25-31 March 2016 #801

Looking back to the future

Nepalis have waited 200 years for a nation that they can once more be proud of.

Gurkha Musuem

Two hundred years ago this week, troops of the East India Company were advancing on Makwanpur Gadi, the hilltop fort guarding the southern approaches to Kathmandu Valley. The British wanted to teach the Gorkhali Kingdom a final lesson, and force its rulers to ratify the Sugauli Treaty that had been signed four months previously. As Jyoti Thapa Mani recounts in her recently-published book, The Khukri Braves the heroic but demoralised Gorkhali defenders did not stand a chance when the Company brought up heavy artillery.

1815 marked the peak of the Gorkha expansion, with Makwanpur being the last surrender. It was all downhill after that. The Sugauli Treaty allowed Nepal to remain independent and isolated, but it sanctioned the appropriation of nearly half its territory, and started the practice of the recruitment of Nepalis into the foreign military which continues 200 years later.

Nepal was economically ruined by the war, and the loss of so much territory also meant an acute loss of tax revenue. The fighters were abruptly jobless, and the first seeds of what is now Nepal’s inescapable migrant economy were planted then: we started exporting young men to fight for a foreign army. Soon, there was a massive exodus of civilians, too, from Nepal’s mid-hills to India’s northeast and Burma.

The British didn’t just conscript soldiers, they also recruited indentured labourers for the sugarcane fields of the West Indies and Fiji. Many Nepalis were among those who sailed off from Calcutta, including the ancestors of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the Trinidadian Nobel Prize-winning author.

The first Gorkhali fighters joined the Company even before the war formally ended. For two centuries since then, the British Gurkhas (called 'Gorkhas' in the Indian Army) have fought for the Empire. A total of 52,000 young Nepali men died during the two World Wars, emptying Gurung, Rai, Limbu and Magar villages of young men.

Nepalis are rightfully proud of the fact that our country has never known a colonial master. However, that was not because British India or China-Tibet could not overrun Nepal, but because they chose not to. It was strategically much more advantageous, and cheaper, to keep Nepal as a buffer. Both the British and the Chinese had sent their armies into Nepal, and what they saw of its topography convinced them that the unforgiving terrain made it virtually ungovernable.

Jang Bahadur, the ambitious general and progenitor of the Rana dynasty, initially aspired to restore Nepal to its former glory. To gauge whether it was worth going to war to regain territory lost in 1815, he became the first subcontinental royal to cross the Black Waters to pay state visits to Britain and France in 1850. He was suitably impressed with British military prowess, and his descendants became devoted to the English, offering troops to quell the Mutiny in 1857, the Afghan Wars and other campaigns.

In 1923, after much lobbying in London and Delhi, Chandra Shumsher upgraded bilateral relations to formally recognise Nepal as a sovereign country. In 1937, Nepal became one of only four Asian countries with an embassy in London. But the sun was setting on the Empire, and when the British finally quit India in 1947, Nepal’s Rana rulers found themselves on the wrong side of history and were soon deposed with Delhi’s help.

We fast forward to the present: Nepal still permits recruitment of its young men into foreign armies and even allows the British Army to recruit extra people on behalf of the security forces of Singapore, Brunei and Oman. Now, the Indian Army wants a piece of that pie, too. We have grown so accustomed to Gurkha recruitment we don’t see the incongruity of a sovereign nation offering its men to fight other people’s wars. It is the disgraceful governance failure of a succession of rulers in Kathmandu, their neglect and apathy, that force us to accept a migrant economy as a given.

Prince Harry looked cute playing Holi, but in Pokhara this week he donned a British military uniform to greet Nepali veterans from Helmand. Yes, 180 years later the Gurkhas were back in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, New Delhi is still looking at Nepal through vice-regal prisms of the 19th century. And Prime Minister Oli is in Beijing, continuing where his forebears left off in 1815 to persuade the sceptical Chinese to be more closely engaged.

Our rulers also have a proven track record of incompetence in handling the geopolitical balancing act necessary to keep Nepal politically stable and economically viable. As the Indian Blockade demonstrated, we have not yet learnt to be smart enough to outsmart our larger, clumsier neighbour. We either play the victim and grovel, or we recklessly let disputes escalate.

Nepalis have waited 200 years for a nation that they can once more be proud of. We now need leaders who do not need to resort to hollow nationalism, pure populism and empty promises to get to power. We need statespersons who can start building a self-reliant economy and a just society. We have a location between two of the world’s largest economies, and they are not fighting over us.

Things are finally moving in the right direction for Nepal to break free of its past and forge its own future. The new constitution finally gives us a chance to get it right.

Read also:

The sharp edge of history, Kunda Dixit

Dying for others, Om Astha Rai

Double centennial, Editorial

More warlike, Deepak Aryal

100 years of platitudes, Sunir Pandey