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Stiller’s analysis of Nepal’s early rulers
Ludwig Stiller was born in Ohio in 1928 and was committed to the Jesuit Order for his entire adult life. But his writing was thoroughly shaped by Nepali institutions and his historical outlook was that of a citizen of this country. Having arrived in Nepal in 1956 to teach at St. Xavier’s School Godavari, he lived in Nepal almost continuously until his death in 2009. He became a Nepali citizen in 1969. He received his entire formal training as a historian at Tribhuvan University. After earning a master’s degree in 1967 and a PhD in 1971, he published two books based on this research. He wrote his third book, The Silent Cry: The People of Nepal 1816-1839, while teaching at the same university. By this time he appears to have felt completely at home in this country. In his writing, he had quite unselfconsciously begun referring to Nepalis from previous eras as “our forefathers.”
Published in 1976, The Silent Cry was the book that brought Stiller lasting acclaim. The historian Pratyoush Onta called it the “most original and provocative” among his works. Yet the book went out of print and remained unavailable for decades except as photocopies and pdf files. The Educational Book House has only very recently republished The Silent Cry, making it available to a new generation of readers.
The book’s title refers to the ‘cry’ of Nepal’s peasant population, overburdened and tormented by the state’s exactions. Their anguish was ‘silent’, for they lacked the means to express it in a system that rendered them powerless. The book covers the period between the signing of the Sugauli Treaty in 1816 and the fall of Bhim Sen Thapa in 1839, which Stiller calls the ‘silent years’ because they had been largely overlooked by Nepali historians. These years were ‘quiet’ compared to those that came before and after – the period of 1744 to 1816 when Prithvi Narayan Shah and his successors were busy with territorial expansion, and the period from the 1840s onwards when Jang Bahadur Kunwar violently seized power and established a regime that lasted a century. Historians may have understandably been attracted to periods more replete with high drama, but Stiller thought it a mistake to ignore the years in the interregnum. The period between 1816 and 1839 was when Nepal’s rulers took crucial first steps towards consolidating the new state.
Of course, historians were not entirely unaware of events in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the 1970s, much had been written on the politics in the courts of the kings Rana Bahadur Shah, Girvan Yuddha and Rajendra Bikram. The rise of Bhim Sen Thapa, an ordinary Chhetri from Gorkha who managed to gain access to Rana Bahadur’s court, had received substantial scrutiny. In 1956, Chittaranjan Nepali published Janaral Bhimsen Thapa Ra Tatkalin Nepal, an account that lionized the man. Meanwhile Baburam Acharya denounced him as a schemer singularly responsible for the calamitous war with the East India Company in a series of essays recently collected in Janaral Bhimsen Thapa: Yinko Utthan Tatha Patan (2012).
Stiller acknowledged their work and used their insights. But he despised their approach, which he thought lent too much significance to the actions of dominant historical figures. He was too polite to refer to them by name, but there can be no doubt that he had Chittaranjan Nepali and Baburam Acharya in mind when he wrote: “Historians [have] either read into very insignificant acts some sign that a man of Bhim Sen Thapa’s calibre was ‘progressive’…Or [they] condemn him as a leader who failed to produce a solution to the nation’s massive problems. The former approach leads to a sense of patriotic unreality…The latter approach blinds one to important developments that were taking place within the country, and is based on the naive assumption that rulers can by fiat…bring about social change.”
Rejecting their methods and interpretations, Stiller offered a remarkably astute evaluation of Bhim Sen’s career. The man may have been the most powerful figure in Nepal for over three decades, but for much of the period he was merely one bharadar (courtier) among many and his power was never quite absolute. In Stiller’s portrayal, Bhim Sen was more a politician than a ruler. Acutely aware of his constraints, the minister negotiated with and courted various factions, and tried to turn every political crisis to his own advantage.
In the aftermath of the 1814-16 war, Bhim Sen initially allowed the more militaristic and anti-British voices at the court to gain prominence. But once it became apparent to all that Nepal could never win another war with the East India Company, he moved swiftly to curtail their power and establish friendly relations with the Governor General in Calcutta. At the same time he realized that his position among the bharadari would always remain insecure, so he set out to build a power base in the army. He splurged resources on officials and soldiers alike. Despite knowing it would be foolhardy to provoke the East India Company, he periodically raised the spectre of war in order to give the army a sense of purpose.
Throughout The Silent Cry we sense the author’s aversion for the personalities at court. Their actions interested him only when they had a direct bearing on state policy and the lives of the people. He abhorred the tendency of traditional historians to treat history as theatre, where kings, queens and bharadars act out their roles on stage while their subjects are reduced to mute spectators.
Austere by temperament, Stiller avoids the temptation of enlivening his narrative or moving the reader with sensational or pathos-laden description. His treatment of the harrowing circumstances surrounding Bhim Sen Thapa’s fall provides one example. The old mukhtiyar’s incarceration at the hands of his enemies, his humiliation upon hearing rumours that his wife was dragged naked through the streets, and his attempt to take his own life by slitting his throat — all these Stiller recounts in a perfunctory way, as elements in a sordid drama that can only soil the historian who approaches them too closely. The disposal of Bhim Sen’s corpse is relegated to a footnote and described using the words of a nineteenth-century chronicler instead of Stiller’s own: “The short statement of this inhuman act that Tickell recorded, Events in Nepal, 1939, is perhaps the least offensive to modern readers. ‘His corpse was refused funeral rights, but dismembered and exposed about the city, after which the mangled remains were thrown away on the river side where none but the dogs and vultures dared heed them.’”
Stiller was far more interested in gaining access to the lived experience of Nepal’s largely peasant population. However, he began to fulfill his intention only gradually over the course of his career. His first book, Prithvi Narayan Shah in Light of the Dibya Upadesh, was a straightforward evaluation of the conqueror’s political ideology and legacy. His second book, Rise of the House of Gorkha, too remained primarily concerned with high politics and the military aspects of the conquests that forged modern-day Nepal.
Only in his third work, The Silent Cry, did Stiller seek to decisively shift the spotlight away from rulers and onto the ruled. But here he encountered a problem. The sources allowed him no access to the lives of the people. The traditional chroniclers of the vamsavalis recorded the lineages of kings, their major deeds and supernatural events. Letters exchanged between courtiers, military officials and pundits shed light on their mutual relations. The British Resident in Kathmandu sent countless dispatches to Calcutta detailing the politics at court and the nobility’s attitudes towards the East India Company. But the majority of the people were only shadowy presences in these documents.
How, then, was the historian supposed to approach them? The peasantry had not – could not have – left behind letters, diaries or memoirs that could open a window into their lives. Stiller turned to sources of a different kind. He began to collect and scrutinize the documents that the Nepali state had produced in the course of building its administrative apparatus and governing its subjects. He realized that a close study of rules and account books could provide a sense of how the population fared under the administration. An evaluation of tax documents, for example, revealed the steadily increasing burden placed on the peasantry. And since many rules and regulations were intended to resolve problems specific to a particular time and place, one could infer from them the underlying features of the society. Instructions on how to manage an ethnic group’s customary law, for instance, revealed the group’s social and cultural characteristics as well their uneasy relations with the high-caste Hindu rulers.
Diligently and painstakingly, Stiller drew connections between facts gleaned from a large quantity of documents, none of which provided much insight when read individually. In this manner he constructed a narrative about the people’s living conditions and relationship to the state in the first half of the nineteenth century. The “silent cry” of the people had to be imagined on the basis of documents produced by those who ruled over them.
Stiller’s method was innovative though not entirely new. There were others who were trying to expand the range of Nepali historiography in the 1970s; Stiller relied on their efforts. The Samsodhan Mandal, the school of history founded by Naya Raj Pant, had by this time excavated numerous documents of historical interest. Many of Stiller’s most original insights were derived from legal documents uncovered by Naya Raj’s son Dinesh Raj Pant and published in the journal Purnima.
As for models of interpretation or narrative, Stiller’s greatest debt was to Mahesh Chandra Regmi, who forged what may be called a materialist or semi-Marxist interpretation of Nepal’s economic history. Regmi, too, disdained the politics of the court, used revenue documents to shed light on the country’s social structure, and was enraged by the unjust exactions imposed on the peasantry. In fact, large sections of The Silent Cry directly draw on Regmi’s work on land ownership and taxation. As Stiller argues, the establishment of a centralized administrative apparatus and concentration of the state elite in Kathmandu following the conquests led to a massive increase in revenue extraction. The expanding military, which by then had become largely useless, further drained state coffers.
In 1804, the state established a new mode of taxation. Until then farmers had been more or less secure as long as they paid half of their crop in rent. Under the new kut system the right to till the land was auctioned off to the farmer who offered to pay the highest amount. The livelihoods of the peasantry thus became increasingly precarious. Stiller notes that slavery and bondage increased in the first half of the nineteenth century as a direct result of the higher tax burden. The government could have adopted new farming methods to increase production, encouraged trade or cut the size of the army to reduce the burden on the peasantry, but it failed to take any of these measures.
Interestingly, Stiller began to feel outrage at injustice only gradually, with hesitation and ambivalence. In his early work as a historian, he seems apologetic while voicing even minor criticisms of Nepal’s rulers. In his first book, for example, he writes that Prithvi Narayan Shah did not have a strong grasp of economic policy, but then immediately adds, “this is not meant in disparagement of the man to whom Nepal owes so much.” A master’s student at Tribhuvan University, Stiller had yet to become a Nepali citizen at the time. Perhaps this made him hesitant to take a bolder stance.
But genuine reverence for Prithvi Narayan is reflected throughout his later works. Stiller believed that this king not only devised better military tactics but was also more deeply concerned about his people than any of his contemporaries. Nepal’s conquest, in Stiller’s view, was a historical necessity, since mini-states that existed across the Himalayan region in the mid-eighteenth century were archaic remnants untenable in an era of nation states. Had Prithvi Narayan not made his conquests, they would no doubt have been assimilated into the territories of the East India Company. Like other nationalist historians, Stiller takes it as axiomatic that an independent Nepal under the Shah monarchy was far preferable to one incorporated into the Raj, despite the fact that the Gorkhali rulers had brutalized the population.
Stiller is wary of judging the actions of past rulers based on current notions. He considers it “unfair to [expect] government to provide such services [to improve the people’s livelihoods] in an age when this was not even considered a valid and meaningful task of government.” When faced with examples of excessive taxation or arbitrary exercise of power, his initial impulse is to blame not the system of governance, but only its abuse by individual officials and members of the nobility. He actually castigates those who seek to condemn the system itself. “A more serious view,” he writes, “would realise that it is impossible to consider justice, or even the administrative system, in isolation. The system of justice that had evolved in Nepal was essentially a compromise that tried to tailor the demands of justice to the equally strong demand of geopolitical reality.”
Such interpretation does not seem to have gone down well with Stiller’s students at Tribhuvan University, where he taught for a decade until 1981. Most likely these young men and women of the early 1970s felt stifled and unfree under the autocratic Panchayat regime. They thought that Stiller’s benign approach towards the Nepali state’s past injustices was a way of excusing the inequities of the present. His students’ criticisms made Stiller uneasy. As a historian, he hesitated to provide a wholesale indictment of nineteenth-century governments. But his students pushed him to sharpen his perception and interrogate the sources more closely than he had done before. “Their impatience has proved to be very fruitful,” Stiller finally admits, “since continued questioning of the system itself has revealed even greater weaknesses than were imagined on the basis of Regmi’s research.”
Regmi had analysed the relationship between the Nepali state and its population within the framework of land ownership and taxation. The Silent Cry’s chief contribution was to extend this analysis beyond this framework. Stiller thought that, like the other nation states that were emerging in the nineteenth century, the Nepali state should have tried to bind the people together and create a shared sense of nationhood. At the very least, it should have established mechanisms for protecting the peasantry. This was after all a widely acknowledged responsibility of government even at the time.
An analysis of the legal system was crucial in this regard. As Stiller wrote, “it is the law, and justice administered according to the law, that ultimately unites men and draws them closer in society.” What he found was that the state was only marginally interested in protecting the people from the depredations of their rulers. Bharadars and military officials were the sole judicial authority in territories they received as jagir or birta grants; the state did not even attempt to oversee their decisions. Even in areas that it controlled directly, the government was far more interested in enforcing caste rules and the religious norms of the elite than in providing justice.
But the legal system’s most important use for Kathmandu was as an additional source of revenue. Stiller found that documents dealing with judicial management exposed the rapaciousness of the ruling elite. When officials restored a house to someone who had been unjustly evicted, for instance, they were instructed to “exact the salamis fee from the owner of the house and remit it to the palace.” The administrative court of appeals was allowed great leeway in judging cases, except when it came to money; the court was instructed to send “[t]he fines and the fee from the winner of the case” to Kathmandu. Cow slaughter was subject to the most extreme punishment, but non-Hindu communities were allowed to eat the meat of cows that had died accidentally as long as they paid hefty fines.
Stiller reaches a damning conclusion. In the ultimate analysis, Nepal’s rulers failed not only to forge the bonds of nationhood but also to fulfill their fundamental duty to protect the people. “The legal system…became a source of division and not of unity,” he writes. “The system itself, not abuses to the system, was driving a wedge between the simple people and the bharadars… Justice was not only not blind, she very distinctly winked at the bharadars of Nepal.”
The Silent Cry retains much of its original power, but the book also reflects the limits of the period in which Stiller was writing. Our knowledge of Nepal has expanded tremendously in the past four decades. Other approaches to the study of society — anthropology, oral history — have given us a far clearer picture of Nepal’s diverse communities and their relationships to the state than the one derived from state records and regulations. We can now see that Stiller’s classification of Nepali society into rulers, officials and the peasantry was too simplistic. A contemporary historian would have paid more attention to variations among regions, and especially to caste and ethnicity.
Stiller’s zeal to transform Nepal’s “simple people” into agents of history led to errors of interpretation. In the early pages of Rise of the House of Gorkha, for example, he remarks that Prithvi Narayan succeeded as a conqueror because he harnessed “the full energies of the peasant class” and conveyed his goals in terms that the peasantry could accept and understand. This is a startling assertion, since it implies that the opinions of subsistence farmers actually influenced governance in the mini hill states of the eighteenth century. But reading on, we see that Stiller only provides evidence for a more limited claim: Prithvi Narayan was able to mobilize the energies not of the entire peasant class but only of an army that included men from a few selected castes, drawn from areas in and around Gorkha. He gained his soldiers’ support not because he offered any great vision but because he promised them land in the conquered territories.
In The Silent Cry, Stiller similarly claims that the suffering of the peasantry had a direct impact on high politics, including the fall of Bhim Sen Thapa and the 1846 Kot massacre that brought Jang Bahadur to power. “We have tried…to show the close connection between the events and policies of the silent years and the cataclysm of the fourteenth of September 1846,” he writes. “[T]he events of the silent years ended with such violence largely because the cry of village Nepal and the Nepali nation had gone unheeded.”
Such excessive rhetoric is uncharacteristic for a historian as scrupulous as Stiller. Nepal’s peasantry would have had to rise up as an organized entity before being able to shape the course of political events. There is no evidence that they ever did so in the nineteenth century, despite the enormity of their suffering. The rise and fall of influential figures at court were solely the result of ambition, rivalry and intrigue among the bharadari. Even the army, which was emerging at the time as the only organized body capable of pressuring the ruling class, hadn’t developed an autonomous political role.
Stiller’s mistake was to assume that all political action across Nepal was organized around the state in Kathmandu. He may have been an iconoclast to some extent, but he was still a product of his milieu and in an unthinking moment adopted one of the key tenets of Panchayat-era historiography — the notion that Nepal’s identity as a nation-state extended far back into the hoary past. At the same time, however, Stiller had himself dismantled this idea. He had demonstrated that while Nepal might have been an incipient state in the nineteenth century, its people had yet to develop a shared sense of nationhood. Most of the population encountered the Nepali state only when they were taxed or forced to provide labour. There were several kingdoms within its territory that were only nominally ruled by Kathmandu. For most people, participating in public life would have meant participating in local events, and their imagined communities wouldn’t have extended beyond particular villages or ethnic groups. But on the character and texture of such community life, Stiller had very little to say.
The Silent Cry: The People of Nepal 1816-1839
By Ludwig Stiller
Educational Book House 2018 (reprint), (originally published by Sahayogi Prakashan, 1976)
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