Bureaucratic hurdles in researching Nepal's bureaucracy

From this account of Nepal's bureaucracy from 50 years ago, not much seems to have

Singha Darbar after the 1973 fire. Most of the building was undamaged, and the author called unannounced on several officials there in 1974. ALL PHOTOS: Daniel W Edwards

In 1974, I was in Nepal conducting research for my PhD thesis on the country’s bureaucracy from 1850 to 1950. Tribhuvan University approved my research project and wrote letters on my behalf to government officials.

Since I had taught as a Peace Corps volunteer here from 1966-1969, I could speak and understand basic Nepali and had some knowledge of the culture and bureaucracy. But I was hardly prepared for the bureaucratic obstacles to study the bureaucracy of the Rana era for which I needed access to original government records.

The records I sought were held by Goswara Tahvil (GT), an office under the Finance Ministry. Its Hakim reported to the Accountant General (AG). The AG reported to the Joint Secretary, who reported to the Secretary, who reported to the Minister of Finance appointed by King Birendra. At that time, many of His Majesty's Government (HMG) offices were located in Singha Darbar, and one could enter that vast building without an ID, wander its dark halls at will, casually look into an office, and, showing proper deference, often be ushered in to meet an official without a prior appointment.

Some months after beginning my research, I heard there was a collection of historical documents held by Goswara Tahvil. It took me six months to obtain permission to access those records useful in writing my thesis. Fifty years later, I wonder if the bureaucracy has changed very much: Nepali readers will know better.

6 March, 1974: An elderly former civil servant informs me a collection of old government records is stored at a former Rana residence in Patan. I go to GT to meet the head and inquire about these records. Offices open at 10 o’clock, but I never go to meet government officials before 11. The Hakim is not there.

Registers of Rana-era government employees were at Kitab Khana in Patan. They are now at the National Archives.

11 March: I return to GT. Again, the Hakim is out.

13 March: I meet the Hakim, and he allows me to copy from a panjika or general list of the records I seek. He says the Accountant General can give me permission to read the records. I go to the AG’s office in Singha Darbar. He is out.

14 March: I go to see the AG. He is not in the office.

15 March: I write a letter to the Finance Ministry (enclosing copies of my sponsoring letters from Tribhuvan University and the University of Chicago) asking permission to see those records.

16-30 March: I am away from Kathmandu.

 1 April: I plan to go meet the AG only to find out it is a government holiday.

 2 April: I locate my application in another office (Mal Pot) of the Finance Ministry. Someone there had initialed my letter of request, but the office director quotes a rule that no documents could be shown to me without an order from his superiors. He promises to resubmit my file. I meet the AG. He says he will need a letter from his superiors. I locate the office of the Joint Secretary, who immediately rings up the two officials I have talked to today.

3 April: The president of France died, so for the second time in four days it is a government holiday.

5 April: I meet the AG and write an application to see the documents. I affix a 1-rupee stamp to comply with the regulations. He promises me a letter on the 8th.

8 April: I meet the AG. He says approval has been given, but he has not yet received authorisation.

10 April: The Hakim allows me to see some records in his office but points out that in my application I wrote that I wanted to 'look at' the records, but had said nothing about 'copying' them. Therefore, he must seek clarification. There are no photocopy machines available, nor can cameras be used. Laptops and scanners have yet to be invented. Records must be copied by hand.

11 April: I meet the AG. He says he has submitted my application but has received no response.

12 April: I go to GT. I can’t write in Nepali so I can’t copy records by hand in Nepali. The Hakim says he will have to check whether I am allowed to have my research helper copy documents.

15 April: I call the AG by phone regarding the documents stored in Patan. He still has not heard anything, and in the midst of our conversation the phone line goes dead. Back at the GT, my helper can copy parts of the documents as long as I sign at the top and bottom of each page of material he writes in my notebook. This is progress!

18 April: I meet the AG in Singha Darbar and just have a friendly chat with him to try to win him over. I tell him I hope he can visit me in America some day.

21 April: I decide to go again and talk to the Joint Secretary in the Finance Ministry. He is out. I return after lunch. He is still out.

22 April: I meet the JS. He says my file is at higher levels, but I can look at the records in Patan. I go to GT. The Hakim won’t be back for a week. His assistant says they have received no instructions but that the AG can give me permission.

23 April: I meet the AG and tell him I’ve heard he could give me the necessary permission. He promises to do so by 1PM tomorrow.

25 April: Another president of a foreign country died, so again government offices are closed.

26 April: The records I seek are stored about three miles from the GT office. I hail a taxi, and an office piun with keys rides with me. He opens the door to a large room which is full of several hundred cloth sacks (poka) piled on top of each other. I step onto a pile and pull out some sacks, on each of which is written a year that identifies the date of the documents inside. I untie some bundles; I suspect documents in the bundle marked 1957 (1900 AD) have not been consulted since they were copied 74 years ago. Some groups of records are identified, such as 'West No. 2, 1942' (1885 AD), but none has an index. Other records are rolled up like scrolls and tied with string. All the documents are handwritten in Nepali on strong, locally-made paper. Most are amazingly well preserved. However, much of the handwriting is illegible or difficult to read. I am not permitted to copy anything, but do note down some sacks that may contain material of interest.

29 April: I go again to the record warehouse near Patan, but by noon no one has come from the main office to unlock the door. My helper goes to GT to find out the problem and returns with the news that since I have asked to look at so many bundles, they cannot let me look at any of them. They need an official order to do so.

5 May: I go to GT after lunch. The Hakim is out. I never know whether he has come in and gone out on an errand and will return; whether he has come in and gone home for the day; or whether he has not come to the office that day and has no intention of doing so.

7 May: I go to GT. The Hakim says I must bring him a written order and that the AG and Joint Secretary should not make verbal requests of him.

9 May: I ask a Research Section Officer at Tribhuvan University whether the government has a policy on making its historical records available to bona fide researchers and why he thinks I’m having such difficulties. He offers to write a letter on my behalf and submit it to the Finance Ministry.

12 May: I leave a letter at the University explaining what records I want to see and ask the University’s assistance in obtaining the necessary permission.

Tansen, Palpa in 1974.

14 May to 18 June: I am in Tansen, Palpa, previously governed by a Rana Bada Hakim, to search for old government records. The Chief District Officer (CDO) is a friendly, educated young man who has traveled abroad and understands what research is all about. He immediately gives me permission to look at all the historical records, including the Adalat (Court) and Revenue (Mal) offices. Aware of the CDO’s blessing, other local officials are very cooperative and welcome me into their offices.

I engage an elderly man to copy records for me. He lives in Tansen, worked for years as a bahidar, and can easily decipher and understand the documents. He sits by the hour and labouriously copies the material I put before him. I know he is pleased that a foreigner values his ability and knowledge of an era that most younger Nepalis know little about and dismiss as the 'Dark Ages'.  To demonstrate his personal loyalty to me and his gratitude for his temporary employment, the scribe addresses me using high honorific forms of speech (sarkar and baksinu) and follows respectfully two steps behind me as we go to visit the other town offices. After my struggles in Kathmandu, I feel I deserve some sycophancy.

 20 June: Back in Kathmandu, I meet the University gent who wrote a letter on my behalf last month. He says no reply to his letter has come from the AG or anyone else. 

21 June: I meet the AG. He says the Ministry has asked him how secret documents could be kept out of my hands. I have no idea, and doubt anyone does, how thousands of documents could be 'declassified' and by whom. I offer to submit another list of what I want first if I can look through the sacks again to do this. The AG asks me to make such a list.

25 June: I give a brief list (based on my April 26th search) of records to the AG. He says he will submit this list with my application. 

27 June: I met the AG. He is visibly nervous and tells me it will not be possible to see any of the records, and that anyway the sacks of records are unavailable as they are being moved from Patan. 

28 June: I go to Singha Darbar and ask for an appointment with the Minister of Finance. Since the annual budget is being prepared, I am informed the Minister has no time for the next two weeks. His personal secretary thinks my file has reached their office, but he wonders about the problem of confidential documents falling into my hands. I reply that since most of the records are from 30 to 150 years old and have nothing to do with the King or the present administration, it is difficult to imagine what 'secrets' they might contain.

19 July: I have let the dust settle for three weeks. Today is a busy day. I meet the Joint Secretary. He calls the AG and demands to know what has happened to my application and why I cannot see the records. He hangs up and cheerfully tells me everything will now be all right. I go to meet the (now chastised) AG and give him another list (the third?) of what I want to see. Newly energised, I go to meet the Hakim. He says all the old records will be moved on the 22nd. Then they will have to be arranged, so that it will be a week before I can see them. 

5 August: I give the Hakim two weeks, but when I go to GT, the records have still not arrived. I go to meet the AG. He says to come back next week, as the Hakim has promised to have the records available by then. The AG causally mentions that I could 'look at but not copy' anything in the records. So I’m back to the situation on 26 April. 

11 August: I meet the Hakim. The records have not been moved yet, he says to come back on the 14th

14 August: I return to GT. Still no sign of the old records. I take two clerks by taxi to the Patan warehouse. I make a more detailed list of the documents I want to read. The clerks protest that I am not to copy the documents. I try to explain in Nepali the difference between writing down the title of a group of documents and copying their contents. Indignantly they seize my list.

15 August: I go to GT. The assistant is upset because I made a list yesterday. We go together to see the AG. I say, “Let’s get this decided today, one way or the other.” The AG brightens up and calls for my file. After it is located, he goes off to the Finance Ministry to talk with the Secretary. I leave to meet the Minister’s personal secretary to see if I can meet the Minister in case the Secretary refuses to give permission. At the Minister’s outer office, the AG walks in. After talking with the Joint Secretary and the Secretary (obviously neither one was willing to make a decision and instructed him to see the Minister), the AG has come to get in line. The AG sends me back to his office, while he sits outside the Minister’s office. The AG waits there for two hours, but the Minister leaves his office before the AG can see him. The AG comes back and tells me he will take my file to the Minister tomorrow.

16 August: Resorting to a common practice (chakri) observed 50 years ago in Nepal, I go out to the Minister’s house early in the morning in hopes I can have an audience (darshan) with him and persuade him to cut through the bureaucratic red tape and approve my application. In the Rana days, I might have come bearing a basket of fruit or other offering, but I simply hand over my letter of introduction from the University and my business card. The guard at the gate takes them and gives them to someone else for delivery inside the house. Word comes back that the Minister currently is getting dressed and that I am to come to his office later today. I realise there is some risk in bypassing all the lower-level authorities I have met. I want my application to be a routine request to examine some ancient records so unimportant that few people even know they exist. Later, I get cold feet and decide to let the AG approach the Minister first. If the AG does nothing or is unsuccessful, then I will call on the Minister at his office.

18 August: I meet the AG. He has not yet been able to see the Minister.

21 August: I go to meet the AG. He has been sick since I last saw him and has not met the Minister.      

23-28 August: I am away from Kathmandu.

29 August: I meet the AG at his office. He says he has met the Minister. I will probably get the necessary permission, but my file remains at the upper reaches of the bureaucratic maze.

The seals of Chandra Shumsher and Bhim Shumsher in Nepali, English and Arabic script authenticated a 1920 government document found in the archives.

5 September: As I am approaching the GT, I am hailed on the road by an official who works for the AG. He informs me His Majesty’s Government has granted me permission to use the records in my research. In triumph I take a signed copy of the order to GT. The Hakim is not there. The assistant says he will say nothing from now on and admits that the old records are not secret. He tells me to go to the Patan warehouse (the records still have not been moved) on the 8th to begin work. The office also will provide a man who will copy the records I need.

 8-30 September: Not everything is smooth sailing. The office scribe works for two days, then tells me the work bores him and he is quitting. Since no office piun will carry sacks of documents on his shoulder from Patan to Kathmandu, I have to pay for a taxi to and from the warehouse and can bring only two sacks at a time to GT. Due to rotted beams, a large section of GT’s ceiling collapses, so my work comes to a halt as no staff appears for several days. Then the office assistant again tries to obstruct by claiming there is secret material about the King in records he has never read. I ignore him. Subsequently, in all the documents I go through, I find no reference to anything a king ever said or did.

 Looking back, I am grateful to the Government of Nepal for permission to access its official records. In Nepal if one remains polite, shows respect and not anger, combines unfailing patience with dogged persistence, things can work out in the end.

In the mid-1970s, twenty-five years after the fall of the Ranas, the Nepal bureaucracy had changed in significant ways, yet still retained characteristic features of the old regime. New and greatly expanded departments (ministries) were charged with implementing new programs to advance public welfare and promote 'development'. 

The purpose of government had changed for the better. But the bureaucracy remained highly centralised, bureaucrats felt loyalty to one powerful leader, the king who had replaced the Rana Prime Minister. They were still reluctant to take initiatives or to make decisions. It was more important for them to defer to and please superiors than to respond to the needs of the public. 

The Ranas at least maintained tight supervision over functioning of the central government in Kathmandu. Under the Panchayat it was unclear just how and by whom ordinary civil servants were being held accountable.

In some Nepal government offices today, there still are thousands of historical documents in Nepali, and many in the Foreign Ministry are in English. I hope government officials will facilitate access to them by Nepali and foreign scholars as well as by anyone with an interest in history.

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