The king is back in Nepal. Not in power but in debate. Not by force, as he did in the past, but in an understanding with desperate leaders who, not long ago, were leading the movement that forced him out of power.
The president and the prime minister of “an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism-oriented, federal democratic republican state” of Nepal are paying tribute to King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the first Shah King of modern day Nepal, whose rule is defined in the constitution as a “feudalistic, autocratic, centralised, unitary system of governance”, written by these same leaders.
Who was Prithvi Narayan Shah of Nepal?
Badamaharaja Prithvi Narayan Shah is a hero of Nepal’s old elite. Born on 11 January 1723, he became the king of Gorkha at the age of 20 and pursued a ruthless policy to bring dozens of scattered yet independent principalities under the Gorkha domain. As long as the Gorkhas did not come face to face with the British in the South, they remained unchecked in their plunder. In its zenith, the Gorkha Empire spread from the Sutlej to the Teesta. They were ruling over a large swathe from present day Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand to Darjeeling.
Even as the victor Gorkhas were writing their history in golden letters, there were people who had stories of suffering. At a time when Europe was ending slavery, the slave trade was at its peak in Nepal. Women and men of the conquered lands were sold freely, often, at a price less than that of animals. In his enthusiasm to create an asal Hindustan or real Hindustan, Prithvi Narayan Shah ordered the cutting of noses of the conquered people. Early European travelers have documented seeing noseless people around Kritipur!
After more than fifty years of unchecked expansion, the Gorkha march was halted by the British forces in 1816. Disposed rulers of several hill kingdoms along with their people collaborated with the British in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16.
Like the Peshwas’, the legacy of Prithvi Shah and the kings who ruled Nepal after him calls for scrutiny and not unprincipled glorification. Their claim to have fought the British mustn’t blind their supporters to the atrocities they unleashed on their subjects. Nepal’s Bhima-Koregaon should also find space in history.
Is the King Relevant Today?
The current leaders of Nepal are following a wrong lead. There isn’t any visible change in the way people feel for the king. True, they aren’t shouting slogans against him as they used to do when he was in power but they aren’t missing him either. For last 13 years there wasn’t any news of the National Unity Day on 11 January, his birthday. Even before that, the decade following 1996 witnessed a steep decline in king’s acceptance as a unifier of the country. He was rather seen as an obstacle to the long due development of the country abundant with natural resource. And indeed, he was the obstacle.
Under his watch, Nepal was one of the poorest countries of the world. He created no jobs and for a vast section of the society education was just a formality. His kin and courtiers controlled about 80 percent of the land and resources of the country. Young people migrated to West Asia and aged quickly, while their sons did drugs and daughters were trafficked to the brothels of India.
The pent-up anger of the Nepalese people found expression in the violent Maoist movement. Lasting for ten years, the Maoist movement, at first, cut the branches of the monarchy in the countryside and later collaborated with the democratic forces to finish it off completely.
But now the king is crawling his way back in. The Khomeinis of Nepal have forgiven the wrongs of their Shah. The king is now a cultural symbol of the nation and is imposed as a patriot and nationalist par excellence. Even inside the Maoist party, the pro-king voices have become strong. People like Baburam Bhattarai have been ousted from the party. Like the Peshwas’, the legacy of Prithvi Shah and the kings who ruled Nepal after him calls for scrutiny and not unprincipled glorification. Their claim to have fought the British mustn’t blind their supporters to the atrocities they unleashed on their subjects. Nepal’s Bhima-Koregaon should also get space in history.
The Maoists and the Democrats
Since the Maoists are the original anti-monarchy force in Nepal, they are expected to lead the politics of symbols in the right direction. At the time of the making of the constitution, they had made many avoidable compromises. On the question of national animal, flag, dress etc, they let the regressive idea win. They could have learnt a lesson from their Indian comrades who too had ignored the politics of symbol as something to do with superstructure. This misunderstanding is one of many reasons of their downfall.
The current National Unity Day debate has once again given the Maoists and other democratic forces an opportunity to assert their idea in the nation’s psychology. Prithvi Narayan Shah is a symbol unacceptable to majority of Nepalese people.
For the sake of national harmony he must be replaced by a more relevant symbol. Buddha could be one such symbol. The Maoists should know that political power might have grown out of the barrel of a gun in the past but in today’s democratic world winning over minds of the people is everything.
(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at @hellovishnu on Twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)