I commend Shri Sagar Rana for his painstaking research over several years into this fascinating period of Nepal's history. I am sure this will be of great value to historians, students of modern Asia and all those interested in the beautiful but troubled land of Nepal. —Dr Karan Singh
The Ranas of Nepal were de facto rulers of the kingdom for slightly over a century, reigning as prime ministers of the state, with the king as a figurehead. Their rule, while bringing stability to a fraught empire, has also been criticized for economic and religious excesses, and for tyranny. Now, for the first time, a descendant of the Rana clan opens up about his family, setting right certain historical misconceptions, and offering an honest critique of what was one of the most vital periods in the history of Nepal which drew to a close in 1951. Frank, forthright and balanced, Singha Durbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime of Nepal is one of the most important historical accounts to have been published on the Himalayan kingdom in recent years.
Sagar S.J.B. Rana was born in February 1938 in Baber Mahal palace, Kathmandu. He holds an MA in Jurisprudence from the University of Oxford. A descendant of the Rana family, he and his brothers were also actively involved in the Nepali Congress Party, the principal democratic force that opposed the politically active monarchy. Sagar became a full-time activist in the mid-1970s. He was a Member of the Central Working Committee and the Head of Department of International Affairs of the Nepali Congress in the critical years, 2003-2006. Founder chairman of the Federation of Handicraft Association of Nepal, the author is involved with different institutions related to art, culture and heritage conservation. He is currently the Vice President of Nepal Art Council.
State formation in northern India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries despite colonial rule represented a major geopolitical process with profound implications right down to the present day. The founding of the Jammu and Kashmir state by my intrepid ancestor Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846; the political developments in the ancient nation of Nepal with successive dynasties, notably the Shahs and the Ranas; and the founding of Bhutan and Sikkim taken together, represent a remarkable story of conquest, assimilation and integration, which regretfully has not received the attention that it deserves either from Western or Indian historiographers. The state structures in Nepal and Jammu and Kashmir have interesting parallels. Both are Himalayan states which combine disparate ethnic, linguistic and geographical entities beginning with the plains and going all the way up to Himalayan heights and beyond to trans-Himalaya. Knitting such diverse entities into a single state was indeed a remarkable achievement for a country, although with the rise of democratic politics, it was inevitable that ethnic and linguistic groups would reassert themselves to claim a fair share of the cake.
Shri Sagar S.J.B. Rana has, in this impressive volume, Singha Durbar, sought to explore the story of the rise and fall of the Rana regime in Nepal which began with Maharaj Jung Bahadur in the mid-nineteenth century and ended with the reassertion of Shah primacy supported by India in 1951. In his extensive research, Shri Rana has presented valuable detailed material regarding the pre-Rana history in Nepal and also the Rana regime founded by Jung Bahadur. He has specially dwelt on the regimes of three powerful twentieth-century Rana rulers, Maharaj Chandra Shumsher (1901-1929), Maharaj Juddha Shumsher (1932-1945) and last prime minister, Maharaj Mohan Shumsher (1948-1951). These chapters give us a glimpse into the feudal aristocracy, their intrigues and internecine rivalries, as well as some concrete steps taken by them to improve the lot of the common people through encouraging industrial growth and rural development. The socioeconomic transformation of Nepal, despite an oligarchic regime, had begun and would gather momentum.
Rana rule itself was a result of a curious and probably unique arrangement whereby the Shah kings remained titular heads of the state (Shree Paanch Sarkar), while the Ranas became hereditary prime ministers (Shree Teen Sarkar). Another curious historical legacy among the Ranas was that there was never a generational change because power devolved from brother to brother, thus ensuring a conservative gerontocracy. For a whole century, the Ranas ensured that Nepal remained isolated from the winds of change in India—represented by the freedom movement as well as successive social reform movements. There were no motor able roads even into the Kathmandu valley, and cars had to be dismantled at the Indian border, carried physically into Kathmandu and then reassembled there.
However, history cannot be sidelined artificially forever. Shri Sagar Rana has also studied in depth the anti-feudal movement which began in 1940 and resulted in the toppling of the Rana regime in 1951. This saga reveals the multilayered ethnic complexity of Nepal and its fallout down to the present day when the nation is still struggling to achieve a stable equilibrium after the democratic revolution. This section contains a detailed account of the various popular movements, many functioning underground in Nepal and in parts of India, specially Varanasi and Calcutta. People like B.P. Koirala, Ganesh Man Singh and Subarna Shumsher Rana all figure in the anti-Rana movement that ultimately led to regime change.
Let me add a personal note here. By a curious coincidence, the Dogra kingdom and the Rana regime were both established at almost exactly the same time, the former in 1846 by Maharaja Gulab Singh and the latter in 1847 by Maharaj Jung Bahadur. The regimes also came to an end more or less simultaneously; the Dogra regime after
my father Maharaja Hari Singh left the state in 1950 and the Rana regime after the Shah reassertion in 1951. Even more extraordinary is the fact that in 1950, I, a direct descendant of Maharaja Gulab Singh, married Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, the granddaughter of last Rana ruler, Maharaj Mohan Shumsher. Additionally, it was I who delivered a message from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the last Shah, King Gyanendra, in April, 2006, advising him to hand over power to the seven-party alliance to a leader of their choice. Having spearheaded the transition from feudalism to democracy in Jammu and Kashmir myself, I was thus also closely involved with the same transition in Nepal.
The Rana autocracy, like their Indian counterparts, delighted in building huge palaces. Unlike in India, however, where the palaces represent varied architectural styles incorporating many features of the regional traditions, the Rana ones were almost universally modelled on Buckingham Palace. Nepal has a glorious architectural heritage especially during the Malla period, which produced the most beautiful temples and courtyards, not to speak of their superb wooden sculpture, but these were not incorporated into the Rana palaces. The largest of the Rana palaces, Singha Durbar, which lends its name to this book, was built for and occupied by succeeding prime ministers even after 1951 or used as the central secretariat, the seat of governance.
I commend Shri Sagar Rana for his painstaking research over several years into this fascinating period of Nepal's history. I am sure this will be of great value to historians, students of modern Asia and all those interested in the beautiful but troubled land of Nepal. The narrative ends with the reassertion of power by King Tribhuwan in 1951, but that was many decades ago, and I hope Shri Rana will bring the narrative up to the present day in a companion volume.
If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it. There are no more than three members of the 'ruling' Rana family, those included in the Roll of Succession before 1951, and as such experienced the life in the palaces of ruling hierarchy and also got actively involved in the democratic politics post that date. All three are siblings. The eldest, Bharat, was a minister in the Rana government ousted by the revolution while still in his early twenties. Following the first general elections in 1958, he was elected to Parliament and leader of the opposition party (Rashtrabadi Gorkha Parishad). After King Mahendra staged his coup and usurped the power of governance in 1961, Gorkha Parishad voluntarily merged into the Nepali Congress, and Bharat was clubbed into the top rank of its leadership. Second brother, Jagadish, is recognized nationwide more for his literary work. As the youngest brother, born in 1938 and actively involved in Nepali Congress (NC) politics starting mid-1970s, I felt that at least one of us must write about the evolution of Nepali history—that will be more balanced than from those attached solely to one or the other side. The elder brothers left the task upon me and helped with their accounts. The challenge was daunting, as it was my first attempt at a book of any kind; it was tough work spread intermittently over a decade, but a rewarding experience.
As part of the Baber Mahal family, I was naturally privy to the accounts of the Rana family and life in the palaces. During my long innings in NC politics, in leadership of my district Lalitpur first, and later as member of the Central Working Committee and Head of the Department of International Relations, I have been privileged by my association with the top leaders of NC, including B.P. Koirala, and down to the grass-root workers in remote villages, stricken with poverty. The experience has enabled me to obtain and collate valuable and some rare documents and reminiscences through personal accounts and one-to-one and often intimate interviews with scores of prominent leaders, not only of NC but of different political parties, key figures of history and the common man, still living at the time of the interview, but sadly many gone now. I believe such critical input has instilled colour and life, and some new insight to the narration of the body of historical content in Singha Durbar.
The main focus of the book is concentrated in the last fifty years of the Rana regime; these are also the years when the voices, dissent and revolutionary activities against the excesses of the Rana rulers sprouted, spread and eventually uprooted the oligarchy in 1951. I have chosen four venues as centres of revolutionary activities, besides the obvious central space of Kathmandu valley. They are districts of western Nepal with Palpa as the centre point, of eastern Nepal with Biratnagar as the pivotal force, Banaras and Calcutta. Each is allotted a separate chapter. Attempt has been made to underscore the point that the revolution was led and headed by the Nepali Congress but triggered by a wide range of sporadic protests and uprisings throughout the country. The final twist of the saga, narrated in the last two chapters, reveal the devious role of regional geopolitics that has mired the political configuration of Nepal.
One hopes the book will be of interest to a widespread general readership but it is especially targeted to the vast and growing number of the younger generations of Nepal or those with interest in Nepal—more comfortable with the English language. The writing is lighthearted and backed by anecdotes relevant to the central theme. However, authenticity, to the best of my understanding, has been the guiding force throughout the narrative. In this single-minded attempt I may have offended some friends, relatives, leaders or sections of society, but I feel this is a necessary option rather than misguiding the far larger number of independent readers.
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