Hundred years onOne hundred years later, is it not time to recognise all that suffering and sacrifice that preserved Nepal’sindependence through the tumultuous years of decolonisation?
Ten days from now, it will be a full 100 years since World War I ended. Celebrations are being planned on the 11th of November to mark the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. The main commemoration is to be held in France but the day will be remembered in large parts of the world. The one exception seems to be Nepal, where there appears to be national amnesia about the outcome of a war that was to play such a crucial role in cementing Nepal’s status as an independent state.
Nepal and WWI
Nepal is hardly ever mentioned in the many history books on WWI, and any reference would be with regard to the Gurkhas. Perhaps this is understandable considering that Nepal was never one of the belligerent parties. Or, at that time, perhaps might not even have been recognised as one. But, for a country not really at war, the impact WWI had on it was immense.
When WWI broke out in 1914, the very Anglophile Chandra Shumsher was ruling over Nepal, which lay in a state of vassalage to the British Empire. Chandra Shumsher not only pledged support to Britain but offered all of Nepal’s resources for the war effort. As historian Kanchanmoy Mojumdar writes, over the course of the war, ‘56,580 Gurkha recruits were supplied to the Indian army as against an annual average of 1,500 in the pre-war years. Altogether more than two lakhs or 25 percent of the total male population of the martial class served in the war…’According to Gurkha historian Tony Gould, ‘Nepal even emptied its gaols to feed the voracious war machine…’
Besides the sometimes forceful recruitment of soldiers on behalf of the British, Nepal also sent detachments from the Nepal Army to relieve British forces in India, and managed to prove themselves handy beyond garrison duties when they took part in the Waziristan Campaign against the Mahsud (the folks now famous for supplying leaders of the Pakistani Taliban). In all, Nepal provided assistance worth 10 million rupees in men and material, at a time when Nepal’s annual income was just 15 million.
Following the end of the war, Chandra Shumsher sought payback. The first came in the form of a reward for an annual sum of 1 million rupees, which went into his pocket. The second was more consequential. As Asad Husain writes, Chandra Shumsher’s abiding aim since coming to power had been to seek recognition of Nepal's independence, that the ‘opportunity came after the war and he then pressed for it because he knew he had put the British under a heavy obligation’.
Nepali soldiers suffered huge losses, which, according to some figures, was the highest in proportion to the numbers deployed. In his well-known book, Nepal, Perceval Landon wonders‘if any belligerent power directly involved lost so big a proportion of its fighting men’. Nepal also paid a steep price back home. The censuses of 1911 and 1920 tell the story in part with the national population actually declining by 64,961 between those two counts. According to geographer VidhyaBir Singh Kansakar: ‘The decline has been attributed to death[s] due to [the] influenza epidemic of 1917 and [the] high death toll of the Gurkhas in the World War I.’
Such facts were used by Chandra Shumsher in his negotiations with the British. Mojumdar writes that Chandra Shumsher pointed to the ‘[h]eavy recruitment, particularly in the war years, had drained Nepal’s population so much that agriculture in the hill districts had considerably suffered. Scarcity had been seen in some areas and grain had to be brought up from the Terai at an enormous cost to the government.’
After years of discussions carried out between Kathmandu, New Delhi, and London, in December 1923, the ‘Treaty between the United Kingdom and Nepal’ was signed. The very first article of the treaty read: ‘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.’
Husain notes that this language ‘clearly implies the abandonment of any claim of British suzerainty over or protection of Nepal, with the normal sequence of reciprocal diplomatic relations’. The British representative in Nepal thereafter was called an Envoy, an upgrade from the earlier Resident, as was common in the princely states of India, and, in 1934, Nepal established its first-ever diplomatic presence in London.
The human cost
A few days ago, the Guardian newspaper reported that oral accounts of Indian army soldiers who served in WWI had been handed over to the British Library. According to the news report, these ‘first-hand accounts paint a picture of racial segregation and discrimination alongside extraordinary bravery…’, and cannot have been any different for Nepalis fighting in the trenches of France, the heights of Gallipoli, or the dry plains of Palestine.
Not having had the chance yet to go through these stories, I cannot say how many Nepalis figure among them. But, we do know how tough it was for these warriors so far from home through the work of historian PratyoushOnta, who has gone through letters from soldiers that never made it home due to wartime censorship. The stories are painful, and I present a sample from Onta’s article:
– Be anxious for me…In my double company, the 4th, five men have been killed; and in the 2nd, one-third of the total have been killed… Our Gurkha regiments have suffered great losses.– Several hundreds of thousands of men have been killed and there is no hope of survival. The water (in the trenches) is up to the knees. Ishwar (God) is ruler. What can one do? Do not worry about me.
– In a few days, hundreds of men have been destroyed. The shells of the cannon have been flying about like rain in the rainy season…The whole world is being destroyed.– The piles of the killed on both sides were like heaps of slaughtered goats. I am sorry that my company lost so much.
And even touchingly,
– Subedar Bahadurji…do not let my wife have any difficulty about living.
– The spring is now on and the buds appearing but we think of our own hot country.
– Since we are attached to our country when will that day appear when we will see our native land?
Onta is unsparing in his assessment of how the Kathmandu ruling class legitimised ‘the soldier’s pain in the battlefield…as part of one’s necessarily sacred duty to the Nepali nation’. He writes: ‘In an account that describes Nepal’s participation in World War I, Mahila Guruju Hemraj Pandey, who headed the Rana office of military supplies during the war years, fully supports his master Chandra’s decision to help the British. Without understanding the apocalyptic nature of WW I, he wrote, it was not possible to understand the crisis that had beset the British Empire and the world, nor appreciate the importance of Nepal’s help to its British friend. In risking their lives in the battlefield, soldiers from Nepal had enhanced the country’s and the jaati’s glory.’
One hundred years later, is it not time to recognise all that suffering and sacrifice that preserved Nepal’sindependence through the tumultuous years of decolonisation? One would expect the avowedly nationalist government currently in power to actively seek symbols that celebrate our independence. Could it be that the communists’ age-old ideological antagonism towards Gurkha recruitment is holding them back? More likely, it is plain ignorance of history.