The Death of a People’s Historian

Editors' note

Academic activity in the social sciences in South Asia commands a very low premium. Barring economics, the value of the other disciplines is inadequately recognised since they are not deemed to have immediate and tangible utility. Consequently, some disciplines are accorded a higher priority than others because of their perceived benefits to the financiers of research. In India and Pakistan, for evident ideological reasons connected with the colonial past and the partitioned present, the study of history acquired a certain salience. In Nepal on the other, the study of history languished even as the anthropological study of the culture of its peoples flourished, with support of Western universities.

Against this very conspicuous neglect of history in Nepal, the life and work of MC Regmi provides an inspiration even for other disciplines and in other countries of South Asia. Regmi's research was undertaken in relative isolation since there were few peers if any, and in the face of extreme financial constraints. It is instructive to survey the achievements of Regmi's historical work as a way of thinking about the possible models for doing research in areas facing neglect. Regmi's career offers insights into a model for undertaking deep research in the social sciences, which ultimately benefits the people more than a host of donor-funded 'action research', or state-supported repetition of bias.

Mahesh Chandra Regmi, one of Nepal's foremost historians, died in the early hours of 10 July 2003. Born in Kathmandu in December 1929 to a family of musicians (who played the sitar), Regmi obtained school level education at home before completing four years of BA education at Kathmandu's Trichandra College, then affiliated with Patna University. After trying out his hand in book and cloth trade in Calcutta, Regmi returned to Nepal just before the end of the Rana regime in February 1951. He began his professional life with the Nepali government in the immediate aftermath of the demise of the Rana oligarchy. He worked for the Department of Industries for several years before being dismissed for unspecified reasons in late 1955. Looking for something to do, he met an American academic who was researching the agricultural system of Nepal and was looking for someone to translate some documents into English. In an interview done in August 1992 by the German anthropologist Martin Gaenszle, Regmi recalled, "These were mainly reports of the land reforms commission of 1952-53. I tried to translate them and I got interested in this thing, one thing led to another and in 1957 I started this thing." The 'thing' he was referring to was the Regmi Research Centre Pvt Ltd.

As the University of California scholar Leo E Rose remarked in the mid-1970s, Regmis decision to start a private research center, "was almost inconceivable in Nepal at that time," especially because there were no "assured sources of financial support from either the government of Nepal, a Nepali educational institution, or a foreign foundation." Regmis initiative, Rose continued, "was indicative not only of a proclivity for entrepreneurship rare in Nepal but also of an independence of mind and a dedication to scholarship." In the 46 years between taking that important decision and his death, Regmi demonstrated that independence and dedication with ample evidence. He contributed immensely to the field of historical research in Nepal, a field in which he had arrived accidentally and for which he was not formally trained.

Regmi functioned as a solitary historian at the Regmi Research Centre (sometimes called Institute), administratively helped by a small group of non-academic assistants, including, in the later years, his brother Rabish C Regmi and son Suresh C Regmi. Individuals such as Shankar M Amatya and Krishna M Arjyal helped Regmi go through thousands of documents held at the Records Office ('Lagat Phant') of the Department of Land Revenue in the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the library of the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Department of Survey, offices under the Guthi Corporation which look after the lands that once paid for the upkeep of Kathmandus temples and other public structures, and the Pashupatinath Temple. Documents from the above-mentioned sources were collected most intensively in the 1960s and the 1970s and were transcribed into thick volumes. These volumes, which were later referred to as the Regmi Research Collections, filled up the shelf space in his study and became Regmis personal archive based on which he produced 14 books on the economic and political history of 18th and 19th century Nepal.

The first of these books was Some Aspects of Land Reform in Nepal (1960). It was followed by the four-volume study entitled Land Tenure and Taxation in Nepal (1963, 1964, 1965, 1968, Institute of International Studies, University of California at Berkeley; reprinted in a single volume in 1978 by Ratna Pustak Bhandar, Kathmandu). In 1971, Regmi published A Study in Nepali Economic History 1768-1846 in the Bibliotheca Himalayica series (started by late H K Kuloy) of the Manjusri Publishing House and five years later, the University of California Press published his Landownership in Nepal. These two works along with the earlier four-volume study established Regmi as a world-class scholar and in 1977 he became the first Nepali to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award, receiving it for the "journalism, literature, and creative communication arts" category. The award was granted to him in recognition of his "chronicling of Nepals past and present, enabling his people to discover their origins and delineating national options."

Regmi published two books in the next two years: Thatched Huts & Stucco Palaces: Peasants and Landlords in 19th Century Nepal (1978, Vikas) and Readings in Nepali Economic History (1979, Kishor Vidya Niketan). In the decade of the 1980s, he published The State and Economic Surplus (1984, Nath Publishing House) and An Economic History of Nepal, 1846-1901 (1988, Nath Publishing House). In the following decade Regmi published Kings and Political Leaders of the Gorkhali Empire 1768-1814 (1995, Orient Longman), and Imperial Gorkha: An Account of Gorkhali Rule in Kumaun 1791-1815 (1999, Adroit). His last book Nepal: An Historical Miscellany (2002, Adroit) is a collection of various primary and secondary texts, translated into English from the original Nepali with additional commentary. At least ten of Regmis books are of outstanding quality and it is certain that they will continue to be the most influential texts of economic history of 18th and 19th century Nepal for at least another generation.

Contributions to Nepali History

In the aftermath of the end of the Rana regime in 1951, historical studies of Nepal had emerged from a variety of knowledge-production sites. The dominant trend was to write political history, a situation that was no different than in the rest of the Subcontinent or elsewhere. It was only in the 1960s that history-writing internationally broke away from an obsession with narrowly-defined political history as the subject of historical inquiry. Regmi chose to join this new international trend. As he stated in the preface to his 1971 book, in not confining his "attention to wars, dynastic chronologies and political intrigues in Kathmandu as a fitting, and indeed, the only subject-matter of historical study" he had "set up a precedent in Nepali historiography."

Regmis inquiry into the economic aspects of the Nepali peoples lives during the 18th and 19th centuries began with a focus on the territorial expansion of the principality of Gorkha from the 1740s. By the early 19th century, Gorkhas rulers had managed to expand their territories by many hundred-folds and Regmi attributed their success to the clever strategy of linking the new lands acquired through conquest to the sustainability of their army. The land-military complex forged during the expansion period lasting up to 1814 had different intriguing aspects that Regmi proceeded to describe in many of his books.

The variety of schemes under which the state owned, appropriated and distributed land and its resources was Regmis main subject of detailed study in the 1960s, which resulted in the four volumes on land tenure and taxation. In the next decade, he extended this work by producing an updated succinct volume in the form of his 1976 book, Landownership in Nepal where he also presented his preliminary views on the impact of land reform policies enacted by King Mahendra's Panchayati state in the 1960s. In the other two full-length studies published in the 1970s, Regmi was concerned with, first, the "the economic policies and programs followed by the Gorkhali rulers to mobilize human and material resources" for territorial acquisition (1971), and, second, the agrarian relations developed by the Ranas during the first half of their century-plus rule between 1846 and 1951 (1978). In combination, they described the complexity of an agriculture-based polity and the rise of the centralised agrarian bureaucracy, and suggested why the Nepali peasantry, burdened with fulfilling the exploitative designs of the ruling elites and their functionaries, was poor. In other words, these three books by Regmi became the master texts for anyone trying to find the answer to the question, "Why is Nepal poor?"

In the two full-length studies he published in the 1980s, Regmi continued his description of the states mechanisms for resource extraction through production and trade in the early part of the 19th century (the 1984 book) and the various fiscal measures enacted by it in the second half of the same century (1998). In the 1990s however, we saw a small shift in his focus and he admitted as much. After reminding his readers in the prologue to his 1995 work that he had begun his historical inquiries by focusing on the economic aspects of the Nepali polity, he stated: "A quarter-century of on-going research and meditation has led me to modify that belief. The overarching importance of the economy is, no doubt, a truth, but nevertheless only a partial truth. I now realize that too exclusive an attention to economic history can be as misleading as too much concentration on politics."

Accordingly in the last two full studies that he published, Regmi proceeded to examine the political class that took the decision to expand the kingdom of Gorkha into what eventually became an empire. In Kings and Political Leaders (1995) Regmi explored the motivations of the leadership for the expansion of the Gorkhali kingdom, and in Imperial Gorkha (1999) he delved into the "policies and programmes followed by the Gorkhali rulers to control and administer the provinces of that Empire", in places like Kumaon which remained under Gorkhali control for 25 years.

All in all, Regmis corpus has helped us to understand the politics of Nepals rulers from the 1740s to the early 1900s on the one hand, and the impact their policies had on the lives of the ordinary people of Nepal, on the other. In helping us comprehend the poverty of Nepals peasantry and the stucco Palaces of its "parasitic groups" of rulers, Regmi firmly established himself as a peoples historian.

That is not to say that his work does not have limitations. His work, completely based on official sources, relies too heavily on the extractive categories of the Shah state and Rana agrarian bureaucracy.  As this writer noted in an article in 1994, when viewed from below and begun with the experiences of people occupying various social positions, possibly radically different understandings of the effects of Gorkhali and Rana structures of power and institutions of rule could emerge. Regmi was aware of the possibility of this criticism and tried to forestall it by writing in the preface to his 1971 book, "It is, of course, true that these records are wholly official, so that they present the official rather than the peoples point of view on socio-economic questions. But this defect is more apparent than real, for frankness is an outstanding characteristic of most of these documents."

Apart from his works, Regmis contribution to producing raw materials necessary for further historical research is immense. This would be obvious to any reader of the Regmi Research Series and some of his other periodicals in which he identified and provided translations of Nepali source materials. The documents archived in Regmi Research Collections were all microfilmed as part of the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project and are now accessible to researchers at the National Archives of Nepal and also in Germany. The value of these documents has increased since the massive fire at the Singha Darbar secretariat in 1973 destroyed some of the originals.

As he pioneered the field of economic history in Nepal, there is no reason to look for native intellectual sources that preceded Regmi (both scholars and works) and may have influenced his work. In terms of his analytic orientation, he clearly preferred to distinguish himself from those Nepali historians who were obsessed with recording facts in the "history as it really happened" mode. He argued that the main business of history was interpretation. In his early works, to elaborate this position, he often quoted from philosophers of history such as RG Collingwood and EH Carr. One also finds many references in his books to works by international scholars on the peasantry. It is also possible, from the way Regmi conceptualised the growth of the central agrarian bureaucracy in Nepal, that he was influenced by Irfan Habibs 1963 classic The Agrarian Sytem of Mughal India.

Paying for His Work

Regmi's decision to open a private research institute in Nepal of the late 1950s was definitely extremely bold. So the question remains, how did he finance his scholarly operation? Regmi's lifetime work was mainly supported through the sale of several services, most of which have by now been abandoned. These included the Nepal Press Digest (weekly summaries in English from the Nepali language press), the Nepal Press Report (daily summaries of the Nepali Press), the Nepal Recorder (translations of Nepali laws), Nepal Miscellaneous Series and the monthly Regmi Research Series.

Among these, the first four contained information that was useful to both native and foreign academics and members of the expatriate development community in Nepal. The Series, which lasted from 1969 to 1989 contained English translations of important historical documents from the Regmi Research Collection and short historical analyses – often drafts of narratives that later appeared elsewhere – written by Regmi himself. It also contained short articles written by others, often translated from their original Nepali into English. This periodical was of interest mainly to serious researchers of Nepali society. In the 1992 interview by Gaenszle, Regmi justified his decision to discontinue the Series in December 1989: "Well, the first thing was that it was selling only about forty copies, forty subscriptions. It did not generate enough resources to hire people, assistants, things like that. That was the main problem. Another problem was that I couldnt find anyone with the competence to translate the old documents in the style I used. So it was a one-man show." After crossing the age of 60, he added, he didnt "want to work nine hours a day. Thats not the goal of life. And then I decided to concentrate on my own writing, not just to give up the Regmi Research Series and sit quietly, playing with my grandchildren. What I want to do is spend more time on my own work."

In the beginning of his career, Regmi's work was supported by the University of California at Berkeley through facilitation by Leo E Rose. The latter had come into contact with Regmi in 1957 when he had come to Nepal to do research on its diplomatic history. Berkeleys grant to Regmi in 1960 was processed through its Institute of International Studies and it allowed him to work on the magisterial four-volume study of land-tenure and taxation. These volumes were published by the Institute between 1963 and 1968. However this connection also brought some controversy for Regmi when it was revealed that the Institutes Himalayan Border Country Research Project through which Rose had channeled funds to him in the mid-1960s was funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Defense Department. This sinister university-government connection was discovered in India in 1968. The revelation led the Indian government to immediately terminate the Projects involvement in its Himalayan regions.

When asked about this connection by Gaenszle in 1992, Regmi said, "I said: look, I dont know, I get paid for doing research on Nepal, I dont care where the money comes from….They gave me a grant, they never told me what to do. They said: You (can) do what you want to do. And I said I want to do land tenure and taxation in Nepal. It started with a one volume project, one became two, two became three, three became four. So they financed all that." The Institutes grant for Regmi was discontinued in 1969 when the Himalayan borders project was scrapped. However Regmi continued to cherish his friendship with Rose long after this controversy and thanked him on numerous occasions in many of his books for the support given.

The 1977 Ramon Magsaysay Award, granted to Regmi near the middle of his career as a historian, also came at a crucial juncture in his life. Apart from the international recognition which, as Regmi has acknowledged, "bolstered both his self-confidence and his credibility", the Award carried a grant of USD 20,000. This gave him enough economic security to continue with his research and publications, including his 1979 book Readings in Nepali Economic History and some of his periodicals. As Regmi told this writer, but for the Magsaysay Award, the Regmi Research Series would have been discontinued even earlier than 1989.

The Legacy

Although at times Regmi allowed certain historians such as Fr Ludwig F Stiller, (celebrated author of, among others, The Rise of the House of Gorkha (1973) and The Silent Cry: The People of Nepal, 1816-1839 (1976)) to make extensive use of his original document collection, it seems fair to say that Regmi was not particularly interested in reproducing his "school" of Nepali historiography. It is not clear whether he ever sought to mentor members from the next generation of Nepali historians, but it seemed clear that by the early 1990s, when this writer met him, he seemed little interested. Neither was he interested in socialising with other Nepali academics, some of whom he thought did not deserve the reputation they had garnered on the basis of pedestrian work.

Regmi resisted most invitations to participate in other academic forums or seminars, and he rarely contributed articles to journals other than his own. As far as this writer knows, apart from an article published in Asian Survey in the early 1960s, and two articles published in Contributions to Nepalese Studies in 1975 and 1976, Regmi did not publish elsewhere, preferring instead to invest his energies in writing his books and producing his periodicals. Scholars (including this writer) who approached him for contributions often felt frustrated by his unwillingness to accede. In later years, it was also difficult to engage him in conversation, for Parkinsons disease had begun to take its toll. He would answer specific questions and then revert back to recalling his past work and current obsessions.

In a rare appearance in a 1990 seminar entitled "Kathmandu city and the Guthi system today", Regmi presented a paper highlighting the adverse impact on the civic life of Kathmandu resulting from the disappearance or institutional violations of this native mode of endowment-based philanthropy. But this presentation by the foremost scholar of the Guthi system began and ended with an apology. He stated, "The research has been inadequate and the presentation sketchy. The saving grace is that my aim in this paper has been to stimulate thought, not to present cut and dried solutions. If, therefore, the points I have made here provoke you to sit up and think on how we may be able to preserve and build on the initiative and liberality of our ancestors in using a portion of their wealth to construct and maintain temples, shrines, and other public assets in this city of ours, my efforts will not have gone waste."

Some of the obituaries published since his death have lamented the fact that the wealth of insights Regmi had produced in his research works had not been used by the Nepali state. But Regmi hiimself was much more modest about the use of his work for Nepals development. This he made clear in a short write-up in Himal in 1993 titled "Why I write Economic History": "I do not feel that there is any need for me to make an attempt to justify my research and writings on the economic history of Nepal in terms of their relevance to the mundane issues of economic development and political evolution. For me, far more inspiring and ennobling has been the feeling of participation, at whatsoever elementary level it may be, in the eternal quest for knowledge. In the course of exploring and recording a previously unknown and uncharted aspect of the history of the Nepali people and, therefore, of mankind as a whole, I have the feeling of having left my footprints on the sands of time".

Regmi could provide us with historical narratives of previously uncharted aspects of Nepal's past precisely because he showed no interest in the gimmickry embedded in medals and national honours. His spiritual quest in academia was made possible in part by his fierce independence of mind and dedication, and in part by the fact that he could work in his modest study without the distractions provided by vacuous honours and recognitions. Regmi's footprints will be with us for a long time to come.

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