Nepalis on Thursday witnessed something they had not seen in a decade: both the ceremonial and executive heads of state offering flowers to the statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah
Nepalis on Thursday witnessed something they had not seen in a decade: both the ceremonial and executive heads of state offering flowers to the statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah—a divisive icon loved by many and loathed by some.
President Bidya Bhandari and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba celebrated Prithvi Narayan’s birth anniversary as National Unity Day, signalling a shift in the way the state views the founder of modern Nepal.
After Prithvi Narayan's 13th descendant, king Gyanendra, was deposed by pro-democracy activists in 2006, the government of Girija Prasad Koirala cancelled National Unity Day saying Nepal's founding ruler was a feudal king.
Ex-Maoist guerrillas brought down Prithvi Narayan’s statues across the country. They could not topple the one in front of Singha Darbar, so they covered it in a shroud. A section of nationalists opposed what they viewed as the Nepali version of China’s Cultural Revolution, but their voices were ignored.
A decade later, as Maoists prepare to merge with the UML led by nationalist KP Oli, the Sher Bahadur Deuba government has revived Unity Day, giving re-birth to Prithvi Narayan as a unifying figure.
“Prithvi Narayan Shah should not be punished for what his descendants did,” says Nepali Congress Spokesperson Bishwa Prakash Sharma. “He should be respected for giving us a sovereign and unified Nepal.”
But some still resent Prithvi Narayan as a feudal lord, who they say invaded weaker principalities and annexed them to his Gorkha kingdom. They marked National Unity Day as Black Day.
“By reviving Prithvi Narayan Shah’s legacy, politicians have proved they love the status quo, and do not regard our cultural diversity,” says Janajati activist Om Gurung. “They masqueraded as progressive during the April Uprising, but they are now showing their true colours.”
Gurung is hopeful that things will change, and that oppressed people will rise once again to challenge Prithvi Narayan’s legacy. But that looks a far-fetched possibility, as nationalist Oli and ex-revolutionary Pushpa Kamal Dahal intensify closed-door negotiations to create a unified leftist party. They are hoping to rule Nepal for at least five years.
Despite his party suffering humiliating defeats in last year’s elections, Deuba has managed to stay put so far. But his government has already decided to hold the Upper House elections on 7 February, after which Oli is expected to be the new Prime Minister.
Oli’s second innings as PM will not be easy. When UML Chair Manmohan Adhikari became Prime Minister in 1994, he unveiled several welfare programs, a move that benefits his party to this day. But Oli may not be able to follow suit, with the state exchequer depleted and economists warning Nepal may not achieve 7% economic growth.
And, activist Govinda KC, after being arrested for contempt of court and released by the Supreme Court, will be challenging the new government even more vehemently. Oli’s hatred for KC is not hidden, and his nexus with medical businesses, described by KC as mafia, is well-known.
Om Astha Rai
The Great Unifier, Heklata Rai
"Respect Prithvi Narayan Shah"