Millennium Post

A study in longing and disquiet

Nepal has been on a roller coaster, ever since it started coming to terms with democracy. At the same time, it would be fabulously wrong to confuse monarchy of this land for calm rule.

This happens to be truer in the case of Rana rulers and time this republic had seen before. Though the Shah rulers were different and they accepted changing circumstances when they lost out on the clout as the opposition voices got stiffer.

Prashant Jha, one of the most remarkable young journalists from South Asia and undoubtedly a leading voice on Nepal, has made its history comprehensive through his maiden but seminal book, Battles of the New Republic. In the significant part of last decade and present one, he lived in Kathmandu and has known the volatile situation of this country from the ground. In addition to his sharp insight, he has a vast reservoir of anecdotal accounts to share. This book is evidently constructed out of those specialties and unflinching concern.

Not too many books have been written on Nepal’s complex political history with the rigour that this book has – it naturally claims for wider attention from readers and critics. But for a bit, there is room for the question – why this book with such a huge political and historical canvas has been written by a young journalist, rather than a veteran? Probably, it is the simmering unrest inside than any other attribute that helped him write about the country’s distant past and link to its present plight.

The book rests on research, but not much on archives. The sources of reference are mostly those available in public domain – however, this doesn’t limit the scope of the book. Rather, what it reflects is that a journalistic work can say as much and more without being burdened by stiff academic tone and its ivory tower tantrums. Often, we see many history books marred by such apparent lack of clarity and judgement.

As it goes, there is dearth of textual sources on Nepal’s past and present. So, anyone writing on this important nation but with meagre resources has better chance to allow common sense to prevail. Somewhere along these lines, my praises are reserved and scrimped for Jha’s book. Also, what is noteworthy is his handling of the book in first person narrative – a daring act, which is rare among the writers of his age. Although, here the age should be taken in right spirit and frame, and not as something restricting a persistent and inquisitive mind that cares very little about popular perceptions.

The book delves into Nepal’s staple issues – monarchy, democratic experiments and failures, Indo-Nepal relations, the China factor, Nepal as a buffer state, Maoism, the rise and fall of Madhesh politics, identity crisis and of course the role of Indian embassy in Kathmandu and its leading interferences in Nepal’s national politics. Jha goes even further with his penchant for securing news scoop and sharing it publicly, and as a result, he gets the traction of few retired Indian officials.

Readers may find it unusual but it is a shocking reality that most of the government officials in India and Nepal rechristened themselves after their retirement from service. They speak on record with a plea: ‘Always believe me, I can’t be wrong.’ Surprisingly, many believe them. The point of reference is a RAW story, prominently covered in this book. It might be true or not – but to crosscheck, one has to be obscenely privileged in order to get access to the wining and fine-dining obsessed reckless Indian bureaucrats. Jha should have underlined this, elaborated on who actually are intended to be the targeted readers of that sensitive, but eventually caricatured, story?

The book comes out very well in the parts where it deals with royal massacres, advent of Maoism and its spread as an ideology and political force – besides a really moving detail of the Madhesh movement and the suffering of those regions. Both from historical and political perspectives, Jha highlights the core issues Madhesh faces and how misunderstood has been the reckoning of its cultural ties with India in the upper land. This is unprecedented from any other writer: to have dealt so deeply with a forgotten land.

Returning to Jha’s personal accounts – his own experiences as a Maithili-speaking chap in Kathmandu, and later his time in Delhi, remind us of the intricate yet misunderstood perceptions of ethnicity and India’s un/ease with Nepal. Sometime, it appears to be a case of overreading the situation, at times no reading at all.

As a relatively young but seasoned journalist, Jha has covered nooks and corners of Nepal’s past and present. As expected, his first book offers lot of details and insights into the undercurrents of democracy in a time, when both royals and radicals have lost their edge and the country has no pacifier like a Girija Prasad Koirala. This is a definitive account and should be on the essential list of all enthusiasts of South Asian political history.
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