February 3, 2009
From a distance, two events that have recently transpired in Nepal may not seem to warrant much attention: 1) the public outrage over Bollywood’s “Chandni Chowk to China”, an Indian film in which the historic Buddha is claimed to have been born in India and 2) the groundswell resistance to the Maoists’ move to destroy a public statue of King Prithvi Narayan Shah.
A closer look suggests that these two disputes go to the heart of Nepal’s current dilemma: its historic identity challenged in the harsh light of a 21st century’s push toward change. Change is inevitable and long overdue. But you can’t erase a nation’s archives just because you want to focus on a new direction. Facts are facts. History is history. You can’t delete common knowledge even if you wanted to and, in any case, the people of Nepal seem to be in no mood to do so.
Shakyamuni Buddha was born in the kingdom of Kapilavastu (ruled by Shakya kings, ergo the Buddha’s appelation), which lies along the southern border of Nepal. Lumbini, the Nepali town where his birth is recorded to have taken place in 623 BC is a major Buddhist site of pilgrimage and draws tens of thousands of domestic and international visitors each year. That India screenwriters overlooked this detail is more than just sloppiness or ignorance. It goes to the heart of the Nepali long-standing view that Indians, in general, disregard Nepalis as a people worthy of serious study or consideration. It’s India’s indifference, if not condescension, that gnaws at Nepali pride. After Nepal’s censor board banned the showing of “Chandni Chowk to China” in Nepal, the Indian producer of the film publicly apologized for the gaffe. But there was no indication that the producer would edit out the offending sequence in international distribution. In the minds of the Nepali people, it’s yet another Indian slap in the face that, inevitably, will go unanswered.
The question of the demolition of the statue of King Prithvi Narayan Shah is equally galling to many Nepalis and, perhaps, more complicated. After two-and-a-half centuries of monarchal rule, the people of Nepal rose against the Shah king and dispensed with the monarchy. But the new Maoist-led government’s continuing obsession to erase the monarchy from the minds of Nepalis is beginning to seem like overkill. In fact, the Maoists’ ongoing hammering away at the extinct monarchy in an effort to justify current problems in Nepal may be working against the party. The Maoists got what they wanted – the abolition of the monarchy – so singing the same old song is beginning to smack of “rubbing it in” as it were, and creating a stand-off between other political parties, when joining hands with other political parties is what is needed in order to write a democratically created constitution for Nepal – the number one obligation of the new government.
Yubaraj Ghimire, in a recent posting on Nepalnews.com, wrote: “At a time when the government was declaring its policy of demolishing the statues of Prithvi Narayan Shah everywhere, Army Chief R. Katawal was issuing instructions to barracks that they should all keep life-sized portraits of Shah. Not only the Nepali Congress, which is an opposition party, but also other major parties in the ruling coalition, apparently stand with Katawal in this confrontation; for some, the army is the most effective obstruction to CPN-M's march towards what they fear might be one-party dictatorship."
Perhaps it would be better for the Maoists to take a middle path on the question of monarchal statuary. Rather than destroy venerable pieces of art, why not relocate them to national museums? Whether or not one detests the rule of Shah kings seems to be beside the point. The Shah dynasty is an ineluctable part of Nepal’s history – just like Buddha - and deserves to be preserved and protected as such. By relegating the statues to museums, the storehouses of history, couldn’t the Maoists take pride in the fact that they were the power that relegated—for all to witness and appreciate during regular museum hours? Why not put the issue to rest by placing royal artifacts in glass coffins? It's enough.