The struggle between history and memory
Prithvi Chowk is perhaps one of the busiest crossing points in Pokhara. The long-distance bus stop is nearby, and one can find several buses queuing next to the level crossing whose drivers loudly announce their destinations. Hotels, pharmacies, shops and gas pumps, you will find them all in Prithvi Chowk, in this Nepalese city.
Except officially, the passage no longer bears the name of King Shah. Since 2008, he has been called Lakhan Thapa Chowk, after the military leader of Gorkha who raised his banners against Jung Bahadur’s autocracy in 1876. Hanged at the temple of Manakamana – the very deity whose divine inspiration Thapa claimed for his revolt – Lakhan Thapa remained an obscure figure until the 1990s, when he became “a major figure in Magar ethnic activism”, and his “martyrdom” was later claimed by the Maoists during the insurgency .
The old statue of King Shah became a victim of the popular anti-monarchy uprising in 2006. Ethnic activists later renamed the crossing Lakhan Thapa in 2008. But memory can often be a stronger attachment than history, as no Pokhara resident actually calls Lakhan Thapa Chowk pass. Instead, it remains Prithvi Chowk for one and all. By erecting a statue of the rebel, Magar activists may have believed they had succeeded in changing history, but the memory of the old king lingers on, with or without the statue.
In Nepalgunj last week, security forces clashed with royalists who tried unsuccessfully to relocate a bust of King Birendra to Dhamboji Chowk, formerly known as Birendra Chowk. After security forces fired several tear gas shells, furious protesters damaged the statue of Dalit activist Setu Bishwokarma (BK), who lost her life in the 2006 revolution, at another crossing that was previously known as Gyanendra Chowk, named after the king whose rule ushered in the end of the monarchy.
At the heart of the Nepalgunj clash – and the broader issue of unease over Nepal’s royal history – is the struggle between history and memory, as Indian scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently wrote. , albeit in a different context. “Memory has an affective dimension, it is supposed to move you, and constitute your identity. It draws the boundaries of communities. History is more detached and facts will always complicate both identity and community. Nepal may have become a republic, but the public memory of royal figures has not faded. Unless we come to terms with both our history and our memories, this contradiction will not be resolved.
Confrontation over a statue – or history – is not unique to Nepal. In the United States, we have white supremacists fighting to preserve statues of Confederate generals and monuments that celebrate those who fought for slavery in the Civil War. Historians have also called for the removal of the statue of Lord Clive – the East India Company general who led Britain’s South Asia settlement campaign – in the heart of London, suggesting his presence signifies ‘British elite [had] not yet confronted with its corporatist and imperial past”. Winston Churchill’s statue was defaced by anti-racism protesters in 2020 (with equal calls to acknowledge his complicity in the 1943 Bengal famine).
Closer to home, in India, Hindutva activists have declared war on India’s Mughal and Islamist past and renamed towns and streets that once bore the names of past emperors. The recent Hindi film Samrat Prithviraj – who, according to its posters, was India’s “last Hindu samrat” – wades into this murky territory of history versus memory, based on Prithviraj Raso, a ballad that can at best be dated to the 16th century, almost 500 years after the defeat of Prithviraj by Mohammed Ghuri in the second battle of Tarain. (VS Naipaul can almost be heard letting out an afterlife sigh despite his elegy for that “great southern Hindu kingdom”, the Vijayanagara Empire, which lasted until 1565 CE.)
In Nepal, the contours of the The struggle between history and memory hinges primarily on whether to acknowledge the contributions of the monarchy to the country, or whether to erase it altogether in celebration of the republican state. An objective reading of history demands that the successes of the monarchy – and its corruptibility, excesses and autocracy – be viewed from an equal perspective. Our public narrative, however, wishes to paint our kings – and our rulers – in a particular hue. Thus, Mahendra’s legacy is either that of a great nationalist or that of a destroyer of the nascent democracy. And Birendra is the perennial benefactor king, with little thought given to the alleged rigging of the 1979 Panchayat referendum or the required elaboration of his incongruous “Zone of Peace” philosophy.
The story does not intend to create heroes or villains for the present; it is the domain of narrative and memory. However, when public memory begins to claim the story, historical facts are glossed over in favor of proper narrative. As eminent historian Romila Thapar writes in Somanatha: The Many Voices of History, public memory is often an act of intervention by an elite “motivated by a desire to use the past to legitimize their present concerns. “. No wonder speakers at high-profile events suggest that Nepal as a nation-state existed 2,500 years ago (any historian would tell you the difference between assertions and facts), while the rulers claim Ram and Sita as real and historical figures. Ultimately, these fantasies give credence to our own ideologies and beliefs about where we would like our story to begin.
A similar fantasy has developed around the cult of the monarchy in Nepal. It is based on a fabricated memory that worships the Shah dynasty and is now a political tool that exploits discontent in a republic. While royalists are right that history cannot be erased, their reverence for the monarchy is based on memory, not history. What helps them is the opacity of the Nepalese monarchy (or its reluctance to submit to public scrutiny). An unbiased historical study of any of the post-1950 kings would reveal their personalities in greater detail, but few would like to. Instead, a halo has been cultivated around an outmoded institution whose downfall was brought on by its own failures.