My Tribute to Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founding father of modern Nepal

Enepalese Published on: January 12, 2024

Prof. Gopi Upreti

We all know from history books that the national unification process started by Prithvi Narayan Shah 300 years ago resulted in the formation of modern Nepal with the distinct identity of Nepali people. There was no modern Nepal then. Modern Nepal, as we know it today, was divided into numerous small states and principalities known as Baise and Chaubise rajaya. Prithvi Narayan Shah, then, was the king of the Gorkha state, one of those principalities. He assumed the throne of Gorkha state at the young age of 20. Unlike many other kings, he was intelligent, a strategic thinker, and a visionary. He organized his army, and people consulted his generals and court officials. He shared his vision of the Gorkha state’s expansion, ultimately leading to one unified nation-state. This was a daunting task, but he was so ambitious and committed to carrying this path of unification that he never thought of relinquishing the unification process despite being defeated several times.

A Strategic Thinker

Prithvi knew that it was extremely difficult to carry forward the task of unification as it involved a massive amount of state revenue and funds to recruit soldiers, increase military strength, train, and maintain a well-equipped army. People are the ultimate source of state revenue, and if people willingly did not participate in the unification campaign, there was no way that he could succeed. His modus operandi was remarkably palpable because he was very close to his people and knowledgeable about their sentiments and thoughts about his ambitious plan. As a king, unlike others, he did not coerce his people to pay taxes to support the military expansion of Gorkha state. He rather interacted with people, sought their advice, and tried to win over their support. People overwhelmingly supported their king’s call and the unification campaign.

Prithvi was blessed with the company of brave, strategic thinkers, and farsighted generals like Kalu Pandey and others who carried his vision. Without their intelligence and organizational and military tactical capability, the Prithvi and Gorkha armies could not have achieved what they had achieved. It was a collective endeavor of personalities like Kalu, the committed generals, and the people who rallied behind the unification campaign.

Given the crude feudalistic political and economic structure of that time, Prithvi’s approach to reaching out to his people, his generals, and court officials for their opinions and suggestions was progressive and participatory relative to the social consciousness of that time. On many occasions, Prithvi changed his opinion and plans as per the suggestions of his generals like Kalu Pandey and others in matters of strategic military decisions. This indicates that Prithvi was mostly open to suggestions and better alternatives from his generals and court officials. This was rare in other kings as most of them imposed and often commanded on a whim what they thought was right. On the other hand, Prithvi invited opinions and suggestions from his generals and even people and finally chose the best option considering all possible consequences.

Formidable Geo-Political Reality

More than half of India was ruled by the British Empire, and the Muslim Mogul state was in the process of disintegration. Mir Kasim was one powerful Muslim ruler of Bengal. Tibet was the main center of trade business at that time. Palpali, the Sen king, was powerful and ruled the eastern part of Nepal from Palpa to Rai-Limbu Kirat Pradesh in the East. Christian missionaries were already operating in Kathmandu Valley and passing valuable information to the British regime in India, urging the British regime to take over Kathmandu Valley before Prithvi Narayan Shah did because, in their assessment, it would have been impossible for the British to defeat Prithvi Narayan Shah’s Gorkha military force. That is the reason why Prithvi expelled the Christian missionary from Kathmandu Valley. His statement of warning about ‘Phirangi’ and their activities did not come out of nothing. It is said that Prithvi conceptualized the dream of unification from Chandragiri Hill in Kathmandu after he returned from Makawanpur. When he observed Kathmandu Valley from Chandragiri Hill, he realized that by conquering Kathmandu Valley, a unified Nepal could be materialized. Prithvi realized that by consolidating his army to stop the possible advancement of the British army from eastern Tarai, he could complete his unification. The victory of Bijaypur in the eastern part of Nepal by the Gorkha army was the turning point in the unification of Nepal. This victory of Bijaypur facilitated the victory of eastern Kirat, Makawanpur, and the powerful Palpa Sen kingdom. The unification process completed through the conquest of Kathmandu valley created modern Nepal with a distinct identity of Nepal and Nepali people.

Every Nation Has Their Founding Father

Every modern nation has its founding father or fathers. History tells us that unification is a painful process that does not come from peaceful means and the change of hearts of the rulers and their people. In history, we have observed that a dominant state starts the unification process by conquering the weaker states through military might. War and battles were the universal phenomenon for the formation of unified, powerful states. European history is, in fact, the history of the bloodiest wars and battles waged by their rulers in the process of creating powerful, unified nation-states.

Germany did not exist as a single nation-state before unification by Prussian ruler Otto von Bismarck. There were 39 individual states in Germany, just like Baise and Chaubise rajaya in Nepal. There is an interesting parallel between the unification process of Nepal and Germany, but Nepal’s unification is even more complicated in the sense that Prithvi Narayan had to reckon with the British colonial regime in India while launching unification in Nepal. Otto von Bismarck unified 39 small German states into the powerful German empire through bloody war and battles. He was nicknamed as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ because he ruled the German empire with an iron fist to keep the unified Germany intact. Today, all German people take great pride in Bismarck and pay enormous tribute to their founding father.

George Washington and six other founding fathers (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin) occupy an unparalleled place in American history. They were the leaders of the revolution that brought independence from Great Britain to American colonies in the late 18th century. Even though their revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality did not end slavery and protect the rights of American Indians, they are still held in high esteem as founding fathers of America by all Americans, including the African American community. Abraham Lincoln had to wage a civil war to end slavery that unified America in the true sense. Some may consider Lincoln to be the true founding father of America.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was the founding father of Italy. He was an Italian soldier and a patriot who led many bloody military campaigns that brought about the formation of the modern unified Italy. He was called the “hero of the two worlds” in tribute to his military expeditions in South America and Europe.

What If Nepal Was Not Unified?

Just imagine, had Prithvi Narayan Shah not unified Nepal, what would have been the fate and identity of today’s Nepal and Nepali? It was Prithvi’s Gorkha army that defeated the British and Mir Kasim’s invasion in their attempt to conquer Kathmandu valley and the suburban states of Makawanpur, Palpa, and eastern Kirat of Nepal. Nepal would have come under British colonialism just like India and would have been integrated into India when the British left India. Nepal and Nepali identity would not exist today. There is no doubt that Prithvi Narayan Shah was the founding father of modern Nepal and should be duly recognized without any prejudice or hatred.

It is quite understandable why Anglo-European Christians and their political allies in Nepal do not like Prithvi to be recognized as the founding father of Nepal. They succeeded in abolishing the celebration of ‘National Unification and Prithvi Day’ through the then Girija Congress government, which was implementing the Maoist agenda. The rationale of Maoist political ideology or the ‘Prachanda path’ could not have been established without undoing what Prithvi Narayan Shah did through the unification of the then numerous principalities. Maoists accelerated ethnic-casts hatred and promised ethnicity cast-based statehood for all the major ethnicities of Nepal by dividing the country into 14-15 ethnicity-cast-based principalities. This misguidedly inspired young people from various ethnicities to join their so-called ‘janayuddha,’ which eventually led them to participate in liberal democracy through the 12-point Delhi agreement. How can one justify their accepting liberal democracy against which they staged ten years of violent insurrection that killed 18 thousand people, destroyed properties and infrastructures, and, eventually, participated in bourgeois democracy against which they staged the arms struggle? Was this violence necessary to come to fundamentally the same political system? Ethnicity-based federal statehood could not have been accomplished without disintegrating the central unitary system of government. That was the only reason why this politically and financially unsustainable burden of three-tier federalism was thrust upon Nepali people. Nepal is a small country that has had a history of more than 250 years of a unitary system of governance. The best model of governance for a small country like Nepal would be two-tier federalism, a central unitary government with fully decentralized local governance. There is no need for the provincial government, which is a financially and politically unsustainable burden for Nepal in the long run.

Advice to NC and UML

My advice to NC and UML is that you formally recognize the ‘National Unification and Prithvi Day,’ and that is, the sooner, the better. Please be clear you cannot forget Prithvi Narayan Shah as the founding father of Nepal because if Prithvi had not unified Nepal, you would have been fighting for MLA or MP of the Indian State Assembly or the Indian Parliament these days, Chetanabhaya.