Statue stand-off

Statue stand-off

Nepal’s government and army clash over history and identity

Last week,Nepal’s Supreme Court stayed the government from demolishing the statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah,the king who unified smaller ‘kingdoms’ into Nepal in 1768. With Nepal officially declared a Republic,the neo-rulers have not only removed ‘Royal’ prefix from almost every institution,they have also decided to demolish all statues of past kings,as ‘remnants’ of feudalism have no place in present and future Nepal. And as ‘revolutionaries’ have come to power,they should write future history.

Prithvi Narayan Shah was stripped of his status as a ‘National Hero’ by the government that came to power a little less than three years ago — following the coming together of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M) and other pro-democracy parties against King Gyanendra’s takeover of power. The politics since then,and the CPN-M’s coming to power after election to the constituent assembly in April has largely been guided by vilification of the monarchy — from the most recent king to the founder of the dynasty — holding it responsible for every problem that Nepal faces today.

But on January 11 (Poush 27 per the Vikram Sambat calendar used in Nepal) ,a huge queue of people came to pay homage to Prithvi Narayan Shah on his 286th birth anniversary. Was it because of people’s respect for history,or was it a manifestation of anger and frustration against the Maoists — an expression of fear that Nepal’s unique identity may be lost?

In fact,Prithvi Narayan Shah was much clearer about the future Nepal of his dream — that it should be a common Phulbari (garden) of char jat and chhattis varna (the four varnas and the 36 ethnic groups extant at the time of his great conquest). Since then,that Nepal is a real ‘Hindu state’ and that it is a ‘yam between two boulders’,India and China,have all along been the guiding principles of the country’s social,political and external approaches.


The biggest reversal of this vision has come in terms of the demand,mainly from the CPN-M,that the country should be divided into provinces — under a federal system — on the basis of ethnicity with the right to self-determination and the right to secede being an integral part of the plan. Of course,there are many NGOs-turned-political parties operating both in the Terai and the upper hills,orchestrating this demand. Their approach seems to mean undoing and challenging what Prithvi Narayan Shah did.

That’s why more political parties,including the allies of the Maoists,are now warning the government that the kind of federalism being conceived of by the Maoists will be a threat to Nepal’s territorial and emotional integrity; the creation of ethnic states is not only the anti-thesis of its quest to move forward as a modern state,but also will lead to amoeba-like fission of the country into ethnic and sub-ethnic states,authorities and units. Politically,the history is already being contested: voices are being raised that Prithvi Narayan Shah was an invader,while the army seems to have seized the opportunity to project itself as the defender of the legacy that Prithvi Narayan Shah left. What such posturing will mean in absence of substantial political backing is another issue.

It all has led to a stand-off between the CPN-M — that is the political leadership of the government of the day — and the Nepal army which asserts that while it respects civilian control,it cannot turn a blind eye to the threat to Nepal’s territorial integrity. At a time when the government was declaring its policy of demolishing the statues of Prithvi Narayan Shah everywhere,Army Chief R. Katawal was issuing instructions to barracks that they should all keep life-sized portraits of Shah. Not only the Nepali Congress,which is an opposition party,but also other major parties in the ruling coalition,apparently stand with Katawal in this confrontation; for some,the army is the most effective obstruction to CPN-M’s march towards what they fear might be one-party dictatorship.

And the international community,despite their belief that army has to act under civilian control,are looking the other way. For them,the choice between an authoritarian CPN-M and an army pledging to defend ‘territorial integrity and democracy’,is really difficult. But it is a dangerous sign that pro-democracy political parties in a fragile democracy and failing country are inching closer to the army,and withdrawing their trust in the CPN-M that only three years ago said it would invest in peaceful politics and a democratic system.