Nepali Times

In memoriam: Dubby Bhagat, 73

Monday, July 25th, 2016
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Date: March 2000

Venue: Mandarin Chinese Restaurant, The Everest Hotel, Kathmandu

dubby

The topic of conversation over lunch was a soon-to-be launched premium English-language weekly newspaper in Kathmandu. It was to be a lively, yet serious, tabloid that looked at Kathmandu and the Nepal beyond.

Dubby Bhagat was even more excited than I was about this new venture, bubbling with ideas about content, style, design. “It’s going to be an extraordinary paper,” he said, and even now I can hear clearly the crisp British intonation in the way he said “extraordinary”.

But we had to scratch our heads to come up with a name for the paper. After going through a shortlist that included Himalaya Post and Nepal Chronicle, I proposed Business and Political Weekly of Nepal, thinking the name would give the new publication intellectual heft, and a certain gravitas. Dubby cackled out loud, and shot it down with a decisive stab of his chopsticks. But he immediately became serious, and said: “Nepali Times”.

There was a palpable silence. We savoured the sound of that, let it roll around in our mouths —with the tasty morsels of Sichuan chicken — and minds. Yes, that was it. Nepali Times it was.

Dubby Bhagat came to Nepal with that refugee wave from Calcutta’s Junior Statesman that included the likes of Desmond Doig and Utpal Sengupta. They arrived in a Kathmandu 35 years ago that was a green jewel under a dark blue dome of a Himalayan sky across which raced puffs of dreamlike clouds.

Doig and Dubby worked on all manner of projects together: writing on Everest for National Geographic, toiling on a book on Mother Teresa, helping out with top-end hotels including the Shangri-La, Yak and Yeti and Everest. They were working on a glossy travel magazine of the Himalayan region that would have been a path-breaking publication, had Doig not died in 1984. books

They shared a great affection for Nepal, especially Kathmandu Valley, which is evident in the books they wrote together: Down History’s Narrow Lanes and My Kind of Kathmandu. After Doig’s demise, Dubby stayed on in Kathmandu, adopted a son and made Nepal his home. He wrote eclectic reviews for The Himalayan Times and spent most of his time raising his granddaughters.

In the last 16 years, every Friday morning without fail there would a phone call from Dubby dissecting the content of that morning’s paper cover-to-cover. He would read out loud choice sentences from the back page — Backside, by The Ass — guffawing uncontrollably until he broke into a cough. He would also mercilessly dismiss insipid and mediocre content, and was in this way the unofficial quality controller of a newspaper that he had helped birth.

At the 15th anniversary function last year at the Shangri-La, Dubby spoke about how proud he felt that the paper we had founded was now a vibrant, irreverent adolescent, complete with pimples, the hint of a moustache and a strong-willed personality.

Dubby had become an honorary Nepali, aghast at what his home country could do to his adopted one during the blockade in 2015, and did not mince words in describing the perpetrators as “imbeciles”. He delighted in simple pleasures like reading and watching movies, and enjoyed the world with all his senses. Walking down Jhamsikhel past Herman’s Bakery on a morning after night-long rain, he would say: “Take in the smell, take in the sights.”

A month or so ago, the Friday morning phone calls stopped coming. Embroiled in the ongoing day-to-day crises, I was unable to make a visit after hearing that he was not doing well. The end came after a heart attack while being taken to hospital on 20 July.

Miss your extraordinary presence, Dubby,

Kunda Dixit


Lethal politics of a sick nation

Monday, July 18th, 2016
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govinda kc

Pic: Gopen Rai

The health of a nation is often judged by the quality and reach of its health service. Some industrialised countries like the United States ail within because medical treatment is too expensive, and out of reach of many. On the other hand, there are low-income countries like Sri Lanka and Cuba which have universal, free and quality health care.

Every four years at election time in the United States, health care reform becomes a make-or-break agenda item, as it will in the run-up to November. America’s medical-industrial complex, which includes private insurance companies, do not like reform because it will reduce health costs and eat into their profits.

It is not surprising, therefore, that health care has become such a political hot potato in Nepal as well. The medical mafia and its political patrons in government and the legislature have investments in private hospitals and the lucrative medical education sector, and they are against any attempt to regulate private health care. As in every other arena of Nepal’s public life, the fox is guarding the chicken coop.

The rot is so deep that the Minister of Health and the State Minister of Health and Population (both from Tarai districts with abysmal statistics for physical wellbeing of citizens) have been blatantly demanding kickbacks  from the poor. With the clock ticking on their time in office, last week they openly asked for kickbacks of up to 50 per cent in return for approval of annual government grants that 23 community hospitals across rural Nepal are entitled to.

Corruption has corroded every facet of government, but it is when it afflicts health care that kleptocracy kills. Stealing money from hospitals is akin to murder. Outraged by all this, Nepal’s Gandhian physician, Govinda KC, has been on a lifelong crusade to make health care affordable and accessible to Nepal’s 30 million people. On Tuesday, he is on the tenth day of his eighth hunger strike, with a list of long-standing demands that have either been ignored or only partially fulfilled after previous satyagrahas.

Needless to say, the medical mafia and its political comrades-in-crime have been trying their best to discredit him, obstruct his fast at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital, and even gone as far as to try to deprive the frail KC of medical attention. It is ironical that top political leaders who have visited the Federal Alliance ‘hunger’ strikers at Tundikhel do not have the intestinal fortitude to call on KC, even to show concern for a doctor who is risking his life for the people.

Unfortunately, KC’s fast this time coincides with a power struggle that threatens to bring down the coalition of Prime Minister K P Oli of the UML. And since UML politicians and cronies have the biggest investments in the private medical industry, Oli has an excuse not to do anything, because he is ostensibly a lame duck. Even without KC’s hunger strike, the ongoing regime change drama has serious consequences for the budget, the constitution and the inclusion of Madhesi and Janajati concerns, as well as for Nepal’s geopolitical equilibrium. Our only hope was in the legislature, but parliamentarians are behaving like flailing tentacles of the political cartel sucking the blood of Nepalis.

It is clear that the deathly silence of the politicians is not just due to their business interest in the medical sector, but because of the fear of reprisals from Lokman Singh Karki, the dreaded head of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), which has itself become the biggest abuser of authority in the land. Even during his fifth fast two years ago, KC had demanded that Karki and Commissioner Rajnarayan Pathak be removed for obstructing reforms in the medical sector because of their vested interests.

The CIAA is still at it: it has overstepped its mandate in order to protect the family-business ties of its commissioners in the medical sector, it has brazenly interfered with Kathmandu University School of Medicine, and it has tried to influence the licensing of new medical colleges, forcing out functionaries of the Institute of Medicine who stood in the way.

Nepal is run by a syndicate of tainted politicians who are in cahoots with cartels in health, education, transportation, food supply, tourism  you name it. They are not here to serve the people but to steal from them. The tragedy is that they have infiltrated Parliament through nominees in the proportional representation quota, to make laws that perpetuate their profiteering.

The Health Bill passed last week doesn’t include any of Govinda KC’s demands for healthcare reform. Enough said.

Read Also:

Truth be told, Bidushi Dhungel

KC’s new crusade


Dying to make a living

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016
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The turmoil and terrorism that has engulfed the entire crescent from Pakistan, though Iraq and Syria to Libya seems a world away from Nepal. But once more, the violence of that region has spilled over. It was brought home with the tragic deaths of 12 Nepali citizens in the bus bombing in Kabul on the morning of Monday, 20 June.

Once more, families in Nepal grieved for sons killed faraway. We were again reminded of the fragility of Nepal’s remittance-driven economy. More than half the four million Nepalis working abroad are located in the volatile Gulf region. The migrant economy now makes up nearly one-third of the country’s GDP, and it is the blood, sweat and tears of our workers, the money that they send home, that sustains their families and keeps Nepal’s economy afloat.

It was only 12 years ago that 12 Nepali workers who had been taken hostage by the Ansa al-Sunnah group in Iraq were gunned down. When the  killings were broadcast live on international tv channels, riots broke out in Kathmandu. It was later revealed that Nepali Congress cadre used the tragedy to stage coordinated attacks on recruiting agencies and mosques to fan communal flames in an attempt to destabilise the royal regime.

At least a dozen Nepalis, most of them private security guards or soldiers with the British Army, have been killed in Afghanistan in the past decade. But this week’s attack on Nepalis guarding the Canadian Embassy in Kabul was by far the most serious loss of life and underscores the fact that Nepalis are literally dying to make a living.

Such is the desperation for jobs and for a better life, that Nepalis are one of few nationalities willing to put themselves in harm’s way in dangerous jobs that no one else will do. Fatalities involving NATO troops in Afghanistan have fallen due to cutbacks, but also because Nepalis have taken up frontline sentry duties and convoy escorting.

Monday’s killings were full of glaring coincidences and ironies. It happened even as there were events in Kathmandu to mark World Refugee Day. Nepali workers overseas may not be classified as refugees, but they are economic migrants forced to leave because of the lack of jobs and prospects at home.

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A tweet on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation handle with breaking news of the attack said: ‘All Canadian Embassy staff safe …’, raising questions about what that mission had done to ensure the safety of its own security personnel. Who guards the guards? Who is responsible for the safety of foreign workers when security itself is subcontracted?

In a world numbed by violence and tragedy, we were once more reminded of the hierarchy of news. To trend, an event has to be sudden, there have to be dramatic visuals, the loss of life has to be above a certain threshold total, and even that depends on where the fatalities take place or where the victims are from. The death of a dozen Nepali security guards did not make the kind of headlines that a similar loss of life of NATO troops have commanded in the past.

But even in Nepal, there was a glaring discrepancy in coverage. A sudden terrorist attack with heavy loss of life got more prominence than coverage of the tragedy that unfolds more slowly — the deaths from ‘natural’ causes of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf and Malaysia . There aren’t any banner headlines about the deaths of at least 1,000 Nepali migrant workers every year in Malaysia and the Gulf.

For example, 603 Nepalis died in one year (2014-15) just in Malaysia and Qatar. In the six years between 2008-14, 1,121 Nepali workers died in Malaysia, 880 in Saudi Arabia, 739 in Qatar and 264 in the UAE. But these deaths did not happen suddenly in one place, they were scattered across the region, the workers mostly died quietly in their sleep, and the only visuals were of coffins arriving at Kathmandu airport. So they never made it to the news.

The deaths of our soldiers fighting in foreign armies and security guards protecting embassies and airports in war zones around the world also opens up the vexing question of pride and sovereignty. We Nepalis are, on the one hand, proud never to have been colonised and being labelled the oldest nation state in South Asia. And yet, in this day and age we allow our citizens to fight and die for foreigners. Even more surprising is how much recruitment of Nepalis by the armed forces of India, Britain, Singapore, Oman or Brunei is accepted by the public here.

Nepali soldiers have been  mixed up in a war between two neighbours with whom we have good relations (as happened in the India-China war of 1962), and Gurkhas fought each other in 1816, and on opposite sides during World War 2 in Imphal. We have accepted these profound contradictions, and taken them in our stride.

Recruitment of Nepali citizens in foreign armies is a historical incongruity that can only be set right by stabilising our politics and straightening out our economy. This involves politics, and once and for all getting our governance right. If we don’t, we will continue to depend on overseas remittances to prop up our precarious economy, and tragedies like the one that befell our compatriots in Kabul this week will keep on repeating.


Climactic change

Sunday, June 5th, 2016
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Green is not just the colour of the environment, it is also the colour of money. 

climactic change

Pic: Kunda Dixit

As another Environment Day comes around on 5 June, you can be sure that our commitment to clean air, green cities and lean living will be confined to token rallies in which school children once again will be dragooned to carry placards along Kathmandu’s roads. In the afternoon, a smattering of ministers will attend half-hearted functions in which they will read meaningless speeches to almost-asleep invitees. And that will be it until the next Environment Day on 5 June 2017.

And yet, the past 12 months have been a reminder to us in Nepal that disasters are not only of the earth-shattering kind — there are slow-moving crises like the climate calamity affecting us. It is not as immediately dramatic, but the warming earth is reaching a tipping point with almost certain catastrophic impact on the Himalaya and everything downstream.

This year Nepal suffered an unprecedented drought, and the only reason we haven’t heard more about it is that it affected the country’s poorest and remotest mountain districts of the far-west. Entire villages have been abandoned as people move to the cities in search of a means of survival.

In central Nepal, the onset of pre-monsoon rains has ended the drought, but springs have dried up because of the subterranean impact of the earthquake on aquifers. In this edition, photographer Kishor Sharma profiles a village in Dhankuta that has no water at all, and where households spend entire days ferrying water up the mountain from the Tamor River.

To be sure, droughts are nothing new to Nepal. Monsoons have frequently failed. But there is evidence that climate change is making weather patterns significantly more erratic, leading to extreme rainfall events and prolonging droughts.

If successive national governments had been more proactive in rigging up irrigation systems and putting in place drinking water schemes, they would have addressed a chronic problem that has been made far more acute by global warming.

Across Nepal, we see that villages with efficient and accountable leadership have been successful at lessening dependence on rain-fed agriculture. Today, they are the ones better able to cope with climate change. Unpredictable weather is only the latest hardship that Nepalis have to face, and has undoubtedly exacerbated all other existing problems markedly.

Climate change ‘adaptation’ is now a buzzword for governments, international agencies and NGOs in their fund-raising efforts. But in reality climate change has only brought to the fore existing structural problems of governance that render farmers vulnerable.

Then there are the overarching regional problems of longterm water shortages brought about by global warming. As we see in a special report in this issue, over one generation the glaciers in Nepal and Tibet have receded, snowlines have moved up the mountains, and hundreds of lakes have appeared out of nowhere and are in danger of bursting. ICIMOD researchers in Langtang this year observed the thickest spring haze ever.

There is reason to believe that not all of the melting of Himalayan glaciers is the result of global emissions, but is also caused by the deposits on the snowfields of soot particles from industries, crop and forest fires. Ironically, the forest fires were more widespread this year because of a prolonged drought, itself induced by global warming.

True, snow and ice get all the attention for Himalayan climate scientists, and the reason is that they are so strikingly visible. Weather gets less attention because its correlation with global warming is not yet conclusively proven, so scientists are reluctant to blame greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for the frequency and intensity of storms, droughts or cloudbursts.

Climate change overshadows all other crises, and is often seen as a stand-alone problem which has to be ‘mitigated’ or to which people have to ‘adapt’. In fact, the rural poor of the Himalaya have always had to mitigate and adapt, and to cope with the underlying factors keeping them poor. The basis of their vulnerability is political neglect, but the reason they have to leave their homes today is environmental. Archetypal political corruption and patronage that disregards the environment in sand and boulder mining, or in quarrying the Chure make people there poorer.

The poor lack choice. If there is no rain, there is no irrigation canal to fall back on. If the springs run dry, they have to vacate their homes. When food runs out, they migrate to India. Nepalis will become increasingly more destitute because climate change will reduce their choices. They lacked options long before anyone knew the globe was warming — they have always had to deal with uncertain weather on their own. Now they also have to adapt to an uncertain climate.

Read also:

When melting mountains shake, Kunda Dixit

Mountain people paying

Kurule tenupa, Kishor Sharma

Defrosted, Kunda Dixit

High and dry, Ayesha Shakya


SILENCED

Monday, May 2nd, 2016
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Photo credit: VATSAYAN/KANTIPUR

Photo credit: VATSAYAN/KANTIPUR

There have been attempts to foist authoritarianism on the people throughout Nepal’s recent history. But there was dissent even during the iron-fisted rule of the Rana oligarchy, and some were hanged for their trouble. A hush-hush and underground pro-democracy movement was gathering strength even during the Panchayat to erupt in street protests in 1980 and 1990. During the decade-long war for totalitarianism by the extreme left, or the royal-military coup of 2005, civil society fought tooth and nail to protect our freedom. It is the sacrifice of the martyrs, and the fortitude of Nepal’s pro-democracy warriors that we are able to enjoy the open society we have today.

Make that ‘had’. Ever since the pre-meditated appointment of Lok Man Singh Karki as the head of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) in 2013, we have been seeing a gradual erosion of the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution. A creeping counter-revolution is taking the country back to authoritarianism. This time it is not being done with the force of arms, or mass arrests, but by intimidation, threats and the blatant abuse of authority by the very institution created to curb such abuse.

In the three years since his appointment, Karki has made the CIAA an extra-constitutional source of political power that works hand-in-glove with business syndicates, political cartels and at the behest of outside powers and their agencies. The ultimate aim here seems to be to derail a democratically produced constitution and abrogate its implementation. Some don’t like the secular provision and want Nepal to remain a Hindu state, others would like to see the monarchy back, there are those who think federalism doesn’t go far enough and some who think it’s a bad idea. Rival forces in New Delhi have got embroiled in this power struggle, and are competing in Kathmandu through their proxies.

Kanak Mani Dixit is just the latest pawn in a game in which Karki sits at the chess board but there are larger geopolitical sources moving the pieces for him. By now, just about everyone who had run afoul of Karki in the past as the Royal Law and Order Enforcer, or those who opposed India’s five-month blockade of Nepal, have been issued CIAA summons or been hauled over the coals.

On the pretext of investigating corruption, the CIAA has systematically targeted bureaucrats, police, politicians, professors, journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and pluralism campaigners. The intimidation and threats have instilled a culture of silence that is destroying our democracy and rule of law. And the latest proof of that is the inability or reluctance of the Kathmandu polity to speak out openly against the CIAA’s unlawful detentions.

Few spoke out when the CIAA violated Article 20 of the constitution by not allowing lawyers to see Dixit for a full 72 hours after his detention on 22 April. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists opted to stay quiet even when its global umbrella body, the International Federation of Journalists, spoke out against this attempt to silence a journalist. The Nepal Bar Association, which has always been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in this country, has kept silent about Dixit, who himself is a member of the Kathmandu Bar.

To be sure, Nepal’s politicians, civil servants, legislators, and even heads of sports bodies are rotten to the core. The CIAA was set up precisely because various pillars of the state could be co-opted by organised criminals enjoying political protection. But today that very institution has been infiltrated by a persona epitomising the collective scourges his office is supposed to investigate. What do you do when an agency set up to stem the rot is itself rotten? Or when politicians whose closets rattle with skeletons keep mum? To counter abuse of authority by a constitutional body we can only fall back on two other constitutional bodies: the judiciary and parliament. The danger is that these institutions themselves will be the next to be silenced by the conspirators.

Those who remain silent when they come for freedom fighters may like to remind themselves of this famous message: there may be no one left to speak out when they come for you.


Disastrous coverage

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
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Photo: Bikram Rai

Photo: Bikram Rai

Given their short attention spans, limited capacity to capture context, and the scripted narrative of international news, reporters cannot be entirely blamed for their unidimensional coverage  of disasters. We have seen the pattern repeated after Typhoon Haiyan, Cyclone Nargis and Hurricane Katrina. So, there was a certain predictability to the way that an earthquake in distant Nepal would be covered.

Anniversaries are a time to revisit disasters, and the story about our earthquake has been written even before the reporters skydive in — government response has been non-existent, survivors are still living in tents, and none of the $4.1 billion pledged last year at a donor conference has been spent. The truth, as we know, is little more complex. But it would be silly to let facts get in the way of a trending topic.

Where was the foreign media and a self-righteous international community when Nepal was reeling under a ruinous Indian blockade, the economic impact of which on the country was much more debilitating than the earthquake? Where were they when the Tarai was burning last August? Was there coverage of earthquake relief material being stuck at the border for five months? Who  covered the shortage of aviation fuel and diesel that halted delivery of winterisation kits for earthquake shelters?

And now, when the sky goes dark once more with parachute journalists, the world is fed decontextualised coverage of delays in relief delivery and survivors still not receiving their reconstruction grants. Where were you when patients were dying in November-December 2015 because ambulances had run out of fuel? Didn’t see internationals showing much concern when hospitals ran out of diesel for generators, vaccine cold chains broke down, schools were closed and the country was in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.

The Google Database of Events Language and Tone (GDELT Project)  collaborated with the humanitarian news agency, IRIN to analyse coverage of the earthquake in the first half of 2015, using 300,000 articles in 65 languages that mentioned the word Nepal. Starting with a ‘background radiation’ of an average of 300 mentions per day in March, the number suddenly soars to nearly 33,000 on 25 April (see graph). Then in a week it drops precipitously to 2,000. There is a small peak on 12 May, the day of the 7.3 magnitude aftershock and the disappearance of a US Marines rescue helicopter, and another small blip four days later when the chopper is found in Dolakha.

Photo: IRIN

Illustration: IRIN

Interestingly, the GDELT/IRIN study further analyses the 33,000 mentions of Nepal on 25-26 April 2015 and finds that nearly a quarter of the stories were about the avalanche at Mt Everest Base Camp that killed 16. Even in May 2015, 17 per cent of the stories were still focusing on Mt Everest. Predictably, by mid-May the international media has moved  on to disasters elsewhere in the world, and coverage of Nepal falls back to nearly pre-earthquake levels even though the real slow motion disaster was just beginning in Nepal.

The coverage, especially on tv, zoomed in exclusively on the destruction, creating the impression that Kathmandu had been utterly devastated. Monuments had collapsed, and those visuals were just too photogenic to resist. The fact that 90 per cent of the residential buildings in Kathmandu Valley were intact did not seem to register because it did not fit the prevailing news narrative. Reporters are supposed to strive for accuracy, but disproportionate coverage of destruction distorts the truth.

The GDELT Project analysis of the data after May 2015 concludes: ‘…the world’s news media appears to have largely moved on from Nepal, finding it no longer “newsworthy” enough to devote significant attention to.’ If the monitoring had continued, we would likely be seeing a slight rise in mentions of Nepal worldwide now, less steep but peaking perhaps on Monday next week, and a steep descent after that as Nepal and the earthquake once more sink back into oblivion.

This is the reality of international news coverage, and there is little we can do about it. News is a product much like what is called FMCG in advertising parlance — to be gathered, processed, packaged and sold like a fizzy drink or fried drumstick. The market is mainly in the West, and that dictates the selection of what makes news. Earthquakes make it, blockades don’t. It just takes too long to explain.

The Indian blockade was an asymmetrical response to the inability of Nepal’s rulers to address the grievances of plains-dwellers, and its heavy-handed crackdown on ensuing protests last year. It gave the wily Oli government the perfect excuse for the delays in earthquake relief. He whipped up xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, camouflaging his inability to deal with India, to get the National Reconstruction Authority up and running, and to hide the blatant protection of the black-market economy. The Indians did Oli a big favour with the blockade, and allowed him to get away with doing nothing.

In the midst of all this are the bright spots that we feature in the current and previous editions of this newspaper: the communities that have taken up reconstruction on their own, heritage conservationists at the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) who are rebuilding historic sites with the Department of Archaeology , international organisations like Possible that have forged effective partnerships with the Ministry of Health to rebuild not just destroyed hospitals but also the health system in the earthquake-affected areas, or organizations like Miyamoto International and Childreach Nepal working with the Department of Education to rebuild government schools in Sindhupalchok. These are working examples of non-government organisations delivering valuable services by collaborating with government, and not trying to bypass it. Ultimately, our goal should be not to absolve the government of its responsibility but improve its capacity to reach people in need.

News about slow government is no longer news to us Nepalis. It is a given. The news is what we do despite that, but such behind-the-scenes partnerships are just not newsworthy enough for ambulance-chasers.


The sharp edge of history

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016
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A new book looks back at 200 years of Gurkha history.

KUNDA DIXIT

Exactly 200 years ago this week, Nepali defenders were waiting at Makwanpur Fort for the East India Company to attack. This was going to be a make-or-break battle to protect Kathmandu, and Nepal’s sovereignty. The Gorkhalis ambushed the British, and a shell from a cannon exploded near the British commanding officer, Major General David Ochterlony, nearly killing him.

In her new book, The Khukri Braves, Jyoti Thapa Mani concludes: ‘If Ochterlony had been hit, the complexion of the Second Anglo-Gorkha War would have changed completely.’ Indeed, the Gorkha kingdom, having lost Garhwal and Kumaon, was balking at ratifying the Sugauli Treaty. Learning from past experience, the British brought in two 18-pounder cannons and aimed them at the fortifications. The Nepalis knew then that the game was up, and dispatched Chandrashekhar Upadhya at 2AM to Ochterlony with the Sugauli Treaty duly signed and stamped.

The Khukri Braves

Ochterlony wrote a receipt: ‘Received this treaty from Chunder Seekur Opedheea, agent on the part of the Rajah of Nepal in the valley of Mukwanpoor, at half past two o’clock on the 4th of May 1816, and delivered to him the Counterpart Treaty on behalf of the British Government. (signed) D Ochterlony, Agent, Governor-General’.

It is details like these that make Mani’s book riveting. Far from being a history text book with dry annotated text, it is an illustrated encyclopedia of the wars that shaped this country, a saga of how Nepali soldiers ended up two centuries later fighting for other nations. We learn, for instance, that Nepali soldiers had defected to the British side in 1815, even before the Anglo-Nepal War formally ended.

That first unit was called the Malaun Regiment after the last big battle in Garhwal, which went on to become the 66th Ghoorkha Rifles and then the 1st Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army after the British left. We learn that Mani’s own ancestors were part of the Gorkhali Army in 1790 as it marched west, later they served in the Malaun Regiment and her great-great-grandfather was in the 66th Ghoorkhas and her great-grandfather Kaluram Thapa fought in the 1st Gurkha Rifles. Mani’s military genes and her job as a newspaper designer make her the ideal person to package this history of Nepal’s famous fighting men.

Pic credit: The Gurkha Museum Winchester and Ayo-Gorkhali.org. Timeline by Ayesha Shakya

The East India Company in Calcutta was a multinational trading house that represented the British state in the subcontinent, and had an army made up of Irish and Scottish mercenaries and Indian recruits. The expansionist Gorkha empire at its height in 1815 stretched along the Himalayan foothills for 2,000km from the River Sutlej to the Tista in the east. The Company was interested to find trading routes across the Himalaya, primarily to monopolise the lucrative trade in shatoosh, a fine wool made from the chest hair of baby antelopes found on the Tibetan plateau. But the Gorkhalis controlled the Himalayan passes.

The Khukri braves

The Shah kings after Prithvi Narayan Shah had brilliant generals like Amar Singh Thapa and Balbhadra Kunwar who waged a westward blitzkrieg conquering territory at astounding speed. But the supply lines had become too long, the Thapas and Pandes in Kathmandu were feuding, and principalities they had conquered started rebelling behind them.

Mani carefully retraces the steps of her ancestors, and visits the blood-soaked forts at Nalapani, Khalanga, and Jythuck. She becomes an archaeologist herself to pinpoint the location of Kangra Fort. These are names of battles etched in Nepal’s national memory, and The Khukri Braves makes them all come alive. The book is superbly researched, illustrated with maps, as well as with then-and-now photographs of the famous forts that forged the histories of Nepal, India and Britain. We can follow the legendary battles, the bravery of the Nepali defenders who fought to the last. There is a gripping account of how Gen Bhakti Thapa charged British cannons at Malaun, was hit, tied his disemboweled stomach with his turban and proceeded to behead a whole lot of enemy soldiers before falling.

Mani follows the exploits of the Gurkhas in later campaigns under the British. More than 100,000 young Nepali men served in the Western Front and in Gallipoli during World War I, and 22,000 were killed. In World War II, 250,000 British Gurkhas and Royal Nepal Army soldiers fought and died in Europe, Burma and Malaya, 32,000 were killed. We find out that Nepali soldiers were on opposite sides in the Burma front, British Gurkhas fought fellow Nepalis from Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA who were allied with the  Japanese.

The Khukri braves

Mani makes the distinction between Indian ‘Gorkha’ and British ‘Gurkha’ soldiers, and explains why it is a generic term and not an ethnicity. She includes a Hall of Fame of 13 Gurkhas awarded the Victoria Cross and Indian Army gallantry medals for action in wars against Pakistan and China. The book argues that Nepali soldiers can’t be called ‘mercenaries’, but even so it is a historical aberration that allows the nationals of one country fight and die for another. Also, research into censored letters written by Nepalis in the trenches of Ypres show a less stereotypical, more human, Gurkha suffering from homesickness, fear and gloom.

The book has a useful guide to the Gorkha forts of northern India, and as citizens of this country we are left to ponder how we ourselves have honoured our brave forebears who died to leave us a nation called Nepal.

The Khukri Braves: The Illustrated History of the Gorkhas

by Jyoti Thapa Mani

Rupa India, 2015

407 pages, INR 2,795 

Read also:

The Pashmina War Kunda Dixit

200th Anniversary of Nalapani Kunda Dixit 

Double centennial Editorial

100 years of platitudes Sunir Pandey


 

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