11 January is the birth anniversary of Prithvi Narayan Shah, who unified Nepal through conquest in 1769, seven years before the United States became independent from Britain. There is acrimonious and fierce debate in the country whether his anniversary should be celebrated.
The division is scandalously pronounced and clear. The pro-identity groups vilify Shah, while pro-history groups argue that his contributions should be recognized without overlooking his weaknesses. This has made me ponder over identity and history.
Let me start with the vague generalities: Identity is changeable whereas history is not.
Societies and countries change their identity over time. Take the example of the United States. That landmass was a Red Indian land before the Europeans brutally conquered and colonized it. Most of it became Britain when it was brought under the British empire; after independence, it became the United States in 1776. Louisiana, a French colony, and Alaska, a Russian territory, became part of America through purchase; Hawaii, Texas and California through conquest. The identity of America and its parts have changed accordingly.
Similarly, the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia fragmented and several new countries emerged from them. Similar fragmentations have occurred in Europe and Africa. In South Asia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh emerged from one country. Such fragmentation has changed their identities as countries and inter-racial and inter-cultural marriages have changed the identities of many people.
But their history, or their origin, cannot be changed, with the change of identities. You may seek to burnish or rewrite your history by selective and distorted use of information, but it would only be a matter of perspective, not of facts.
That however does not mean that I have any quarrel with those who seek their sentimental identity, even though it is extremely difficult to factually establish it. Evidently, it is essential and salutary to understand who you are and how you arrived at the present state, but it should be to inform you about the present and future, not to hitch you back to the past.
As I have already mentioned, the reason for this is simple. Identity develops and changes through permutation and combination. One could be father, son, husband, brother, American and Swiss at the same time. It is difficult to say which identity among the many is more valid and powerful than others, for it is contextual.
But the history is different, factual. There is no uncertainty about your history or origin, for you are either born to someone or not born to someone. You may or may not like your parents, their looks, their behavior, their religion, their culture, their caste or their place of origin, but that does not change the fact that you are their child. You may change the narrative or interpretation about them, but you cannot change the reality.
Countries, as they are, are children of history. Your country’s history is your country’s history, whether you like, dislike, own, or disown it, and history is full of wars, conquests, brutality and blood. All countries in the world have been the products of these violent elements. Show me one country that has not had wars, conquests, brutality and blood in the past.
However, broadly, two types of countries treat their history differently. Those countries that are politically stable and economically prosperous take history in their stride and move on the road to peace and further prosperity. Those nations — where the concept of state is weak, politics is fluid, the economy is backward, and opportunities are limited — waste their time and energy quibbling over the past and jeopardize their present and future prospects.
That brings me to Prithvi Narayan Shah who unified Nepal through war with and conquest of several principalities in the southern slopes of the Himalayan mountains, barring a portion on the other side of the mountains. Wars and conquests have always been brutal and bloody; they are so today, and more so yesterday. Shah’s wars were bloody and brutal as well.
But that does not change the fact, the history, that he unified Nepal, as we know it today. Neither can we run away from the subsequent rulers from the Shah clan, Rana oligarchs or from political parties, who have ruled Nepal. There is no point in speculating what could have happened if Shah had not unified Nepal, unless you are in the realm of fiction.
So the question is whether you should endeavor unsuccessfully to destroy your history, as al-Qaida and Islamic State extremists have done by bombing and shattering the Bamian Buddha or Palmyra into pieces, as the symbols left behind by the infidels. Or you tap history to your advantage, like the rest of the world has done, to rake in tourist dollars.
My view is that those who disown history ultimately disown themselves. It may sound too blunt and simplistic, but it is the truth, which is often lost in a number of countries. We can control the present and future, but not the past. Therefore, my suggestion is this: We should take our history in stride, recognize Shah’s contributions, and assess him in a more dispassionate light, as a large majority of normal nations in the world have tried to do.