Rise of Jung Bahadur Kunwar RanaThe Kunwars belonged to one of the five leading aristocratic families who served the Rajas of Gorkha.
Sagar SJB Rana
The Kunwars belonged to one of the five leading aristocratic families who served the Rajas of Gorkha. They retained their premier position in the ruling hierarchy as the nation-state took shape. Apart from the Shahs and the Basnets, the Pandes, Thapas and the Kunwars formed the bulk of the bhardars, and were joined by the high priests, the purohits, to form the Bhardari Sabha, the Council of Nobles, a powerful body that influenced crucial decisions of the state. Acts of exemplary service to the king and the country earned them hereditary titles, rich rewards and extensive properties, known as the jagir. Their clout in governance was further cemented by matrimonial alliances forged between them.
This may be the right place to outline the different layers of Nepalese society as generally viewed during the Rana regime. If in ancient Rome people were divided into Patricians and Plebians, there were several layers of socio-political strata in Nepal during the Rana regime. Though devoid of political authority, the king and the royal family stood at the apex of the socio-religious hierarchy. The high priests, having through the ages attained the sole authority to interpret the scriptures and bestow divine blessings, occupied a pedestal above the rest of humanity. The all-powerful Ranas were unquestionable masters of all temporal matters. The prerogative of the prime minister in legislative, administrative and judicial matters was supreme and undisputable. Nevertheless, they did take counsel in state matters from the bhardars. Those in the military (Jangi) and civil (Nijamati) service enjoyed considerable respect and authority. The rest of the citizens were collectively termed as ‘Duniyadars’ or ‘Raitis’ (commoners, would be the closest translation).
Jung Bahadur Kunwar Rana was born in June 1817 at Thapathali Durbar, residence of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa. He spent his youth and teens in different climates and terrains, Dhankuta in the east and Dadeldhura and Jumla in the far west, where his father Bal Narsingh Kunwar was posted as a governor. He showed little interest in books but turned relentlessly to physically demanding activities like riding, swimming, hunting, fencing and martial arts. Under the tutelage of his elders, he learnt the art of governance as a natural inheritance of his race, and like them he too joined the army. At the age of twenty, Jung Bahadur learnt the vagaries of court life and the swift blow of foul murder the hard way. The once-powerful Bhimsen had perished and his relatives and followers, including the Kunwars, were suddenly thrown out of their appointments and their properties seized. However, the colourful adventurer was not one to drown in self-pity. Jung went to the thick forests of the Terai to earn his living by capturing wild elephants for sale. When that brought no profit, he turned to reckless gambling, with even greater misfortune. Trying to find new avenues to make a living, he reached Banaras, and then Lahore, where his cousin Mathbar Basnet is said to have been in the employ of Maharaj Ranjit Singh. He did so, possibly, to follow Mathbar’s path, or maybe for a more romantic adventure: the ghazals, mujras and dancing girls offering love and romance, a refined heritage of the renowned city.
However, it was in Kathmandu that he got married to a Basnet girl, Prasad Laxmi, and with the dowry, he paid off his debts. The Thapas came back to power once more and Mathbar, the new prime minister, took the young man under his wings. That was both his fortune and misfortune. The eccentric Crown Prince Surendra, who had heard about Jung’s uncommon physical capabilities and growing popularity, was intent on finishing off the upstart. Two blatant attempts were made on his life.
One monsoon day Jung was ordered to jump into the raging River Trisuli from the high bridge, astride the horse he rode. On another occasion he was asked to jump into a deep well on threat of dire consequences if he refused the order of a prince. All those who witnessed the scene took him for dead but, incredulously, Jung came out of both ordeals, his reputation immeasurably enhanced. These feats may well have influenced Surendra, for he now tried to draw the indomitable man of action into his camp. The same logic drove King Rajendra and Queen Rajya Laxmi to entice Jung, or force him on threat of dire consequences, to commit the heinous crime of killing his own uncle and benefactor, Prime Minister Mathbar. Whatever the motivation or compulsions, Jung was now in the thick of intrigue, treachery and bloodshed, fully committed to the deadly power game of those days that led, as a Nepali saying goes, ‘to the throne of Hastinapur or life beneath the turf’.
The king, queen and the crown prince now pushed their respective candidates to the vacant post of the prime minister. An uneasy compromise was reached whereby four aspirants for the premiership were appointed ‘Joint Commanders in Chief’: Fateh Jung Shah, a royal relative backed by the kings; Gagan Singh, the queen’s confidant; Jung Bahadur; and Abhiman Singh Rana, an upright officer from the Magar clan. Fateh Jung was given the title of prime minister but Gagan, backed to the hilt by the queen, wielded the real authority. Such a prominent presence of the queen’s paramour was intolerable for Rajendra and Surendra. The haughty behaviour of this ‘upstart’ also antagonized a whole set of the nobility. One cold evening in the month of September, while at his evening prayers, Gagan was shot dead. The identity of those who planned the murder or who fired the fatal bullet remains one of many unsolved mysteries of these times.
Queen Laxmi rushed to his house to be stunned by the still body covered in blood. Yet, her sadness was drowned by her uncontrollable fury and thirst for revenge. On her orders the bugle was sounded, a call for high-level officials of the state to assemble urgently at the Kot, a large-walled courtyard adjoining the palace complex. Jung was amongst the first to reach the Kot. His six brothers, trusted followers and army men under his command followed him, alert and armed to act swiftly on his orders. At the Kot, Jung first approached the queen to console her, but also to assure that he and his men were there to protect her interests. There was no one else she could place greater trust on. The frenzied queen was on the hunt for the culprit amongst the high-ranking officers. She suspected one Bir Keshar Pande, who was known to have been inimical to Gagan, and wanted to execute him on the spot. When Fateh Jung Shah hesitated, she drew her sword in frenzy. Jung tried to calm her. However, each of the ministers too was suspicious of the other. Amidst the melee, confusion and heated exchanges, Abhiman Singh Rana was bayoneted by a guard and as he fell, wounded mortally, he pointed to Jung as the real murderer. Swords and khukuris were unsheathed, guns drawn and the killings began. A segment of Jung’s armed men entered the courtyard and the annihilation was complete. King Rajendra had entered the Kot earlier but departed in a hurry. In the middle of the night he rode to the British Residency to seek some kind of assistance. He was stopped at the gate and told that this was not the hour for a meeting. He retired to his palace for the rest of the night. Crown Prince Surendra had not stirred outside his chambers, though fully aware of the mayhem. Jung stayed beside the queen, who had sobered down somewhat, as those she had suspected were amongst the slain, including the prime minster and Abhiman. She announced, amidst the horror around her, that as regent she had bestowed the title of prime minister and commander-in-chief on Jung Bahadur. She then returned to the palace. Next morning, Jung presented himself at the court as holder of those coveted titles. King Rajendra, Crown Prince Surendra and the bhardars did not object. In any case, all other claimants or aspirants were already dead.
The Kot episode has been dramatized as the ‘black night of Nepali history where hundreds of brave men were butchered and their blood gushed out onto the street outside’. More recent research work including examination of the original letter written by Ranga Nath Pandit to Brian Hodgson, available at the British Library in London, reveal a more concise data of no more than thirty men killed that night. Most of them belonged to the Chautaria family, including Prime Minister Fateh Jung Shah. In comparison, ninety-three opponents of Bhimsen Thapa had been slain in a similar episode fifty years earlier. Both actions were precipitated by chronic anarchy that were preceded, and followed by several decades of relative stability.
Was there a better option for the betterment of the people open to Bhimsen or, later, Jung?
In the days and weeks that followed, scores of prominent nobles and members of their families escaped or were evicted from the valley or the country. The vacancy in key positions of governance was filled by Jung’s brothers and trusted lieutenants. The royals were allowed to retain their respective titles and privileges. The queen, however, had not given up her obsession. She persistently pressurized Jung to promote her son as the crown prince. Rebuffed each time, she hired or gathered aggrieved elements inside the country or living in exile in India and roped in her husband, Rajendra, in plots to have Jung poisoned, assassinated or removed through an armed coup. Each time Jung was able to thwart her moves. Ultimately, the king was pressured to abrogate the authority conferred on the queen and for the first time in its history, the Council of Nobles headed by the prime minister, submitted a letter to ‘Your Majesty’, citing various criminal acts of the royal couple in the past, and expressed the ‘unanimous will of the nobles and the people’ to remove the king from office. Rajendra was forced to reassign and Crown Prince Surendra succeeded his father in 1847. But the king, henceforth, was no more than a puppet that moved according to Jung’s wishes.
- Singha Durbar was launched at the Nepal Art Council on Friday and is available at bookstores nationwide.