The Treaty of Sugauli Sandhi, 1816: Its Impact on the Indian Gorkhas

India and Nepal, the two neighbouring countries have shared cordial relations of friendship and bilateral ties over the past several decades, based on peace and mutual cooperation with unique open border and free movement of people. Not only have the two countries shared strong political and economic engagements but also cultural and traditional similarities especially the areas of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Kurseong, Terai Dooars and Sikkim in India with those of Nepal. The main reason behind such similarities lies in the fact that most of these areas like Darjeeling and the Terai region at some point of time were actually a part of Nepal and are dominated by the Nepali speaking community. The question as to how did Nepal lose control over these areas and how and when did these territories merge with India makes one go in depth into the root and crux of what we call ‘The Sugauli Sandhi’- the treaty where it all began. The Sugauli Sandhi was, as mentioned, a treaty signed between Nepal and the then British East India Company (India under British Rule). The signing of the treaty dates back to the early 19th century post the Anglo Nepal War which lasted for a period of two years from 1814-1816. The Sugauli Sandhi was signed on December 2nd 1815 and was eventually ratified by March 4th 1816. At this time the two countries agreed upon certain conditions put forward by the treaty. The signatories were Raj Guru Gajaraj Mishra accompanied by Chandra Shekhar Upadhyaya from Nepal and Lieutenant Colonel Paris Bradshaw from the East India Company. The draft of the treaty, with the signature of the latter, was sent to Nepal with a 15 days ultimatum to sign and send it back. Nepal being quite disappointed by the terms and conditions of the treaty was unwilling to sign it. However, being quite inferior to the East India Company and aware of the consequences, Nepal was left with no other option but accept the treaty. The ultimate significance of the treaty of Sugauli Sandhi lies in the fact that- First, it called for territorial concessions in which Nepal would eventually lose one-third of its territories to British India. Prior to the signing of the treaty, the regions of Darjeeling and Teesta to the east, Nainital to the south-west and Kumaon Kingdom, Garhwal Kingdom and Bashahar to the west were all territories under Nepal. However post the Sugauli Sandhi treaty, all these regions came under British India. Some parts of the Terai region were given back to Nepal in 1860 as a token of gratitude for helping the British to suppress the Indian rebellion of 1857. Second, the treaty put forth the need for the establishment of a British representative in Kathmandu, Nepal. The first ever British representative to be sent to Nepal was Edward Gardner who was also the first individual from the West to be allowed to live in the Post Malla Era in Nepal. In the years that followed, the treaty of perpetual peace and friendship signed between India and Nepal upgraded the position of the British representative to an envoy. Third, the Sugauli Sandhi treaty permitted the British to recruit the Gurkhas in the British Army which was quite advantageous for the British considering the fact that the Gurkhas are very well known for their bravery and excellent military services. Since then, the Gurkhas have faithfully served the British Army even till date.

What led to the signing of the Sugauli Sandhi? This is the ultimate question that arises when we talk about the treaty. For it is a known fact that every treaty ever signed is a consequence of some war or conflict previously occurred. As a matter of fact, it was the Anglo- Nepalese War of 1814-1816 that became the main reason behind the emergence of the treaty of Sugauli Sandhi. The treaty was signed to conclude the war and to make applicable the terms and conditions that followed. The Anglo-Nepalese War lasted for a period of two years. The British had already taken control over the Indian sub-continent. The East India Company continued to expand through victorious conquests that boosted their confidence to expand further. Under its new Governor General- the Marquess of Hastings, the East India Company then proceeded towards North, this time to capture areas beyond the borders of India. It was their intended motive to expand their territorial possessions and improve their trade networks that eventually led the East India Company to target Nepal. However, capturing certain areas of Nepal was not a walk in the garden for the East India Company. The first few attempts did not turn in their favour. For instance, the Battle of Jaitak led to the defeat of the East India Company’s army by the Gurkha army, the former being led by General Wood and the latter by Amar Singh Thapa. The East India Company faced several difficulties and obstacles during the ongoing war but they came back stronger with better armies in the latter half of the battles which took place in 1815. Disappointed by the initial defeats, the East India Company under the command of Sir David Ochterlony finally witnessed luck favouring them and eventually besieged the Gurkha Fort of Malaon and captured Kamaon. With this victory, there was no looking back for the East India Company. The tables had turned. Another victory followed for the East India Company in the Battle of Makwanpur in February 1816. Attempts were made for a peace settlement. However the Nepalese determined to hold on to their territories continued to fight. But given the fact that they were under direct threat from the much stronger East India Company and also considering their inferiority in terms of resources, Nepal decided to sign up for peace. This meant that the war would soon conclude. Therefore, to initiate the step to put an end to the war and settle for peace, the Sugauli Sandhi came into being. 

The Sugauli Sandhi although agreed upon by both the parties involved, namely the British East India Company and Nepal, appears to have actually favored the former in particular, in fact to a greater extent. It became a matter of fact that the East India Company gained considerably from the treaty especially with regard to territorial expansion while Nepal on the other hand was at a disadvantage. The treaty even became questionable at some point of time considering the fact that it had been ‘imposed’ upon Nepal by the East India Company by means of force and coercion and not through mutual consent. It was more of a compulsion since the King of Nepal had no other option but to agree to the terms and conditions of the treaty, keeping in mind the British threat under which his country was and the dangers and repercussions Nepal would have to face if the treaty was objected or denied by him. Hence it became quite evident that the East India Company benefitted the most while Nepal had nothing much to gain. As what its definition states, a treaty is ‘a formally concluded and ratified agreement between states.’ It ought to include the voluntary consent of all the states involved. If executed by use of force, threat or coercion, its credibility and legitimacy can be at stake as per the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Article 52 of the Convention states that ‘A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force on violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.’ Therefore with such considerations, whether the Sugauli Sandhi was a boon or a bane could possibly be a matter of debate and discussion.

Given the fact that the treaty merged one-third of Nepal’s territories with India, these areas have remained in the Indian soil since time immemorial and its residents have become Indian citizens. What comes next is the identity crisis faced by the Indian Gorkhas residing in these regions. It is sad to say that this crisis has only continued to grow manifolds. Even today, there sure isn’t a single Indian Gorkha who has not faced any identity crisis or racial discrimination of such sort. When there is a need to introduce ourselves to someone we have just met, our introduction is not limited to a few sentences. There is one whole question and answer session that follows:

Q- Where are you from?

Ans- Darjeeling/ Kalimpong/ Kurseong

Q- Where is that? Is it even in India?

Ans- West Bengal, yes definitely in India.

Q- Oh that means you’re a Bengali, aren’t you?

Ans- Not at all! I’m an Indian Gorkha and my lingua franca is Nepali.

Q- That means you’re from Nepal isn’t it?

Ans- No I just said I’m an Indian Gorkha. There is a huge difference between us and the Nepalese from Nepal.

Q- Oh well, interesting. Then your ancestors must have migrated to India?

Ans- Another No! They came with the land. Our region which once belonged to Nepal was brought under India by the then British East India Company. Since our areas are also drawn in the map of India and considered to be a part of India, we the residents are as much Indians as any other. Neither are we foreigners nor immigrants.

Any Indian Gorkha will relate to this. It is what we see coming every time we step into the cities. Those people questioning us are not to be blamed either. It is the lack of information provided which does not even seem to be a necessity for many of them. People say ‘Little knowledge is dangerous.’ The very fact that people are unaware of the history of the Indian Gorkhas makes it obvious for the Nepali speaking Indian Gorkha community to be mistaken as citizens of Nepal. The free and open borders and the similarities in culture and traditions makes it more obvious. But people ought to know that the Nepali speaking population in India are ‘not’ from Nepal, we never were, we never will be. If the identity crisis has to be brought to an end, it is important for everyone to know at least the basic history, if not all, about how the Indian Gorkhas and their regions were brought under India. Only then can one understand that the Gorkhas’ identity as Indians is something that cannot and should not be questioned. The treaty of Sugauli Sandhi has a big hand in all of these mishaps. On one hand it did benefit the Gorkhas by improving their economic conditions (since they were brought under a much more stable and stronger nation i.e India as compared to Nepal). While on the other hand the treaty also contributed to the miseries of the Gorkhas as far as identity crisis, racial discrimination and acceptance was concerned. The sad reality being that the land was included and accepted as a part of India but not its people. Even today, hearing a racial comment being passed while walking on the streets or being teased as a North- Eastern and Chinese or being asked to go back to Nepal, is nothing new for a Gorkha living in the cities. Some are so used to it and sick and tired of correcting people and explaining the validity of their identity as Indians. This is what legitimizes the demand of the Gorkhas for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the Darjeeling Hills, one of the most beautiful hill stations in India, often known as ‘the Queen of the Hills.’ It is dominated in majority by the Nepali speaking community of India who call themselves the Indian Gorkhas. Being placed under West Bengal whose ethnic identity is Bengali, the people of Darjeeling are in minority. The Gorkhas of Darjeeling are completely different from the Bengalis of West Bengal and share no commonality be in terms of culture, traditions, language, food or customs. It is quite questionable as to why was Darjeeling placed under West Bengal in the very first place, post India’s independence. Considering the identity crisis, racial discrimination and lack of opportunities that followed, the demand for a separate state came into being. These mishaps gave all the more reasons for the demand to be more valid and legitimate. Not to get confused, the demand was for separation from the state of West Bengal but very much for the inclusion within India. This demand of the Indian Gorkhas for a separate state within the country is what we all know as ‘The Gorkhaland Movement,’- a dream and hope for the land of the Gorkhas. With several other states being formed likewise in India, Telangana being the recent formation, the creation of the state of Gorkhaland is not something next to impossible. A state of our own will make us known to the rest of the country. It will give us a platform to voice our opinions, a sense and feeling of inclusion, a hope for the fulfillment of our dreams and aspirations and an identity that every Indian Gorkha has ever dreamt of. 

The demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland is ongoing. The remarkable movements for the attainment of Gorkhaland under the major parties in the hills may not have succeeded in achieving their main objective of a separate statehood yet however the Indian Gorkhas in the hills are not going to give up on their ideas, hopes and dreams any time soon. Being one among the oldest demands in the country having started from as early as 1907, the Gorkhaland Movement and the people leading it still stand strong waiting for the dawn. Who would have thought that one treaty, one agreement could have such extreme consequences. From the territorial expansion of the British East India Company to the settlement being unjust for Nepal, the merging of certain areas of Nepal with India to the racial discrimination and identity crisis that followed, all have had a major impact on the Nepali community of India as a whole. As a matter of fact it is the treaty of Sugauli Sandhi that is the sole reason behind it all. The treaty has had some everlasting effects whose essence has lingered through generations. Had it not been for the treaty, the demand for the state of Gorkhaland would have never emerged in the first place. The reason being that the proposed state comprising the areas of the Darjeeling Hills would have no value or meaning since the latter would have still remained a part of Nepal and would have never been merged with India. Hence the challenges of discrimination and identity crisis would never arise and eventually there would be no need and reason for the demand for a separate state. Connecting all dots, it was the treaty of Sugauli Sandhi that was the main reason behind the need for the state of Gorkhaland for the Indian Gorkhas. Whatever was done is now history that cannot be altered but what can be done now is something that holds great significance because the future of the entire Nepali community of India is dependent on it. What the future has in store for the Gorkhas is unknown. All that can be looked forward to are the days when the Indian Gorkhas can bridge the gap between dreams and reality, the days when they can respond saying ‘Gorkhaland’ when asked which state they belong to and the days when they can legally and legitimately claim to have what is theirs- their dream, their land, Gorkhaland.


Bhairavi Pradhan
The author has recently completed her Master's in International Relations from Amity University, Noida, India.
Latest news
Related news