Nepali and non-Nepali modern-day historians of Nepal have a lot to answer for.
Two decades ago, addressing a gathering of social scientists in Kathmandu. historian Ludwig R Stiller declared that they were living in the “golden age” of Nepali history. “Rarely have historians of any nation had access to so much untouched material for their use,” he said.
Stiller was confident that “the Nepali people have a sense of history,” and the field of history was itself wide open for researchers, both in terms of historical periods and topics to choose from.
Sense of Past
It is true, as Stiller said then, that Nepalis liked history: “They like to discuss it. They like to hear stories from their history. It has meaning for them.” But it is important-to draw a distinction between a people´s sense of history and the scholars´ sense of history, and the conditions under which the latter has been produced in Nepal.
Two types of historical writings represent two different senses of history among the educated and powerful of Nepal. From the past, we have the vamsavali, and then we have the “disciplinary history writing” by modern-day scholars.
Vamsavalis are, in the main, narratives of the different ruling dynasties with their genealogies and include references to important events that occured in their respective regnal years such as the founding of a temple or an invasion by an enemy. While some of the cl aims made in vamsavalis can be independently verified, they tend to incorporate mythological and legendary stories.
Vamsavalis were in wide circulation in 19th century Nepal, commissioned by those in power who had a need for cultural legitimisation and to fashion a past. As linguist Kamal P. Malla writes, vamsavalis were instruments for providing ksatriya-status to kings whose lineage was in doubt. Thus, these tended to be political documents to ensure one´s continued enjoyment of power.
One of the early “disciplinary histories” of Nepal wasDilli Raman Regmi’s Modern Nepal (1961). Although concerned like the vamsavalis with political history of the ruling dynasty—the Shahs—Regmi’s work differs from the former. There is a self-conscious attempt to organise the past with references to a wide variety of sources — vamsavalis, travellers’ accounts, archival materials, and other published works. This organisation of the past—historical consciousness—differs from that fashioned by the vamsavalis. By from that fashioned by the vamsavalis. By excluding myths and legends that cannot be ‘proved’, this sense of history breaks away from mythological time and emphasizes the secular.
What were the conditions under which the disciplinary sense of the past was first produced in Nepal? While discussing how history can be utilised in the development of Nepal, Stiller writes that it is only when historians have “laid bare the institution that form our national strength and unravelled the political problems that stand in the way of progress that we can with safety decide what aspects of Nepalese society we can modify and what characteristics we can root out as a part of our development process.”
The job of historians, then, was to expose for the planning experts, the “inner spirit of Nepal.”
Scientific history monumentalises certain contemporaneous objects as evidence of history. This ability to bifurcate objects into historical evidence and contemporaneous things is central to the idea of progress. It is in essence the task involved when, in Stiller’s words, “we decide what aspects of Nepalese society we can modify” in the name of progress, development, and the modem and “what characteristics we can root out” in the name of underdevelopment and the traditional.
This idea of progress provides the energy for official nationalism, and progress and development were central to the rhetoric of Panchayat democracy under kings Mahendra and Birendra. As anthropologist Richard Burghart laid out a number of years ago, Mahendra inspired Panchayati nationalismin the 1960s emphasised, on the one hand, des vikas, and on the other, the uniqueness of Nepal. While students of all ages were spoon-fed mega-doses of Nepal’s non-colonial past as a testimony of her uniqueness and her people’s desire for freedom, calls for des seva reminded students of their responsibilities as citizens of a ‘unique’ nation.
The language of progress and nationalism, which was also the language of freedom and citizenship, existed in Nepal, as elsewhere, in a symbiotic relationship with the disciplinary sense of the past. Without this sense, Panchayat nationalism´s rhetoric of progress and uniqueness would not have been possible. This nationalism, in turn, made Nepali historians choose the nation-state with all its claims to unity, freedom and progress and its ultimate representation embodied in the king, the subject of all history.
Location and History
In a curious division of labour, while the field of anthropology of Nepal has been dominated by Western researchers, most historians of Nepal have been Nepalis. If the anthropological research agenda has been set largely by the personal, national, institutional and theoretical dispositions of the foreign researchers, one could say that, in the case of history, Nepali researchers have focussed almost exclusively on the life of the Nepali nation-state. These scholars have written political biographies of kings, prime ministers and other elites, as well as narrow political and administrative histories of the state.
For the period after mid-18th century, the few non-Nepalis who worked in Nepali history have not done anything to displace this obsession with narrow political history. This is clear from recent works by John Whelpton (Kings, Soldiers and Priests, 1991) and Adrian Sever (Nepal Under the Ranas, 1993). Sever claims in his preface that his is a “history of peasants as well as prime ministers” and that it provides “some small insight into die world of the unnamed, unsung peasantry of rural Nepal.”These are laudable sentiments, but the excellently produced book with its Tare photos of the Rana elites is, emphatically, not a history of Nepali peasants.
Western researchers who have gone beyond the narrow confines of political history include anthropologists Richard Burghart and Veronique Bouillier, on the cultural history of the Nepali state, and Stephen Mikesell, on the extension of mercantile capitalism in central Nepal. Unfortunately their work has not received the attention of Nepali historians.
As for Indian researchers, Nepal does not figure much in their work (particularly post-18th century) because it was never part of British India. Among those that have looked at Nepal, there is an obsession with diplomatic history — K. N. Chaudhuri’s Anglo-Nepalese Relations (1960), B. D. Sanwal’s Nepal and the East India Company (1965), Ramakant’s Indo-Nepalese Relations 1816 to 7577 (1968), Sushila Tyagi’s Indo-Nepalese Relations 1858-1914 (1974), Kanchamoy Mojumdar’s Anglo-Nepalese Relations in the Nineteenth Century and Political Relations between India and Nepal, 1877-1923 (both 1973).
So Anglo-Nepali diplomatic history is well covered, especially when one also considers the well-known works by non-Indian writers such as Asad Husain, John Pemble, Leo E. Rose, and Prem R. Uprety. Even with diplomatic history, however, the primary subject of research continues to be the nation-state. There are some exceptions, such as the writings of M.S. Jain and Satish Kumar on the Ranas and Jaher Sen’s on trade. More recently, in The Gorkha Conquests (1991), Kumar Pradhan has begun a serious reconsideration of the glorified history of Nepali unification, with special reference to east Nepal.
There exists a kind of involution in Nepali historical scholarship. A glance at recent works by scholars such as one on Bahadur Shah by B. R. Bajracharya (1992) and another on Prithvi Narayan Shah by Tulsiram Vaidya (1993) (both senior historians at Tribhuvan University) shows that Nepali historians continue to churn out isolationist, narrowly nationalist history. There is no serious effort to situate their analysis within a larger South Asian context, informed by the many reconsiderations of 18th and 19lh century histories of India (hat have been proffered in the last two decades. In fact, there is no indication of any familiarity with this by-now large body of work. Imagination, both in the subject of research and presentation, seems stunted.
Thus, while considering the implications of the ´location and history´, one finds the horizons of Nepali historians usually stopping at the border or, at best, extending occasionally down to India and up to Tibet. They almost never publish their works outside of Nepal.
So what is wrong with this obsession with political history? It has, after all, produced many good volumes, such as Stiller’s The Rise of the House of Gorkha (1973) and The Silent Cry (1976), Krishna K. Adhikari’s Nepal under Jung Bahadur (Vol I, 1984), Triratna Manandhar’s Nepal: The Years of Trouble (1986), Rajesh Gautam’s Nepalko Prajatantric Andolanma Nepal Praja Parishadko Bhumika (1989), Whelpton’s above-mentioned work, and Prem Uprety’s Political Awakening in Nepal (1992). And we do have, in the works of Mahesh C. Regmi, a detailed economic history of the Nepali state. Does not the history of the Nepali people come through in these works? Regmi’s and Stiller’s writings have elaborated the land-military nexus (distribution of conquered territories to his military-men in the form of jagirs and birtas) that Prithvi Narayan Shah developed as the central feature of his conquest schemes. Stilier’s, Adhikari’s and Manandhar’s writings have elaborated the political history of 19th century rulers, die history of intrigues and assassinations until the rise of Shamsher Ranas in 1885. Regmi’s multi-volumes have clarified the process in which “thatched huts” and “stucco palaces” came to co-exist in the same Nepali space.
All said and done, however, even these respected Nepali historians suffer from nationalism-induced amnesia.
Nationalism-induced amnesia can be studied in the context of various topics of research. Take just one example — the history of the Gurkhas. Many scholars think that Gurkha history has been covered so thoroughly that there is nothing more left to say. Nothing could be further from the truth, and true Gurkha history has barely begun to be written.
Apart from glossy accounts of the Gurkhas (for example, B. M. Niven’s The Mountain Kingdom: Portraits of Nepal and the Gurkhas, 1987), we see what British academic Michael Hutt calls “quasi-histories” in the form of works such as Byron Farwell’s The Gurkhas (1984). Incidentally, these quasi-histories are not devoid of the racist assumptions that inform many of the works on the Gurkhas.
Then there are the handbooks of the British Indian Army, written by and for Gurkha recruiting officers, as well as regimental histories and memoirs of Gurkha officers. But when it comes to disciplinary historical work on the Gurkhas, the obsession of nationalist and diplomatic history converge in an interesting way. Works by Asad Husian (1970), Kanchamoy Majumdar (1973), Sushila Tyagi (1984), Prem Uprety’s Nepal: A Small Nation in the Vortex of International Conflicts (1984), Kamal Raj Singh Rathaur’s The British and the Brave (1987), Madan Bhattarai’s Diplomatic History of Nepal 1901-1929 (1990), treat Gurkha history as a history of recruitment and include it in the larger narrative of diplomatic history.
It is as if the use of Gurkhas, to borrow a phrase from the impressive 1991 Stanford dissertation done by anthropologist Mary Des Chene, as “a currency of diplomacy in Anglo-Nepalese relations” exhausts the subject of all Gurkha history.
And how does nationalist history treat the subject of Gurkha history? A sense can be had from a passage by Pursottam Banskota in Nepalko Sainik Itihas (The Military History of Nepal, published by the Royal Nepal Army Headquarters, Kathmandu, 1992). The following is a free translation, with emphasis added:
Hundreds of thousand of Nepalis have been recruited in foreign military service. In the course of their service, these Nepalis have participated in many important wars and exhibited their unparalleled courage and bravery. Thousands have sacrificed their lives to safeguard or expand the borders of the countries in whose armies they served. Therefore it is difficult to neglect their contribution and sacrifice in spreading the glory of Nepal and increasing the respect with which foreigners hold Nepal. Even though they serve in foreign armies, they have contributed directly and indirectly to the country’s economic, social, and political development by bringing in tens of million of rupees in the form of pension, and other ways.
So for nationalist history, the bravery of the Nepalis who have served in foreign armies, increases ‘the respect with which foreigners hold Nepal’ and the money they bring in contributes to its ‘economic, social, and political development.’
But the great narratives of diplomatic history and the nationalist glorification do not exhaust the subject of Gurkha history. As Des Chene has shown in her remarkable dissertation on the cultural history of the Gurkhas, for Gurung Gurkhas of the village she studied, soldiering is not about diplomacy or bravery but more about wage labour in foreign places. The years spent as soldiers do not constitute the “centerpiece of their lives” but remain “a hiatus in them,”
Des Chene’s work shows how when historians and anthropologists step out of the official archives to include oral historical sources, the studious works by diplomatic and nationalist historians begin to sound hollow, picking up as they do but the fragments of history.
Gurkha history worth its name must attend to other ‘fragments’: the pain of separation, the Song list of deserters who opted out due to the rigours of military life, the psychology of the Gurkha in a “theatre of war”, and so on. Who is writing about the despair which leads soldiers to run amok in the battlefield or commit suicide in a bunker far from home, or about frostbite, shellshock, and those “missing in action”.
Unless we begin to represent the pain and the emotions that are part of the history of the Gurkhas, they will continue to be subsumed under sanitised diplomatic and nationalist history, which plays up only the nationalist machismo and is ultimately unfaithful.
Victims of History
It becomes obvious that the golden age of Nepali history has not become a reality. That might not matter so much, but disciplinary history must become faithful to the life-experiences of the many ‘subaltern classes’ of Nepal´s peoples: ethnic minorities, children, women and the ‘untouchables’. Those who presume to write history must come alive to the fact that there are victims of history.
This writer would even suggest that historians abandon the disciplinary virtues as ‘objectivity’ along with the state-centric view of Nepali history. We should produce passionate poly-centric histories, using oral and other sources based on life-experiences, and resist the totalising claims of official histories. We must redefine the ‘major problems of general interest’ so that history of Nepal stops to be elite prosopography. Until that happens, there is no room for historians to feel complacent about their vocation or their commitment.
Onta is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.