Rulers, religion, and the republicNepal’s new rulers have just taken over the roles and duties of the former monarchs.
Observing the shenanigans and hubris of Nepali rulers of late, one is reminded of the fact that over-reliance on either religion or ideology as state policy can be disastrous for the rulers, and the people, in the long term. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Nepali leaders follow gurus more than serve the people. Not only that, they have been generous with the state coffers while providing alms and large tracts of lands to these gurus. This is not limited to gurus of various religious or spiritual hues, but to the ideological ones as well if one looks at all the institutions established in the names of their dead political forebears.
The history of bestowing land and property by rulers to religious institutions is an age-old practice, perhaps to atone for their earthly sins and omissions. What is striking though is that none of this seems to have been very beneficial for the rulers. When the Gorkha Empire extended itself into Kumaon and Garhwal, the first thing it did was (re)build temples and bestow land to carry on the rituals by taking land and property from the locals; they hardly lasted two decades in the conquered territories. Nepali rulers also built temples and pilgrim lodgings in Varanasi, India where some of them also spent their lives in exile. The extent of these kinds of land grants within Nepal can be gauged from the distinct industry known as guthi lands now administered by the government.
Not a new practice
Resorting to religion is not a new practice among the moneyed and powerful class, and religious masters always have the resources and ingenuity to cater to the rulers. The Roman Catholic Church in the past had come up with the rather disingenuous instruments of simony and indulgences to abet the rulers’ ambitions as well as its own self-preservation, where money could be used to purchase temporal spiritual powers and remission of earthly sins. While it did not go too well for the Church, there is no confirmation of the efficacy of these costly practices for the general public in their afterlife. That it did not end well for the Christian rulers is evident by the few remaining Christian monarchs.
Professed religious duty and ideological responsibilities cannot lead to a good aftermath, as can be seen in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, where at the end of the internecine battle, most of the actors are dead or dying and the victors cannot celebrate nor rule for long. Modern theocratic states have not fared better if one looks at the battle lines being drawn within, and against, some countries in West Asia, including Israel. And India’s embrace of the Hinduism-infused, Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has seen spurious claims made on its history as well as religion.
Even blindly adhering too closely to political ideology seems akin to religious conversion with the same fatal results. The zealously Stalinist former Soviet-bloc countries violently disintegrated in less than half a century. North Korea always seems to be teetering on the verge of starvation or coming out of its self-imposed banishment. Communist China with its powerful economy does not appear to have a solution for its masses except in controlling and muzzling their freedom of movement, among others. Singapore, the model of benevolent dictatorship, does not deliver on the aspirations of the people for freedom of expression. Venezuela, drunk on oil wealth and ultra-nationalism, is bleeding its people into neighbouring countries. And one has only to look at the zeal and fate of the erstwhile Panchayat system.
Nepal was long on its way to a republic ever since the one-time Maoists took up arms in the mid-1990s. One would have expected the Marxists and neo-liberal socialists to stay clear of any semblance of a link to the notorious past which they had so railed against. Instead, what we have witnessed is the new rulers just taking over the roles and duties of the former monarchs. And this is not limited to religious or ceremonial occasions of mostly pomp and pageantry.
Nepali rulers have a history of coming up with lofty but pretentious reasons for their being. The early Panchayat touted itself as suitable for the soil while its later avatar aimed at achieving the Asian standard but was mercifully saved the ignominy of not reaching the non-existent standard by its long overdue demise. The present Oli-led government has been harping on samriddhi, a notion so fluid and enticing yet also ungraspable that people either are converts or just stunned by the magnitude of the effrontery. These schemes usually turn out to be exercised in self-aggrandisement and self-enrichment of the rulers.
Not the end of history yet
Nepali history is replete with instances of rulers enriching themselves on the backs, and at the expense, of its people. This started soon after the expansion of the Gorkha principality by the Shah kings in the 18th century and continued in a century of plundering and purloining by the Rana prime ministers and systemic pilferage that benefited not only the ruling clans and but also their retainers. The post-1951 and Panchayat times saw the Nepali people being further impoverished in the name of democracy and development in the absence of real progress, which has been faithfully carried on by the post-1990 and -2006 democratic and republican governments.
In hindsight, any delusions of grandeur of benign dictatorship or guided democracy that the leadership harbour and emulate will be a pity. Times have changed and people have become aware enough to look after their own interests. Rulers should do well to remember that gods and people can be equally fickle, and one should learn from the past and not necessarily follow them.
Shreesh works at Social Science Baha.