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31 October : 200th Anniversary of Nalapani Anglo-Nepal War

- Kunda Dixit
Exactly 200 years since 31 October the Anglo-Nepal War broke out, representing the zenith of the Gorkhali expansion and a clash between greater Nepal and the East India Company. On 31 October 1814, 3,500 Indian sepoys and their British commanding officers attacked the Gorkha hilltop fort on Nalapani near Dehra Doon. Capt Bal Bhadra Kunwar was commanding a garrison of 600 soldiers inside the fort and was sent word by Maj Gen Robert Gillespie to surrender. The Gorkhalis refused, and Gillespie was immediately killed by a Nepali sharpshooter from inside the ramparts. The British then laid siege on the fort and bombarded it with cannon fire. Capt Kunwar and the Nepali forces held out, inflicting heavy casualties on the Company. When the base ran out of water and food, Kunwar escaped into the night and joined forces with Ranjit Singh, the king of Punjab who was also fighting against the East India Company. Nalapani was finally over-run after a month-long siege on 30 November, and by then 740 Company soldiers were killed and 530 Nepalis. 

The war was to last another two years until the Sugauli Treaty was signed in 1816 under which the British were allowed to recruit Nepali soldiers into their Army, and Nepal had to cede Garhwal, Kumaon and parts of what is now Himachal Pradesh, and large tracts of the Ganga plains to the south. Even before hostilities broke out in 1814, the Company had already engaged militarily with the Gorkhali Army. After Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Nuwakot in 1742 King Jayasthiti Malla of Patan sent an SOS to Calcutta. The Company dispatched a force under Capt  George Kinloch, but this was repulsed by Gorkhalis waiting at the fort on Sindhuli Gadi with hornet nests that they hurled down at the attackers. The British were so chastened by the defeat, they didn’t attack Nepal till 1814. Under the pretext of a border dispute in Butwal, the Company launched an all out offensive with four columns led by Major-General Rollo Gillespie and Colonel David Ochterlony in Garhwal and Kumaon in the west, Gen John Wood in Palpa, Maj-Gen Bennet Marley on Makwanpur and Kathmandu, and another along the Kosi in the east. 

The Nepali forces were under the overall command of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa in Kathmandu with his son Ranabir Singh Thapa commanding Makwanpur Fort, Balbhadra Kunwar defending the strategic garrison at Nalapani in Garhwal, Col Ujir Singh Thapa in Palpa,  Gen Amar Singh Thapa at Malaon Fort, and his son Ranajore Singh Thapa at Jaithak Fort. The first frontal attack on Nalapani and Deuthal did not go well for the British, but as the war wore on the Company used the combination of siege tactics and mountain cannons to squeeze the Gorkhali forces. The siege of Nalapani, Deuthal, and Jaithak and the bravery shown by Bhakti Thapa, Bal Bhadra Kunwar, and Amar Singh Thapa is the stuff of legend in Nepali history books. The British East India Company didn’t go to war with Nepal so much for territory, but for trade — especially for the prized antelope wool found in western Tibet. For this, it needed control over the trans-Himalayan passes and after the Company had hacked off the region west of the Mahakali River, it had access to the high passes over the Himalaya and saw no need to conquer and keep, what even then, looked like an ungovernable state. But the terms of the treaty that preserved Nepal’s nominal sovereignty, altered our nation’s boundary and history and started the tradition of Gurkha recruitment that continues 200 years later.

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