Monday, March 21, 2011

Baburam’s Frivolous Bhimsen Fetish

Six months after a visiting senior Chinese official described him as Nepal’s equivalent of Deng Xiaoping, UCPN (Maoist) vice-chairman Dr. Baburam Bhattarai says he is working on a model for a new Nepal. We are a far way from knowing the number, nature or navigability of the modernizations he envisages.
His inspiration, too, remains elusive. Yet Maila Baje feels Dr. Bhattarai has made a curious start of sorts. For someone who has identified Nepal’s long-running malady as stemming from the injustice of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty that ended our war with British India, Dr. Bhattarai has demonstrated an odd reverence for the man most responsible for the catastrophe.
After losing one-third of the national territory in a war he pushed over the objections of key commanders and courtiers, you would have expected Bhimsen Thapa’s career to end there. Instead he used the national debacle to consolidate his power, aided through a succession of minors on the throne and a willful patron in Regent Lalita Tripurasundari.
How the assassin of ex-king and regent Rana Bahadur Shah managed to strike precisely moments after Bhimsen excused himself from the fateful meeting and how he succeeded in decimating all of his rivals but stop Tripura Sundari from customarily stepping on to her late husband’s funeral pyre, remain other intriguing aspects of that period.
In likening his current stance to Bhimsen’s dedication to the national cause, Dr. Bhattarai has reopened another can of worms. What exactly did Bhimsen do to help Nepal recover from the Sugauli disaster? To be fair, he preserved Nepal’s current shape and size by shrewdly balancing off the Chinese and the British against each other. But, then, Dr. Bhattarai has no such admiration for the Ranas or the Shahs who did much the same perhaps with greater effect and élan.
As to Dr. Bhattarai’s implication that Bhimsen paid with his life for his patriotism, history’s judgment is more tentative. The seeds of Bhimsen’s downfall were laid in the mayhem through which he rose to power. The rival Pande clan, an assertive monarchy, a resurgent British India and a tepid China, combined with his own refusal to doubt his invincibility ultimately precipitated Bhimsen’s tragic death in prison. We may not know whether Bhimsen actually slit his throat or was murdered – or even hung himself as Dr. Bhattarai suggested – we do know it had little to do with patriotism.
In hyping such counterfactual historical continuities, Dr. Bhattarai may have been impelled by his traditional links to his native Gorkha, where Bhimsen’s family also came from. Admittedly, if they had succeeded in disrupting his activities on his home turf, Dr. Bhattarai’s rivals would have scored a major symbolic triumph. Further, in rooting himself in the region most closely identified with the growth of the modern Nepalese state, Dr. Bhattarai may have hoped to deflect criticism of purported ‘special relations’ with India.
But the visionary he sees himself as must be able to move beyond the comfort zone of extrapolating contradictions. Dr. Bhattarai will always be remembered as having given the intellectual firepower for republicanism in Nepal. Yet many will also continue to recall him as the man who overreached by averring how history would positively evaluate the contributions of King Birendra’s and all of his ancestors, just to delegitimize King Gyanendra in the aftermath of the Narayanhity carnage. And seven years later, he became the principal advocate of a cultural monarchy when King Gyanendra himself had pretty much made up his mind to pack his bags.
As chief propagandist for an organization that oversaw Nepal’s worst spree of destruction, Dr. Bhattarai used equivocation, evasion and prevarication to demolish rivals. Dissenting and discombobulating cannot burnish the credentials of a builder. Of course, Dr. Bhattarai, like the rest of us, sees everyday how his boss, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, gets away with gaffes and gaps. One reason Dahal does so is because he lacks – and does not seem to miss – the high-brow heft of Bhattarai’s honorific.