Contestations of Nepali history

Published On: April 29, 2017 12:35 AM NPT By: Mahabir Paudyal  | @mahabirpaudyal

Who wrote our history? How did the West understand Nepal? What shaped that (flawed) understanding? How should we respond?
So the Bhotes are “muscular but ugly people.” Gorkhas are “so arrogant and self-conceited that… nothing will ever convince them of their inferiority, till they meet with some severe disaster.” They are good for nothing lot “given up to gossiping, gambling and debauchery of all sorts.” The Khas are “small clan of creedless barbarians.” The Kirats, or “Kichaks,” are “very rude.” Lepchas “ate beef, pork, and every other thing reckoned abominable and drank strong liquors without shame.”

Limbus belong to the “meanest cast [sic]” and “these rude people subsist chiefly on fish, and wild fruits, though they also cultivate some species of grain.” “Limbu girls are married at maturity. Their ideas with regard to morality are lax, many unions take place without the ceremony, and female chastity before marriage is little heeded. Drunkenness is common and all the tribes are very dirty in their personal habits.” 

Magars “are much addicted to intoxication, and are excessively cruel and treacherous.” The Nepalis, “indeed all the hill people, are notoriously improvident, and for immediate accommodation in money matters, will pledge their property at most exorbitant rates of interest.”  

Nepali women “are so ugly that they resemble rather devils than human beings. It is actually true that from a religious scruple they never wash themselves with water but with an oil of a very unpleasant smell. Let us add that they themselves are not pleasanter and with the addition of this oil one would not say that they were not human beings but ghouls.” As for Newars, they “possess all the other vices of the (the) barbarous race” and they “wash themselves at least once in a life.” “Adultery is but likely to be punished among the Newars.”  Newar women lack all proprieties. They can keep “as many husbands as they please, being at liberty to divorce them continually on the slightest pretenses.” 

Tharus are “servile and ill-shaped people of no great strength of character.” They are “sickly looking race” with “wretched physique.” Wonder not what the major source of evil in Nepal is. “Most fruitful sources of disturbance in Nepal are women and cows.”

Needless to say, such views on Nepal and Nepalis are outrageous. But none of them are mine. I cite them from a recently published book Breaking Nepal, edited and prefaced by Sujit Mainali.

Mainali cites them from books written on Nepal by foreign scholars like Francis Buchanan Hamilton, Lionel Kaplan, Colonel Kirkpatrick, Henry Ambrose Oldfield, Arnold Henry Savage Landor, Daniel Wright, Lawrence Oliphant, Captain Thomas Smith, Perceval Landon and many others. None of them were historians. They were travelers, missionaries or diplomats.

Mainali has listed observations, most of them disparaging, made on Nepal by Thomas Bell, Leo Rose and from books edited by as illustrious a writer as David Gellner as well. He argues that the Western writers have demonized Prithvi Narayan Shah “for devastating their aim of proselytization.” There is exaggeration, distortion of facts, romanticization or exoticization of Nepal.

Sujit Mainali is associated with South Asia Fact Check, a non-profit media development organization which works to promote accountability and accuracy in public debate. It has corrected factual errors in articles and news reports published in international news outlets, and speeches and claims the political leaders in Nepal make. He cannot have brought this book out without rigorous fact-checking.

You can respond to the snippets cited in Breaking Nepal and Sujit Mainali’s arguments in two ways.

You can say compiler of these extracts is being selective and pulling things out of context. The accounts of 19th and 20th centuries have no relevance now. We have come a long way since. Or you can simply dismiss writers like Mainali by saying that he is being ‘biased’ towards the West. 

But the real issue here is how the West understood the East, especially Nepal, what factors shaped and perpetuated that understanding, how that ‘flawed’ understanding became entrenched in collective consciousness of the West and how we should respond to the narratives built by them.

The fundamental need, as Mainali writes in preface, is to “deconstruct the constructed ideas of Western scholar about Nepal providing a Nepali perspective of Nepal’s nationhood.” This Derridean undertaking calls for great deal of study and research and nuanced debate on Nepali history. I am trying only to scratch the surface here.

Civilized West, Savage East 
For Europeans during the colonial period, the countries and people which did not behave like them were ‘uncivilized barbarians’ or ‘savage’ and every ‘other’ was described as such. The West looked into the East through lens of bias: Asians and Africans are uncivilized and far inferior to us and therefore they need to be civilized and taught to behave. Edward Said was no fraud.

Intellectuals who have studied this trend, however, remind us to dig deeper before being reactive to the Western narrative. I had an extended conversation over this issue with Anirudra Thapa, professor at Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of English, who also teaches ‘Post-colonial Studies.’

“The Europeans who came to India and Africa during the colonial era had set standards to define who is civilized and who is not,” the professor said. “In their view, for a country to be civilized and cultured such country had to have at least its own documented history and its people had to be followers of Christianity.” According to Thapa, “because countries like Nepal and India were neither Christian nor did they have documented history of their own of European standard, they characterized us as barbarians.”

Thapa adds that this phenomenon should be seen in broader historical context. “If we were resourceful enough and had explored Europe before they came to this part of the world, we would define their practices based on our standards. Perhaps we would call Europeans barbarians and savages.”

Another important thing to note, he said, while critiquing the Western narratives is to first understand for whom such narratives were created. “Those who wrote in the colonial period were not writing for the countries and people about which they wrote, but for the audience back home. And only if they projected us as uncivilized, could their ‘civilizing mission’ be justified,” he said. “Christian missions took extreme form of distortion because without doing so, they would not get the funds.”

What Thapa says also reflects in narratives of Africa created by colonial West. I think of Mungo Park, arguably the first traveler to come to Africa. In his Travels in the Interior of Africa, he describes native African women as “rude and troublesome in the highest degree.”  “They asked a thousands questions,” he writes, “inspected every part of my apparel, searched my pockets, and obliged me to unbutton my waistcoat, and display the whiteness of my skin, they even counted my toes and fingers, as if they doubted whether I was in truth a human being.”  “Cut off from all intercourse with civilized nations,” he writes about Africa, “they are at once the vainest and proudest and perhaps the most bigoted, ferocious and intolerant of all the nations on the earth.”

The irony is, African natives also judge Park, like Park judges them. In another African town, he meets some ladies who “examined my hair and skin with great attention, but affected to consider me as a sort of inferior being to themselves.” They shuddered “when they looked at the whiteness of my skin.” 

The description here can be compared with those cited at the beginning of this essay. When such stereotypes are accepted without questions, they get legitimacy after their use, reuse and citation.

Who wrote Nepal’s history? 
It would not be wrong to say that until 1950, Nepal did not have a history written by Nepali writers. The first account of Nepal was published in England by Colonel Kirkpatrick in 1811. He dwelt on Nepal’s geography, mode of production, and military strategy. Then followed writers like Oliphant, Hamilton, Wright and Brian Hodgson, among others. And for hundreds of years what they wrote served as only source for other foreigners to understand Nepal. 

Similar was the case with India. The Brits who wrote of India blamed Indians of not having “sense of nationality and political speculation.”  Indian scholars promptly responded to such misreading by writing their history themselves. 

After the end of Rana rule in 1950, Nepal tried to follow Indian example. The ‘Itihas Samshodhan Mandal’ (“history correction council”), formed around 1952, not only made attempts to interpret original source materials but also pinpointed errors committed by former history writers. The main objective of this institution was to rewrite Nepali history “from Nepal’s perspective.”  “I pursued this cause for as long as I could but others saw no future in it and gave up,” said Gyan Mani Nepal, Nepali historian and one of the lead initiators of the institution. This movement had become necessary because, said Nepal, “Indian scholars had already started writing their history themselves but we still relied on foreigners to understand ourselves.” The institution that started with that noble goal “exists only in name today.”  

As a result when Nepalis could read, write and publish, they had almost nothing to read about Nepal from indigenous sources. What the early writers wrote became source for later scholars, foreigner and native alike, to refer and pass on. By the time, likes of Bal Chandra Sharma, Surya Bikram Gyanwali, Rishikesh Shah, Naya Raj Panta, Mahesh Chandra Regmi, Dilli Raman Regmi, Baburam Acharya and Bhim Bahadur Pande came to the scene (exceptions aside, books of these writers began to come out only during the 60s and 70s) and before inconsistencies of history written by foreign scholars could be exposed, what is Nepal and Nepalis had become fairly set in Western consciousness.

So why could not Nepal promote its indigenous accounts? Why could not Nepalis themselves take this undertaking after 1950 change?  “By 1950,” historian Ramesh Dhungel recalled during a recent interview with me, “it had become almost established that it is a white man’s job to write.” “Forget the commoners, even if a Rana aristocrat could read and understand what was written in English, it would be considered a feat.”  

System of researching about our indigenous sources of history could not develop.

But things should have changed by the 60s and 70s because by then we had a number of illustrious Nepali historians and writers, I argued. “Foreign scholars as historians, sociologists and anthropologists had started to come to Nepal in droves by that time,” he explained. “They recaptured the intellectual space their predecessors had earlier occupied.”

In time, what the foreigners wrote about Nepal got established as absolute truth, at least for the foreigners. No wonder any alternative narrative that questions this set understanding can be undermined, rejected or heavily contested.

Sumit Sharma Sameer wrote about cost of challenging Western narrative in March 7, 2017 issue of Nepal magazine. His mention of Prithvi Narayan Shah in a program organized by an institution, “funded by international agencies,” cost him his job. “The welcome speech I delivered in the program became the root cause,” writes Sameer. He writes how Western agencies in Nepal are not ready to hear anything about King Prithvi that goes against their preconceived notion about Nepal’s unifier. 

“I had only said that nation building process King Prithvi Narayan started would reach its conclusion after the agendas of Nepal’s peace process are properly addressed,” Sameer wrote in that article. There is a parallel between what Western agencies today think of Prithvi Narayan and what foreign scholars of the past had to say about him.

I do not mean to dismiss Western scholars altogether. They not only offer ‘biased’ perspectives but also hold a mirror to us sometimes. What Thomas Bell has to say about state of Nepali scholarship rings true. “In areas not concerning the donors,” writes Bell, “almost no research is done except through a few programs involving foreign universities.”

Three options 
Wrong portrayal and misreporting of Nepal continues. There are literatures that project Brahmins and Chhetris as the source of all evils. There are scholars pitting one community against other, making it seem to outsiders that Nepalis cannot live together and conflict is in their fate. All the blames for past wrongs, perpetrated by handful of rulers, are squarely put on hill dwellers. A narrative is being built that Nepal is the most racist and discriminatory state on earth. So how should we respond to such narratives? History must be handed to the posterity without manipulation.

One comfortable option is to close our eyes and shut our ears. Or respond to Western outrage with outrage. We tend to fall to this trap sometimes. Second option is to submit without questioning, believe that everything that comes out of Western intellectuality is truth, all else is false. 

The third option is to counter their narrative while also acknowledging their scholarly contribution, if any, with evidence. To write to show where they are right and where they are wrong. To write in a language they understand (in English). Scholars do take up such challenges. In their
groundbreaking research work Breaking India (2011) Rajiv Malhotra and Arvindan Nilkandan write about how agencies (such as think-tanks, foundations, human rights institutions and so on) funded by the West are fuelling discontent among Indian communities in the name of education, human rights and empowerment training. Malhotra and Nilkandan name names. 

There are rewards and penalties in all three options. The first option is a route to intellectual blindness. Besides, if you respond with anger, it begets more anger, and hatred promotes hatred.

The second option is easy and rewarding in its own way. One reward of submission, or being ‘uncritical’, is that those who speak on your behalf do not question your ‘critical’ sense. But there is a danger of you being seen as if you have no agency, as if you lack the authority to say who you are.

The third option is fraught with risks as well as rewards. Here you will have to argue, disagree with what they have said and come up with evidence to counter the dominant narrative. They might feel offended for sometime but if you push the alternative views with sound logic, they will have to recognize your views as well. It is in such dialogic space that the East can meet the West.

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