Nepal: Britain’s friend in need

Britain and Nepal share something quite rare in the history of international relations: a veritable friendship between states and peoples.

Peter Harris
1 May 2015
An elderly man waits for news of his relatives. Demotix/Sunil Sharma. All rights reserved.

An elderly man waits for news of his relatives. Demotix/Sunil Sharma. All rights reserved.Saturday’s earthquake was a national catastrophe for Nepal, but the sheer scale of the devastation means that only a truly international response can succeed in bringing humanitarian relief to those affected. Britain in particular ought to be chief among those lending a helping hand. For, although it is easy to overlook, Britain and Nepal share something quite rare in the history of international relations: a veritable friendship between states and peoples.

To be sure, relations between Britain and Nepal have not always been friendly. The unified Kingdom of Nepal was only established in the mid-eighteenth century, and within decades the kingdom found itself embroiled in a geopolitical contest with the expanding British Empire.  The two fought a bloody war from 1814 to 1816, a conflict that ended in the British annexation of former Nepali territory.

Paradoxically, however, the Anglo-Nepalese War actually laid the foundations for an unlikely alliance to blossom in the fullness of time.  The war impressed upon British military commanders the uncommon bravery and skill of the Nepalese warriors. Once peace came, the British were eager to arrange for their fearless former adversaries to don British uniforms. And sure enough, thousands of Nepali soldiers were recruited into the ranks of the British Army in subsequent years. Although recruits were drawn from across Nepal, the British referred to all of them as ‘Gurkhas’, a name derived from the historical Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal.

Thus began a military relationship that has lasted for two centuries – a relationship that has benefited Britain enormously.  More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I, and over 250,000 served in World War II.  Gurkha soldiers fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in 1982 they helped the British Army to retake the Falkland Islands.  Over the years, 13 Gurkhas have won Victoria Crosses.  And all of these Gurkha soldiers have been volunteers.

In 2009, it was announced that Gurkhas with four years’ service in the British Army would possess the right to permanently settle in Britain. This right was granted after a campaign by Gurkha veterans managed to attract the attention – and the overwhelming support, it must be added – of the British public, who recognized the Gurkhas as loyal friends and allies to whom Britain owes a huge debt of gratitude.

Today, the Anglo-Nepalese friendship goes beyond military cooperation, although the service and the sacrifice of the Gurkhas and their families will always remain an important cornerstone of the relationship. Nearly 60,000 Nepalese live in Britain according to official census data. Britain ranks highly among the choice destinations of Nepalese students looking to study abroad. And British culture is very well received in the Himalayan nation.

Similarly, tens of thousands of British visitors flock to Nepal each year. Many make the trip in order to marvel at Mount Everest or attempt to tackle a portion of its slopes, of course, but others are equally mesmerized by Nepal’s people, cuisine, and spectacular history and culture. Britain was the first country to formally recognize Nepalese sovereignty and independence in 1923, a key moment in Nepal’s diplomatic history. Cultural connections between Britain and Nepal are thus strong, multifaceted and deep-seated.

As far as friendships in international relations go, Britain and Nepal have done a fine job at building theirs.  But like any friendship, the Anglo-Nepalese friendship will require work to maintain.  In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle divides friendships into three categories: friendships of utility, which are forged and maintained solely for instrumental gain; friendships of pleasure, which provide at least some measure of enjoyment to each friend; and friendships of the good, which are based upon mutual respect, admiration and the sincere desire to help one another.

Certainly, the Anglo-Nepalese friendship began as one of utility: in the early nineteenth century, the British Empire self-interestedly wanted to harness the martial prowess of Gurkha regiments, while Nepal sought to mollify a potential imperial predator in the wake of a costly war. But the intervening 200 years have witnessed a complete overhaul of the relationship. British and Nepali people alike now derive obvious joy from each other’s country, culture and company.

More importantly, a true ‘friendship of the good’ can now be said to exist between Britain and Nepal. Nepal admires and respects Britain, and Britain cannot help but admire, respect and feel a deep emotional attachment to Nepal – as the popular support for Gurkha veterans attests to. In Nepal’s time of need, then, it is important that people in Britain take a moment to reflect upon the extent of the friendship that exists between our two nations and take steps to make good on our obligations to our friends abroad.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. But Nepal is not just our friend because it is in need; it has proven its friendship to us time and time again – often with the blood of its sons and daughters. Now it is our time to remember what friends are for.  We must give generously.

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