Brahmins while conquering new lands. It was an age-old custom reified time and again. The Gorkha kings were therefore taken aback when the British authorities refused to acknowledge the grants given by the Gorkhali king to Kedarnath in the 1860s. The chief minister raised a voice of protest to the then-British representative, but the representative on his part replied: “You can do what you like on lands situated in your territory; we can do what we like in ours.” This understanding of borders had yet to come to South Asia.

Several principalities and small kingdoms dotted the geographical entity that we now call South Asia. Although pre-colonial states in the region had a clear sense of their borders, they lacked clinical precision. Borders were constantly changing with dynamic local circumstances. Big landlords often used their muscle and might to force villages into paying taxes to them, and depending on the landlord’s allegiance borders kept shifting. In some cases, certain unfortunate villages had to pay taxes to both the company and the Gorkha king. Furthermore, sometimes, authorities used to get enmeshed. The same ruler would submit himself before two crowns. This obfuscated sovereignty, as we understand it today. For instance, consider the case of the Kingdom of Mustang, a small tributary kingdom bordering Tibet in the Dhaulagiri range, today a part of Nepal. The ruler of Mustang paid his land revenue to the Gorkha kings while his trading duties went to the Dalai Lama — in whose realm did his kingdom truly sit?

This tenurial understanding of territory posed two problems to the British. First, the chieftains under the Gorkhalis would often subdue the bordering villages into paying their taxes to them. This irritated the company as they saw this as encroachment. And second, this meant that there was no stable, functional border that divided Nepal and the company territories. Borders shifted as and when the local elites were successful in striking the best possible bargain and realigning their relations in ways that would favor their interests.

Deciding the Borders

The British wanted a fixed border. The border was supposed to be a clear line and wherever this was not feasible, territories had to be exchanged to make it so. The company officials stationed at the border areas were instructed that if a natural border was to be marked (say, a river), then they should make sure that these are “not liable to alterations or decay.” If and “when these cannot be had, as from the general course of the rivers in the Teraiee and the distance of the forests, as His Lordship apprehends will be the case, artificial boundary marks must be resorted to.” Natural rivers cannot be markers of borders as they change course seasonally; forests can be chopped and hence they could not be points of reference for borders either. In such cases, an artificial line had to be drawn.

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Thus, when the British finally decided to embark on the mission of delineating clearly defined borders, friction was inevitable. Bhim Sen Thapa, the Gorkha chief minister, simply could not come to terms with the logic of a single, clearly demarcated linear border dividing the two polities. It was not so much that the notion of a border was problematic, as that territoriality to him was understood in different terms. The creation of a political border that supersedes a tenurial one seemed extremely unusual to him. Though the Gorkha rulers were aware of the need for a boundary, what puzzled them was the seemingly absurd zeal for a straight line that divided their territories. The Gorkhas were saddened to see that the straight line often passed through their possessions. And the British on their part were taken aback by the Gorkha obsession to secure more villages, as for them the most pressing matter was to settle the border.

The whole exercise of demarcating boundaries clouded understanding of control and territory for the Gorkhas. The British thought the Gorkhali behavior was “petty,” showing little concern for the matter of identifying borders – which to them was of utmost concern. Many times, the Gorkhas withdrew from surveying operations, complaining how their opinions were not considered at all and they were reduced to mere passive observers. This was the case on the Champaran-Tarriani frontier and the Morang-Purnea frontier. However, going by the terms of treaty, borders were indeed drawn.

Returning to the question we began with, the Treaty of Sugauli becomes a point of reference for borders because that was the first time that borders were conceived as we understand them today. When the British started drawing up the boundaries what they also did was to initiate the understanding of territory as something that could be documented or captured on paper with clear precision with an element of sanctity to it. However, as with anything historical, Nepali claims are not devoid of contestation. The Ministry of External Affairs of India asserted that Nepal’s claim was “unilateral” and “not based on historical facts and evidence.” The effort begun over 200 years ago to finally settle this particular border remains very much a work in progress.

Sridhar Krishnan is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in international relations at South Asian University, New Delhi.