The history of India-Nepal relations


India and Nepal are two nations which enjoy a friendly relation since time immemorial. Nepal shares border with the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Sikkim and West Bengal in India. Lets look at the historical account of the relationship between the two great nations of Nepal and India from the ancient era till now.

The Ancient Era

Nepal’s rich prehistory consists mainly of the legendary traditions of the Newar, the indigenous community of Nepal Valley (or Kathmandu Valley). The mention and references of the Nepal Valley are found in the ancient Indian scriptures, suggesting that it was closely related culturally and politically to the Gangetic Plain at least 2,500 years ago.  

The Mauryan Empire under the Great Ashoka
(From “Historical Atlas of India,” by Charles Joppen (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907))

The Kirantis started ruling the Kathmandu valley around the 7th or 8th Century B.C. Their famous King Yalumber is even mentioned in the ‘Mahabharata’ as he is said to have led his troops to the epic battle.
Gautam Buddha who attained enlightenment in India’s Bodh Gaya was born in Lumbini Nepal. The Ashoka Pillar in Lumbini is one of the 3rd Century stone pillars built under the reign of Emperor Ashoka. It was erected as a mark of respect by Ashoka after he visited Lord Buddha’s place of birth.

Licchavi was an ancient kingdom on the Indian subcontinent, which existed in the Kathmandu Valley from approximately 400 to 750 CE. They overthrew the Kirantis. The Licchavi clan originated from Vaishali and Muzaffarpur in modern northern BiharIndia and ruled over the Kathmandu Valley.

They built the famous Changu Narayan Temple near Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site during their rein. They developed very good relations with Indian kingdoms as well the Tibetan kingdoms. 

The Medieval Era

Mallas ruled over Nepal after Licchavis. The Great Malla ruler Jaya Sthiti (who ruled from 1382-95) introduced the first legal and social code strongly influenced by contemporary Hindu principles

After the death of King Yaksha Malla, the valley was divided into three kingdoms: Kathmandu (Kantipur), Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon) and Patan (Lalitpur). Each of these states controlled territory in the surrounding hill areas, with particular importance attached to the trade routes northward to Tibet and southward to India that were vital to the valley’s economy. There were also around 46 small principalities in the western and eastern hill areas. One among these was the kingdom of Gorkha ruled by a Shah king.

By the 16th century virtually all these principalities were ruled by dynasties who had fled to the hills in the wake of the brutal Islamic invasions in northern India.

An ambitious and powerful Gorkha King named Prithvi Narayan Shah embarked on a conquering mission that led to the defeat of all the kingdoms in the valley. He decided shifted his capital to Kathmandu, and established the Shah dynasty which ruled unified Kingdom of Nepal from the late 18th century to as latest as the year 2008.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah : One of the Greatest Kings of the history of the subcontinent

He proclaimed the newly unified Kingdom of Nepal as Asal Hindustan (“Real Land of Hindus”) due to North India being ruled by the Islamic Mughal rulers. The self proclamation was done to enforce Hindu social code Dharmashastra over his reign and refer to his country as being inhabitable for Hindus. He also referred to the rest of Northern India as Mughlan (Country of Mughals) and called the region infiltrated by Muslim foreigners.

The Modern Era

King Prithvi Narayan Shah died in the year 1775. His successors shared his vision of a unified state, and within fifteen years Gorkha troops had conquered other areas in Nepal, bringing the whole country, from Sikkim to Karnali, under Gorkha rule.

The Gorkha army invaded Kumaon Kingdom (Modern day Uttarakhand) and occupied it in 1790–91. Then the Gorkha army invaded Garhwal Kingdom (Modern day Uttarakhand) and occupied it in 1804 after defeating its King Pradyuman Shah. In 1806, the Gorkha army absorbed all the small kingdoms like Sirmudh state, Hindur and Besahar lying across the Garhwal and up to Satluj River. In this way, the Gorkhas occupied the hilly regions such as Nainital, Almora and Dehradun without crossing the Satluj River. However, when the Gorkhas crossed the Satluj river, the Gorkha’s attack on Kangra and siege of Kangra Fort west of Satluj river was repulsed by the Kangra king with help from Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in 1809.

The Greater Nepal

Gorkhas made considerable progress, but successive setbacks in wars with China and Tibet (1788–92), with the Sikh kingdom in the Punjab (1809), with British India (1814–16), and again with Tibet (1854–56) irked Nepal and set the present boundaries of the kingdom.

Anglo-Nepalese War & the Treaty of Sagauli

The Anglo-Nepalese War started on the 1st of November 1814 and carried on till 4th of March 1816. It is also known as the Gurkha War, and it was fought between the Kingdom of Gorkha (Nepal) and the East India Company (British India). The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, which ceded some Nepalese controlled territory to the EIC. By this treaty the Gorkhas lost territories occupied by them West of River Kali including Almora, Mussoorie, Nainital and Simla and 4000 square miles of Sikkim territory to the East of present day Nepal to the British.

Kalapani-Limpiyadhura is located at the northwestern corner of Nepal, where the frontiers of Nepal, India, and China meet. This area is situated in the eastern part of the Kali River, as drawn on the historical maps published before 1860. According to the Treaty of Sugauli, the Kali River is the western boundary of Nepal with India. The boundary of the Kali river is delimitated by Article 5 of the treaty. It states

“the Rajas of Nepal renounces for himself, his heirs, and successors, all claim to or connection with the countries lying to the west of the river Kali and engages never to have any concern with those countries or the inhabitants thereof.”

Treaty of Sagauli

Hence, the origin of the Kali River should be the northwestern border corner of Nepal with India and China as a tri-point. It, however, made no mention of a ridgeline and subsequent maps of the areas drawn by British surveyors showed the source of the Kali river at different places. We will discuss this dispute later in this article.

The Nepalese–Tibetan(China) War was fought from 1855 to 1856 in Tibet between the forces of the Tibetan government (Ganden Phodrang, then under administrative rule of the Qing dynasty) and the invading Nepalese army, resulting in huge loss of money and manpower for Nepal. In 1856 the war ended with the Treaty of Thapathali.

Development post India’s independence in 1947

  • The Maoist revolution in China in 1949, followed by the unethical takeover of Tibet

    It created deep misgivings in Nepal, and India was invited to set up 18 border posts along the Nepal-Tibet border. The westernmost post was at Tinkar Pass, about 6 km further east of Lipulekh.

    Tinkar Pass
  • Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1950

    India and Nepal

    India and Nepal initiated their relationship with the signing ten articles treaty of 1950, “Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship”.

    The treaty allows free movement of people and goods between the two nations and a close relationship and collaboration on matters of defense and foreign policy.

    This allows the reciprocity for Nepalese and Indian citizens to move freely across the border without passport or visa, live and work in either country and own property or conduct trade or business in either country.

    The Treaty has enabled Nepal to overcome the disadvantages of being a land-locked country, though some of the Nepali citizens are against the treaty.

  • Every changing dynamics of India-Nepal and China relationship

    In 1953, India and China identified Lipulekh Pass for both pilgrims and border trade. After the 1962 war, pilgrimage through Lipulekh resumed in 1981, and border trade, in 1991.

    In 1961, King of Nepal Mahendra visited Beijing to sign the China-Nepal Boundary Treaty that defines the zero point in the west, just north of Tinkar Pass.

  • Retreat

    By 1969, India had withdrawn its border posts from Nepali territory. The base camp for Lipulekh remained at Kalapani, less than 10 km west of Lipulekh. In their respective maps, both countries showed Kalapani as the origin of Kali river and as part of their territory. After 1979, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police has manned the Lipulekh Pass.

  • In actual practice, life for the locals (Byansis) remained unchanged given the open border and free movement of people and goods.

  • The strengthening India-Nepal relations

    Multiple Trade and Transit Treaties were signed between India and Nepal as trade ties strengthened between the two countries in the 1970s and the 1980s.

    The first being in 1971. 1978 also saw an increase in the number of joint investments between Indian and Nepalese firms, all signalling further cooperation between the two nations.

  • Love Hate Love Relationship

    The tipping point would come in 1989, with the failure to negotiate a new trade treaty and the purchase of weaponry from China, leading to the expiration of vital trade and transit of goods treaties between India and Nepal, placing massive strain on Nepal’s economy and on the India-Nepal relations.

    Parliamentary democracy got restored in Nepal in 1990 and after visits and meets in the early 90s between Indian and Nepalese leaders, trade ties resumed again with the signing of new treaties.

  • Political instability in Nepal and its after effects

    In February 1996, the Maoist parties declared a People’s War against monarchy and the elected government.

    On 1st June 2001, a horrific tragedy wiped out the entire royal family of Nepal including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya along with most of their closest relatives. With only King Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra and his family surviving, he was crowned king.

    King Gyanendra abided by the elected government’s rule for a short time, but then dismissed the elected Parliament to wield absolute power. In April 2006, another People’s Movement was launched jointly by the democratic parties focusing on Kathmandu, which led to a 19-day curfew imposed by the king. With the movement not cowering down and ignoring even the curfew, King Gyanendra eventually relinquished his power and reinstated Parliament.

    In 2006, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist Chairman Prachanda signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) 2006, committing to democracy and peace for the progress of the country and people.

    And on 28th May 2008, the newly elected Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic, abolishing the 240 year-old monarchy. 

    Under King Gyanendra, China delivered arms to Nepal after India had stopped its weapons supply once the King seized power. India normalized its relations with Nepal once again after the King Gyanendra was removed from power.

    In 2008, Indo-Nepal ties got a further boost with an agreement to resume water talks after a 4-year hiatus. The Nepalese Water Resources Secretary Shanker Prasad Koirala said the Nepal-India Joint Committee on Water Resources meet decided to start the reconstruction of the breached Koshi embankment after the water level went down. During the Nepal PM’s visit to New Delhi in September the two Prime Ministers expressed satisfaction at the age-old close, cordial and extensive relationships between their states and expressed their support and co-operation to further consolidate the relationship.

    In 2010 India extended a Line of credit worth US$50 million & 80,000 tonnes of foodgrains. Furthermore, a three-tier mechanism at the level of ministerial, secretary and technical levels will be built to push forward discussions on the development of water resources between the two sides. Politically, India acknowledged a willingness to promote efforts towards peace in Nepal. India’s then External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee promised the Nepali Prime Minister Prachanda that he would “extend all possible help for peace and development.”

  • Recent Developments

    Currently, India remains the largest foreign investor in Nepal, is providing aid and is jointly constructing hydel power projects with Nepal, some of which was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 visit to Kathmandu, with the extension of a $1 billion credit line.

    When a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, the Government of India swiftly dispatched National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams and special aircrafts with rescue and relief materials to Nepal. The total Indian relief assistance to Nepal amounted to approx. US$ 67 million. At an International Donors’ Conference organized by the Government of Nepal in Kathmandu on 25 June 2015 towards post-earthquake reconstruction, India announced Indian assistance of US$ 1 billion to Nepal, one-fourth of which would be as grant.

    There have been initiatives to promote people-to-people contacts in the area of art & culture, academics and media with different local bodies of Nepal. India has signed three sister-city agreements for twinning of Kathmandu-Varanasi, Lumbini-Bodhgaya and Janakpur-Ayodhya.

    The relationship took a nosedive in 2015 when India first got blamed for interfering in the Constitution-drafting in Nepal and an “unofficial blockade” by India generated widespread resentment against it in Nepal. It reinforced the notion that Nepali nationalism and anti-Indianism were two sides of the same coin. Anti-India Sentiment in Nepal is largely politically motivated and China backed as it is wrongly perceived as India’s backing to Monarchy.

    But India is trying its best to improve its relations with Nepal. For eg. in 2019 Prime Ministers of India and Nepal have jointly inaugurated a cross-border petroleum products pipeline. Pipeline carries petroleum products from Motihari in India to Amlekhgunj in Nepal. This is South Asia’s first cross-border petroleum products pipeline.

    This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1568193989_Image5.jpg
  • China created nuisance in the region

    Wary of these developments, China too has has made recent efforts to maintain a presence in Nepal, with investment in the Araniko Highway that connects Kathmandu with the Nepal-China border and facilitates easier trade and movement of goods between the two countries. Hundreds of millions of dollars have also been pledged to Nepal by China for infrastructure and even military aid.

    China has been at the forefront of aggressive foreign policy stances. It has resorted to Cheque book diplomacy (Cheque book diplomacy is a type of diplomacy based on debt carried out in the bilateral relations between countries. It involves one creditor country intentionally extending excessive credit to another debtor country with the alleged intention of extracting economic or political concessions from the debtor country when it becomes unable to honour its debt obligations) with many countries like Pakistan and Srilanka in the subcontinent. India is wary of the fact that in future the Debt Trap of the Dragon can engulf the peaceful nation of Nepal.

    Increasing Chinese presence in Nepal is one of the major concern for India. China’s move to extend the rail link to its border with Nepal can reduce Kathmandu’s dependence on India.

    Fundamentally Chinese government is building up anti-India sentiments in Nepal. China recently saved the Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli or KP Oli the current PM of Nepal’s government and just after that KP Oli stepped up the protests and Anti-India sentiments in Nepal. The Nepal Communist Party government is being saved by the Chinese Communist Party and communist ideology is anarchist in itself, thus a big reason to worry for India and common Nepalese citizens.

    One of the ideological fathers of communism MAO ZEDONG said “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun“. This is what is followed by the communists all over the world including Nepal and China.

    Is it not against the Sovereignty of Nepal

    China has occupied peaceful Tibet in the past, shows aggression in the South China Sea against Vietnam, Indonesia and even its recent ally Philippines, occupied Hambantota port of Srilanka, building up its military presence in the Indian Ocean, troubling the countries like India, Australia, Japan & South Korea and may hurt the peaceful nation of Nepal eventually. China’s state sponsored media already shows the pride of Nepal ie. The MOUNT EVEREST as Chinese territory.

    China claiming Mount Everest

    Nepal’s assent for “One Belt One Region” (OBOR) initiative of China is viewed by India with suspicion and an attempt of a debt trap.

  • The Kalapani Dispute in 2020

    The discrepancy in locating the source of the Kali river led to boundary disputes between India and Nepal, with each country producing maps supporting their own claims.

    India’s Stand: Kali river originates in springs well below the Lipu-lekh pass, and the Sugauli Treaty does not demarcate the area north of these streams. The administrative and revenue records of the nineteenth century also show that Kalapani was on the Indian side, and counted as part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.

    India’ Defence Minister recently inaugurated a motorable link road that connects India and China, significantly reducing the time of Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. The road passes through territory at the Lipulekh pass that Nepal claims as its own territory.

    Representation of road constructed by the BRO from Dharchula to Lipulekh (Map not to scale)
    Representation of road constructed by the BRO from Dharchula to Lipulekh (Map not to scale)
    lipulekh to mansarovar distance
    lipulekh to mansarovar distance

    China and Nepal reached a border agreement in 1961. Article 1 in the agreement describes the western extremity of the China-Nepal border and this conforms to the alignment claimed by India.

    India and China concluded an agreement in 1954 for trade and transit between India and Tibet and among the six border passes listed for the purpose, Lipulekh was included. There was no protest from the Nepali side. (But Nepal was a monarchy at that time and thus Nepal does’nt consider it a valid ground)

    The first time that Nepal protested formally was in 2015 when India and China signed an MOU for conducting border trade between the countries through Lipulekh Pass. So the protests from Nepal may be fabricated by the third party here.

    Part of India’s new official map

    Nepal’s Stand: Kali river originates from a stream at Limpiyadhura, north-west of Lipu Lekh. Thus Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura, and Lipu Lekh, fall to the east of the river and are part of Nepal’s Dharchula district. Lipulekh was deleted from the country’s map by the kings to get favours from India. The territory of Kalapani was offered to India by King Mahendra after the 1962 India-China war who wanted to help India’s security concerns due to perceived lingering Chinese threats. Kalapani was not a part of Nepal-India dispute. (But this sector back then was not a disputed section as it is today and China was not as powerful back then as it is today.)

    Earlier, Nepal had protested strongly against India, when India published a new map which showed the region of Kalapani as part of the Indian territory. Nepal had also expressed displeasure on the 2015 agreement between India and China for using the Lipulekh pass for trade, without consulting Nepal.

    Part of Nepal’s new map
    Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani in the Map

    In the 1980s, the two sides set up the Joint Technical Level Boundary Working Group to delineate the boundary. The group demarcated everything except Kalapani and Susta area(dispute on the India (Bihar state)-Nepal border). Officially, Nepal brought the issue of Kalapani before India in 1998. Both sides agreed to demarcate the outstanding areas (including Kalpani) by 2002 at the prime ministerial level talk held in 2000. But that has not happened yet.

    India and Nepal should try to resolve the boundary dispute at the earliest so that no third party can take advantage of the tensions and disturb the harmonious relation between the two ancient nations.

Way Forward?

The issue of Kalapani is complex. The maps before 1857 show the areas as Nepalese and post that show it as Indian in the British Surveys. King Mahendra’s intentions and offer can not be judged looking at the present day situation. So both the countries should sit together and discuss the border issues and avoid escalating the tensions. The area in dispute can be declared as a common area between the two nations. The issues have to be solved quickly to prevent Nepal from going into the Chinese control just like Tibet. The person to person contact between Nepalese and Indian people should be strengthened and Nepalese common people should be made aware about the ill intentions and aggressive nature of the dragon before it is too late.

The two countries not only share an open border and unhindered movement of people, but they also have close bonds through marriages and familial ties, popularly known as Roti-Beti ka Rishta. Hope it continues that way for the generations to come and cooperation grows in the field of defense, culture and sports with great cricketing talent like Sandeep Lamichhane and football talent like Sagar Thapa coming up in Nepal.

10 thoughts on “The history of India-Nepal relations

  1. I hope the situation gets better. I am from Nepal and live in India, Uttarakhand. People here are loving towards our nation and Nepalis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is everything I wanted to know about India and Nepal relations. Most comprehensive piece I have ever read.
    It would help me in my UPSC exam.


  3. I am from Nepal and I loved this article. It is very balanced. Thank you for sharing the Indian perspective. We Nepalese love our Indian brothers and sisters as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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