Prithvi Thought III Stress On Sovereignty & Robust Diplomacy
Ritu Raj Subedi
Throughout history Nepal has been able to maintain its independence and sovereignty with intelligence, valour and persuasion. Nepal boasts of great enlightenment tradition that serves as the source of knowledge, wisdom and vision for many able leaders to steer the nation through the troubled times. It is an ancient land where sages and seers composed most of the verses of Veda. It is a prehistoric nation where philosopher king Janak ruled by placing knowledge above power. It is the birthplace of Gautam Buddha whose ideas enable humanity to attain salvation from sufferings. These separate enlightenment traditions formed the intellectual, moral and spiritual foundation of the Nepali society, allowing diverse civilisations to sprout and co-exist side by side for many millennia. This foundation was so strong that foreign invaders - the Mogul, British and Imperial China - could not shake and subdue Nepal despite having superior military strength.
Many Western writers miss this truth and lose perspective in understanding and interpreting Nepal’s history. One such author, Leo E. Rose, suffers from similar fallacy in his book ‘Nepal; Strategy for Survival’ in which he depicts Nepal merely as an insecure ‘buffer state’. He offers an erroneous proposition: “Because of Nepal’s preoccupation with mere survival, its foreign policy inevitably has a psychological orientation different from that of larger states, including India and China, whose physical attributes are in themselves a fairly reliable guarantee of security.” If Nepal lived through buffer state mentality, how could it become successful to preserve independence and sovereignty uninterruptedly? If so, how Nepal remained a free nation and larger states – India and China - endured humiliation and were colonised for centuries?
Perhaps the fitting answer can be traced in the far-sighted foreign policy vision and military strategy of the country’s founding father, Prithvi Narayan Shah. He imbibed indigenous knowledge and enlightenment tradition and applied them to recreate Nepal. He quickly grasped the nitty-gritty of domestic and international situation before launching the unification campaign. In his Dibya Updesh, he had clearly outlined Nepal’s foreign policy - principle of neutrality, respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and peaceful coexistence among the nations. He reinforced his policy through both means - adroit negotiation or military response based on the geostrategic necessity of time. In doing so, there was no question of surrendering sovereignty or succumbing to foreign powers. He showed diplomatic dexterity while negotiating with British East India Company to restore full authority over the flatland in Terai. At the same time, he resorted to military offensive to beat off the Britishers. Great Gorkhali warriors, groomed under his military system, had demonstrated indomitable spirit while fighting against invading British forces and army of Imperial China in different periods. This effectively staved off the threat of enemies for decades or centuries.
Perhaps writer Ludwig F. Stiller was close to comprehending PN Shah’s foreign policy vision. He said: “One can only conclude that Prithiwinarayan Shah, despite the surroundings in which he was reared and in which he ruled, was gifted with a native intelligence that quickly adapted itself from the narrow field of the diplomacy of the hill areas to the wider areas of international relations.” Stiller further noted that P N Shah showed a great wisdom in insisting that friendship be maintained with his powerful neighbours. “His willingness to negotiate, his ability to cooperate when it was clearly to his advantage to do so, and his skill at parrying requests he considered to be harmful to his kingdom without flatly refusing them, indicates a sound sense of national self-preservation.”
While describing Nepal as a ‘yam between the two boulders,’ PN Shah advised: ‘Keep strong friendship with the Emperor of China; one has to maintain friendship with the Emperor of the sea (English Emperor) in the south. But he is very cunning.’ His comparison of Nepal with a yam between two rocks (big neighbours – India and China) is still valid today. It bears a symbolic meaning - maintaining equidistance with both neighbours. He tried to establish relations with China through its Amman (representatives) deputed in Lhasa. His idea that Nepal should have a strong bond with the northern neighbour was vindicated by the subsequent experiences. Nepal’s relations with modern China have been cordial, friendly and guided by Panchsheel (five principles of peaceful coexistence). PN Shah had described the East India Company as ‘wily’ for it was hell-bent on usurping Nepal’s territories and resources, and destroying sanatan dharma.
His suspicion that the British would one day mount an attack on Nepal came true. So he asked his successor and loyal courtiers to beef up military preparation to repel it. He advised: “Prepare forts, without burdening the people. Set traps in the trails. One day that force will come. Do not go down to the plains to fight. Withdraw to the hills to fight. Chure Pass will be much used. Store arms and ammunition there for five to seven generations.” Because of this prophetic guideline, the country did not fall into the clutch of Britishers during the Anglo-Nepal War (1814-16) although it lost a significant portion of territory. After the Britishers left India, the rulers of free India were reluctant to shed their colonial mindset they had inherited from their foreign masters. Nepal-India relations need to be redefined and reset according to the need of 21st century.
During their decade-long insurgency, the Maoists had tried to deconstruct the ‘yam’ metaphor arguing that Nepal should be dynamite between the two nations. It was a foolish ultra-leftist and destructive hypothesis sans foreign policy sanity. The Maoists were accused of secretly receiving support from the then Indian establishment to fuel their ruthless campaign that weakened the Nepali state and also the legacy of PN Shah. Of late, the ‘yam’ metaphor has been developed into a comparatively balanced proposition - a dynamic bridge between the two neighbours, thereby catapulting the notion of trilateral cooperation involving Nepal, India and China.
PN Shah’s foreign policies sought to strengthen the newly born kingdom. Because of his premature death, he could not execute much of them. His foreign policy vision was partly mirrored in the actions of later rulers and prime ministers - his son and mukhtiyar (regent) Bahadur Shah, first prime minister Bhimsen Thapa, Jung Bahadur Rana, BP Koirala, kings Mahendra and Birendra, and KP Oli to some extent. ‘Very much a man of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s stamp,’ Bahadur Shah completed big portion of unification campaign, evolving Nepal ‘from the status of an insignificant state to that of a power in the Indian subcontinent,’ said Stiller. He entered an agreement with the East India Company to secure weapons during the war against the Chinese Imperial Army but it did not meet the commitment. Bhimsen Thapa developed the idea of pan-Asia to drive back the British colonial power from the continent. His bid to enlist armed backing from the Chinese Emperor during the Anglo-Nepal war could not come to fruition. Jung Bahadur took a reconciliatory approach towards the Company to safeguard national sovereignty, enlarge territory and protect the border. BP Koirala and Mahendra sharply differed over the domestic political system but were mostly on the same page when it came to defending sovereignty and fighting Indian hegemony. King Birendra’s proposal of ‘Zone of Peace’ reflected PN Shah’s policy of avoiding military confrontation with the neighbours. During his first premiership, KP Oli stood up to the Indian embargo and signed the historic trade and transit treaty with China, ending Nepal’s dependency on India for the third country trade route. This marked the objectification of PN Shah’s advice – keep strong ties with China.
Prithvi Narayan Shah was the first Nepali king to execute diplomacy and run diplomatic missions systematically and efficiently. As the king of Gorkha, he had appointed Gangadhar Pantha as an ambassador to Kaski State and astrologer Kalu Pandey as the mobile envoy to Chaubisi Rajyas following the conquest of Kantipur on March 21, 1770. According to him, ambassador should be competent and nationalist, and possess full knowledge of issues and deft negotiating power. So PN Shah assigned subba Dinanath Upadhyaya (Dahal) to resolve the problem of Talhatti (Terai) that belonged to Makawanpur State. It would naturally come under the purview of new Nepal after the annexation of Makawanpur but colonel Kinloch of Company was exercising his control and collecting tax in Parsa, Bara and Rautahat districts of Terai even after his defeat in Sindhuligadhi war. Dinanath was a shrewd, patriotic and able negotiator. Besides, he knew the crux of problems and their solution. He pushed negotiation with Company officials to successful conclusion that gave respite to PN Shah. Without any tussle, he brought parts of Terai into his fold. It was a big source of income to his nascent kingdom. Can the political parties and governments take their cue from him while appointing ambassadors capable of defending national interest, promoting economic diplomacy and enhance the country’s image across the world?
(Final part of Prithvi Thought will come out next week)