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The End of Nepal’s Own "Gorkhayani"

By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, April 16, 2008

With Nepal all set to become a democratic republic, Indians may be looking on with trepidation as a radical force comes to power in the Himalayan kingdom. They should not, as India played a central role in bringing the parliamentary parties and Maoists together in a successful peace process that has restored democratic rule. If India plays it cool and reaches out to the Maoists with which it has some ties, India will be able to maintain a respectful friendship with a newly assertive Nepal.

Garhwalis in particular, including any remaining monarchists, should welcome the end of the Shah Dynasty and the Peacock Throne. In many ways, Uttarakhand was spared the forced backwardness and upheavals of Nepal due to Indian integration, but more importantly, because it escaped the dreadfully corrupt absolutist rule to its East. However, through the twists of history, Garhwal and Kumaon could have easily suffered the fate of Nepal’s far western districts whose poverty is amongst the most extreme in the world.

It was almost two hundred and fourty years ago when the rulers of the Gorkha principality exploded outwards, captured Kathmandu, and established the Nepal Kingdom. The unification of this stretch of the Himalayas was no peaceful affair as King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s conquests, especially in the early years, were marked by bloodshed and terror. In one particular case, the Kathmandu Valley township of Kirtipur suffered all types of exquisite tortures for its prolonged defiance that had twice defeated the Gorkhas. Memory of these hardships may have been on the minds of demonstrators in 2006 as they rose up against their historic oppressor, this time meeting with far more success.

Eventually, the Shah Dynasty’s expansionism would cross the banks of the Mahakali, quickly overcoming a weakened Almora and reaching Fort Langurghari near modern day Lansdowne in 1790. There, the Garhwalis made their memorable stand, however it was only the Gorkhas’ ill-advised foray into Tibet and the wrath of the Chinese that broke the siege and saved Garhwal from annexation. However, because of this timely salvation, the Gorkhas would nurture a vendetta against Garhwal like the one they fostered against Kirtipur. In 1803 they would return again, successfully overrunning the kingdom, and almost ending the Parmar dynasty.

Despite their Hindu pieties that led General Amar Singh Thapa to construct the Gangotri temple, the Gorkha forces were brutal occupiers, despoiling the land and carrying off a third of the population into bondage. Their depredations were so severe that history records this twelve year period as the “Gorkhayani” and the darkest days of the land. While British accounts may have exaggerated Gorkha cruelty to build the case for their own annexation of Garhwal and Kumaon, oral accounts passed down in families testify to the disastrous nature of the occupation. This terrible truth should be impressed upon those who still look reverently on Nepal as the “last Hindu Kingdom.” In reality, and as the Garhwalis remember, this so-called Hindu kingdom was a brutal nightmarish regime that lent its own soldiers to the British to crush the Indian independence struggle.

In the twentieth century, as the rest of the subcontinent advanced out of colonialism and despotism, Nepal clung desperately to the past. Indeed, the self perpetuating autocracy of ruling nobles and the royal family would continue to engage in medieval barbarisms by repressing the peasantry, monopolizing power, and alienating the increasingly restive Janjati population. This stood in sharp contrast to the churning taking place in both India and China, as democratic and revolutionary power respectively upended centuries-old feudal relations. However, because of Cold War rivalries, the monarchy would successfully play the two Asian giants against each other, prolonging its rule while amassing even greater wealth from siphoning off development aid. This corruption has always been more evident with King Gyanendra than his late brother Bhirendra, a key fact in the monarchy’s further fall from grace.

Given all this, India should welcome the belated transformation of Nepal even if it comes in Maoist garb. The overthrow of the monarchy can in many ways be compared to India’s own purging of the princely states as a necessary step towards modern democratic rule. Moreover, despite what many Nepalis think, India has largely played a positive role in Nepal’s political development. While naturally occupying the space of big brother which would cause any smaller nations to chafe, India has also encouraged more progressive forces in Nepal. Even Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, chief ideologue and prospective prime minister, studied at JNU and lived underground among Nepali student communities in India for many years. Much of the Maoist leadership has also spent their youth in India. One can even go so far as to say that Maoism came to Nepal from India not China! Ironically, it has been China and even Pakistan who have encouraged the King in their attempt to peddle influence and gain favour through the established feudal order. The Maoists should remember this when setting their policies.

India however, also has to revise its schizophrenic policy regarding the Maoists in Nepal and those that rule in pockets in the Indian hinterlands. Rather than adopt a paramilitary solution which will soak India further in blood as it has done to countries like Colombia, the government needs to grapple with the root causes of the insurgency, otherwise the unrest will spread as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The Khanduri administration’s penchant for flogging the invented Maoist threat has been the most troubling aspect of the current Uttarakhand government’s dispensation and must also end forthwith. The fearmongering and persecution of dissidents can make no sense now with a legitimate Maoist government ready to take the helm in Nepal, unless the government militarizes the border to meet the phantom menace. Such a precipitous action would be disastrous, sealing off Uttarakhand further from its neighbours and crippling the economic prospects that would otherwise arise from renewed cross-border trade and travel. Uttarakhand would also be plunged into backwardness, falling prey to the same repressive and brazenly corrupt forces that have just been dismissed from Kathmandu. A new Gorkhayani is entirely possible, this time foisted upon the people by their own brethren. Let’s not make it reality. Let’s accept the verdict in Nepal, and move on from there. Our ancestors would do the same.