In early January, snowfall in Vancouver was unusually heavy. My days started with shovelling the snow. While I was toiling in the snow, Dan showed up with a shovel on his shoulders and asked me if he could help. Who would refuse? Snow shovelling is hard work. I had never met Dan. During our introduction, I said I was from Nepal. This got him excited. “You guys are hardy; great people,” he said. I felt good.
It turned out he had watched the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible just a few days ago and also had worked with the British Gurkha soldiers before he retired from the Canadian army. 14 Peaks is a documentary (available on Netflix) of Nirmal Purja’s (Nimesdai) record-breaking mountaineering adventure.
Purja, an ex-Gurkha, a naturalised British citizen, had done the impossible: climbed 14 peaks higher than 8000 metres in less than seven months. In the documentary, Purja exalts his Nepali identity with unmistakable affection. The documentary gave a lot of positive publicity to Nepal. This rarely happens.
International reporting on Nepal is scarce. It is either on mountaineering disasters, social injustices, or gender discrimination issues whenever there is one. Nepal is described in these reports as very poor and corrupt – a characterisation that is sadly true. Purja’s story was a change from the usual negative narratives. It made multitudes of Nepalis proud. But it was an individual’s accomplishment. What about national stories of pride?
In the last 50 years, compared to its neighbours, Nepal has achieved very little in terms of economic progress, science and political order, the indicators of a modern developing nation. Due to the government’s incompetence and corruption, a vast majority of the so-called “Pride Projects” have become technical, financial and management albatrosses for the country.
With nothing contemporary to hang on to, we invoke our geography and history as national pride props—The Land of Buddha; bearers of ancient, rich culture; beautiful country; reverence to our fighting men implying invincibility; never been a colony, and have always remained independent. Only the first three of these claims are credible. For example, consider the claim of invincibility. There is no question; our army fought valiantly against the much-more powerful British forces during the 1814-1816 war. All, including the British, recognised their bravery, but we lost the war. When the war ended, Nepal ceded to the British two-thirds of its territory before the war.
Under the Saugali Treaty (the Treaty), which ended the war, Nepal surrendered much of its rights as an independent country and came under British suzerainty for all practical purposes. Clause six of the Treaty stated: “The king of Nepal never engages to molest or disturb the king of Sikkim in possession of his territories. Suppose any difference arises between Nepal and Sikkim. In that case, it shall be referred to the arbitration of the East India Company”. Clause 7: “The king of Nepal hereby engages never to take or retain in his service any British subject, nor the subject of any European or American State, without the consent of the British Government”.
Thanks to Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher’s diplomacy, Nepal’s international status changed in 1924 when the Treaty was revised, and the clauses restricting Nepal’s contact with foreign countries were removed. The revised Treaty was registered in the League of Nations, affirming Nepal as an independent and sovereign state.
The first foreigner to visit Nepal in an official capacity was a US official in 1945. Yuval Noah Harari, a highly respected scholar of ancient history and the author of the internationally acclaimed book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says, “human beings create myths to keep a large number of people together”. Over time, these myths become shared beliefs and then inviolable truths.
The invincibility of Nepal’s fighting men and the notion of ‘always being independent’ are examples of such myths. Individual Nepalis like Purja or soldiers who made their name on battlefields have given us much to be proud of. They must be celebrated. But if national pride has to be justified on the grounds of national accomplishments, the ground appears to be shaky. We are endowed with a beautiful country; Buddha happened to be born in an area within Nepal’s territorial boundary. We want to secure what we have. That is natural and expected. But to be proud of them as if they are the products of our accomplishments is a farce. Pride needs to be earned and earned when you earn respect. You are respected to a level when your country is respected. Purja summed it up succinctly. “If what I did was done by a white man, the publicity would have been 10 times more”. Sadly, compared to many other countries, there is very little Nepal has accomplished over the last few decades that is worthy of admiration.
Under the country’s current political landscape, that is unlikely to change soon. But eventually, things will change; they must. Until then, Nepalis have to live with the occasional burst of pride from the accomplishments of individuals like Purja.
(The Kathmandu Post/ANN)