Essay On Unification Of Nepal

(Paper presented to the 34th ICANAS, Hong Kong, August 1993. Much of the material was included, with some amendments, in John Whelpton, `Political identity in Nepal: State, Nation and Community' in David Gellner et al. eds, Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom, Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997, pp. 39-78 ) but most of the discussion of theories of nationalism and the comparison with Scottish national identity have remained unpublished.  Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom was republished in Kathmandu by Vajra Books in 2008 with a new introduction as Nationalism and Ethnicity in Nepal)

Words with a fine, generous ring about them are generally difficult to capture with a neat definition.  Whilst not quite in the same league as `love'  or  `freedom', the concept of `nation' certainly suffers from this problem. The word itself has a long history. The root meaning of the original Latin natio is birth', but it came to be used to mean `a people' (in the ethnic not the class sense), and, at least in the writings of Cicero (1st.cent.B.C.), had the same implication of primitiveness as the English `tribe'.[1] In English, as in other European languages the word was sometimes used simply to mean the natives of a particular area, without any political implication, but the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, from a 14th.century Northumbrian poem, already has the implication of solidarity: `Of Ingland the nacion es Inglisman thar in commun.'  The use of the word today normally implies that the group in question is large in size, has a sense of collective identity, is (or was) associated with a particular territory, is marked off from other groups by common cultural characteristics, and either functioning as a political unit or regarded by themselves and others as capable of so doing. These criteria allow us to count as possible `nations' the many `peoples' for whom Anthony Smith sets up the category of ethnie, while he restricts `nation' to groups with the additional features of common citizenship and a high degree of economic integration.[2] Retaining the broader definition not only reflects normal usage but also avoids prejudging the question of just how different the modern form of the nation is from its predecessors.      

Nationalist ideology very often takes territory and culture as fundamental, and as sufficient to establish a group as a `natural' unit and thus tends to see the sense of political identity as recognition of an objective reality.  Arguably `natural nations' can indeed be found, but only at a very early stage of human development.  Consider a tribe with religion and language lacking  internal sect or dialect variation and totally distinct from those of its neighbours, with whom it has little contact. Under this situation, the group's objective characteristics could be seen as uniquely determining the sense of identity.  However, today, as throughout most of recorded history, migration, conquest and cultural borrowing means that most human beings are caught in a web of potential group identities.  In attempting to discover `natural' national groupings we would obtain different results depending on which criteria were considered most relevant:   Serbs and Croats, for example, speak the same language (Serbo-Croat) but are divided by religion *(Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) and their separate histories as subjects respectively of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires.  Even applying a single criterion will not necessarily yield an unambiguous result because we have to  decide on the degree of similarity required: spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are aabout as different from one another as French from Italian, but the former two  are regarded as `dialects' of Chinese and the latter as independent languages, basically because the political unity of the Chinese empire has been preserved down the centuries, whilst that of the Roman empire has not.    

Homogeneity can thus be determined by the nation rather than the other way round, and this process can involve not only defining which feature of the population are politically significant but also the active reduction of inter­nal differences.  While language is arguably not quite so central to national identity as sometimes thought, it provides the clearest examples.  At the time of the French revolution standard French was spoken by only about 12% of the French population ,[3] but its use was subsequently expanded by the twin engines of mass education and military conscription. A Cantonese-speaking schoolboy in Guangzhou today is required to study at school in Mandarin, the dialect adopted as China's national language. The ironing out of diversity within the national unit goes together with the development of myths and symbols which encourage a sense of corporate identity.  The nation states and would-be nation states as we find them now are thus the product of a process of construction, the ideal, but in practice unrealisable culmination of which would be the recovery of tribal solidarity: to adapt the phrase of Benedict Anderson, modern nations can perhaps be best seen as imagined tribes'.[4]

 Recent scholarship on nationalism has tended to see this integrating and homogenising process as very much a recent phenomenon: `nationalism,' according to Kedourie's famous formulation, `is a doctrine invented in Europe at the beginning of the 19th. century.'[5]Ernest Gellner actually sees a functional connection between nationalism and modernisation, arguing essentially that industrialisation demands a workforce literate in a standard national language.[6] The modern nation-state is then contrasted with an earlier form of polity in which, while the administrative elite may share a language of `high culture',  the mass of the population are monoglot speakers of mutually incomprehensible dialects. There is little or no sense of corporate identity linking the two, the political structure being held together by the military power of the centre and/or by ties of personal allegiance or alliance between local leaders. Anthony Smith, whilst rejecting Gellner's account of the linking mechanism, also sees nationalism as a reaction to modernisation and, in his 1971 book, accepts Gellner's picture of the pre-modern polity.    

There is some truth in these approaches:  nationalism as an explicit doctrine (not nationalism in the sense of national sentiment) dates only from the 18th. century, while the struggles over the medium of education and administration which have played such a crucial part in many nationalist movements only become possible when mass literacy is either realised or regarded as realisable.  However here, as in many other fields, it is dangerous to draw too firm a line between the `tradition' and `modernity'.  Whilst the pre-modern state, and pre-modern elites, did not possess as powerful means of  assimilation and homogenisation as those at the disposal of their later counterparts, cultural amalgamation and the growth of a sense of identity between hitherto disparate elements within the state's territory certainly took place.  Such developments within the medieval Christian and Islamic worlds have been analysed by John Armstrong, and also highlighted in Antony Smith's more recent work.[7]Language shift amongst the mass of the population under the Roman empire is an obvious example.  Whilst the Latin of alien rulers may have remained incomprehensible to the bulk of the indigenous population in the remoter province such as Britain,[8]but it nevertheless supplanted Celtic in the lands bordering the Mediterranean. When a 5th. century Gallic nobleman enthused that `what was before the world Rome has turned into one city'[9] , he spoke as a member of the imperial elite, but his own mastery of literary Latin was paralleled by the adoption off the colloquial (`Vulgar') variety by the humblest inhabitants of what was to become France.

After the breakup of the Roman empire, the consolidation of European kingdoms slowly welded diverse populations into what we can recognise as nations.  A vivid illustration is provided by the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, an appeal to the Pope by Scottish bishops and barons for recognition of Robert the Bruce as king of an independent Scotland:

           `...We know and gather from ancient acts and records, that in every famous nation this of Scotland hath been   
            celebrated with many praises ..... To (Robert  Bruce)  we are obliged to resolved to adhere in all things ... as being the
            person who has restored the people's safety in efence of their liberties. But ...if this prince shall leave  these principles 
            and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king and people of England ... we will  make another king who
            will defend our liberties.  For so long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive   we will never give consent to 
            submit ourselves to the dominion of the English.  For it is not glory, it is not riches,   neither is it honours, but it is 
            liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with    his life.'[10]

In the Latin text of the declaration the name Scotti and the word natio referred back to the tribal society of Q-Celtic-speaking peoples who had reached Scotland from Ireland six centuries previously.  The signatories themselves, however, were largely of Norman French descent whilst the majority of the inhabitant's of Robert Bruce's kingdom were the product of the `union of the four peoples' - the eponymous Scotti, the earlier-established Picts, the Celtic Britons of the old kingdom of Strathclyde, and the Germanic settlers of S.E.Scotland.  In presenting this amalgam as the continuation of a single ancient race, with a fanciful pedigree stretching back to ancient Scythia as extra adornment, the authors of the declaration was manufacturing a useful past in much the same way as 19th. and 20th.century nationalists were to do.  There were, of course, important differences. The Latin text was drafted by members of the elite to enlist the aid of the papacy, the nearest t thing to an overall authority which medieval Europe possessed.  While it could thus be regarded as `elite proto-nationalism', the sentiments expressed spread out into the general population, the struggle with England providing an important unifying factor. The Declaration was the work of feudal magnates and of members of a pan-European clerical bureaucracy, but it looked back to the  Celtic tribe (natio in the original Latin sense) with its tradition of elective kingship and also forward to the imagined tribe  - nation in the modern sense.

The modernity of pre-modern Scotland lies not only in the assertion of unity between diverse elements but also in an attempt to render them less diverse. Almost from the emergence of Scotland as a united kingdom there existed a strong linguistic and cultural divide between the Gaelic-speaking highlands and islands and the lowlands, where `Scots', a Germanic dialect closely relat­ed to English, was spoken and where social organisation was feudal (with the later development of independent towns) rather than tribal. The politically dominant lowlanders whilst proudly bearing the ancient name of their neigh­bours generally regarded them as alien and uncivilised.  Mistrust was deepened with the Reformation, as Protestantism spread initially only in the Lowlands. Highland society was to retain its separate identity until well after the end of Scottish independence, but the government in Edinburgh saw in that sepa­rateness a barrier to its own authority and at the beginning of the sixteenth century was already legislating against `the Irish language' as Scottish Gaelic was termed.[11]

The Scottish example thus clearly shows the emergence well before the French Revolution of the main features of the European nation state: identification with a territorial unit rather than simply with the universalist order of medieval Christendom, and a trend towards unity among the disparate human popula­tion of that territory both by unifying myth and by cultural assimilation.  This kind of development was particularly characteristic of Europe, but some similar trends can be found in South Asia. An examination of the history of the kingdom of Nepal provides parallels with the process of nation-building in pre-French Revolution Europe, just as more recent developments in Nepal mirror the self-conscious nationalism of 19th. and 20th. century Europe.

The foundation of the Nepalese state

The modern Nepalese state dates from 1769 when Prithvi Narayan Shah, king of the hill principality of Gorkha, conquered the Kathmandu Valley. His successors extended their control along the Himalaya foothills, reaching the River Satlej in the west and conquering most of Sikkim in the east, but the country was reduced to approximately its present borders after the 1814-1816 war with the British.  Nepal exhibits great ethnic and linguistic diversity (see Tables 1 & 2, p.26-7) but four main groupings can be considered: Prithvi's own Parbatiyas, caste Hindus who were the original speakers of the Indo-Aryan language now known as Nepali; the Newars, creators of the urban civilisation of the Kathmandu Valley, whose social structure essentially reflected a medieval Indian pattern but whose language is Tibeto-Burman; the Hindus of the tarai, the strip of the Gangetic plain at the foot of the hills, culturally indistinguishable from the plains-dwellers on the Indian side of the border; and finally a number of `tribal' groups, at varying stages of assimilation into the caste societies around them. Before 1769 Parbatiya rulers were already in real or formal control of most areas, but there was a multiplicity of political units, notably the baisi (twenty-two) statelets of the Karnali basin  in the western hills and the chaubisi (twenty-four) of the Gandaki basin in the central region.  The name Nepal which is cognate with Newar, at this time denoted only the Kathmandu Valley.[12]

Prithvi Narayan's conquests occurred at the same time as other regional kingdoms were being established in India as Mughal power declined and in some aspects his kingdom, like the Mughal successor-states, seems to fit a model of  the pre-colonial political process in South Asia implicit in much recent work and elaborated in a particularly sophisticated form in Wink's study of the Maratha svarajya.[13] . This model has no room for a concept of nation-state as the source of legitimacy and a focus of loyalty.  Kingdoms and empires are seen as temporary patterns in a constantly shifting mosaic of smaller units; alliances and rivalries springing up among the latter without respect for boundaries.  There does exist an ideal order but it is a universal one, transcending individual states.  In the Muslim tradition it is visualised as the undivided milat-i-islam (people of Islam) and in classical Hindu thought as the establishment of varnashrama (the proper observance of caste and of the progression from student through householder to ascetic) under a chakravartin (world-emperor).  There is a clear parallel with the medieval concept of Christendom, contrasted with the order of territorial states which later prevailed.

The motivation behind Prithvi Narayan and his successors' expansionary drive certainly fits this `Hindu universalist' model rather than the fulfilment of a project of national union.  The Gorkha conquerors were concerned with economic gain, through increasing land revenue and also through the control of trade through the Himalayas.  Conquest could also be seen as an end in itself, enabling the warrior to fulfill his natural function. In the 1830s, some years after the expansionary phase had ended and the Gorkha empire was hemmed in by British India, the rajguru of King Surendra Bikram Shah sought the permission of the British Resident to attack Sikkim. When asked why the king wanted to do so, the guru simply replied: `He is a kshatriya. Is he never to draw his sword?'[14] If ideological concerns had any part, they also were universalist: in the Dibya Upadesh, Prithvi Narayan's political testament, he described his kingdom as an asil (real) hindustan, that is a land where Hindus ruled without the indignity of Muslim supremacy.[15] Yet despite all, this there did exist from early times in the hills some degree of common feeling which could serve as the basis for developing a sense of solidarity. Although Prithvi Narayan and other high-caste Hindus claimed immigrants from India as their ancestors, they were at the same time well aware of their separation from the Indian plains.  An account of Prithvi's life, probably written by a Nepalese Brahman in the second quarter of  the nineteenth century, records how, long before his conquest of the Kathmandu Valley, the king went on a pilgrimage to Benares and en route met a party from Parbat, a neighbouring hill kingdom.  When he asked if he could travel with them, the official in charge replied: `Whilst we were in the hills it was Gorkha, Parbat, Palpa or Pyuthan, but when we're in the plains (madhes) hillmen (pahari) are one. How could we go to Benares without you?' [16]

Whilst all pahari, whatever their ethnicity, might feel a common sense of separation from the plains, the Parbatiyas, who were and are the key group within the state, were also united by a number of cultural factors. The Parbatiya language was the most obvious, but also important was their caste system, which, although it divided them from one another, also marked them out as a group from other Hindu communities.  The caste around which Parbatiya identity was anchored was the Khas (nowadays generally styled `Chetris', i.e. kshatriyas). Their ancestors were probably a branch of the Aryan migration into the Indian subcontinent distinct from the Vedic Aryans but subsequently Hinduised.[17] The two castes above them in the Parbatiya hierarchy both claimed plains origins: the Brahmans, who traced their ancestry to Harsha's old capital of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj) on the Ganges, and the Thakuris, Prithvi Narayan's own caste, claiming descent from Rajput refugees who fled into the hills from the Muslim invaders. [18]

In Nepal proper the line between aboriginal and immigrant was, however, much less well-defined than his simple schema suggests. Many Thakuri and Brahmans were really of Khas extrac­tion, whilst those who retained the Khas name had for the most part been granted the right to wear the sacred thread of the twice-born Hindu. A Khas family which gained prominence invariably claimed Rajput origin, even though its pretensions were often not accepted by others.[19] Furthermore, the offspring of a Brahman male and a Khas female was accepted as a Khas, with the result that many surnames (thar) were common to both Brahman and Chetri.  This situation contrasts with that in Kumaon and Garhwal, where a much more rigid division between Khas and newcomer was maintained, and inter-marriage was rare.  John Hitchcock has linked the stronger position of the Khas in Nepal with the legacy of the `Malla empire', a Khas-dominated state which covered much of the Karnali basin in western Nepal and a large area of south-western Tibet in the 13th. and 14th. centuries. The Khas in Nepal were also probably buttressed by the support of Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups such as the Magars and Gurungs, who were integrated into the caste hierarchy immediately below them; the offspring of unions between Khas or Brahman male and a Magar or Gurung female were also accepted as Khas.[20]

Such irregularities ensured that the Parbatiyas were always treated with a certain amount of disdain by their counterparts on the Indian plain.  Hill Brahmans, in particular, were often looked down upon, in view of their laxer attitude to dietary obligations and, possibly also their involvement with tan­tric practices.[21] . Plains Brahmans sometimes refused to refer to their Parba­tiya caste-fellows by the Sansrit (and thus more honorific) term brahman, allowing them only the vernacular Nepali title bahun.  The Thakuris, or Parba­tiya Rajputs, were also regarded with some suspicion. According to one famous story,  a seventeenth-century Gorkha king's pretensions to descent from a prince of Mewar in Rajasthan was rejected by the Mewar court itself when a Gorkha envoy claiming kshatriya status revealed he had a Brahman name.[22] The anecdote may well be apocryphal, but it well illustrates plains attitudes in the 18th. and the first half of the 19th. century, before Nepal's status as the one remaining independent native state in the sub-continent raised the prestige of her rulers amongst the Indian aristocracy.  The effect of such prejudices in the plains heightened the sense of community between high-caste Parbatiyas.  The Gorkha royal family accepted the Mishra family of Banaras as hereditary gurus in the 17th. century but never admitted them to commensality as they did their purohits, the hill Aryals.[23] In the same vein, when the 1854 Muluki Ain (National Code) gave legal sanction to a single caste-hier­archy throughout Nepal, plains Brahmans were placed not only below the hill Brahmans but in a lower position than Thakuris and Chetris.

Whilst the high-caste Parbatiyas can thus readily be seen as a `proto-nation', can the other ethnic groups brought under their rule be seen as in any way belonging to it?  In a recent study of the unification of Nepal, Kumar Pradhan has argued strongly that they cannot:

      [The Nepalese state] did not unite the segregated groups brought under it, on the contrary it divided them.  This was 
     because their relationship was now based on usurpation and exploitation and not on a sense of equal­ity - a    sine qua non
     in the process of nation-building.'[24] 

The non-Parbatiyas, and also, of course, the untouchable, occupational castes amongst the Parbatiyas were indeed subordinated to the upper Parbatiya castes Pradhan's approach is nevertheless open to question  on two counts. At a theoretical level, his exclusive focus on a paradigm of nationalism provided by Europe in the wake of the French revolution leads him to ignore the fact that inequality is not incompatible with some degree of solidarity.  Subor­dinate groups may regard their position as part of the natural order, or, even if they resent it as unjust, they may still feel a sense of solidarity with their overlords in certain situations because group identity is generally relational: in other words, a Magar or Limbu could feel himself strongly s such when facing a Brahman or Chetri landlord or government official, but as a hillman or Gorkha when confronting a plainsman.

Secondly, though showing some awareness of the complexities of the situation, Pradhan does not give sufficient weight to the differing degrees of integra­tion with the Parbatiya social and political order exhibited by the different non-Parbatiya groups. This integration was high for the Magars, and, to a lesser degree, the Gurungs of the central hills, who had long been losely associated with the Thakuri rulers of the hill statelets, but much less for the Rai and Limbu of eastern Nepal, the area with which Pradhan is particular ly concerned. Although nominally subject to the Sen dynasty, who also claimed Rajput ancestry, the Limbu chiefs were in a kind of partnership with the Sens which left their own tribal institutions, and in particular their kipat system of communal land tenure intact.[25] Gorkha rule was thus more likely to be perceived as alien in the east and must have seemed less so in the heart­land of the Gandaki basin and even in the Kathmandu Valley itself, where Parbatiya and non-Parbatiya had long lived closely together[26]. Prithvi Narayan himself seems to have recognised this distinction when he advised his predecessors not to trust `the Khas and Brahmans of the west and east' (Dibya Upadesh, op.cit, pg.160)

Talk of `integration' in the context of a caste-system may seem paradoxical, but in South Asia caste has indeed performed an integrative function, albeit in a highly circumscribed manner.  From Vedic times down through Indian history tribal groups were successively brought into a single social order as castes and in Nepal this process is more recent and thus more susceptible to investigation.  Although the Nepali words jati and jat can be used now to convey the distinction between `tribe'/`ethnic group' and `caste' respective­ly, in colloquial speech they are used  interchangeably. The 1854 Legal code, which systematised the caste hierarchy, uses jat for both categories and in his discussion of this document, Richard Burghart tries to convey the breadth of reference of jat by translating it as `species.'[27]

The process of incor­poration did not always involve putting a new `species' into the bottom of the hierarchy: new members could sometimes be admitted to an existing caste or a whole group raised in status. Such action did, of course, violate the essen­tial brahmanical conception of closed descent groups in unchanging relation­ship with each other, and there would generally be an attenpt to conceal what had actually happened: whereas in modern industrial society official propagan­da is normally concerned to exaggerate the extent of social mobility, caste ideology dictated that the ruling elite try to understate it.  There was, however, widespread awareness that changes in caste status could occur and that it was royal authority that was able to effect them. 

The changes known to have occurred in Nepal in the years before and immediately after unification are revealing. As has already been seen, members of the Khas tribe were allowed to assume the sacred-cord and converted into ksha­triyas (Chetris).  In pre-unification Nepal the same facility was allowed to prominent members of the Magar tribe. The author of the first full-length western account of Nepal, Capt. Kirkpatrick, who visited Kathmandu in 1793, actually included the Magars as a sub-division of the Chettris.[28]. Francis Hamilton, writing on the basis of a visit to Kathmandu in 1802-1803 and subse­quent investigations in the border areas, realised that most Magars did not have Chettri status but reported that they were `now firmly attached to the Shah family's interests, by having largely shared the fruits of conquest.'  He believed that Magars comprised `by far the greater part of the regular troops of that family' and   reported the claim that the Shahs themselves were really of Magar descent.  He also noted that many Magar soldiers in the Gorkha army had forgotten the Magar language and he expressed his own agree­ment with the view of `many people' in Kathmandu that the Magars would soon become simply another Parbatiya caste.[29]

This portrait of Magar assimilation may be exaggerated; many thar (surnames) were common to both Khas and Magar and this might have led him to overestimate the number of Magars in the army, whilst the assertion that Prithvi Narayan was himself a Magar was made by a Brahman connected with a rival hill principality who might have wanted to belittle the Gorkha dynasty.  Nevertheless, it is clear that a number of Magars had been assimilated into the ruling elite and there are also a few examples of Gurungs achieving such prominence.  The whole process was directly endorsed by Prithvi Narayan himself in the Dibya Upadesh, which commends the loyalty of magars and Gurungs whilst counselling against admittance to the court of `the Khas and Brahmans of the east and west' , who would not follow the Gorkha court's traditions.[30]

The relative fluidity in the 18th. century of what were later to become much firmer divisions has recently led Dor Bahadur Bista, Nepal's best-known an­thropologist, to claim that Prithvi Narayan regarded the different categories of his subjects as equals and saw Brahmans `as being an ethnic social group without recognising their association with caste.'  Dor Bahadur Bista, Fatalism and Development, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1991, p.45.  This is pressing the case rather too far.  The presence of Brahman soldiers in Prithvi's army cannot be used as evidence for the king's rejection of caste orthodoxy, for even though fighting was not part of the Brahman's Vedic role, many Indian plains Brahmans managed to combine a military career with strict adherence to principles of ritual purity and indeed such men at the time formed a large part of the East India Company's forces.  In his political testament, the Dibya Upadesh, Prithvi implies that military work is not really appropriate for Brahmans and recommends his successors to recruit only Khas, Thakuri, Magar and Gurung into the army.[31].

The king describes all these groups as jat, a word which conflates the notions of caste or ethnic group; Bista's transla­tion of this as `people' obscures the caste dimension. In fact the general ethos amongst the Gandaki basin rulers at this time, including the eagerness of all of them to claim Rajput ancestry, and Prithvi's use of the phrase chota bada (`small and great ( status)) four jat and thirty-six varna' to describe the totality of his subjects, make it clear that he did see those subjects in hierarchical terms, but with more scope for the `promotion' of individuals than would later be the case.

The 18th. century picture presents a partial parallel with the relationship between the different groups in the medieval Scottish kingdom. In Scotland from the 11th. century onwards the dominating political culture was Anglo-Norman, with an aristocracy either of Norman extraction or assimilated to the Norman feudal pattern.  The Celtic-speaking highlanders were in a subordinate position but individual clan-chiefs might become full members of the Scots-speaking elite group: a few highland names are found in the largely Norman-sounding list of nobles who attested the Declaration of Arbroath.   In Nepal, immigrants from India and those who had adopted a Hindu lifestyle were in a dominant position over the various hill ethnic groups, but members of those groups could sometimes gain entry to the Hindu elite.  There were also, howev­er, crucial differences.  In Scotland one culture implicitly claimed superior­ity  over another, but there was little or no sense of intrinsic racial or caste superiority and therefore no attempt to hide the mingling of groups which took place.  A largely non-Celtic elite chose instead to parade its continuity with the Celtic past, as the acceptance of the name `Scot' itself proclaims. In Nepal the rulers preferred to emphasise their real or supposed foreign origin and the barrier between groups hardened.  In 1816 a list of prominent personalities at the Nepalese Court prepared by the British Residen­cy identified several bharadars as Magars, but by the 1830s the British be­lieved that there were no Magars or Gurungs amongst army officers.[32] The leading Magar families had indeed merged with the Khas, as Hamilton had pre­dicted, and the door was closed on those Magar families which had not been granted the right to wear the sacred thread by Prithvi Narayan's time.          

Caste divisions were thus a reality at the time of the Gorkha conquest and became even more of a reality in the 19th. century.  However, the Magar or Gurung ancestry of those no longer officially referred to as such will cer­tainly have been common knowledge to soldiers serving under them and will have forged an additional tie binding to the Parbatiya core of the proto-nation' those Magar and Gurung most closely associated with the Shah dynasty's new state.

Aside from this Parbatiya identity anchored around the Khas, a second import­ant factor was the political elite's concept of the state which Prithvi Nar­ayan had created as an entity to be protected and preserved independently of  allegiance to an individual.  When talking of the kingdom in this sense, the Nepali word used was not rajya but dhunga, literally meaning `stone'. Mahesh Regmi has argued that the use of this word, common from Prithvi's time onwards, signifies a contrast with the pre-unification system in which the concept of the state, as opposed to the personal bond between king and follow­er, had not yet emerged.[33] Jean Berlie has pointed out the parallel between this concept and the Thai notion of lat muang (`spirit of the land'), which was normally represented by a stone.  There could conceivably have been a case of cultural transmission given the south-east Asian origins of some of Nepal's ethnic groups.[34] It may also be relevant that amongst the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, groups of stones are used to represent the lineage deity, and thus, in a sense, the continuity of the family.[35]Whatever the origins of the concept, dhunga was certainly employed in official Nepali dis­course very much in the modern sense of `state'. This is well brought in King Rana Bahadur Shah's use of the expression just before his assassination by his half-brother, Sher Bahadur, in 1806.  Accusing Sher of having plotted against him, he told him that although he had forgiven him for his offence against his own person, he still had to answer to the bharadars present for his crimes against the dhunga.[36]

Further recognition that his individual interests and those of the kingdom could diverge was provided in the role traditionally played by the bharadari, the political elite including those currently in and out of office. This body originally consisted of families which had an hereditary attachment to the Shah dynasty in pre-unification Gorkha but they were subsequently reinforced by a number of families from the former baisi and chaubisikingdoms. [37]  On his 1793 visit to Kathmandu, Kirkpatrick was struck by the importance of the bharadari, stressing that this rested on their family connection with the ruling dynasty rather than on the wealth or number of supporters that they possessed as individuals.  His description of their role was a perceptive one, which was to be borne out by later events:

     The leading members of this body, whether actually employed or not, appear to possess such a high authority in the state,
     as renders it nearly impossible for the executive government, in whatever hands that may be, to pursue any measures of 
     an important nature, in opposition to their advice.  I have even been assured that the throne of the Prince himself would 
     no longer be secure should the principal Thurghurs [i.e. tharghars, an older term for the main bharadars] concur in 
     thinking that his general conduct tended to endanger the sovereignty, which they possess themselves bound, as far as 
     rests with them, to transmit unimpaired to the distant posterity of its founder, and the interests of which they do not allow
     to be determined by the partial views, or temporary policy of the ruling individual. 9Kirkpatrick, op.cit., p.124.)

All the factors so far discussed still did not make Nepal a nation in the full sense of the word, since the sense of identification with the new state was limited to a small minority among those within its jurisdiction. They did, however, provide a foundation which was slowly expanded during the 19th. century.

Factors for national integration in the 19th. century

Conflict with other groups has always been an important element of strengthening in-group solidarity and Anthony Smith has stressed the importance in the growth of ethnic identity both of the actual comradeship of battle and of the group memories such conflict generates.[38] The early history of Nepal provided plenty of examples both of conquest and of resistance to an invader.  The period of rapid Gorkha expansion along the Himalayas(c.1770 - 1814) inevitably brought clashes with the ambitions of other powers. To the north,  China, under Emperor Quian Long, had just completed the conquest of Sinkiang and established a protectorate in Tibet; to the west, Ranjit Singh was uniting the Panjab under the Sikh khalsa; and to the south the British East India Company was extending its control over the northern Indian plains.  Gorkha incursions into Tibet resulted in a Chinese expeditionary force crossing the Himalayas and reaching within thirty miles of Kathmandu.  Although the Gorkhas had to accept a settlement of their dispute with Tibet on Chinese terms, it was not total humiliation: they inflicted one defeat on the invaders when the Chinese army attacked the Nepalese camp whilst negotiations were in pro­gress.  However, the withdrawal of forces from the far west in the face of the Chinese threat had halted the momentum of expansion.  When the advance was resumed in the 1800s, Ranjit Singh had forestalled them west of the Satlej.  War with the British came in 1814, occasioned by rival claims to the tarai, the economically vital strip of fertile lowland at the foot of the hills. In the initial stages the Gorkhas inflicted defeats on over-confident British forces, but superior numbers and resources nevertheless eventually prevailed and in 1816 Nepal had to surrender Kumaon, Garhwal and the section of Sikkim she had previously occupied - a loss amounting to about one-third of her pre-war territory.   

This defeat convinced realistically minded members of the governing elite that accommodation rather than confrontation with the British was required. Nonetheless, the spirit of military adventurism was strong in the army, a large proportion of which was concentrated at the capital.  Although the rank-and-file were normally content to follow their patrons in the elite, they did at times in the 19th. century appear on the verge of a more independent role.  Ordinary soldiers were, like their commanders, remunerated by land assignment, but once out of service were often tenants on the lands assigned to others.  The army was thus in an ambiguous position between the elite and the peasantry general­ly.  

The army provided an important power base for the dominant figure in Ne­palese politics in the first third of the century, Bhimsen Thapa.  Until his position came under challenge from other members of the bharadari in the1830s, Bhimsen managed both to maintain reasonably good relations with the East India Company and to project himself internally as the country's bulkwark against the British.  After his fall from power there was a period of renewed tension but the Rana family shogunate (1846-1951) systematised and extended the policy of closer collaboration with the British which the Thapa family had themselves initiated in their final years. In addition to an appreciation of  British strength, this policy was dictated by the growing weakness of China, which reduced Nepal's earlier scope for playing off southern and northern neighbour against each other. Apart from her 1855-6 war with Tibet, Nepal now fought only as an ally of the British empire: Jang Bahadur, the first of the Rana maharajas, himself led forces to assist the British during the 1857 revolt in India and during the 20th century large contingents served with the allied forces in both World Wars.

Even before the expansionary phase of the Nepalese state had finished, the tradition of Nepalese serving in foreign armies had been established. During fighting in Kumaon in 1815 the British organised a battalion of deserters and prisoners from the Nepalese army to fight alongside them, a switch of alle­giance made easier for those concerned because they had been originally recruitedfrom the newly-conquered area rather than the Gorkha heartland.[39]  After the end of the war, numerous Nepalese took service under Ranjit Singh in the Panjab, whose army also contained a number of British and French officers. The word lahuri, `one who goes to Lahore', thus entered the Nepali language as the description of any Nepalese fighting for a foreign state. Large-scale recruitment of Nepalese into the British Indian forces began after 1857, when the high-caste plains Hindus who had formed the backbone of the old Bengal army were no longer thought `reliable'.  The Nepalese government initially regarded this trend as a threat to its own security, but after the coup of 1885, when the Shamsher branch of the Rana family seized power and were in need of support against the ousted sons of Jang Bahadur, they allowed open recruitment on Nepalese territory. 

Mercenary service of this kind might seem the antithesis of nationalism, and so it certainly appears to members of the Nepalese elite today. However, fighting as `Gorkhas' (`Gurkha' is simply the British mis-spelling), even if in the pay of foreign masters, helped to consolidate a Gorkha identity amongst the fighters themselves and other members of the castes from whom they were recruited.   Nepalese fighting battles for the Sikh state of the Panjab or the British Empire might later be seen by some as humiliating dependency, but for others it perpetuated the sense of military prowess which the early years of the unified Nepalese state had engendered.

Within Nepal itself, military service also acted as an integratory factor in a more direct way, bringing members of different communities together and bind­ing them by ties of material interest to the government.  From the end of Prithvi Narayan Shah's reign, army recruitment was confined in practice to the Thakuris, Khas, Magars and Gurungs, who formed around 40% of the population in the hills, but in 1847 the Kiranti tribes (Rais and Limbus) of the eastern hills were then made eligible and, at least during the 1850s, Tamangs and Bhotiyas (groups of strong Tibetan cultural ties) were also admitted, bringing the proportion represented to over 50%[40]  Whilst the maximum number of troops actually deployed during the Tibetan war was only around 27,000, the pajani system of annual re-enlistment resulted in many soldiers being stood-down and there was thus a substantial reserve of trained manpower; the maximum number of trained soldiers which could be mobilised in an emergency was estimated by British officials in Kathmandu as around 50,000 in the early 1830s and up to 70,000 in the 1870s, figures to be set against the Nepal government's 1839 es­timate of 169,000 fit, adult males of the `military tribes' (i.e. at that time presumably Thakuri, Khas, Magar and Gurung).[41]   Both because of the difficulty of compiling precise records and because it was in the Nepal government's interest to let the British Residency gain an exaggerated impression of its military strength, these figures are not entirely reliable.  The fact does remain, though, that an increasing number of families contained members who were serving or who had served in the army and that the numbers who could share to some degree in a Gorkha identity were expanding.

Whilst only a minority of families had a direct link with the army, every inhabitant of Nepal was affected by economic changes which followed unification. These did not amount to a fundamental alteration in the basis of econom­ic life, for most Nepalese remained peasants engaged in subsistence agricul­ture, but the state and its activities now impinged more strongly upon them. The most obvious of these was the demand on the peasant's produce to meet the needs of the government, in particular the maintenance of the army.  Under the system long established in Gorkha and in the chaubisi and baisi states, which was in general extended to other area of the country, the king was the ul­timate owner of the land and had first call upon the crop.  The royal share could be collected directly by government officials, or the entitlement sold off to a tax-farmer, assigned temporarily as jagir to  individuals in state employ, or permanently gifted as birta  Whatever the precise mechanism of collection, the burden on the actual cultivator was probably around fifty per cent of the principal crop over most of the country.[42]

Unification also meant that individual ethnic groups were brought into closer contact with one another.  The eastward drift of the Parbatiyas along the Himalayas, a long-term trend which had been operating for hundreds of years before Prithvi Narayan Shah, was intensified. It was in the hills of eastern Nepal, where caste-Hindu influence over the hill tribes was much weaker than in the west, that this was most strongly felt.  The stationing of administra­tors and military personnel at key centres was only the most obvious part of the process. Where land was under the normal regime of state landlordship, Brahmans and Chettris could be assigned land as jagir or birta. In the hills adjacent to the  eastern frontier, where the Limbus had been guaranteed the continuance of their traditional kipat system of communal tenure, the perma­nent transfer of land rights to non-Limbus was in theory prohibited, but Parbatiyas could obtain access to agricultural land as tenants of the Limbu headmen.  Tension inevitably developed, especially as land acquired a capital value in the second half of the 19th. century.   Limbus were at a particular­ disadvantage  in relation to Brahman settlers who, in addition to their higher ritual status, had the necessary skills to manipulate the legal system. Pressure from the tax-gatherer was also a problem and for Limbus and others migration aas one possible answer. Kumar Pradhan has estimated  that between 1840 and 1860 about 15% of the total Kiranti (i.e. Rai and Limbu) population of Nepal moved across the border to Darjeeling.[43]

These aspects of the process seem to bear out Pradhan's thesis that unifica­tion meant intensified exploitation rather than the development of national solidarity, but they were accompanied by other, less malign forms of integration. Throughout the hills, Parbatiya settlement, together with demographic pressure, resulted in other ethnic groups adopting aspects of their material culture, in particular agricultural and rchitectural technique.  Phillipe Sagant has made skillful use of 18th. and 19th. century travellers' accounts to show the stages in which the Limbus abandoned the `slash and burn' pattern of shifting cultivation prevalent at the time of unification and switched to sedentary and intensive agriculture.   A similar transition made by the Gur­ungs has been analysed byAlan Macfarlane.[44] Links were also strengthened between different populations with the development of the hill market towns (bajars), where the primary commercial role was often played by Newar traders moving out from the Kathmandu Valley. 

Fuelled by these changes, and in turn itself facilitating them, was the con­tinuing spread of the Nepali language.  Although the name `Nepali' was applied to the language in British India as early as 1820 (with the publication of Ayton's Grammar of the Nepalese Language) this usage was not adopted in Nepal itself until the 20th. century, and the language was known within the country itself as khas kura (the speech of the Khas), `Parbatiya` or `Gorkhali.'  As the language of the Parbatiya people, it had long been predominant in the western hills and was, of course, spoken by Parbatiyas resident in or visiting the Kathmandu Valley.  At the beginning of the 19th. century a British visitor noted hat the language was `making rapid progress in extinguishing the abo­riginal dialects of the mountains.'[45] Non-Parbatiyas began speaking the language in increasing numbers not only because they had to do so when dealing with their new rulers but also because, as economic integration increased, it  was useful as a lingua franca between the many small populations speaking mutually incomprehensible dialects.[46] In many cases what occurred, of course, was  bilingualism (especially for male speakers) rather than the com­plete disappearance of another language, but the significant point was that linguistic change was occurring at a fast rate even though the 19th. century European struggles over `the language of school and office' as yet did not enter the picture. The transformation even affected those who migrated rather than remain under Gorkha rule: Limbus who moved to Darjeeling to escape the oppression of Nepa­li-speaking conquerors were ironically to become a key element in the formation of a Nepali-speaking community outside Nepal's own borders.

The growing importance of Nepali reflected the practical communication needs of individual Nepalese, and evidence of a self-conscious linguistic nationalism only begins near the end of the century, but a pointer of things to come may perhaps be discerned at its beginning when  King Rana Bahadur Shah instructed a military commander to `put all the letters that come to you into your own language in the nagari script.'[47]

In parallel with economic and linguistic change affecting the lives of ordinary Nepalis, Richard Burghart has argued that something like the modern concept of a nation state began to evolve in the  Nepal government's shifting attitude towards the territory under its control.[48] At the turn of the nineteenth century there existed a clear distinction between the king's muluk (possessions), which was simply the area happening to be under his tenurial authority at any one time, and his realm or desha, which was a region of fixed extent under the protection of the king's tutelar deity.  The obligation to maintain a moral order - and in particular the varna hierarchy - applied pre-eminently to the  latter.  The muluk, on the other hand, was not seen as a single moral universe, but a collection of different `realms' and of different `countries' (desha in a second sense), these being geographical regions and/or the homes of different peoples.   Thus when Prithvi Narayan and his immediate successors described themselves as kings of Nepal they were claiming lordship over the Kathmandu Valley and the country around it bounded by four well-known places of pilgrimage.[49].

When they used desha in an ethnic sense, they were thinking of divisions such as Khasan (the old homeland of the Khas in the Karnali basin), Magrat (the hills west of Kathmandu once dominated by the Magars, Limbuana (the homeland of the Limbus) and so on.   In the course of the 19th. century, however, the Parbatiya elite, while not losing sight of the old distinctions, came to see the whole region under their control as a single desha. The foundation for this change of perspective was the fixing of the frontier. The clash with the British set a definite limit to Nepalese expansion, which had previously seemed an open-ended process; the earlier aspiration now only survived fitfully in the slogan of ganga sandh (The Ganges for our frontier!), which was raised from time to time by wilder elements in the army. Not only was future conquest now not possible but the borders themselves became, at British insistence, precisely determined lines rather than a zone where the influence of one centre of power shaded into that of another.[50].The terri­tory so-defined came to be regarded as possessing a religious significance simply because, unlike India, it was under Hindu rule.  Prithvi Narayan had himself foreshadowed this development when he described his newly-created kingdom as asil hindustan, and it was given legal expression when Jang Bahadur Rana decreed in 1866 that religious endowments by Nepalese individuals should henceforth be made only on Nepalese territory.  Finally, Jang Bahadur's years in power also saw the promulgation of the Muluki Ain (National Code), which gave legal recognition to a single caste hierarchy encompassing all the different castes/ethnic groups under Kathmandu's control. State endorsement and enforcement of caste rules within Nepal proper (that is the Kathmandu Valley and its immediate environs) was nothing new, but extending detailed regulation to the wider unit was a definite innovation: the desha was extended to coincide with the muluk and a multiplicity of `countries', each with its separate customary law, was replaced by a single society of jats.  András Höfer, the foremost western student of the ain, phrased it, Nepal was `on the way to becoming a nation of castes.'[51]

A final strand in the 19th. century pattern is the occasional exercise of the right of the bharadari to restrain royal authority the theoretical existence of which was impressed upon Kirkpatrick in 1801. Power was derived in princi­ple from the king and normally exercised by him or by whichever minister had his confidence.  When Jang Bahadur Rana succeeded in depriving the Shah dynasty of real power and established his own family as hereditary prime ministers and maharajas, the Shah king's formal precedence, like that of the Japanese emperor during the shogunate, was maintained, and the role of actual autocrat played by the Rana maharaja.  On two critical occasions, however, the political elite as a whole appeared to assert its will against autocratic rule.  In 1842, when King Rajendra was unable or unwilling to halt the harassment of the bharadars by Crown Prince Surendra, a series of meetings involving the bharadari, representatives of the army, and local functionaries and merchants from the Valley towns, compelled the king to sign documents promis­ing to restrain his son and transfer certain powers to Queen Rajya Lakshmi.  In the course of these proceedings both Rajendra and Surendra were rebuked to their faces by some of their subjects.  Five years later, when Jang Bahadur took advantage of the continuing dissension within the royal family to make himself the real master of Nepal, the final deposition of Rajendra in favour of his son was legitimised by the bharadari decaring that a continuation of divided authority `would have caused the ruin of the kingdom of Sri Maharaja Prithvi Narayan Shah.'[52] 

Brian Hodgson, who was British Resident at Kathmandu in 1842, wrote enthu­siastically in his despatches of `the national movement' and the Governor-General's reply suggested he saw shades of  the 17th. century struggles between English king and parliament in the Kathmandu drama.[53] These 19th. century British observers were indeed looking at events through the prism of their own European background, but their language accurately reflected an important fact: the notion of the nation as something persisting through time was not an alien one to Nepalese minds, however much the kaleidoscope of court in­trigue might overlay it.

20th. century Nepal: self-conscious nationalism and ethnic assertiveness

The growth of opposition to Rana rule  in Nepal and its overthrow in the `revolution' of 1950-51 was, like the nationalist movement in India, essen­tially the product of the exposure of a minority of the population to western political ideas and the reaction between these ideas and older attachments.  There was a natural link between the two movements in both countries: although Nepal never came under the paramountcy of the British crown, the Ranas, like the Indian princes after 1857, saw their best interest in collaboration with the British and so, for Indian and Nepalese radicals alike, opposition to British domination in South Asia and opposition to traditional South Asian autocracy appeared two sides of the same coin.  Madhav Raj Joshi's attempt to introduce Arya Samajist ideas into Nepal in the first decade of the century is often seen as the beginning of the intellectual movement against the old order, but the pace quickened after the 1st. World War and agitation amongst Nepalese in India, including Gurkha veterans of the conflict and former members of the Ranas' own bureaucracy, played an important role. In Nepal itself the dissidents,  lacking the  mass-base which Congress was building in India,  sought to overthrow the system by the conspiratorial tactics to which the Ranas themselves had often resorted.  The most serious of these attempts, the Praja Parishad affair  ended with the executions of the `Four Martyrs' in 1940. With Indian independence in 1947, however, the balance of forces changed. in 1950-51 a de facto alliance between King Tribhuvan,  the India-based Nepali Congress Party and the Indian government forced the last Rana maharaja, Mohan Shamsher Rana, to accept an end to the Rana system on terms brokered by New Delhi.[54] 

The 1951 `revolution' ushered in a struggle for power between the monarchy and the political parties, among which the Nepali Congress was always the most important though the Communists played an increasingly significant role. The country's first general election was held in 1959 and won decisively by the Nepali Congress. The following year King Mahendra, who had succeeded his father in 1955, used his emergency powers to remove the government and impris­on iits leaders. There followed thirty years of `Panchayat Democracy', under which real power was retained in the Royal Palace but non-party elections allowed for `panchayats' (councils) at local and national levels.  Congress endeavoured to repeat 1950-51 with armed raids into Nepal from India but ended the campaign in 1962 when the border war between India and China caused India to clamp down on their activities. Thereafter, political parties, though banned, continued to function under varying degrees of repression, relying particularly on support amongst university students. In 1990 King Birendra conceded a return to Parliamentary democracy after an agitation jointly launched by Congress and an alliance of Communist groups attracted mass support in the Kathmandu Valley. Elections under a new constitution in 1991 were won by Congress whilst the main Leftist Party (the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist and Leninist) emerged as a strong opposition.[55]  

Both before and after 1950 Nepalese nationalism has been an important factor in the struggle for political power, with all factions appealing to national­ist feelings as a means of mobilising support.   This was part of Maharaja Chandra Shumsher Rana's motivation in pressing for formal recognition by Britain of Nepal's total independence, granted in 1923; the British had previously hedged on the issue, as, for example, in the foreign secretary's 1888 assertion that Nepal was `in a state of quasi-subordination to us.'[56]

The official adoption in the 1930s of the name `Nepal' for the whole kingdom and of Nepali' or its principal language is presented by Burghart as a falling into line with British usage,[57] but its motivation may also have been the promotion of a sense of national identity, especially amongst the Newar inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, who could not regard themselves as `Gorkhali'.   An alternative interpretation is that Ranas sought rather to underline Parbatiya hegemony over the Newars by appropriating the name of the Newars' homeland for the formers' language.  This is suggested by the fact that the national anthem continued until 1950 to refer to `we Gorkhalis'  maintaining the `Lord's command over Nepal.' [58] In either case, the Rana administration was pursuing a recognisably nationalist objective: underlining a linkage between the seat of government, the whole territory under their control, and the dominant language. The Ranas also appealed to national feeling when reporting dissident activity, referring  to `anti-national litera­ture' or `treason against the  nation.'[59]

‘Prithvi Jayanti’, which literally means Prithvi’s birthday, is the day when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the unifier of greater Nepal was born. This day was celebrated as ‘National Unity day’, and was a public holiday till Nepal was declared a republic country in 2008 AD. In the past, people used to gather at the western gate of Singha Durbar to pay tribute to late King Shah and they offered garlands at his statue located there. It continues till now, but only by the supporters of the monarchy.

According to nepali calendar Prithvi Narayan Shah was born on 27th Poush, 1779 BS (11 January 1723 AD) in Gorkha district and was declared a king 20 years later. Nepal was divided into several minor states then, it was the same king who started the great initiation of unification of the states and make it a single sovereign country- Nepal. That makes him the first king under the Shah dynasty, who had the dream of greater and modern Nepal. By his movements, Nepal at that time extended from the Punjab to Sikkim and was almost twice as large in land area as it is today. He was a great diplomat, and his ‘Divya Upadesh’, the statements of principle governance, nationalism, and foreign policy were followed by many leaders later. His monarchy lasted for more than 200 years, till the kingship was uprooted by the people’s movement in 2006 AD.

Some of the political parties, and their leaders (a perfect example would be Kamal Thapa, of Rastriya Prajatantra Party), are struggling and giving pressure to the government to restore the holiday on this day. In Bungkot village of Gorkha, Magars (the indigenous tribes of that place) celebrate the day till now, regarding the roles of King for their tribe, as he created a safe place for coming generations. They say they will continue the tradition, and even have established a club to institutionalize the rituals.


Tags:Festivals, nepali festival

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