Less of a heroPrithvi Narayan Shah and his successors were only interested in expanding their empire
Though Prithvi Narayan Shah still retains a sizeable number of devotees among the Nepali people, there are many others who strongly condemn and vilify him. The emotion that underscores this polarity is obvious. Those who benefitted, or are still benefitting, as a result of Shah’s plunder, will not stop glorifying him and those who have suffered, or are still suffering, as a result of his ambition of Gorkha’s expansion will not stop condemning him. Similarly, while a number of historians have tried their best to deify Shah by ignoring the brutalities he committed, there are others who are not averse to mentioning the cruelties he inflicted on those he subjugated during his reign.
Soon after the political change of 2006, by rejecting the earlier projection of Shah as a symbol of national unity, the Cabinet led by the then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, scrapped a government holiday that celebrated his birth anniversary. A large section of Nepali people heartedly welcomed the decision while another section has been making a hue and cry against this move. This year we saw much enthusiasm among the monarchists and their allies in celebrating his birthday.
It is not surprising to find staunch monarchists such as Kamal Thapa pleading to honour Shah, but to find Nepal’s self-declared communists praising a feudal warlord is totally absurd. Some of Nepal’s ruling communists, such as the present Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, and his deputy CP Mainali—who have already been unmasked as the proponents of Khas-Arya Bahun hegemony in Nepal—were busy promoting Shah as the builder of modern Nepal.
Most hagiographies of Shah that credited him with unifying Nepal were popularised during the time of king Mahendra. Shah’s conquests may have inadvertently given shape to the geographical expansion and consolidation of what we visualise as modern Nepal. But that does not absolve him of the many crimes he committed along the way—much in the same way that the British colonial rulers of India cannot be forgiven for the oppression and the plunder they subjected the Indians to, even as over the course of their rule, they may be credited with having put together ‘India’ as a modern political entity.
Nepal as a geographical and territorial entity is no modern creation; it has existed from prehistoric times. For instance, the late historian Dhanavajra Vajracharya asserts that the geography of Nepal was already as big as present-day Nepal during the Licchavi reign, although there were some ruptures along the way. But Shah’s imperial ambitions brought together the disintegrated kingdoms and principalities. He and his many successors were only essentially interested in expanding their Gorkha empire and had no political motivation or a moral vision to establish a unified ‘Nepal’. The Nepal that emerged out of this process was only a byproduct of their expansionist ambitions.
It needs to be remembered that it was only during the Rana rule (1846-1951) that Nepal became the accepted name of our country. The Rana oligarchy enforced their imperial will on the Nepali people and imposed their language, ‘Parvate’ or ‘Khas’, on the natives, who otherwise spoke local languages, including ‘Nepal Bhasa’. In fact they changed the name of ‘Nepal Bhasa’ to ‘Newari’, a term considered derogatory by the Newar people, while they renamed their language ‘Nepali’. The Newar people think of themselves as the original inhabitants of ‘Nepal’, a territory that connotes the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas.
Even the previous national anthem of Nepal was but a eulogy of Shah kings, and a celebration of Gorkha bravery. It was only in 1967 that the word ‘Gorkhali’ was replaced with ‘Nepali’ and the phrase ‘Hami Nepali’ substituted the older ‘Hami Gorkhali’ in the national anthem. Its original version also contained an expression like ‘Great Victory to we Gorkhali, let us always keep control over Nepal, with bravery’ (rakhaun kaman, bhari—viratale, Nepalmathi sadhai nathako, srihos thulo hami Gorkhaliko). We still have ‘Gorkhapatra’ as the mouthpiece of the government but not a ‘Nepalpatra’. Moreover, in divya upadesa, Shah wished to establish an ‘asali Hindustan’ (Pure India) and not an ‘asali Nepal’ (Pure Nepal). Nepali people are now conscious of all these designs and want to rewrite Nepal’s history. They are also aware that the Shah dynastic rule was majorly responsible for turning Nepal into one of the porest and most corrupt countries in the world.
Even with all this growing awareness, it has not discouraged Shah’s surrogates to continue to impose their language, religion and culture on the Nepali people in the name of ‘rastriya ekata’ (national unity). However, the Nepali people who have already dumped the Shah dynasty will not let the oppressive power of the new regime go unchallenged for long.
Shrestha is a researcher at the University of Oxford, UK