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Nepalese Military History of Aid to British India and Independent India

02 Mar 2023
By Birat Anupam
5th Royal Gurkha Rifles Northwest Frontier, India in 1923. Source: Ministry of Defence (UK)/

In the history of Nepalese conflict, war between the world’s most powerful actors has been a unique factor. Even more interesting is the national and proud image that has come with fighting for and alongside those same empires that had at one stage sought to conquer Nepal. 

In a Guardian-listed popular book, All Roads Lead North, author Amish Raj Mulmi brings to life an example of high-level American and Chinese talks in December 1975. After the annexation of Sikkim by India, United States President Gerald Ford inquired about the possibility of an Indian military move on its northern neighbor Nepal. In answering, Chinese paramount Deng Xiaoping then said, “The Nepalese are a nation that can fight. Nepal isn’t Sikkim or Bhutan.”

Deng’s comment has historic merit. If we go through Nepal’s history, it is clearly evident that the Nepalese are fierce fighting folks. They have fought against the Chinese Qianlong Emperor in 1792. They fought again against British colonial power in 1814. Nepal was formed after various principalities were militarily merged into a single strong nation. However, Nepal had to abandon its expansionism after its encounters with the two contending and larger powers, the Chinese and the British. Nepal did not concede an inch while fighting against Chinese, but in the ensuing two-year struggle against the British, the global power at the time, it would go on to lose over one third of its territory.

Nepal’s war with the British eventuated in the shrinking of Nepalese territory, but the British also accepted and would later advertise Nepal’s fighting capabilities as a genuine and capable force for export. From the First World War to Second, for instance, Gurkha soldiers from Nepal were widely employed. This recruitment indeed had begun in 1815 with the end of the Napoleon era, and extended throughout the domain of British colonial empire. According to the book The Gurkhas by Harold James and Denis-Small, the first batch of Gurkha soldiers was formed on 24 April 1815.

Even after the British exit from their South Asian colonial epicenter, India, Gurkha recruitment was not abandoned. A tripartite agreement was inked in November 1947 between Nepal, India, and the United Kingdom for the continuity of Gurkha recruitment for Indian and British military. It is in this fashion that it has become natural for Gurkha soldiers – both British Gurkha and India Gurkha – to fight alongside British and India in their wars and battles. Another interesting fact is that, besides Gurkha recruitment, Nepal has a history of military support for India. The Nepal Army, the national army of Nepal, has a strong history of offering crucial military aid to its southern neighbor, stretching from the British era to Independent India.

Support in the Sepoy Mutiny

Jung Bahadur Rana, the founder of the 104-year-old Rana regime in Nepal, became prime minister on 14 September 1846. He came to power after the Kot massacre, an internal revolt that led to the demise of the powerful clans and the then king and queen. In 1850, he made a historic visit to Britain and France, becoming the first Nepali prime minister to do so.

Jung Bahadur forged good bonds with the British. When the Sepoy Mutiny ensued in British India in 1857, he was quick to offer Nepal’s military help for which the British happily accepted. The Sepoy Mutiny occurred due to the poor terms of services, low pensions, a lack of promotion, and increased cultural and racial insensitivity from British officers. Jung Bahadur himself led the Nepalese military mission and, following the successful operation, was able to regain some of Nepal’s lost territories, including Banke, Bardiya, Kanchanpur, and Kailali from the British under the 1860 British-Nepal Treaty. The treaty acknowledged Nepal’s mighty and generous military support, illustrating that

During the disturbances which followed the mutiny of the Native army of Bengal in 1857, the Maharajah of Nipal [sic] not only faithfully maintained the relations of peace and friendship established between the British Government and the State of Nipal by the Treaty of Segowlee, but freely placed troops at the disposal of the British authorities for the preservation of order in the Frontier Districts, and subsequently sent a force to co-operate with the British Army in the recapture of Lucknow and the final defeat of the rebels.

Jung Bahadur has long been viewed as a successful leader not just because he helped eliminate mutineers but also because he helped establish a national and proud image.

Military aid to guard British Indian borders

Another noted military role by the Nepal Army was its deployment and action in the First World War. In a book titled Gorkhali Yuddabandika Lokbhaka Ra Katha (folklore and tales by Gurkha Prisoners of War) by Alaka Atreya Chudal, the story is told of the thousands of Nepalese national soldiers who were employed in guarding British colonial borders during of the  First Word War. 16,544 Nepalese soldiers fought with the British in India’s North West Frontiers and United Provinces. Personal troops of the then prime minister Chandra Shumsher were also part of this mission.

Military aid for independent India

Nepal’s military aid has also been sought by independent India also. Post-independence India saw repeated communal violence, mainly in Bihar and Bengal states. As the Indian expert on Nepal S. D. Muni has mentioned in Foreign Policy of Nepal, “Nepalese troops were sent under the command of Prime Minister Mohan Shumshere’s son to help the new Government of India stem its internal difficulties, particularly in Hyderabad.”

Later, the Nepal Army, at the request of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, helped quell tensions in Hyderabad, which at the time clamoured for independence. It also successfully carried out the Hyderabad Action of 1948, which ended with Hyderabad annexed to India. According Tim I. Gurung, ex-British Gurkha soldier and an acclaimed author, in his book Ayo Gorkhali, Major General Sharada Shumsher Rana led many Nepalese Army units to parts of India like Hyderabad, Ranchi, Dehradun, Ramgarh, Kolkata in the service of the Indian government. The Nepal Army returned home in March 1949 after only eight months of operations in the Indian subcontinent.

Nepal, despite being a small power, has a unique history when it comes to military aid. It has fought the mighty Qing Empire of China, aided the global empire of the Britain, and participated in the establishment of modern day India. To this day, a positive and functional camaraderie between the tripartite armies exists, even where the head of one army stays honorary head of another.

Birat Anupam is a Nepalese journalist writing mainly on tourism, diplomacy, and the environment. He is based in Kathmandu.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.