The Mountain is Young (Penguin 1958) was the first acclaimed novel in English about Nepal, even though one finds no mention of it amidst today’s enthusiastic English literati. The passing of its author Han Suyin this week at the age of 95 provides opportunity to reflect on the era of transition from the Rana downfall through the raucous 1950s, though her fiction concentrated on the life and loves of an Englishwoman schoolteacher in Kathmandu.
It was not long after the grand demise of the Rana oligarchy that the commoner politicians were competing for patronage of the newly ascendant royals Tribhuvan and his son Mahendra. The 18-month flickering of social democracy under BP Koirala was snuffed soon enough, in December 1960, by Mahendra, and the Panchayat regime got a lock-hold on the people.
To understand Nepal as-we-speak—polity outside constitutional rails, intelligentsia in appeasement mode, one Maoist demagogue overtaking another, democratic forces in disarray—it is vital to understand the decade after the Rana collapse, and the three decades of the Panchayat regime. Strangely, our political discourse has a blind spot for the entire 1950-1990 period.
All countries have deep histories and modern histories, but it is the acts and omissions in modern history that tend to define the present. This is the case for Nepal as well, which is why the 1950-90 black hole in our memory disk is worrying. We are asked to believe that all the problems before society are the result of the ‘unifiers’ of long ago and the parliamentary parties after 1990. This a-historical reading benefits the Maoists, who are today part of the state establishment and wanting to make it their permanent berth.
The collection of the writings of political historian and litterateur Isvar Baral (formally L.S. Baral, 1925-1997), just published by Martin Chautari, is politically significant in this respect. Autocratic Monarchy: Politics in Panchayat Nepal provides rigorous commentary from the typewriter of a contemporary scholar on the shenanigans that entrapped the polity between the fall of the Ranas and that of the Panchayat.
In his outstanding English prose, unapologetic in his liberal democratic perspective, 15 years after his passing, Baral provides us a window into the chaotic 1950s, the eclipse of democracy in 1960, and up to the peak of Panchayat dynamism and despotism under Mahendra and Birendra. This study of ‘political disequilibrium’, the author’s usage, helps us make sense of our present.
The introduction to Autocratic Monarchy, by the editors Pratyoush Onta and Lokranjan Parajuli, is itself a competent encapsulation of the period under review, punctuated by the draft constitution of Padma Shumshere (1948), the Interim Government of Nepal Act (1951), the Constitution of 1959 leading to the first parliamentary elections, the Panchayat Constitution (1960), and its two amendments that tightened the authoritarian noose (1967, 1975).
The chapters were selected from scores of Baral’s published essays, written when the scholar was based in the newly-established Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The editors describe the author correctly as an “academic perfectionist” given to “quitessentially empirical” writings presented in “meticulous narrative mode”. Indeed, this is a landmark work of English language writing on the Nepali polity.
The volume is the result of diligent archival effort by historian Onta, and his access to the Baral family papers has yielded a bonanza. Much that has been forgotten or ignored in relation to the constitutional and political developments of the pre-1990 period are placed before the reader of English. Baral’s prose retains its freshness for having been written with objectivity even as the events unfolded. It is instructive to compare and contrast his output with the writings of latter-day political scientists in Kathmandu, many of whom have evolved into full-time consultants or lost courage before radical populism. Baral did not adjust his sails according to the vagaries of the wind.
Through the chapters, the reader is constantly correlating what was written up to half a century ago with the political landscape of today, marked as it is by ruined state institutions and derailed processes. Whether analysing the motivations Mahendra’s coup of 1960, the surrender of the Kathmandu intelligentsia to royal demagoguery, or India’s reaction to the Birendra’s ‘zone of peace’ proposal, the reader finds perspectives that are important to understanding the present.
The significance of studying the Panchayat should be self-evident. Much of the contemporary challenges — including the anti-intellectualism rife among Kathmandu opinion-makers, the politicians’ weak grounding in ideology, the politicisation of college activism, the bottle-up anger of the ethnic and Madhesi communities — have their origins in the stultifying, centralising nature of the Panchayat. Ignoring the historical elephant in the room which is the Panchayat, we are instead peering into dusty corners in search of the primary culprit.
In some ways, the contemporary Maoist agenda is little different from what Mahendra managed with his 1960 coup. He introduced the partyless system, whereas the comrades would want to enforce a one-party, commissar-led, regime. The top-down structures of guided democracy, the ‘Back to the Village National Campaign’ that screened the political cadre, the faux parliamentary structures, the use of anti-India ultra-nationalism, the successful neutralising of the international community for three whole decades – these keystones of the Panchayat provide a readymade template for authoritarianism in Nepal.
Baral’s writings bring back to notice the terms extant in the ‘70s and ‘80s: the arastra-tatwa (anti-national elements) label for uncompromising democrats; panchas, the royalist rank-and-file; the nirbikalpa (without alternative) nature of monarchical absolutism; the claims of bikendrikaran without ever meaning to relinquish Kathmandu-centric control. The absence mandalay in the volume is probably because the term evolved in the final decade of the regime.
Reviving some of Baral’s signature terminology would greatly benefit the world of political analysis. He writes of how ‘Indophobia’ and ‘Sinophilia’ together defined Nepal’s foreign policy after the 1960 coup. ‘Decemberists’ were the Congress quislings who supported the Mahendra. Those who Baral calls ‘elites’ and ‘intellectuals’ would be today’s ‘civil society stalwarts’. Back then, this cohort exhibited its “disinclination to act collectively for the restoration of lost fundamental rights”. Significantly, they “ran the whole gamut from hope to despair to desperation to the politically unstable and be eventually disposed to accept authoritariansm…”
The author is harshest on the political class, for lacking a sense of duty towards the people. As we look around in November 2012 at democrat politicians who seem to have lost their ideological mooring, on reading Baral, it seems that this path to eternal disequilibrium started during interim period of the 1950s. Back then, too, the leaders engaged in “opportunistic fluctuations, flirtation with politics, and shifts in loyalties.”
Indeed, “The political actors were more like conspirators and agitational opportunity seekers than political leaders; and they were gradually alienated from the masses who over the years became apathetic to them.” Amen.