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Nepal: Can We Ever Reconcile Our Relative Truths?

Nepal: Can We Ever Reconcile Our Relative Truths?


By Sanjay Upadhya

Amid calls for the creation of a truth and reconciliation committee to complete the peace process, Maoist leader Dev Gurung has come out with his own flash of candor. He wants a separate ministry to oversee the reconstruction of infrastructure lost in the decade-long “people’s war”.

It would have been comforting to accept Gurung’s assertion as the ultimate acknowledgment of responsibility. If those intent on blowing up Nepal into Year Zero in their quest for a utopia could genuinely undergo such a radical change of heart, well, more Nepalis should be encouraged to bare their souls.

But genuineness is not something that can be easily equated with Gurung’s organization. And not entirely because of the scale of the death, destruction and debris the Maoists have unleashed. A fully and credibly disarmed Maoists – if that could ever be achieved – would still retain their lethal verbal weapons of obfuscation and prevarication.

It has become fashionable to cite post-apartheid South Africa as an example of truth being an effective tool for reconciliation. Not every nation is blessed with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Where Nepal is at a real disadvantage is that truth, here, is more likely to be relative. It would be unfair to single out the Maoists on this count.

Let’s begin with the creation of the modern Nepali state. Decades of profuse state-inspired tributes bestowed upon King Prithvi Narayan Shah almost superhuman abilities. If Lord Ram needed his Hanumans and Bibhishans, could the king of Gorkha have achieved much without confidants and commanders?

In the inevitable backlash, democratic Nepal has veered the other way. National unification stands on clusters of eyeballs, nasal cartilage and ear lobes, not to mention corpses. The Capuchin missionaries – the most prominent chroniclers of the fall of Kirtipur – may have been faithful to what they had witnessed. It hardly seems to matter today that they were allies of the Mallas who had persuaded the British to send Captain Kinloch’s ill-fated expeditionary force against the Gorkha army.

The elasticity of our authenticity endures in other ways. Those condemning the conquerors for having imposed conformity through Khas-Nepali words and practices on diverse indigenous peoples rise up in anger each time a foreigner is perceived to be denigrating Nepal.

Political truths are all the more ambiguous. Was King Tribhuvan’s flight to New Delhi part of a carefully devised plan to turn Nepal into a beacon of democracy? Or was the monarch, already under increasing threat from the Rana rulers, pursuing a strategy for survival?

Was the Nepali Congress really the driver of the 1951 changes as it claims? Or did the organization merely provide the street power for an initiative our southern neighbors had devised to counter the radicalization of our northern ones? Democracy resulting as a byproduct is certainly not the same as one genuinely created.

The palace’s consolidation of political power after the dawn of democracy is attributed to ambitious monarchs. Perhaps. But could such a quest have succeeded without the compulsions that seemed to rally most stakeholders around the palace for stability?

King Mahendra’s distress at the emergence of a competing national institution is solely blamed for the overthrow of Nepal’s first elected government. Doubtless, the monarch could barely conceal his antipathy for party politicians in his pronouncements as crown prince. But does that sufficiently explain how up to three-quarters of the 74 Nepali Congress legislators in the lower house could end up supporting the palace? Or is the palace to be blamed for this en masse surrender?

The freedom fighter in Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru could have done nothing less than denounce the royal takeover as a setback to democracy. How do we explain the massive economic assistance New Delhi went on to infuse into the partyless system? Certainly not just because of the torrent of Chinese, Soviet, American and British aid and expertise?

B.P. Koirala based his acceptance of the referendum verdict in favor of the Panchayat system in 1980 on the duties of a democrat. Or was it the anti-communist in him speaking? But, then, who knows how national reconciliation really came to be the euphemism B.P. used to trade house arrest in Emergency-era India for a second stint at Sundarijal? These issues are relevant to understanding why sections of the Nepali Congress – a party that attempted regicide twice in the 1960s and 70s – should still feel compelled to advocate a ceremonial monarchy.

The pragmatism that had taken over Nehru’s Delhi after the 1962 Sino-Indian war could not have melted merely under his grandson’s purported personality clashes with King Birendra. Could Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit to China in 1988 have encouraged New Delhi to twist the palace’s arms and slip that 80-page draft memo on the entire gamut of ties to find out which one would work first?

The People’s Movement of 1990 cast a more ominous shadow. Did King Birendra restore multiparty democracy at that late-night meeting or did he simply lift the ban on parties? The distinction is important considering how Nepalis had to spend the subsequent 11 years in a twilight zone. Of course, it took King Gyanendra’s dismissal of Sher Bahadur Deuba’s elected government for our politicians to tell us that the slain monarch was not, after all, the model constitutional monarch they had made him out to be.

The Maoists seem to have been the biggest winners of the April Uprising. Let’s take a closer look. Until last week, the rebels seemed to have won half of their original demands. After the Baluwatar agreement, they have settled for 25 percent, by acknowledging that the House proclamation had already suspended the monarchy.

Yet the real record lies in their virtual silence on the first nine of their 40-point demand. True, Prachanda and his comrades are still calling for a more equitable relationship between Nepal and India. The tone has lost all of its roar now that words like “Bhutanization” and “Sikkimization” have quietly left the comrades’ lexicon. Prachanda must have drawn this important lesson from Madan Bhandari’s tragic end: It makes more sense to attend a global leadership summit down south than to aspire to embody the Great Helmsman up north.

Dr. Baburam Bhattarai certainly recognized the opportunity of the moment and claimed an undeclared working unity with King Birendra. His eloquence impelled him to conclude that Nepalis would rate highly every predecessor of the slain monarch. No one considered it relevant to ask the comrade what he considered to be the most salient features of the reigns of, say, Kings Pratap Singh, Girvan Yuddha, Surendra and Prithvi Bir.

King Gyanendra is expected to take responsibility for 238 years of the Shah dynasty. The 104 years of Rana rule, 30 years of Bhimsen Thapa and the periods an assortment of courtiers manipulated infant kings are all clubbed into one epoch of history. Worse, many descendants of those same Thapas, Pandeys, Basnets, Kunwars and bevy of Bahuns and Newars pretend they can absolve their clans of complicity.

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala must certainly feel vindicated today when the Maoists insist he must continue as premier. After the Narayanhity carnage, Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai had clubbed Koirala together with the current king and crown prince in a single “coterie”.

The Nepali Congress dissidents and the CPN-UML would not have succeeded in dislodging an elected prime minister who was also the head of the majority party in parliament without the help of the Maoists. Who knows what kind of flexibility power might encourage our rebels turned rulers to exhibit in the run-up to the constituent assembly elections?

Each Nepali has a copious collection of personal truths capable of overwhelming even the strongest willed reconciliation commissioner. The strident mixture of ancient grudges and modern slights – real and perceived – would require an open-ended commission. The truth, they say, shall set us free. But can we ever reconcile our relative truths?

*************

Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University.

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