Nepali Times
State Of The State
The Rana resonance


When Hegel bemoaned that people and governments never learnt anything from history, he had no idea of the difficulties involved in drawing any lessons from the glorious tales of gory rulers. History is often a bad dream that you want to wake up from. In order to learn anything from history, you need to read it with a point of view. This is like passing judgement in hindsight, but the present can't be explained without taking such a subjective approach.

According to the doctrine of sovereignty, Prithvi Narayan Shah's invasion of Kathmandu Valley can be seen as an act of aggression. His conquest of small principalities was Gorkha imperialism. His act of vengeance on Makwanpur and Kirtipur were barbaric. Dicey stuff: re-reading the rise of the House of Gorkha with such objectivity. Much more comfortable to stick with Babu Ram Acharya and Fr Stiller, and continue to revere the first Shah empire-builder as the Father of the Nation even though his regard for his subjects as mere duniya (commoners) and raiti (surfs) meant to serve the dynasty perpetuity may not be politically correct from the vantage point of the present.

Jang Bahadur was an ambitious usurper foisted upon the kingdom by the unfortunate circumstances of the conspiracy-ridden court intrigues of nineteenth century Kathmandu. Jang gained legitimacy by offering himself as the hatchet-man and errand-boy of the British during and after the mutiny of 1857. Those who call the first Rana (Jang's forefathers were Kunwars) nationalist end up revealing the vacuity of that term. Almost all Rana rulers thereafter spent time conspiring against each other while they grew rich as glorified gallawals (by selling the services of able-bodied Nepalis as soldiers) of British empire.

Even more incorrect is the assertion that the Ranas kept corruption in check. When the whole regime rested on corruption, the question of controlling it simply didn't arise. There was no difference between the state treasury and the personal fortune of the rulers. Taxes were spent pretty much as they pleased. Imposing wedding cake palaces, cars hauled up over Chitlang Pass on porter-back, concubines by the hundreds, were all paid for by Nepal's subsistent farmers. One saving grace of absolute rulers, if it can be termed that, is that they gave patronage to the art and culture of the land. Ranas lacked even that, they shunned local music and dance, importing Moghul decadence from India instead. Their palaces were modelled after the loud excesses of imperial Europe, not the spartan grace of Lichhavi structures, nor the quiet and tasteful luxury of the Valley's Malla courtyards.

The Rana oligarchy had gone beyond redemption by 1950. It had rotted to its core, and things had become so unbearable that had King Tribhuvan not put his throne at stake by flying off to Delhi via the Indian Embassy, there would have been no throne left. Public opinion in India would have forced Delhi to act with even lesser restraint than it did in its settlement with Mohan Shumshere in the winter of 1951.

In retrospect, the achievements of February 18, 1951 (7 Falgun 2007 BS) do look less significant than it must have been to the 'freedom-fighters' back then. The importance of the event lay in the fact that while the Ranas had come to power and ruled for over a century on the basis of brute force alone, the restoration of power to the Shah dynasty in 1951 was backed by a popular movement.

Marx was fond of needling Hegel, and he said that history does repeat itself: "the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce". Something similar must have prompted King Mahendra to assume all powers in 1960 when he set the clock of social-change back to where it was well before 1950s. The ghosts of Ranas that continue to haunt us were resurrected by the Panchayat Pioneers.

Today, the 'nationalist' slogans of the Maoists resonate with the chants of the Khukuri Dal of 1950s. The vulgar mansions of contemporary politicians approximate the villas built by Rana-Shah descendants after the royal-takeover of 1960. Loud cries of corruption from the most corrupt are as jarring today as the slogans of democracy from the Panchas were in the 1970s. The culture of 'chakari' and 'aphno manchhe' is as familiar today as it was during the heydays of Narayanhiti secretaries of 1980s.

These days we elect what we believe are our rulers, but they are mere pawns in the hands of those who continue to carry the legacy of cultural corruption and political pollution. Nepali Congress activist Pradip Giri is merely being suggestive when he says that army-chiefs and inspector-generals live in palatial houses with multiple guards, while ministers in charge of defence or home portfolio have to often lock their doors all by themselves.

Half-a-century ago, power shifted from the male line of Ranas to their Shah cousins. Fifty years after democracy, Nepali society is still a long way from democratisation. The remnants of a feudal mindset keeps Nepal teetering permanently on the edge. Rana is not just a surname, it is a symbol of absolutism. In the colloquial, the term Ranashahi alludes to a century of dictatorship, decadence and debauchery. Its remnants need to be purged from our system to prevent a septic relapse.

The seventh of Falgun set in motion a process that led to the launch of the Jana Andolan in 2046 BS. It is not a day of celebration, but of determination, of resolving to press ahead on the path of democratisation. It was D. H. Lawrence who said: "Why doesn't the past decently bury itself, instead of sitting waiting to be admired by the present?" Resonance is bad enough, wonder what it would be like if it was a full-blown Renaissance.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)