Nepal: King Birendra’s Zone of Peace discussed

Isabelle Duquesne

International Relations Expert, France


The idea of Nepal as a ZoP (Zone of Peace) is traced back to King Birendra (reign 1972- 2001), who proposed it at a time when the region’s grand schemes of security appeared only too insecure to his sovereign country. The international community was supportive of the idea, but India and the Soviet Union declined to endorse it (India in the first place, on the ground of strict observance of previous treaties). This book will advance new arguments fitting the current geopolitical context, proposing once again that Nepal give itself the status of ZoP, in line with the circumstances of the twenty-first century.

King Birendra: His Person and His Reign

Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev became King on 31 January 1972 and ruled over Nepal for 29 years until 1 June 2001, the day he was shot and killed by his eldest son (1). At the beginning of his reign, Birendra inherited an autocratic mandate from his father, King Mahendra, who, twelve years earlier, had used the emergency powers granted by the constitution to dismiss the Congress government, saying it had failed to maintain law and order. Mahendra had withdrawn his cooperation with the political parties (which had entered Nepal’s government only a decade before), asserting that multiparty parliamentary democracy was an “alien system unsuited for Nepal,” and promulgated a new constitution in 1962 that enshrined the partyless regime of Panchayat (2). While wanting to bring more strength to the grassroots levels of the land and using participative and electoral processes, the monarch also retained de facto ultimate power. Party-based political activity was banned. (3).

Birendra continued in his father’s footsteps and the Panchayat system lasted nearly 30 years. But the rejected democratic forces, meeting secretly in Nepal and in India, prepared for a revolutionary return. The Panchayat system was stifling and, with too little economic progress and too much appropriation of power by the elite class, became the beast to kill. Agitation was led by political activists, students and workers rallying to the cause of democratic freedom. In response to discontent and strikes, Birendra ordered a general referendum on the Panchayat system in May 1980, in which the voters were free to choose between a reformed Panchayat and multiparty democracy. The margin of victory for the Panchayat was 55% against 45% — a narrow but certain popular choice. Nonetheless, the winds of change kept blowing.’(4).

It took one more decade for the political parties to successfully stage the (first) (4) historic People’s Movement in 1990, Jana Andolan 1,(5). Severe riots led Birendra to agree to a constitutional monarchy. He appointed a Constitution Recommendation Commission to represent the main opposition factions and to prepare a new constitution to accommodate their demands for political reform. Accepting the draft constitution which was also approved by the new Prime Minister, K. P. Bhattarai, and his cabinet, Birendra promulgated the new constitution transforming Nepal into a constitutional monarchy on 9 November 1990.

The following years were an adjustment and a balancing act between royalist, socialist-centrist and communist politicians, and the King. The economy and citizenry were not benefiting from the political quarrels in Kathmandu and elitism was still hindering the development of millions of Nepalese in need. Emerging from the magnitude of discontent, the radical left (Maoists) started an insurgency in 1996 and conducted a guerrilla war to force political change. Against the background of aggressive political contention and five years into the armed rebellion, the highly symbolic murderous family drama occurred in the Palace, precipitating Nepal into new depths of darkness.’ (6).

Manjushree Thapa describes poignantly the national state of shock caused by the Royal Massacre’ (7). As Birendra’s younger brother Gyanendra became King, he inherited trauma, endemic strategic violence between Nepalese factions, a state in shambles, offensiveness towards the monarchical institution, and suspicion that he may have orchestrated the killing. Facing him was an unmistakable opposing intent: the insurgents wanted to bring Nepal’s monarchy to an end.’(8).

King Birendra today is generally remembered as an engaged and active King. During the Panchayat years, he believed that Nepal needed a firm and focused leadership. When multiparty politics reaffirmed itself, he continued to serve the needs of the Nepali people and support the management of the State.’(9). He argued with India - especially with Rajiv Gandhi’(10), and whenever there were causes for Nepali workers, traders, developers or politicians to be discontent with India, he reaffirmed his proposal for the Himalayan kingdom to be declared a ZoP as a key instrument of foreign and regional policy.(11).

King Birendra’s Proposition for Nepal to become a Zone of Peace:

At the summit of the Non-aligned Movement (12) in Algiers in September 1973, Birendra expressed the need to formalize peace and cooperation between Nepal and its neighbors. “Situated between the two most populous countries of the world, Nepal wishes her frontiers to be enveloped in a Zone of Peace”, he said. Two years later, in his coronation address, attended by heads of state and government and high officials from 65 countries, Birendra formally asked the international community to endorse his proposal: that the UN declare Nepal a ZoP. In his words:

“As heirs to one of the most ancient civilizations in Asia, our natural concern is to preserve our independence, a legacy handed down to us by history [...] we need peace for our security, we need peace for our independence, and we need peace for development. And if today, peace is an overriding concern for us, it is only because our people genuinely desire peace in our country, in our region and elsewhere in the world. It is with this earnest desire to institutionalize peace that I stand to make a proposition -a proposition that my country, Nepal, be declared a Zone of Peace. [...] As heirs to a country that has always lived in independence, we wish to see that our freedom and independence shall not be thwarted by the changing flux of time when understanding is replaced by misunderstanding, when conciliation is replaced by belligerency and war. (13).

Birendra wanted to give a new dimension to Nepal’s policy of nonalignment, assuring a superordinate protection from the pulls and pushes of its powerful neighbors. The security of Nepal clearly depends on its relations with its neighbors and on their relations between them. The ZoP would have institutionalized this by placing internationally sanctioned restrictions on the use of military force in Nepal, while maintaining cordial relations and fulfilling mutual obligations.

Proximate Causes for the Proposition:

In 1962, a border dispute between India and China escalated to a brief but fierce war. The point of contention was stretches of land in the region of Aksai Chin (north of Kashmir), seen by the Chinese as a strategic link that enables movement via the China National Highway route G219 to the Chinese-administered territories of Tibet and Xinjiang. The war ended when the Chinese captured the disputed area and unilaterally declared a ceasefire on 20 November 1962. (14).Although Nepal did not get involved and both belligerents respected Nepal’s neutrality, the war heightened Nepalese dislike of being seen as a Sino-India security buffer.

The 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty reinforced Nepal’s sense of vulnerability. The 1971 war of independence of East Pakistan from West Pakistan ended with the emergence of Bangladesh, an event actively supported by India. The conflict transformed into an Indo-Pakistani war, the third war between the two neighbors since the separate founding of their States. India annexed Sikkim in 1975 (through a referendum in favor of it). Besides these cross-border events, internal upheavals within India were causing much apprehension in Nepal: on the one hand Delhi was supportive of a banned Nepali Congress Party (which at that time was anti-Panchayat-King Birendra’s government), and on the other hand Communist rebels, the Naxalites, were causing damage in West Bengal, near Nepal, with underground border crossings of terrorist preparations. In the midst of such violent surroundings, India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. Birendra was alarmed and wanted Nepal to be formally endorsed as a non-militaristic zone. He also affirmed that playing one neighbor against the other was a despicable and dangerous thing, and could never be useful to the Nepali people.

Birendra’s desire to “protect the flickering lamp of Nepal’s freedom from being extinguished by the storms blowing far and near” made allusions to India’s first atomic test in Pokhran, the annexation of Sikkim by India, the Indian military intervention to the creation of Bangladesh, the security alliance between USSR and India on the one hand, and India and Bangladesh on the other plus a serious regional rivalry that emerged following military cooperation between China and Pakistan (14).

Previous Antecedents to the Proposition:

After India became independent in 1947, Nepalese-Indian relations continued on the basis of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty between Nepal and the British. The treaty had recognized the sovereignty of Nepal yet dictated most terms in economic and commercial relations, thus making Nepal dependent on the British East India Company for trade, transport and access to modernization. The Indo-Nepal treaties of 1950 (Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and Treaty of Trade and Commerce) were based on the Anglo-Nepal treaties, defining large areas of mutuality. Yet in view of Nepal being much smaller and landlocked, such mutuality often turned out to be unfair in the asymmetric reality. In a speech before the Indian Parliament in 1950, Prime Minister Nehru summed up India’s security concerns regarding Nepal as follows:

“From time immemorial, the Himalayas have provided us with magnificent frontiers. We cannot allow that barrier to be penetrated, because it is also the principal barrier to India”. Therefore, as much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened, because that would be a risk to our own security(15).

From then on, India viewed any potential attack on Nepal’s soil as an aggression against its homeland, hence insisting on mutuality in the Indo-Nepalese treaties. In 1952, an Indian military mission was established in Kathmandu, with the aim of reorganizing and training Nepal’s armed forces, civil service and police force to bring the Kingdom’s defenses in line with India’s security scheme. In 1954, a memorandum provided for the joint coordination of foreign policy, and Indian security posts were setup along Nepal’s northern borders. In 1965, India secured a monopoly on arms sales to Nepal. Suffocating from such dependency, the establishment in Kathmandu expressed its disagreement and challenged the mutual security arrangement in 1969. It asked that the Indian security check posts and the Kathmandu liaison group be withdrawn. In the struggle to regain authority and be free of Indian presence, other elements of the treaties (commerce, transport, emigration) were used as trade-offs in hard negotiations.

On its northern side, Nepal witnessed the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1951, also giving rise to feelings of insecurity. Its relations with China, however, would unfold differently from those with India.

King Birendra, in his enunciation of the Kingdom’s foreign policy some eighteen months after ascending the throne, emphasized the “need for courage and the potential necessity for it to come to the fore,” as he underlined the commitment to “independence or nothing.” This statement was later seen as an indication of the intended firmness with which Nepal was going to live its friendship with its neighbors. In Birendra’s words:

“We shall take special pains to cultivate friendship with our neighbors hoping earnestly that peace, cooperation and an understanding based on a sober appreciation of each other’s problems and aspirations shall prevail. Notwithstanding these fervent pleas, notwithstanding this sincere expression of goodwill, notwithstanding these endeavors, should ill-fortune ever overtake us, I hope and pray that the people of Nepal shall not lag behind to brace themselves with the last resource they have — courage; courage to prove to the world that force or contrivances are but feeble instruments to subdue the fierce spirit of a people whose lifeblood, through the ages, has been independence or nothing. (16).

Reactions to the Proposition:

One hundred and sixteen countries endorsed Birendra’s proposal within a very short time. Fifteen years later, it continued to be supported by 110 states. India did not endorse it because it saw the concept of ZoP as being contradictory to the 1950 Treaty. India could not risk releasing Nepal from the common defense principle, which is central to their treaty and was not prepared to allow for any inconsistency in its security policy.

This partly explains why treaties amendments between Nepal and India have often been denied, postponed or slow in the agreement process. The Soviet Union was the second country not to endorse Birendra’s proposal. It had just signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in 1971 and probably felt it was necessary to support India in its neighborhood policies.


In view of the repercussions of the Cold War and regional conquests within the highly belligerent environment of the 1970s, King Birendra proposed that Nepal be declared a ZoP. Not fitting its security plan, India judged it impossible to consider such a regional policy change. On the basis of the 1950 Treaty, it argued that Nepal had agreed to mutuality in matters of defense and could not withdraw from such commitments. We shall later propose that in view of the new global circumstances, the advent of democratic, republican Nepal and the significant regional changes over the last four decades a ZoP based on new parameters and for the benefit of South Asia may be attractive to all, including India.

(With the permission of the author Isabelle Duquesne, France and thanks due to Bhrikuti Publishers: Ed)



1-The Nepali Royal Massacre occurred during a dinner at the Narayanhiti Palace, then the residence of the Nepalese monarchy. Prince Dipendra, eldest son and heir to the throne, killed nine members of his family, among them the king and the queen, and shot himself. It was known that Queen Aishwarya disagreed with her son’s choice of bride (the crown prince wanted to marry Devyani, but because of her family lineage, the queen did not accept such a marriage). It was also rumored that King Birendra had threatened to take away Dipendra’s right to be the heir if he married Devyani. Dipendra was inebriated as he killed his family. Birendra’s brother Gyanendra became king after Dipendra’s death at the hospital.

2: US Library of Congress: The Panchayat System under King Mahendra.

3: Hutt, M. (2004): Himalayan People’s War: Nepal’s Maoist Rebellion. Bloomington:

Indiana University Press. 3.

4: Baxter, C., Malik, Y. & Kennedy, C. (2001): Government and Politics in South-Asia:

Fifth Edition. Nashville: Westview Press.

5: Nepal popular movements are called Juno Andolan. The first refers to the events in 1990, the second to those of 2006. Yet there had already been another large movement before that: in 1980, it was “led by the students with a dual aim of ending the Panchayat system and establishing democracy, and was basically centered around colleges and city centers.” See GEFONT Policy Leaflet (2009): Unity For Transformation. Directions of Nepali Trade Union Movement. 2.

6: Jana Andolan 1, or The First People’s Democratic Movement in 1990. See Brown, L. (1995): The Challenge to Democracy in Nepal: A Political History. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall. 117.

‘ Shrestha, N. & Ellington, L. (2002): Nepal and Bangladesh: A Global Studies Handbook. ABC-Clio. 73.

7: (2008): Nepal’s Monarchy comes to an end.

7: Thapa, M. (2005): Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy. New Delhi: Penguin.

8: Malhotra, 1. (2001): “King Birendra of Nepal: A ruler much loved by his people, he bowed to popular will and surrendered absolute power.” Guardian, 4 June 2001.

9: Parajulee, R., op. cii. 191. One reason why the relationship between Rajiv Gandhi and

King Birendra was tense may be partly due to the tacit agreement between India and China

when Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing, whereby the Indian prime minister agreed to support

Tibet remaining a part of China as long as China supported that Nepal should remain in

India’s sphere of influence

10: Lama, M. (1996): “Clash of Images in India-Nepal Economic Relations.” Barak, L. R., ed.: Looking to the Future: Indo-Nepal Relations in Perspective. New Delhi: Anmol Publications. 180.

11: Non-alignment or Non-aligned Movement (NAM): traces its origins to a meeting in 1955 when 29 Asian and African countries’ heads of state discussed common concerns, including colonialism and the influence of the West (mostly driven by Nasser, Nehru and Tito). The movement comprised countries that did not want to affiliate with any major power bloc or the expansion of the Cold War. The purpose of the organization, as stated in the Havana Declaration of 1979, is to ensure “the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries” in their “struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well as against great power and bloc politics.” There are 118 countries in the NAM today.

events, internal upheavals within

12:: Subedi, Surya (1996): Land and Maritime Zones of Peace in International Law. New

York: Oxford University Press.

13: (2009): Indo-China War of 1962.

14: Pandey, N., ed. (2005): Nepal-China Relations. Kathmandu: Institute of Foreign Affairs. 5.

15 : Moraes, F. (2008): Jawarharlal Nehru. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House. 491.

16: Only At Nepal (2009): International Relations.

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I agree


  • Posted on - 2011-07-27    by     Capt. Nepali
  • There will always be a Anti-Indian sentiments among the Nepalese people as long as the absurd Indo-Nepal treaty exists. It is time to revise these unequal treaties. India must accept Nepal as a sovereign nation and as an equal partner with respect and not like another Sikkim or Bhutan where they can bully their way into local politics and sign stupid treaties. And now that Nepal has become a “New Nepal“ ( with interference from India’s dirty politics), a new, fair and mutually beneficial treaties must be made with the brand spanking new republic of Nepal. Perhaps the new treaty should declare Nepal as a "Zone, Free OF Foreign Interference."
  • Posted on - 2011-07-27    by     david in london
  • Highly relevant and timely. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is backing this idea for Afghanistan --belatedly. She should universalize this ZOP concept to include all of the Himalayan countries, not just Afghanistan. Both India adn China should welcome a neutral southern Himalayas
  • Posted on - 2011-07-26    by     Dennis Dey
  • The "Zone Of Peace" prospect can be likened to the farcical "No-War Pact" offered by Pakistan to India some time before Pakistan launched the Kargil War in 1999. Pakistan initially insisted that it had nothing to do with the Kargil offensive and that it was only an armed rebellion and a freedom struggle and not a war; it was only when Pakistani dog tags and arms were found among the bodies of the invaders that it became known that the Kargil War had been launched with much forethought by Pakistan. A "Zone Of Peace" has no meaning; Nepal will automatically become a "Zone Of Peace" if it becomes economically, socially and politically viable and stops blaming the US and India for all its ills. But that seems a distant dream given the blatant anti-West and anti-India attitude of the Maoists.