Print Edition - 2015-02-07  |  On Saturday

The things we don’t know

  • Nepal doesn’t just have ruptures; it has gaping holes in its collective memory
- Pranaya SJB Rana
The things we don’t know

Feb 6, 2015-

Like individuals, all nations have a memory. This collective memory, whether factual or fictional, is what allows nations consisting of diverse groups to share in the ‘imagined community’ that constitutes a nation. But sometimes, there are ruptures in memory. These cracks develop due to national tragedies, which cause trauma to the nation’s psyche in the same way personal tragedies scar individuals. Such events become seminal in shaping the future course of the nation in question, often unravelling existing socio-political value systems.

In Nepal, the remembrance of things past is all too often coloured by the exigencies of the present. The collective memory that constitutes history is a product of ideology, as is the case every where. But in a democracy, state sanctioned versions of history are always up for contestation and debate. Nothing is sacred, especially not versions of the ‘truth.’ Such contestations challenge one instance of remembering with another, creating cracks in the dominant narrative. But Nepal doesn’t just have ruptures; it has gaping holes in its collective memory.

Three mysteries

Take, for example, one of the defining moments in Nepal’s recent history—the 2001 Royal Massacre. The official version—that an intoxicated Dipendra, disgruntled by his parents’ refusal to allow his betrothal to the girl of his voice, gunned down the entire royal family before shooting himself—has found few takers. Conspiracy theories abound as to what ‘actually’ happened—the Indians orchestrated the event, or was it the Chinese, or perhaps the CIA, or even the Maoists. But foremost has been the role of king Gyanendra, whose entire family coincidentally escaped unscathed and who went on to be king. Suspicions were compounded when Prekshya, the wife of royal brother Dhirendra, died in an alleged helicopter accident at Rara lake five months later.

Rumours have continued to swirl about the massacre, with various tabloids and pieces of yellow journalism purporting to tell the unvarnished ‘truth’. Even now, after the spectre of the monarchy has been laid to rest, few buy the official line. Perhaps this had to do with the then Parliamentary Speaker Taranath Ranabhat’s almost-farcical performance at the unveiling of the official report of the massacre. The report contained too many holes and was not at all convincing to a populace that was deeply suspicious of all events surrounding the palace. Gyanendra’s subsequent absolute rule did little to dispel rumours, instead fuelling them further and giving cause to conspiracy theorists who claim he orchestrated the massacre to seize power from the generally benign Birendra and brutally crush the Maoist rebellion.  

Whatever the fact of the matter, Nepalis by and large have refused to let the matter lie. The purported ‘truth’ of the official report has failed to align with an ‘emotional truth’ that Nepalis seem to be seeking, something that does not just explain matters with clarity but also provides a sense of emotional closure. And it is not just fringe elements of society that engage in conspiracy theories in dark corners. Initiate a conversation with any Nepali about the Royal Massacre and you will hear as many theories as there are pigeons at Pashupati.

The Royal Massacre is no doubt a major hole in the nation’s history, but it is not the only one. Take another example, the mysterious death of CPN-UML leader Madan Bhandari. In 1993, Bhandari, a star in national politics, was allegedly killed in a car accident at Dasdhunga in Chitwan. Only the driver, one Amar Lama, survived. The site, date, and nature of Bhandari’s death remain contested, despite the government’s insistence that it was an accident. Many allege that Bhandari was killed elsewhere and the incident was made to look like an accident. The circumstances surrounding Bhandari’s death are laid out quite convincingly in the film Dasdhunga by Manoj Pandit, though the film too provides few answers. What doesn’t help the mystery is the fact that Amar Lama was shot dead 10 years later by unidentified persons in Kirtipur.

Bhandari’s death, too, was a major event, especially for the UML and the country’s mainstream communist movement. Bhandari was an exceedingly accomplished orator, as can be gleaned from videos on Youtube. He was a firebrand and had no doubt alienated and angered many in the establishment, especially the monarchy, with his espousal of genuinely progressive politics that remained true to his communist ethos without marching down the path of violent, bloody insurrection. But this episode too remains shrouded in mystery.

After Bhandari and before the Royal Massacre lies another mystery, that of Dor Bahadur Bista, the father of Nepali anthropology and author of the seminal Fatalism and Development. Bista was a controversial figure, who in Fatalism and Development, laid out a damning critique of Nepali society, ascribing the country’s ills to the imposition of ‘bahunbad’, a value system that bred fatalism and prioritised nepotism (‘afno manche’) at the cost of development. Bista brought ethnicity into class dynamics and was vilified for it. The Kathmandu intelligentsia, mostly Bahun, did not take very kindly to Bista’s j’accuse and Bista too did not care too much for what centralised Kathmandu thought of him. He was a traveller, a troubadour, and he left for Karnali. There, he founded schools, hydropower projects, and the Karnali Institute.

While working in Jumla, in 1995, Bista disappeared. Rumours, again, abound as to what happened. Some claim his social mobilisation angered the Jumla landlords who had him murdered while others claim that he wandered off to India to while away his time as a hermit. Nothing has come of these and no substantial investigation has been conducted into his disappearance. Bista, one of Nepal’s foremost scholars, disappeared with nary a trace.

It is not that these three events are singular events. They are just exemplary of how inured we have become to not knowing. In a post-modern world, of course, there can be no singular truth but whatever truth is out there, it must be convincing, if it is to hold any power at all. Certainly, there are many things that we cannot know for sure, ever, but if the state is to hold any power, must it attempt to shape and define the contours of historical events of such stature? What does it say about the state when all ‘official versions’ are treated with derision? Now, decades after the events, it might be impossible to know the truth, and our collective memory will suffer for it. Seminal events and important people have perished, leaving holes that we may never be able to fill in. Nations are defined as much by the stories they choose to tell as those they chose to forget—and those stories that they are unable to tell.

Published: 07-02-2015 09:48

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