Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rise of Ranas

King Privthi, founder of the Gurkha Empire, had died in 1775. His heir, 24, would reign only two years. In 1777, the new king was a 2½ boy, and the real rulers were regents. This led to a tradition in Nepal of rule by regents and appointed prime ministers, who gradually attained their own dynastic control. The boy king Rana Bahadur was forced to abdicate on reaching his majority, then returned from exile (1804), executed the PM, and shortly afterward was killed in a quarrel with his cousin (1806), who likewise was killed at once. Girvan Yuddha, the illegitimate son of Rana, died almost immediately after he came of age (1816), so the disastrously inept PM Bhimsen Thapa and his ally, the Regent-Queen, remained in control. King Rajendra Bikram, the third child king in a row, was exiled to India when he reached his majority, then jailed (as was his son) when he attempted to return.

The eclipse of the monarch behind the regent or prime minister was a calamity because the new dictator, Jang Bahadur, was not remotely regarded as legitimate. Evidently, many Nepalis assume he was responsible for the Kot Massacre (1846) However, he abolished the slave trade and undertook several progressive reforms. His regime did align Nepal with the UK very closely, which was difficult to avoid since Jang Bahadur's first order of business was to subordinate the army to the state. During the half-century of intrigue leading up to Jang Bahadur's rule, the military was already semi-Western; it was the most efficient non-European army known to have existed at the time, and enjoyed unmatched prestige. Jang's dynasty, the Ranas, saw the urgent necessity of making this institution professionally subordinate to the regime, as well as technically accomplished enough to ward off conquest of Nepal.

Struggles within the Dynasty
The Shah Dynasty of Nepal reigned under virtual house arrest during the time of the Ranas. Jang Bahadur died in 1877, a full century after the beginning of Nepal's time of troubles. He was succeeded by his younger brother, the unconsensually-spelled Ranaudip Singh (or Ranoddip, or...), who was assassinated after 9 years in office by a relative in what was evidently supposed to have been a palace coup.

According to the writings of Pramod Shamsher Rana under "Rana Nepal, in Insider's view", Junga Bahadur built the Thapathali palace by misusing a large amount of national property after the marriage of his offspring. The palace was decorated with Italian marbles, Belgium glasses, and Victorian furniture. Junga Bahadur thus enjoyed luxurious life at the cost of national treasury. This habit of Jung Bahadur also influenced his offspring. They soon came to be known as drunkards. They imported very expensive liquors from France and Portugal. Junga Bahadur used to enjoy drinks only in the palace, but not in the public places, meetings and parties. But a person called Karabir Khatri suspected him of drinking alcoholic substance during his visit to Britain. Junga Bahadur became angry at this remark and ordered one person to urinate in Karabir's mouth. [Informal Sector Services, Human Rights Yearbook 1999]
Unlike the usual royal minister/scapegoat, Jang Bahadur really was in power, and his fortification of the comprador class was without precedent.

In 1857, Jang Bahadur himself executed two family members (by tearing them to pieces, as it happened) because they were conspiring with the exiled king to oust him. Another interesting connection: in the previous post I mentioned that the 3rd Shah king of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah, was killed in 1806 after returning from exile and overthrowing PM Damodar Pande. Since his son was the king—albeit in his minority—the former King Rana Bahadur had himself installed as PM. As mentioned, he was killed by his cousin during a quarrel; the cousin was also killed on the spot, by Bala Narasimha Kunwar. This Bala Narasimha was Jang Bahadur's father. Jang Bahadur [Rana] also shared a name with Rana Bahadur, the boy king whose accession had commenced the Nepali time of troubles. Hereafter, the hereditary prime ministers would have "Jang Bahadur Rana" as part of their name, and nearly all of them were knighted. The Ranas reformed the legal code of Nepal to weaken customs such as caste prohibitions and suttee. The creation of a modern legalistic state has been condemned by many Nepalis since it made the king or his ministers mere autocrats, rather than a socially-embedded institution accountable to the unique needs of the nation.

It's difficult to take seriously the notion that Nepal ever was, or ever could have remained, a benign example of kingship: a vast extended family, in which the monarch is guided by wise traditions and sincere concern for the well-being of his children. This image of kingship is usually drawn from European contact with pre-modern societies, and played back into post-colonial nostalgia. The historical record of constant warfare, however, suggests that earlier modalities of Nepali kingship were scarcely better. The Rana premiers of Nepal were colonial in the sense that they gingerly sought to cultivate favor with the British rulers of India, supported them militarily, and suffered political catastrophe when the British quit India. However, they were also colonial in the sense of preserving an empire of Nepalese over other Nepalese.
Despite their close alignment to the British military establishment, the Rana Era was one of

chronic underachievement:

The Ranas also attended to economic development by founding the Pharping Hydroelectric Company in 1911 and establishing the Nepal Industrial Board, a jute mill, a match factory, two cotton mills, the Nepal Plywood and Bobbin Company, and several rice mills during the 1930s. As for public health, the first tuberculosis clinic was set up in 1934. In view of the population of approximately 6 million in the 1930s, these accomplishments seem pitiful. Almost all Nepalese remained illiterate and uninformed about any part of the world outside their villages or, at best, their valleys. Public health and economic infrastructure had not advanced past medieval levels in most areas, and doing anything about it was proving impossible. Under Bhim Shamsher (reigned 1929-32), fifty people were arrested and fined for setting up a public library. Because the Ranas relied on the goodwill of the army and the British government to support their dictatorship, the army served as a legitimate--and perhaps the most viable--means for Nepalese citizens to achieve upward mobility or to see the world. During World War I (1914-18), the government of Nepal loaned more than 16,000 troops to the British, and 26,000 Nepalese citizens who were part of British Indian regiments fought in France and the Middle East. In gratitude the British government in 1919 bestowed on Nepal an annual payment of 1 million Indian rupees (US$476,000) in perpetuity and in 1920 transformed the British resident in Kathmandu into an envoy. A Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship signed in 1923 confirmed the independence of Nepal and its special relationship with British India. As long as British rule remained stable in India and the army offered a safety valve to release social pressures in Nepal, the Ranas were able to use their total control over internal affairs to isolate their country, a situation that could not long endure.

During the 1930's, political parties formed to oppose the Ranas, but they operated underground or in exile. This was concurrent with political agitation in India against British rule, although in some respects the Rana premiership was more rigid than the British authorities were. The Nepali National Congress gradually became an umbrella group for groups opposed to the Rana, uniting a broad range of interests.
Collapse of Rana Rule

The Ranas' initial reaction to political agitation was to seek military assistance from Britain and the USA. The emissaries of the Rana regime played to Nepal's (actually, the now-traditionalist Rana junta's) special relationship with the UK; early on, it sought to persuade the new Republic of India to duplicate the role of the British in India. Jawaharlal Nehru was understandably reluctant to establish too close a relationship with the tottering Rana Dynasty, and frequently emphasized that "we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal" (6 Dec '50); and so it is ironic that the deal he cut with PM Mohan Shamsher] was cut three months after the banned opposition was driven to armed uprising. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal therefore was intended to build up the Royal Nepali Army's power.
Juddha Shamsher, in office, tried to purge the system of aristocratic awarding of titles; but he also sought to freeze Nepal in the 19th century, arguing that the influx of foreign ideas was only making his subjects unhappy. His successor and nephew, Padma Shamsher, was soon faced with the inevitable contradictions of rival demands for Nepal. Preserving all those happy Nepalis in the middle ages required repression, and the onset of modern commerce (via worker remittances from India) would entail the passion of capitalist transformation of Nepal. The military was dominated not merely by members of the Kshatriya castes, but officers from the Rana clan itself; all generals, for example, were Rana family members.

Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala (1914-1982), a fairly important exiled Nepalese novelist, became directly involved in the struggle against the Rana regime by returning to the town of Biratnagar and leading a strike (the Biratnagar Hartal) against the regime. The military cracked down violently after 23 days of standoff. Koirala's new political party, the Nepali National Congress, was singled by Padma's successor, Mohan Shamsher (April '48-Nov. '51) for outlawry even after other political parties were allowed to participate in Padma's reformist parliament.
The parliament was in fact a feeble concession to the pro-democracy movement; Mohan Shamsher continued to insist on replacing MPs he disliked, while intimidating the opposition with arrests and reprisals (especially against B.P. Koirala). In November '50, things began to haven very fast: the Nepali opposition parties merged into the Nepali Congress Party, and embraced armed struggle against the Rana regime; King Tribuvhan fled to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and announced his abdication; and PM Mohan Shamsher proclaimed the baby Gyanendra king. The Terai Plateaux exploded into armed resistance, and Jawaharlal Nehru publicly embraced the revolution a mere 5 months after signing a crucial treaty with the regime it was seeking to replace. Two months later, the revolution was over. Under the terms of the peace agreement, Mohan Shamsher remained PM until he could be replaced democratically. His replacement was B.P. Koirala's brother, Matrika Prasad Koirala.

The Ranas since 1951
After the defeat of "Prime Minister" Mohan Shamsher, the struggle for democracy in Nepal was far from over. The Rana family was itself quite large, and supplied much of the leadership of the military. About a third of the personnel were actually the very caste as the Ranas (and the Shah family). Some of the Ranas had turned against the "A" class (the inner circle of Jang Bahadur's descendants) after the "B" and "C" were denied some of their privileges.
The Ranas appear to have mostly adapted to the revolution. In the 1990's, many returned to Nepal. Some, such as Shri Pashupati Shamsher, are ultra-royalist politicians (i.e., high-ranking officials of the RPP). Others, such as Diamond Shumshere Rana, served in the 1950 revolutionary movement against the Rana dynasty.
Jang Bahadur's great great grandniece (?), Devyani Rana (b.1972), was the woman Crown Prince Dipendra Shah wanted to marry. Since his parents King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya refused, presumably because of the deep bitterness between the Rana and Shah families, Dipendra reportedly massacred the royal household in 1 June 2001. Evidently, this is by no means an unprecedented event in Nepali history.

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