The judgment of events past—the conquest of Gorkhali empire two centuries ago for example—still divides Nepalis. For the critics, the legacy of the conquests are far more indicting than just the brutalities of the battles, evident in the two centuries of state formation, from an extractive agrarian bureaucracy to a communal legal code. Social forces created by those events in the mid-eighteenth century, they argue, still shape the topography of power in Nepal. Defenders of the “unification,” who outsize its critics in number and influence, have a different project of defensive nationalism. Shah and successive rulers of Nepal must have unimpeachable credentials, the logic goes, if only because they created and sustained the great Nepali nation.
But disagreements about history often mask a disagreement about the present. Breaking Nepal, the latest book on defensive nationalism, makes no effort to disguise this. Co-edited by writers Sujit Mainali and Saurav, the compilation has an ambitious thesis: An overwhelming majority of Western scholars of Nepal have intentionally, or sometimes inadvertently, misrepresented the country’s history and society. They have, Mainali writes, “undermined the social cohesion and social adhesiveness” of Nepal and are intent on breaking Nepal.
The accusations get more fantastic. These foreign scholars—“those with white skin” as we are helpfully reminded—are not just nefarious in their intent, they’ve also maintained a three-century-long collaboration, connecting an eighteenth-century diplomat to a modern sociologist. A puzzled reader may ask why, in reply to which they will be earnestly told: Because those western scholars are still unaccountably “embarrassed and enraged” about, among other things, the expulsion of some Catholics from the Kathmandu valley in 1769.
In other words, there has been a longstanding brotherhood of travelers, writers and scholars of Nepal, from the exiled Father Giuseppe da Rovato of the 1760s to today’s Newcastle-native Thomas Bell—faithful and faithless all—solemnly intent on sabotaging the Nepali state by stoking ethnic tension, so as “to create fertile circumstances for Christianization of this region.”
“A wise man,” wrote Hume, “proportions his belief to the evidence.” Having made these remarkable claims, the editors of the book now have the job of producing an equally remarkable body of evidence. Based on the structure of the book alone, there are reasons to be skeptical. For a book that aims to expose the tricks of the Orientalists and correct their misinterpretations, it is shockingly thin on original content. First comes the prelude by Saurav, whose nationalist columns, sprinkled with obscure historical references, have a large, sometimes almost cultish, following. In this book, however, he comes across as even less lucid than usual. Within a single page, he manages to contemplate on a number of themes—how “Goebbels still rules the so-called ‘Western intellectuality’”; the “vulgarity of mediocre intellect [such as] Gellner, Whelpton, Hutt”; and the presence of “inborn native slaves” in a “country infested with worms”—indicating early on that those seeking serious arguments will be sorely disappointed.
Next follows a preface by Mainali, whom his co-editor credited with doing 85 percent of the book’s work, describing its thesis in about 3,500 words. But the rest of the book—157 of the total 184 pages—is a patchwork of sentences and paragraphs from books by the Western authors under scrutiny, organized under such eclectic headers like “Anti Nepal,” “Buddhism,” “Cow,” “Double Standard,” “Goitre,” and “Palaces,” not to mention the even more colourful ones like “Over Smart,” “Miser Number One,” “Putting Foot in Mouth,” and “Complete Stupidity.” These fragments, culled from a range of sources, are sometimes accompanied by a note from the editors. But in most cases, they stand alone, implying that the reader will derive the correct inference based on the inclination of the editors and the heading these paragraphs fall under.
For instance, take this sentence picked at random, which fell under the heading “Newar”:
Adultery is but likely [sic] to be punished among the Newars.
pg 33, History of Nepal, Daniel Wright
Bereft of context, it is difficult to know the purpose of this quote—a problem which nearly every extract in the book suffers from. To begin with, the book misquotes Wright, replacing the original “lightly” with “likely to be,” significantly changing the meaning. At any rate, what case are the editors making here? Is Wright mistaken in his description of nineteenth-century social life among the Newars? Is he confusing one community or custom for another? Has he tried to malign Newar custom by implicitly drawing a contrast with the conservative Victorian mores? And finally, how does this in any way forward the thesis of Christian collaboration at large that the editors allege?
As Mainali writes in his preface, Wright’s sentence is supposed to be one of the “provocative remarks from Western scholars . . . presented in this book.” Assuming the unlikely scenario where it is in fact a “provocative remark,” one might ask: Provocative to whom? This is an absurd standard of scholarship, where questions of accuracy and theoretical framework are shelved away. Instead, we are presented with a collection of scattered remarks that have personally provoked the editors. And because Mainali and Saurav believe they are onto something scandalous about Western scholarship, even in the absence of argument and analysis, we are presumably required to take them at their words.
Since Mainali recruits literary critic Edward Said in making his case, it is strange that there is next to no analysis of sources like Wright and other colonial writers, who are ripe for a textual critique. A significant portion of Breaking Nepal is composed of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British examples of Orientalist depiction of Nepali people, where descriptions like “ugly,” “savage,” “barbaric,” “cunning,” and “primitive” are frequently used. As scholars of Orientalist texts have demonstrated, these are not isolated cases of racism, but part of a larger activity of production of knowledge and symbols. As Said writes, “One ought never to assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or of myths.” It is a complicated system of knowledge with internal consistency, which is, Said notes, more “valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient.” And so even the most generous and liberal observer of the Orient is implicated in the imperial project.
But, apart from a handful of quotes, nothing in the book suggests that editors have read up on Said’s idea of Orientalism. Their only interest in collecting those derogatory remarks about Nepal is to somehow associate all modern scholars of Nepal with some deliberate Western agenda. If not, why would their argument, unimaginative as it is, make no use of even the most elementary criticism of Eurocentric scholarship? Instead of closely excavating the persistent influence of Orientalist attitudes in contemporary Western writings and of their frequent ignorance of scholarship in various Nepali languages—a worthwhile, if demanding, task—Mainali and Saurav take the easy recourse of merely casting innuendos. Channeling Said becomes a sideshow; what the editors really advocate is a perverted species of anti-Orientalism. The white writer—indistinguishable from another white writer of a different ideological or intellectual school—is wrong precisely because they are white.
In a telling paragraph, after describing John Stuart Mill’s bigoted remarks about Indians, and those of two Orientalist writers about Nepalis, Mainali writes, “Western scholars are also found creating resentment in between the so-called high caste Hindu of hills and other communities.” Before dismantling the logic of this sentence and what follows, we must notice the rhetorical trick being used. Just like a Buchanan or a Levi, who sometimes had nasty things to say about Nepal, Mainali suggests that contemporary academics from the West too are up to no good. Notice the phrase “Western scholars are also,” where “also” carries the impossible burden of connecting the two logically disconnected claims. He adds, “They accuse the Brahmans of using lowest honorific grade, which an elder generally uses to a junior, when addressing Limbus, regardless of their relative age. And in return, they humiliate Limbus as ‘rude people’.”
Let’s now look at the consistency of the argument. Is Lionel Caplan (misspelled throughout the book as “Kaplan”), whose Land and Social Change in East Nepal is cited as the source of that accusation against Brahmins, really “creating resentment” between two communities by writing an anthropological text in English in 1970? The editors have nothing to say on the accuracy of Caplan’s observation, but seem disturbed merely by the fact that someone is making note of power relations in Nepali society. In response, they throw in another sly innuendo: “they humiliate Limbus as ‘rude people,’” implying that this is Caplan, too. But the writer in this case is William J. Kirkpatrick, who made that comment more than 120 years before Caplan knew who Limbus were. Other “they” follow—a 1920s British colonel here, a Victorian explorer there—and soon crowd out the pronoun. Again, rather than furthering the book’s thesis, the lumping of quotations is driven by the editorial agenda.
It is useful to stick with Caplan for a while longer. First, because his Land and Social Change in East Nepal has been pointedly critiqued in the book, and second, because it demonstrates the fundamental failure of Breaking Nepal: the inability to approach academic writing in good faith. The accusations against Caplan are that he has tried to “create fissure among the Hindu and Limbu community of east Nepal,” and that he is “advocating for the continuation of Gorkha recruitment” on behalf of the West. As evidence, the book presents extracts like the following, perplexingly located under the category “Zealots”:
Limbu exploitation of commercial income sources – especially Gurkha service – poses a threat to the economic ascendance of this group (Brahman).
But what exactly is the editors’ objection to this sentence? Caplan’s book is a study of the changing interrelations between Brahmins and Limbus in east Nepal, “understood primarily in terms of their differential rights and interests in land.” His claim is that the ascendance of the Brahmins of east Nepal, fueled by the primitive accumulation due to the state decision to alienate the communally-held kipat lands, is now being countered by the Limbus’ own discovery of new capital in the form of Gurkha service. Are Saurav and Mainali then proposing a different explanation for the political economy of mid-twentieth century east Nepal? Do they have empirical evidence to counter Caplan’s observations? Is their contention that shifts in relations of production and credit have no social consequences? And if they do, is reporting that fact an evidence of a global Protestant design?
It must be clear by now that book is not in the business of answering such questions. This myopic reading of Caplan once again shows how, despite their purported anti-Orientalist stance, the book’s editors haven’t really done their homework. If they had, they would’ve known that Caplan himself has written extensively about the Orientalist representation of Gurkhas, particularly in British military writings. In his essay “‘Bravest of the Brave’: Representations of ‘The Gurkha’ in British Military Writings,” Caplan goes through more than 40 examples of colonial military writings to demonstrate the persistent tropes of loyalty and martiality as applied to the Gurkhas. He concludes:
“If orientalism means speaking for, producing authoritative knowledge about others, then these representations of the Gurkha are clearly part of an orientalist genre. If orientalism ‘dichotomises and essentialises’ in its portrayal of others, and in so doing functions as an element of (colonial or neo-colonial) domination, then I think by these criteria as well the Gurkha literature qualifies as orientalist.”
All this raises the question of what exactly is the point of Breaking Nepal. It makes outlandish claims about the schemes of Western scholars of Nepal, without as much as analyzing a writer’s text with seriousness or rigor. It maligns Nepali academics, calling them “inborn native slaves,” without showing the courage or even the basic intellectual decency, of naming them—unless they’re retired or dead. It places nearly every white writer of Nepal in the last three centuries in a single club, without saying anything of interest about their intellectual lineage. It shows stunning failure in making distinctions between descriptive and prescriptive text, between analysis and provocation, between citing an Orientalist and being one, and between sympathy for marginal groups and ethnic instigation. It makes no interventions at the level of ideas, and is limited to the clerical work of correcting a handful of sentences, without explaining how those errors invalidate the scholars’ overall projects. And it never reveals how the editors of the compilation have magically divined the “covert intentions” of hundreds of writers spread across the globe.
Leaving the possibility that this is merely a result of ineptitude, one is compelled to find that Saurav and Mainali are guilty of the same charges they make against the scholars: their claims too are marred by prejudice and agenda. Nothing is more important to the nationalist historiographer than the preservation of its myths. For them, any observation or interpretation of the inequities of the past becomes, ipso facto, the evidence of sectarian intentions at present. And as for contemporary social scientists doing the same work, they might as well ask, aren’t they part of what critic Harold Bloom termed “school of resentment,” infesting the minds of decent Nepali folks with words like “structural violence,” “Hill elites,” or “internal colonization”? As Kamal P. Malla said of two nationalist historians—Mahesh Raj Pant and his father Naya Raj Pant—“every new publication on Nepal’s history or culture is a sword in their heart; every insightful paper on Nepalese history or culture is a thorn in their scholarly flesh.”
If it appears that Saurav and Mainali are only interested in correcting errors, with little care for theorizing, then they have been partially successful. But their work is founded on a deep belief that almost all big changes in Nepal over the past decades has been pushed by foreign actors at great cost to the country. Interestingly, Breaking Nepal’s ideology functions in a manner much closer to that of a conspiracy theory than careful scholarship.
Like all good conspiracy theories, the book makes claims of a global agenda, with national and international collaborators, that threatens national integration. Also, it isn’t enough that the opposition is wrong or mistaken: they must also be capricious and disloyal. To support these claims, it then throws you a paranoiac jumble of irrelevant sources—a method favored by many conspiracy theorists. That the editors provide no systematic body of writing to make sense of those sources is no surprise. Why sweat over close reading of texts when you can peddle propaganda? Why worry about proving whether a Burghart or Gellner do racialized ethnography like Buchanan and Vansittart, when a mere innuendo would do? As several reviews of the book suggest, no one really seems to check for accuracy. That might also be why writers like Saurav keep repeating absurd falsehoods—for instance, the claim that only Protestants can become president of the United States—when a quick Google search would prove otherwise.
There is good reason to believe that the editors wouldn’t object to the label of conspiracy theorists. During the book’s launch this March, Saurav admitted the book’s name is inspired by Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines by Rajiv Malhotra, who is approvingly quoted by far too many Nepali journalists. A New Jersey–based Indian American former businessman, who has made a career of attacking Western scholars of Hinduism and India, Malhotra has been using his foundation to further the Hindutva agenda from the US. Similar to Breaking Nepal, Malhotra’s work too makes pretense of anti-imperialism to essentially push a rightwing ideology; one writer called his essays “right-wing parodies of Michel Foucault and Edward Said.” Just like editors of Breaking Nepal, who seem too keen on Samuel Huntington’s amateurish thesis of the “clash of civilizations,” Malhotra too sees a world where the Christian West is competing with the Islamic and Chinese civilizations for world domination. And predictably, he’s also disturbed by presence of Christians in his country. One critic of Malhotra, who also found several examples of plagiarism in his work, reported the following from the 2011 launch of Breaking India:
“Malhotra launched into a rant, calling Christianity a ‘cancer’ in the body of India that must be ripped out, being spread by a nexus of Christian evangelicals, Washington politicians, and corrupt Indian academics. Especially troubling was that he characterized Dalit converts to Christianity as mentally deficient and incapable of making responsible decisions on their own.”
Not too different from Saurav’s remark during the launch of his book that the purpose of Christian missions in Nepal is “the production of LGBT citizens, to produce hijras [transgendered people].”
Video: Where Saurav claims Christians want to produce LGBTs in Nepal
But the novelty of such bizarre, unsubstantiated claims gradually dissipates, and by the end, one is almost sorry for all the work that went into compiling this book. Meanwhile, there lies an entire universe of fascinating histories waiting to be written—social and cultural histories of objects, traditions and trends, and oral histories of invisible movements and rebellions that might permanently be lost in collective memory. In a recent interview, Saurav himself lamented that much of Nepali history is a dry political chronology. One is therefore disappointed, because all that energy invested in ultranationalist dogma in recent years could have gone into writings he is best at: those small histories of a Kathmandu of the provincial past, of Mahabir Football Club and Gorkhapatra, Nar Shumsher and Dillibazar, even the flowers and fruits he seems to be an avid student of.
But with Breaking Nepal, the result is not only uninteresting, but tediously sinister. It has become merely an excuse for the editors to stretch their nationalist muscles, and dismiss the explosion of democratic voices that have grown in recent years in opposition to the past dominance of a centralized tradition. Even worse, the editors casually abdicate their responsibility to the reader to supply clear, rational explanations and arguments. One may run into some redeeming features in the book, like the unintentional reminder that erudition is no safeguard against ineptitude, obtuseness, or bigotry. But these are far and few between. B. P. Koirala once quipped that intellectuals in Nepal love pedantry over small, insignificant matters—with “a mindset that does not accept democracy, one that only likes to argue and create unnecessary complications by giving importance to inane ideas.” Perhaps the biggest service the authors of this book do is to prove that one doesn’t have to be an intellectual to do that.
Cover photo: “Temple of Mahadeo, Bhatgaon (Nepal).” Watercolor by Henry Ambrose Oldfield, c. 1853.