A remarkable history of the RanasThe perception that the past is a series of linear events, a sort of cause-and-effect, distorts our understanding of how history unfolds.
The perception that the past is a series of linear events, a sort of cause-and-effect, distorts our understanding of how history unfolds.
Add a liberal dose of royalty-sanctioned history, as in the case of Nepal, and what we get is a flawed idea of history, where the Shah kings ‘united’ Nepal for the betterment of the people, and the century-long Rana rule was a dictatorial aberration marked by widespread oppression, until King Tribhuvan’s magnificent landing in Kathmandu in February 1951.
For followers of this view of history, the Rana rule was the root of all evil, and the Rana prime ministers the devil incarnate.
Sagar SJB Rana’s Singha Durbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal (Rupa Publications) is a timely prescription to those who believe in the myth of a benevolent royalty.
Yes, the Ranas were oppressive: political dissent was clamped upon; there was little investment in the crucial sectors of health and education, especially the latter; the Nepali economy, and people (Nepal’s ‘support’ to the British ‘allies’ in both world wars), were exploited to the hilt; and a dictatorial rule ensured power remained concentrated in the hands of a few.
However, there is little historical evidence that suggests the Shah kings would have done any better. Indeed, if history tells us anything, it is that the Shahs were themselves prime autocrats (Rana Bahadur, Mahendra, Gyanendra).
So if the Ranas are tarred with the brush of dictatorship, the Shahs cannot be painted by any other brush either.
Mr Rana’s book further cements that view. Beginning with Jung Bahadur’s takeover in 1847, it narrates a tale of Nepal through successive Rana prime ministers, each an autocrat, yet each attempting to inject an administrative structure in a Nepal that barely had any to speak of, to begin with—of course, to serve their own interests.
Mr Rana’s book, however, is remarkable not for these revelations; instead, it serves us fragments from the Rana prime ministers’ lives, little details that tell readers what an individual was like.
That he is himself a member of the elite clan serves him well, for he has extricated information that would rarely be available in the public domain.
Consider this moment, when Chandra Shumsher confided in his grandson Mrigendra (the author’s father) that he was getting old and should retire: ‘Last week I punished a man....Yesterday I found he was innocent.
He was wronged...He was an army man. I shall try to give him a civil job. But he is from a family with (proud) traditions.
He may not accept a civil job.’ Or the precarious position the relatively liberal Padma Shumsher found himself in after his appointment, when Juddha’s oldest son sent a message along with his haziri, the traditional greeting when a new noble was appointed: ‘Remind your master that there were 17 Shumsher brothers who ousted Prime Minister Ranodip in 1885.
And now, we are 18 brothers.’ (Ranodip was murdered by the sons of Dhir Shumsher while in office.)
Mr Rana’s book is more than just a history of the dynasty, though. It is also a record of the 1950 democratic movement, one that was inspired and influenced by the Indian freedom struggle—and ultimately co-opted, much to the chagrin of BP, Ganesh Man Singh and others, by Tribhuvan and New Delhi.
BP comes across as a charismatic leader, but with wavering ideas—he approved, even as a non-violent satyagraha was ongoing, of a plot to literally bomb the Rana elite at court during Padma Shumsher’s rule.
Ganesh Man, in turn, was more rooted to Kathmandu, and this reflected in his actions—his daring escape from prison under Juddha’s rule, and his return to Kathmandu under disguise and eventual arrest make for thrilling reading.
There was also a constant tussle between who should lead the revolt: whether the protesters, such as the sisters Sahana and Sadhana Pradhan, who were risking their lives by catalysing the population into action against the Ranas while living under their rule; or those living in exile in Banaras and Calcutta, and enabling political support of Indian leaders such as JP, Ram Manohar Lohia and others.
Mr Rana also recollects the schism between the various wings of the Nepali National Congress, such as the pro-Communist front led by DR Regmi, of which Pushpa Lal Shrestha was a member, and how that affected the eventual 1950 armed insurrection.
Mr Rana informs us that the success of the 1950 movement was not as much a political victory for the democrats as it was a carefully negotiated agreement between New Delhi, Tribhuvan and Mohan Shumsher, ensuring the return of the Shahs, and allowing only a modicum of participatory democracy (which itself was shunted out by Tribhuvan’s son).
Nehru’s remarkable intervention on behalf of the monarchy wasn’t anticipated by the democrats. Ganesh Man Singh is quoted as saying, ‘Tribhuvan had no intention other than transfer of power from the Ranas to the Shahs. Had we correctly analysed and taken into account this intent of his and of his son Mahendra later, we might have acted differently.’
Regrets: that is what we are left with, more than 60 years after what we consider the first democratic movement of Nepal.
Singha Durbar is an important rejoinder to the history of Nepal as we know it, an eye-opener into the inner lives of the Ranas and the power struggles that the dynasty faced at all times.
It’s also the story of a few brave and enlightened people—not ordinary, for almost all the leaders were part of an elite circle of Nepalis—who believed Nepal could be part of an international democratic movement, and saw a future where Nepal was no longer the jagir of the rulers.
By the end, the reader expects a sequel that will trace Mahendra’s autocracy, and the submission of democratic forces to the panchayat system.
The reader also wishes more such chronicles by those who’ve seen history unfold before their eyes come out in the public domain, thereby correcting the farcical history of ‘benevolent Shah kings’ that has constantly been perpetuated.
A grouse though: the reader is plagued by editorial errors that could have been corrected during a simple copy-check (Disclaimer: the reviewer has worked at various rival Indian publishing houses).
The Sugauli treaty is mentioned as being signed in 1916; the grammar is stilted at times and moves between tenses in the same sentence; and there are repetitions that could’ve been avoided had the publishers given the text more attention.
These errors can be excused, but nothing can justify the lack of a family tree of the Ranas, and a chronology of events—a thrilling history, punctuated by a regular googling of facts, does not make for a comfortable read.
Mulmi is a writer.
He tweets @amish973