SPEAKING FREELY Alliances save Nepal from oblivion
By Manish Gyawali
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Sandwiched between the giants India and China, Nepal has long been considered a mystery in both the political and social sense. Outsiders are often very vexed at what they see as translucent, if not downright opaque, workings of the state.
Too many foreign observers often use facile sociological methods to reduce Nepal to understandable elements. But the interplay of society in Nepal is much more complex than what they propose. To really begin to understand Nepal and the psychology of the
Nepalese, one really has to take into account a bit of history.
Nepal was a country that came into being quite suddenly. And yet it is also a country that owes its creation to its own people. In this respect, it is somewhat unique in South Asia. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not indigenously created entities in the full sense of the term – to a large extent the British were instrumental in enabling them to be created. Not so Nepal, which was actually formed as a result of the conquests of one of the poorer rajas of the region. This king, Prithvi Narayan Shah, now widely regarded as the founder of Nepal, came up with an ingenious formula with which he hoped to unite the country.
In a country in which land, and not money, was often the most valuable resource, Shah convinced hardworking peasants that if they fought for him, they would win land as a favor. Some did join early on, and when he won, he gave the peasant-soldiers the land that he had promised. As his reputation for fairness (at least in this matter), grew, recruits ballooned and soon he had a strong and dedicated army.
His successors built on his strengths, and the near-exponential growth of Nepal up until the year 1814 makes for exhilarating reading. Then, one of Shah's successors, an inscrutable man by the name of Bhim Sen Thapa, made the mistake of tangling with the British East India Company. After some initial successes, Nepal was routed and the British took away one third of its territory. The "Greater Nepal" experiment was over. To this day, almost 200 years later, Nepal has not been able to grow its boundaries by annexation.
The impetus for expansion was not just glory but it also came about as a result of turning Prithvi Narayan Shah's formula on its head. Shah had stated - if you want conquests, give your soldiers land. But later kings and regents until 1814 reinterpreted his formula as being - if you want to reward your soldiers land, then you have to make conquests. And they also began to reinterpret the concept of "soldier" more loosely. Now it meant the entire warrior caste, who became the country's landed aristocracy.
So conquests became the means to reward the warrior caste and Nepal became one of the most feudal of nations. After 1815, with no more room for outward expansion, succeeding rulers tightened their hold on the country's resources. Thereafter rulers were chiefly concerned with centralizing power and consolidating their grip on the country. Having lost so much of their territory to outsiders, they now zealously sought to protect what they had. This centralizing tendency was most noticeable during the period of Jung Bahadur Rana, a man who made no secret of his desire to amass all the money and the power that he could, but who was also a staunch nationalist.
It would appear that despite the absolute dictatorship practiced by Jung Bahadur and his descendents (known fondly as the Rana oligarchy), in which the country's valuable economic resources, chiefly land, were treated like private property, the Nepalese as a whole were nationalistic.
The Nepalese, despite their many differences and despite the fact that have only formed a nation for the last two and a half centuries, appear to regard themselves as one nation. There are cases to prove this claim. For example, during the 1814 war against the British East India Company, Nepalese inside Nepal "proper", ie the area between the Mahakali and the Mechi rivers, did not revolt or betray the country though the newly formed 'Nepalese' outside these regions did.
Therefore, it was this sense of nationalism that kept the country together during even the worst excesses of the Rana rule. And the Ranas understood this popular sentiment and exploited it as much as possible. All dictators must, to some extent, have the support of at least a critical subsection of the populace to rule and the Ranas were no different in this regard.
In 1846, when the Ranas began their rule, the trauma of 1815 was still fresh in peoples' minds - there were many alive who had witnessed the disintegration of the country first hand. The 30-year interregnum between the breakup of Nepal and the beginning of the Rana rule was marked by a very heavy sense of anxiety and even despair among the Nepalese elite. The question of Nepal's very survival vexed the then rulers no end.
Would the British lion allow them to exist independently or would it swallow them like it did so many other kingdoms? Bhim Sen Thapa, who had overseen Nepal's dismemberment and who led the country until 1837 seemed especially worried about this. To check British designs, he tried to forge an alliance with China. To no avail; the Chinese told him that Nepal lay outside its orbit, and that it would receive no help from them whatsoever. Bhim Sen persisted again and again and the Chinese replied that they were not interested in ever more harsh and blunt terms.
A similar sense of anxiety, though perhaps not as acutely felt, exists among the Nepalese today. The perceived threat is now not the British East India Company but the Republic of India. In place of the Qing Dynasty of China, an alliance is now to be forged with the People's Republic of China so as to protect Nepal's interests and check Indian "expansionism".
Therefore, in the eyes of Nepal's geopolitical strategists, nothing has changed in the last 200 years. Nepal is still wedged between an antagonistic, and sometimes even hostile, southern neighbor and a not unfriendly but somewhat distant northern one. This, despite the fact that Nepal has had much closer historical, cultural, commercial and demographic links with its southern neighbor than with its northern one.
But back to 1846. Having seen off his rivals in a spectacularly bloody way, though probably by accident and not by design, Jung Bahadur Rana emerged as the country's new strongman. Right from the beginning indicated that he would do things differently, in both domestic and foreign policy. In domestic policy, his chief objective was centralization of power. In foreign policy, his chief aim was closer accommodation with the British. He moved rapidly towards achieving both of these aims.
Like Bhim Sen Thapa, he had an independent, even reckless streak and did not think much about conventional ways of thought. His visit to Britain in 1850 must be seen in this regard. In those days, it was considered extremely degrading for an orthodox Hindu such as Jung Bahadur just to cross the Indus River, let alone travel all the way to the land of the "beef eaters", Britain.
The fact that Jung Bahadur did precisely that, something no other Indian prince had done until then, signals just how much importance he attached to that relationship. But Jung Bahadur was a realist. He realized that the British were there to stay and that Nepal ought to try to make the best out of a bad situation. The trauma of 1814 had left the Nepali state extremely stressed and unable to make any headway on domestic concerns.
Accommodation with the British offered an outlet for the stress that had been built up and left the state ample room to focus on domestic policy. Besides an ill-conceived war against Tibet in 1855 and supporting the British in 1857 against Indian revolutionaries, Jung Bahadur did not involve himself in foreign affairs but made a whole host of domestic innovations that included setting and codifying the country's Legal Code and instituting new ways to increase land revenue.
For undeveloped landlocked countries like Nepal, setting up a proper foreign policy can be a challenging affair. In Jung Bahadur's era, sovereignty was a most important and nonnegotiable concept. For Jung Bahadur too, it was very important. But Jung Bahadur reinterpreted sovereignty in a different light.
As he saw it, would his country be any less sovereign if it established cordial relations with the superpower of the day? At the very least he understood that if Nepal was to remain independent, it needed to ally itself with one of the great powers that were in its neighborhood. Noticing Bhim Sen Thapa's unsuccessful attempts to court the Chinese must have convinced him that the British were the only option left. So he disregarded conventional logic which came right down from Prithvi Narayan Shah's time about not trusting the British.
In time, Jung Bahadur proved to be a loyal British ally, even coming to their aid during the Indian Revolution of 1857. The British rewarded him for this in good measure, giving Nepal some land that had it had lost in 1814. Here again, we see just how shrewd a bargainer he was. "Winning" back land from the British, even much less territory than he had actually hoped for, would help to mitigate in some measure the trauma that Nepal had experienced. Given the importance of land in the Nepali psyche, he calculated, rightly, that his action would win him support. Here again we notice how he almost always used his foreign policy to shore up his domestic policy. It is something that leaders of developing countries should do more often.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Kathmandu University and commentator on social and political evens on Nepal and South Asia in Nepali newspapers.