Kingdom lost, republic gained

Sagar SJB Rana’s sequel to Singha Durbar is an insider look at post Rana-era Nepal

Nepal's first democratically elected prime minister B P Koirala with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Delhi.

Much like in his previous book Singha Durbar, Sagar SJB Rana relives the political and physical landmarks along Nepal’s tumultuous road to democracy spanning 70 years in his sequel, Kingdom Lost.  

Chandra Shumsher Rana’s former palace at Singha Darbar was a symbol of the feudocracy of Nepal’s ruling clan into which Sagar Rana was born. Even after 1951, Singha Darbar continued be the epicenter of power: from the brief experiment with democracy in 1959, three decades of Panchayat, the Maoist conflict, the federal republic right to the present. 

In Kingdom Lost: Nepal’s Tryst with Democracy 1951-2008, Rana chronicles the second act after his clan left the stage. He dives right in with a description of the euphoria on the streets as Nepalis tasted freedom for the very first time in February 1951. 

But a Rana-NC Cabinet with ailing Mohan Shumsher as prime minister and B P Koirala as home minister was a fraught coalition. King Tribhuvan and Crown Prince Mahendra across town at Narayanhiti Palace were getting impatient. 

Kingdom Lost is set in other historical landmarks that we pass every day in Kathmandu. Baber Mahal, the art and craft hub which was once the home of Bharat Shumsher (Sagar’s brother) who led the Gorkha Dal before its merger with the Nepali Congress (NC). Or Lalita Niwas, today synonymous with corruption in high places, which was nationalised by King Mahendra after 1960 because it belonged to another liberal Rana, Subarna Shumsher. 

Another political landmark is Sundarijal Jail where BP spent nearly a decade in his two-room lock-up, played badminton in a lawn within tall walls topped with an electrified fence. Here, BP wrote 11 of his 12 books, as well as a diary in English when he returned to Nepal from exile in 1977, which this paper serialised every fortnight from 2001-2003. 

Today, just as Naryanhiti is a museum to the Shahs, Sundarijal is a B P Museum. The rooms are as they were with the bed in which he died in Chabahil, low wicker chairs from his time in exile in Banaras. This detention centre for political prisoners after 1960 was once surrounded by forest and farms, but is today over-run by an expanding metropolis. 

The museum also houses the Royal Nepal Airlines DHC-6 Twin Otter 9N-ABB which was hijacked on a flight from Biratnagar to Kathmandu in 1973 by NC cadre to loot INR 30 million for the anti-Panchayat struggle. The plane carried passengers for another 41 years till it was damaged in a crash in 2014, was patched up and brought here as a dusty memorial to the heist. 

The BP Museum, Lalita Niwas, Baber Mahal, Singha Darbar all come alive while reading Kingdom Lost. They are like historical milestones to Sagar Rana’s chapters on BP’s brief 18 month stint as prime minister, Mahendra’s coup, the Panchayat years, constitutional monarchy after 1990, the conflict, royal massacre of 2001, and the first Constituent Assembly.

Two players stand out in the book: BP Koirala and King Mahendra. The latter has been vilified for the coup and the Panchayat autocracy. But Mahendra also steered Nepal in a risky geopolitical tight rope between two giant neighbours not friendly to each other, and the Cold War. 

Mahendra deposed BP, saying “Nepal is not big enough for the two of us”, but the king and prime minister were not unlike each other in terms of their nationalism and statesmanship. While turning the pages of the first half of Kingdom Lost, the reader is forced to ponder: How would Nepal have fared if the two were on the same side? 

Sagar Rana’s book is replete with examples of how little Nepal’s politics has changed in the last 70 years. It has always revolved around a few men: the Ranas, the Shahs, the Koiralas, the alpha males of the three main parties, the Army, the Maoists. 

And off stage, there is always India. As early as 1951, BP described India’s first ambassador CPN Singh as believing that he was “greater than the king”, and when Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960 quizzed BP about why Nepal was establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, he replied ‘we are a sovereign nation, we can be friends with anyone we want’. No wonder New Delhi did not mind when Mahendra staged the 1960 coup. 

The NC also launched a three-year armed struggle against Panchayat in the early 1960s from India and it nearly compromised Mahendra’s position before China attacked India and started the Sino-Indian War. India pressured Subarna Shumsher to discontinue border raids and Mahendra was able to regain control of the situation.

India’s role in the ultimate downfall of monarchy in 2008 and mainstreaming of the Maoists in 2006 bear all the hallmarks of the same modus operandi in 1951. Many insiders still believe that if Gyanendra had played his cards rights to reassure Delhi, he would not have been ousted. In its dealings with the Maoists, India was playing both sides.

Sagar Rana also gives us a blow-by-blow of the triangular tension between the political parties, the Palace and the Army. And even within the Palace there was liberal King Birendra who had to stave off hardliners. His account of the massacre of royals on 1 June 2001 rightly concludes that Crown Prince Dipendra originally intended to only kill his father so he could become king himself, marry whom he wanted, and set the country right.

The Maoist conflict also brought out the dual role India played in allowing sanctuary to leaders, including Nepal’s current prime minister. And the tug-o-war between Delhi Darbar and Naryanhiti Darbar for influence over the Maoist leadership. The underlying message in Kingdom Lost is that there were puppeteers in control, and ultimately it was the Nepali people who were caught in the crossfire. 

The dislike of India’s Congress for Nepal’s royals stemmed ostensibly from Sonia Gandhi being refused entry into Pashupati in 1984 for not being a Hindu. Later, the Congress-Left government in Delhi engineered Nepal turning into a secular republic – despite its earlier ‘twin pillar’ policy. 

But since 2014 the Hindu-right BJP is pushing to turn the clock back and restore Nepal as a Hindu state, although maybe not the monarchy. It seems as if every time there is a change of government in India, we in Nepal have to also change our system. 

But the People’s Movement of 2006 is also a testament to politics in Nepal sometimes having its own dynamics that even India cannot control. On the morning of 21 April 2006, King Gyanendra under pressure from India agreed to hand over executive powers to a PM recommended by the agitating parties. But by then the street demonstrations in Kathmandu had already overtaken India’s roadmap, forcing Gyanendra to restore Parliament

Kingdom Lost book review

In the last segments of Kingdom Lost, the reader is swept by feelings of déjà vu. Everything that is happening today in Nepali politics seems to have all happened before.

The powerful but now defunct Nepal Communist Party post-2018 fell victim to the power struggle between K P Oli-Pushpa Kamal Dahal when Oli refused to keep his end of the bargain to rotate the premiership. Girija Prasad Koirala and Surya Bahadur Thapa had a similar gentlemen’s agreement in 1998 to take turns being PM, but Girija played foul. 

The late 1990s was also rife with coalitions between parties of diametrically opposing ideologies, just like the jumbo coalition we have now. One wonders what BP would have made of the Nepali Congress and its alliance with the Maoists. What would have been his take on the 2015 Constitution? Despite being a staunch NC member himself, Rana leaves it to us to make our own conclusions.

Nepal’s history is punctuated by long political struggles, fleeting moments of euphoria at freedom regained, then of chances squandered by greed and ambition of those in charge. Kingdom Lost records those milestones: 1951, 1959, 1990, 2006, 2015 …

While pulling back from cliff edge in one political crisis after another, pre-existing structural problems of poverty, exclusion and inequality have not been fixed. Kingdom Lost is a stark reminder that the very politicians who once fought for democracy are undermining it today. 

Sagar Rana’s two books are must-reads for younger Nepalis to better understand the context behind contemporary Nepali politics since, as Rana quotes Robert A Heinlein, ‘a generation that ignores history has no past and no future’.

Kingdom Lost stops in 2008, and much water has flown down the Bagmati since then. Sagar Rana should add a third book chronicling Nepal’s rocky transition to peace and federalism, the stalled transitional justice mechanism, the new Constitution and the rise of alternative politicians. That would make a fine trilogy to set the records straight.

School textbooks ignore Nepal’s political history, do not even mention the Maoist conflict, or are filled with one-dimensional hollow symbols of nationalism. The Ranas used to be portrayed as bad in the curriculum, now Mahendra and the Shahs are villains. It needed a member of the Rana clan to have a dispassionate, yet staunchly democratic, take on Nepali history. 

Sagar Rana is the great-grandson of Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher, grandson of hardline general Baber Shumsher, son of educationist Mrigendra Shumsher and brother of Bharat Shumsher. This lineage gives the author intimate knowledge of the often behind-the-scenes struggles in the corridors of power.

This book is a tribute to those who fought for the freedoms that we take for granted in Nepal today, even when countries in the neighbourhood turn authoritarian and intolerant. The Nepal they envisioned is the one we can still be. 

Sonia Awale


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