Monday, March 22, 2010

How Yesterday Tells Of Tomorrow

Four years after that spring of discontent propelled us into supposed newness, it’s becoming harder to ignore the fallacy of the entire premise. By dumping all our ills on the monarchy, did the people really expect to evade our responsibility for our being? The agents of change continue to wear brave faces. But they cannot conceal their utter bewilderment over where republicanism, federalism and do-what-ever-you-will-ism will land everyone. It’s harder when there’s no one else to blame, isn’t it?
Nepal’s emergence in its modern, unitary form was not a fluke of history. Before that, we were a confederation of confederations. Like people who ran petty principalities elsewhere in the world, ambitious and ruthless rulers sought unity for further conquest. When the ruler of one undistinguished state bequeathed a legacy of overrunning territory after territory in a web of ambitious, intrigue and bloodshed, his heirs confronted no less zealous votaries of empire on the north and south.
But, then, the king only sat atop courtiers, commanders and soldiers. Those who did the heavy lifting came from all backgrounds and classes. When they shed blood, no drop was redder than the other. The Brahmins so vilified for having monopolized the subsequent state structure were the ones who bore the brunt of exile and anguish. The equally reviled Chhettris lost their heads because treachery and loyalty was defined by the power equations of the moment. True, the vast majority of the people remained marginalized and continued to lead a life of toil and want. That reality cannot obscure the risks of death and disbarment proximity to power carried. Neither kings nor courtiers were spared the tumult. For good or ill, that’s how we got where we are.
One king’s determination to enthrone his offspring from a Mathil Brahmin widow he had wed destabilized the country. This is not to suggest that madhesis can somehow be held collectively and perpetually responsible. Nor can the hillsfolk. King Rana Bahadur Shah could not have done much without willful collaborators among his courtiers. Everyone was convulsed by the aftermath. The point here is not the abundance of blame to go around. It is merely that without any of its disparate groups, the Nepal of yore cannot be conceived. And without that past, there will be nothing to measure the newness of tomorrow. To put it differently, no one has a greater claim to Nepaliness than anyone else.
The Qing and the Company didn’t choose not to conquer Nepal because we were not worth it, as they have led us to believe. If that were the case, their successors wouldn’t still be fighting their own larger battles on our turf. Forget water, our location was always our greatest resource and will always be so. The opportunity will lie in grasping the context. The Licchavis and Mallas used that for commercial and cultural advantage in the past. King Mahendra employed it to internationalize our national identity and aspirations to far greater effect than in drawing assistance for basic infrastructure. Just because King Gyanendra happened to be the man who so vociferously emphasized the advantages Nepal stood to gain as a transit state doesn’t diminish the intrinsic worth of that enterprise. Was all that worth it? The debate will never end. Can we change it? Try on.
This blast from the past would have been irrelevant had reason found a place in the midst of our rage four years ago. After all, it takes a group like the Khmer Rouge whose ideological repulsiveness was matched by a collective ruthlessness to begin anew at Year Zero. Notwithstanding their successes in exposing our fissures, Nepal’s Maoists thrived on the contradictions of their rivals – a finite commodity once they get toward being the only ones around. Capture state power they might in the impending vacuum, but what will they do without the courage of their convictions, no matter how craven they might have been in the first place? Rants don’t resolve much.
It has been tempting these past four years to portray the loudest critics of change as those who stand to lose the most. But let’s stop pretending that those who stand to gain the most aren’t constantly consumed by doubts over whether change can be sustained geopolitically more than internally. History may be harsh but it is hard to undo. That is why the Indians can still seek the counsel of the ex-king or the Chinese can contemplate inviting him on a visit despite the fact that it was their representative who ended the practice of ambassadors’ presenting letters of credence at the palace while we still had the monarchy.
Even after elected representatives abolished the monarchy, the ex-king continues to focus on his national role. Ceremony was always part of the crown and that aspect of it could never go away as long as Nepalese held tight to their traditions. Politically, too, how many of us really refuse to take comfort in the realization that the king and the army are still around to pick up the pieces and clean up should all hell break loose faster?