Sunday, August 19, 2012

New Stories From Old Nepal

As more and more Nepalis find themselves gaping deeper into an uncertain future, they also seem to be getting a clearer vision of the past. Published reminiscences by influential players of yesteryear continue to serve up new perspectives on old issues, events and ideas. To Maila Baje, at least, the contents of the Smaran column of Nepal weekly magazine stand out impressively.
In one particularly revealing account earlier this year, Arvind Kumar Thakur, whose relentless campaigns against the partyless Panchayat system earned him years of jail time, turned conventional wisdom on its head.
While discussing various aspects of life behind bars, Thakur maintained that King Mahendra’s rule was far more benign than that of his successor, King Birendra. Thakur, of course, limits himself to the pre-referendum phase of Birendra’s rule. His point nevertheless was that more state prisoners faced harsher conditions – with many losing their lives in ‘encounters’ faked during purported transfers between jails – under the first phase of King Birendra’s government, compared to that of King Mahendra’s entire Panchayat rule.
A growing number of people associated with various aspects of the Panchayat system under the two monarchs have been equally articulate in the aforementioned column. Two recent examples, representing people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, are noteworthy.
Kamal Raj Regmi poignantly narrated how he, a jailed luminary of the Communist Party after the royal takeover of 1960, eventually joined the Panchayat system. At the moment, Bishwa Bandhu Thapa continues to provide a gripping perspective of events from his background as a one-time Nepali Congress stalwart.
Many in today’s communist factions and Nepali Congress continue to brand people like Regmi and Thapa as traitors to freedom and democracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that their narratives pulsate with a quest to rehabilitate their image.
Countless Nepali Congress and communist leaders had personal responsibilities and commitments that could easily have driven them to compromise on their ideology. Yet many of these people chose exile and incarceration to political capitulation. (Regmi, in particular, would probably resent the term ‘capitulation’, having been instrumental in introducing radical leftist concepts like the ‘Back to Village National Campaign’ to the Panchayat system.)
Thapa has long been denigrated as a palace collaborator, who, together with Dr. Tulsi Giri, ostensibly worked from within to undermine Nepal’s first elected premier, B.P. Koirala, only to become early pillars of the Panchayat system. The National Guidance Ministry, which Thapa led assiduously in the early partyless weeks and months, was at the forefront of driving the narrative that buttressed the system for three decades.
People still remember how Thapa would bike his way to work, unfazed by the oil embargo the Indian government had imposed in the 1960s. His commitment to the partyless cause culminated in his election as the chairman of the Rastriya Panchayat.
To be fair, people like Regmi and Thapa probably joined the palace-led non-party enterprise in a genuine spirit of service. After all, it was not as if panchas were born anywhere outside the wombs of the communist and Nepali Congress movements. As the years went by, these men had every right to be disenchanted with a system a growing number of Nepalis had started opposing.
Yet, in their narration of events today, they seem eager to pin blame for the Panchayat system’s ills on the two successive monarchs, barely acknowledging their roles as willful participants.
This omission has become interesting in our times when distance has facilitated a more dispassionate view of the Panchayat legacy. The system could never be described as democratic in the commonly accepted definition of the term. The outlawing of political organization based on ideology could never be compensated by the expansion of space along class organizations. That the system spent so much time trying to prove its democratic credentials was preposterous.
It is easier to debate whether the system was suited to our soil. Not because of some inherent flaw in the Nepali DNA but because of the geopolitical realities of the Cold War overlapping deep regional rivalries.
The fact that the Panchayat system worked to forge a common Nepali nationhood continues to be resented internally. Yet that sustained drive – often through the coercive powers of the state – did allow Nepal to assert its international identity and profile.
The relatively few Nepalis living abroad at the time were more attuned to this aspect of the Panchayat system. In the midst of the more recent radical expressions of the campaign for federalism, Nepalis within the country, too, are becoming more sympathetic to Panchayat-built foundation they can expect to build on.
Regardless of their overt and implied biases, more and more people associated with events and perspectives from the past need to be encouraged to articulate their experiences. There is much new Nepal can learn from the old.