February 2, 2015 Sujeev Shakya

Understanding Nepal

In my college days in Kolkata in 1985, I read Sunnanda K Datta-Ray’s Smash and Grab, which discussed the annexation of Sikkim. I read then how in 1975, Indira Gandhi was irked with king Birendra for inviting the Sikkimese Chogyal. Datta-Ray writes, “As a snub to King Birendra, Gandhi decided to send India’s Vice-President to Kathmandu, though the President himself had attended the coronation of King Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan the previous June. Piling insult to injury, the external affairs ministry told the Nepali Ambassador, K B Malla, that under no circumstances should sovereign courtesies be extended to the Chogyal.” This book got embroiled in legal wrangling and after a nearly 30 years hiatus, it was published again. Reading it, one can clearly understand Indian foreign policy towards its neighbours and perhaps the fear amongst Nepalis in the 70s and 80s of the potential annexation of Nepal by India.

While a lot can be read on India due to its rich democratic traditions, very little has been written on Nepal in the English language, especially by Nepalis. But last year, three books provided us with different perspectives that help us to shape our thinking of current Nepal. It is unimportant to agree or disagree with the authors, but it is important not to ignore these books and read them to develop our own individual perspectives on Nepal.

Re-imagining Nepal

Manjushree Thapa actually began the re-introduction of Nepal to the international world with Forget Kathmandu in 2005. While the opening up of the country in 1990 did provide a platform to re-write Nepali history, the hara-kiri commited by king Gyanendra and the demise of the monarchy made writing about the history of the Shahs, and not only the Ranas, easier. Thapa managed to explain the intricacies of the intertwining between the history, politics, and the state of Nepal. I hope a revised edition of the book will be worked on, as it would be interesting to get Thapa’s perspective on events in the 10 years since the book was published. This book was one of the many inspirations for me to write Unleashing Nepal to explain how Nepali history, society, culture, and politics has a bearing on the past, present, and the future of the Nepali economy.

Another book, Battles of the New Republic by Prashant Jha, makes you feel you are reading a fast-paced emotionally-charged perspective on the events that shaped Nepali history, especially between 1990 and now. It helps to get a different perspective on the events that we ourselves experienced, which was like watching something on the street only from your side. So it is always welcoming to hear from someone across the street on what they saw.

In Kathmandu, Thomas Bell provides a wonderful view from an outsider who has turned into an insider. Perhaps, Bell living in the heart of a Newar neighbourhood in Patan interacts more closely with traditional societies than many of us. While he provides a non-Nepali perspective into events that shape Nepal, the anecdotes he provides make for interesting reading and are helpful in explaining many things about Nepal and Nepalis to a new generation of global Nepalis that their parents cannot. Each one of us can discover Kathmandu and Nepal in our own way. The more we discover, the more it helps us to understand Nepali society and the political and social quagmires we continuously get into.

The most recent addition to this collection is The Bullet and the Ballot Box by Aditya Adhikari. The book has surely helped me understand the story of Nepal’s Maoist revolution better. Contrary to many opinions on the book, I felt that it provided a fair and unbiased account of the insurgency based on the author’s research. It also helps us to understand why identity-based politics used by the Maoist during the insurgency contradicts the philosophy of Marx and therefore, helps us understand the current situation on the complicated discourse on ethnicity-based federalism.

It is difficult to write books as a Nepali when you are judged by your last name, your family background, and your perceived affiliations. We have to ensure that we read such books without these biases.

Charting our future

If the three books have given us enough material to read and enrich our own perspectives, all three writers have taken research for books to a new level. In a country where opinion making and writing is easy, they have taken pains to refer to their own writings, speaking to scores of people, and reading books and materials that we all need to read. After Leo E Rose wrote the seminal Strategy for Survival in the 60s, we had many anthropological accounts of different issues but little that explained Nepali politics, society, and economy. Writing requires a tremendous amount of patience to research and even going through your own past writings is not easy. That Jha and Adhikari wrote popular columns in this paper and were able to put the same energy of column writing into writing books is definitely laudable. For writers who are aspiring to write on Nepal in any language, these books will surely be benchmarks on the extent of work that one needs to put in to produce books with a long shelf-life.

Gurcharan Das, in the preface to Unleashing Nepal, based on his mother’s perspective on slow Indian growth, says, “It is easy to get mesmerised by China’s amazing progress and feel frustrated by India’s chaotic democracy, but I think she had expressed the sentiments of most Indians who will not trade off democracy for 2 percent higher growth. This is the real choice before Nepal.” Nepal’s democracy has given space for a pluralistic society to develop, where people can get into arguments with others holding divergent views, but still come to an agreement. We saw this happening in 2006, 2008, 2013 and hope we will find a Nepali solution in 2015.

Compared to earlier years, along with the change of guard in India, international meddling has waned and Nepalis are continuously realising that we are in fact in charge of our own destiny. The democratic framework is providing platforms for more pluralistic perspectives. The same newspaper carries diverse viewpoints, ranging from Kamal Thapa to Mohan Baidya. Authors like Manjushree Thapa, Prashant Jha, Thomas Bell, and Aditya Adhikari are helping us to understand the past and present. I hope more people will take a cue from them and help Nepali society craft its own future.

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