Why national unification day and Prithvi Narayan Shah should not be celebrated

Published On: January 14, 2021 07:00 AM NPT By: Binayak Sundas

The demand for the monarchy's restoration and the desire to reinstate the importance of Prithvi Narayan Shah and national unification day is a desire to revert to an era where both caste and cultural dominance had the overt backing of the state.

On Tuesday last week, the committee formed to celebrate the 299th birth anniversary of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, ‘the founder of Nepal’, at a press conference, made a passionate appeal to one and all, emphasizing the need to celebrate Prithvi Narayan Shah's birth and the ‘national unification day’ with grandiosity. This committee comprises of such personalities as the once Bollywood queen Manisha Koirala, former Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Nepal Ramesh Kharel, and activist Bharat Basnet. 

The national unification day on Monday was celebrated with Prime Minister KP Oli tweeting about the great contribution of the ruler in the unification of Nepal, the committee itself leading a march in the capital which led to arrests and baton charge by the police, and the army chief Purna Chandra Thapa inaugurating a study centre in the name of Prithvi Narayan at the Nepal Army Headquarters.  The juxtaposition of this celebration with Nepal's constitutional crisis may appear to be a modest endeavor to reiterate the nation's foundation while remembering the great national hero. Citing his legacy as a model example may also serve as an impetus for current leaders to uphold the nation above all else. Of course, this is a trick that has withstood the test of time; an effective scheme to invoke the nation and nationalist jingoism; enmeshing theatrics and emotional calls to action as a veil over the actual agenda. As such, this appeal and subsequent celebration coming in the wake of demands of the monarchy's restoration cannot be viewed separately.  

 A former high-ranking official of the state, a Bollywood star, and an environmental activist, externally, the committee may appear to be a civil society congregation with the nation's interests at heart, which is currently in crisis. Yet, one can’t help looking at the surnames of these members—Koirala, Kharel and Basnet. In other words, two Bahuns and a Chhetri. Now also consider that K P Oli is also a Bahun and the majority of the Nepal Army’s top officer rank, who are behind the decision to name it Prithvi Narayan Study Centre and the officers who are most likely to study here, is made up of Chhetris and Thakuris. However, this is not to say that there is a Bahun-Chhetri-Thakuri conspiracy in the making to restore the Shah dynasty. One might genuinely argue that this is beyond caste affiliations and that instead it is about the nation. In all likelihood, their motives could be honest and their actions driven by a sense of nationalism. Yet, one cannot deny the affiliation with the Bahun-Chhetri-Thakuri caste makes it easier to endorse the restoration of Prithvi Narayan Shah's centrality and reiterate the unification narrative. While taking nothing away from their expertise and hard work, their privileged position in terms of caste has allowed them to reap a historical dividend, making it possible for them to attain their current status and position. To deny this would be to take away the socio-political, economic, and cultural history of the last 700 years. Hence, while their motives are genuinely nationalistic, it has to be remembered that this particular idea of a Nepali nation and this form of nationalism is, ideologically and historically, easier for them to get behind. 

Contested history

The nation is never the benevolent entity that it portrays itself to be. Instead, it always expresses the dominance of specific ideas of language, culture, class, religion or caste. 'History' allows the nation to conceal layers of repression and portray an amiable face. For a nation which has several ethnic groups, religions, languages, castes etc, history becomes a contested space and the one who controls it can recreate the nation in its image and define the nature of nationalism. The ‘unification’ narrative of Nepal, among many things, erases a multitude of histories, to place forward a simplistic singular story. A historical trajectory where the ancient, medieval, and modern history of the entire region are now centered in Kathmandu, contributing to an uncomplicated creation of a nation, subtly putting forward the interests of a dominant group, which in Nepal is Chhetri, Bahun and Thakuri. 

As Anthony D Smith would argue, multiple narratives weaken the sense of nationalism and nationhood. Instead, a simplistic singular narrative with its heroes is much easier to sell. Yet even this particular narrative, is not without its contestations. Take the Rana version of Nepali history as an instance. During the Rana period, much of the achievements credited to Prithvi Narayan were attributed to a specific Rana figure known as Ram Krishna Kunwar. Though Prithvi Narayan Shah's historicity was never questioned, he was relegated to the background, and his general, Ram Krishna Kunwar of the Rana lineage and Jung Bahadur Rana's great grandfather, was given the distinction of conquering the valley. His sons and grandsons, such as Ranjeet Singh and Bal Krishna, were given the credit of further conquering the regions that comprise Nepal's present state, making Jung Bahadur Rana's rise a historical continuity rather than a break. Prithvi Narayan Shah and the Shah dynasty were forced to the footnotes of history and almost forgotten until his rebirth in the early 20th century. 

This rebirth did not happen in what is today Nepal but rather in a small town in British India: Darjeeling. Here, the majority of the population were made up of peasants escaping from the oppressive land revenue agrarian structure of the Shahs and Ranas to work as wage laborers in slightly better conditions in the tea plantations of Darjeeling. The British colonial need to standardize and canonize the laborers' language and the soldiers for the sake of administration and the rise of a proto middle class in Darjeeling all led to the recreation and the renaming of the old Khas/Parbatiya/Gorkhali language as ‘Nepali.’ A linguistic movement based on this newly canonized language began in Benaras and then continued in a sustained manner by the aforementioned proto middle class in Darjeeling. The names that would become enshrined in the history of Nepali literature—Surya BikramGyawali, Parasmani Pradhan and Dharnidhar Koirala—were the first champions of the Nepali linguistic movement that went on for the better part of the early half of the 20th century. This movement, influenced by various others taking place in colonial India, assumed the essence of nationalism and, soon, arose the need for a nation. 

It was in Darjeeling that Surya Bikram Gyawali remarked that he could see the vitality of a Nepali nation. As is typical, this nation too required a history. Gyawali, in particular, would go on to establish a specific form of history that Pratyoush Onta, in his magisterial work, has defined as the Bir Itihas. This form of historiography, which can also be described as a romantic history, created a cult of heroes where two prominent figures—Prithvinarayan Shah and Bhanu Bhakta Acharya—were reimagined and recreated to fit the narrative. Since ‘conquest’ could no longer serve the interest in this new romantic history, the term ‘unification’ or rather Ekikaran was preferred. Thus the Nepali nation, language, and the unification narrative with Prithvi Narayan Shah as the national hero were all created in Darjeeling. 

New narrative

Following 1951 and more so after 1960, when Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah took over power and began the Panchayat era, this nation found a state.

The narrative had to reflect this new nation-state's ideas, which were best reflected in the dictum Ekbhasa, Ekbhes, Ekjati, Ek des. The unification narrative created in Darjeeling would perfectly serve that ideal and give historical legitimacy to Nepal's new nation-state. Prithvi Narayan Shah and his centrality in the unification would provide legitimacy to the institution of monarchy and the Shah Dynasty, which after the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1951 and the suspension of multi-party democracy in 1960, had only recently acquired absolute power. Historians like DR Regmi would establish the nationalist school of historiography built around Prithvi Narayan Shah and unification but centered within modern Nepal's boundaries. This unification narrative would be taught in schools, and Prithvi Narayan Shah would capture Nepal's visual landscape with his posters and statues adorning the walls of homes and offices and every public space. Hence, for the committee members, Oli and many of the Army’s top officials, including Purna Chandra Thapa who grew up during this era, celebrating Prithvi Narayan Shah's birth and the idea of unification would seem natural and logical.

Of course, there are two other reasons why the unification narrative would sit easily with them, an aspect that they would not be too comfortable admitting in public. Nepal's unification under Prithvi Narayan Shah glorifies the cultural and linguistic hegemony of the Khas group such as Bahun Chhetri and Thakuri, and justifies the genocide of various languages and cultures that adorned the region in the pre-‘unification’ era. The other aspect was that because the Shah dynasty claimed the Rajput status by linking their dynasty with that of the Chittor house in India, they would also become the Brahmanical caste system's fountainhead in Nepal, legitimizing it. From a caste, cultural and linguistic perspective K.P Oli, Manisha Koirala, Ramesh Kharel, Bharat Basnet etc are the very definition of ‘privilege.’ They may very well have many more reasons to support the national unification day and Prithvi Narayan Shah, yet from a caste and culture perspective, they also have no reasons to oppose it. 

Nepal stands, as it has several times in the past, at a crossroad. The demand for the monarchy's restoration and the desire to reinstate the importance of Prithvi Narayan Shah and national unification day is a desire to revert to an era where both caste and cultural dominance had the overt backing of the state.

Whether they realize it or not, Manisha Koirala, Ramesh Kharel and Bharat Basnet are expressing nostalgia for a casteist and a racist past. It is time that Nepal decides to move beyond such a culturally imperialist expression of a nation and relegate Prithvi Narayan Shah and unification back to the dusty pages of history. Instead, it is perhaps time that a new, more inclusive, and representative expression of a Nepali nation finds space, one that does justice to the multitude of cultures, languages, and beliefs that the Himalayan state contains. Hopefully, this new nation begins with acknowledging the historical wrongs that have been done to Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasi and Janjati. Celebrating Prithvi Narayan Shah and unification would do just the opposite. 

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