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The Dictatorship of Jang Bahadur

History has not been kind to Jang Bahadur during the twentieth century. He was blamed for setting up a dictatorship that repressed the entire nation for more than 100 years and left it in a primitive economic condition. From the standpoint of the nineteenth century during which he lived, however, he was a pillar of strength who eliminated the useless factional fighting at court, introduced innovations into the bureaucracy and the judiciary, and made efforts to "modernize" Nepal. In this sense, he remains one of the most important figures in Nepalese history.

Jang Bahadur Kunwar's early career paralleled that of many members of the lower aristocracy in Nepal, despite the Kunwar family's claims of descent from Indian princes. Jang Bahadur's great-grandfather was an important military leader under Prithvi Narayan Shah in the eighteenth century, and during the war with China (1791-92) his grandfather was also a military leader, who became one of the four chief administrators (kaji) of the Gorkha-Nepalese state. His father, Bala Narasimha Kunwar, was in court the day Rana Bahadur Shah was murdered and killed the murderer on the spot. For this action, he was rewarded with the position of kaji, which was made hereditary in his family. Jang Bahadur joined the military service in 1832-33 at the age of sixteen. As maternal grandson of Bhimsen Thapa, he lost his job and his property when the latter fell. After wandering in north India for several years, he returned to Nepal as a captain in the artillery in 1840. In November 1841, he was asked by the king to join his bodyguard, and in January 1842 he began work as kaji in the palace. When Mathbar Singh returned to power, Jang Bahadur rose with him but Mathbar Singh disliked his ambition and had him removed to a lesser position on the staff of the heir apparent. When Fateh Jang Chautaria came to power, Jang Bahadur became fourth in the hierarchy of the coalition government and took pains to flatter the queen while showing no signs of ambition to Gagan Singh. A career opportunist, he was ready and waiting when the time came to act at the Kot Massacre.

Queen Rajendralakshmi was not pleased by the new prime minister. She conspired to eliminate Jang Bahadur and elevate her son to the throne. The Basnyat Conspiracy, so called because many of its participants belonged to one of the last leading noble families, the Basnyats, was betrayed, and its ringleaders were rounded up and executed in 1846. A meeting of leading notables packed with Rana supporters found the queen guilty of complicity in the plot, stripped her of her powers, and sent her into exile in Banaras along with King Rajendra. The king still had illusions of grandeur and began plotting his return from India. In 1847 Jang Bahadur informed the troops of the exiled king's treasonous activities, announced his dethronement, and elevated Rajendra's son to the throne as Surendra Bikram Shah (1847-81). Rajendra was captured later that year in the Tarai and brought back as a prisoner to Bhadgaon, where he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

By 1850 Jang Bahadur had eliminated or overawed all of his major rivals, installed his own candidate on the throne, appointed his brothers and cronies to all the important posts, and ensured that major administrative decisions were made by himself as prime minister. At this point, he took the unprecedented step of traveling to Britain, leaving from Calcutta in April 1850 and returning to Kathmandu in February 1851. Although he unsuccessfully tried to deal directly with the British government while he was there, the main result of the tour was a great increase in goodwill between the British and Nepal. Recognizing the extent of the world and the power of industrialized Europe, he became convinced that close cooperation with the British was the best way to guarantee Nepal's independence. From then on, European architecture, fashion, and furnishings became more prevalent in Kathmandu and among the Nepalese aristocracy in general.

As part of his modernization plans, Jang Bahadur commissioned leading administrators and interpreters of texts on dharma to revise and codify the legal system of the nation into a single body of laws, a process that had not been carried out since the seventeenth century under Ram Shah of Gorkha. The result was the 1,400-page Muluki Ain of 1854, a collection of administrative procedures and legal frameworks for interpreting civil and criminal matters, revenue collection, landlord and peasant relations, intercaste disputes, and marriage and family law. In contrast to the older system, which had allowed execution or bodily mutilation for a wide range of offenses, the Muluki Ain severely limited-- without abolishing--corporal punishment. For example, the old system gave wide scope for blood vengeance by aggrieved parties, such as cuckolded husbands, but the Muluki Ain restricted such opportunities. Substitutions included confiscation of property or prison terms. Torture to obtain confessions was abolished. Strict penalties were set down for the abusers of judicial positions and also for persons maliciously accusing judges of corruption. There were statutes of limitations for judicial actions. Caste-based differences in the degree of punishments remained throughout, with higher castes (for example, Brahmans) exempt from the corporal punishments and heavy fines that lower-caste members incurred for the same crimes. This distinction was in keeping with the traditional approach of the dharma shastras, or ancient legal treatises (see The Judicial System , ch. 5).

After his return from Europe, Jang Bahadur took steps to increase his hold over the country. He reduced the king to a prisoner in his own palace, surrounded by agents of the prime minister and restricted and supervised at all times. No one outside the king's immediate family could see the king without permission from the prime minister. All communications in the name of the king were censored, and he was allowed to read only approved literature. In 1856 the king issued a royal decree (sanad) that formalized the dominance of the Kunwar family. There were three main provisions in this crucial document. First, the prime minister had complete authority over all internal administration, including civil, military, and judicial affairs, and all foreign relations, including the powers to make war and peace. Second, Jang Bahadur was made great king (maharajah) of Kaski and Lamjung districts, in effect serving as their independent ruler. The Shah king retained the title of maharajadhiraja (supreme king) and the right to use the honorific term shri five times with his name. The prime minister could use shri three times with his name. In this way, Jang Bahadur stopped short of taking the throne outright but elevated his family to a level second only to the royal house, which remained as a symbol of the nation. Finally, provisions were established for hereditary succession to the post of prime minister. Brothers and then sons would inherit the position in order of seniority. These provisions meant that the dictatorship of the Kunwar family, a virtual monarchy within the monarchy, would be passed down in the family for generations, with no legal mechanism for changing the government. Later, Jang Bahadur established official Rolls of Succession that ranked all his descendants in relation to their hereditary rights to the office of prime minister.

Jang Bahadur sealed the arrangement with the Shah Dynasty by arranging marriages between his heirs and the royal house. In 1854 his eldest son, Jagat Jang (aged eight), married the eldest daughter (aged six) of Surendra Bikram Shah. In 1855 his second son married the second daughter of the king. The ultimate test was passed in 1857, when heir apparent Trilokya Bir Bikram married two daughters of Jang Bahadur. A son of this union ascended to the throne in 1881.

Nepal began to experience some successes in international affairs during the tenure of Jang Bahadur. To the north, relations with Tibet had been mediated through China since Nepal's defeat in 1792, and during the early nineteenth century embassies had to make the arduous journey to Beijing every five years with local products as tribute to the Qing emperor. By 1854, however, China was in decline and had fallen into a protracted period of disturbances, including the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), revolts by Muslim ethnic groups north of Tibet, and war with European powers. The Nepalese mission to Beijing in 1852, just after the death of the sixth Panchen Lama, was allegedly mistreated in Tibet. Because of this slight, the Nepalese government sent a protest letter to Beijing and Lhasa outlining several grievances, including excessive customs duties on Nepalese trade. In 1855 Nepalese troops overran the Kuti and Kairang areas. Hostilities lasted for about a year, with successes and failures on both sides, until a treaty negotiated by the Chinese resident and ratified in March 1856 gave Nepalese merchants duty-free trade privileges, forced Tibet to pay an annual tribute of 10,000 rupees to Nepal, and allowed a Nepalese resident in Lhasa. In return, Nepal gave up territorial gains and agreed that it, as well as Tibet, would remain a tributary state subject to China. As the Qing Empire disintegrated later in the century, this tributary status was allowed to lapse, and even Tibet began to shake off its subordination.

The outbreak of disorder to the south also allowed the Nepalese army to take a more active role in international affairs. Beginning in May 1857, a series of related uprisings throughout north India-- known as the Sepoy Rebellion--threatened to topple the power of the British East India Company. The uprisings began with widespread mutinies in the company's army and spread to include peasant revolts and alliances of the old Mughal aristocracy against the foreigner. Most of the major cities west of Bengal fell into rebel hands, and the aged Mughal emperor was proclaimed the leader of a national revolution. Initially there was some fear in British circles that Nepal would side with the rebels and turn the tide irrevocably against the British East India Company, but Jang Bahadur proved to be a loyal and reliable ally. At that point, immediately following hostilities in Tibet, the army of Nepal had grown to around 25,000 troops. Jang Bahadur sent several columns ahead and then marched with 9,000 troops into northern India in December 1857. Heading an army of 15,000 troops, he fought several hard battles and aided the British in their campaigns around Gorakhpur and Lucknow. The prime minister returned to Nepal triumphantly in March 1858 and continued to aid the British in rooting out "rebels" who had been dislocated during the chaos and sought refuge in the Tarai.

After the Sepoy Rebellion had been crushed and Britain had abolished the British East India Company and taken direct control of India in 1858, Nepal received a reward for its loyalty. Western sections of the Tarai that had been ceded through the Treaty of Sagauli in 1816 were returned. Henceforth, the British were firm supporters of Jang Bahadur's government, and Nepal later became an important source of military recruits for the British army (see From the Anglo-Nepalese War to World War II , ch. 5).

In 1858 King Surendra bestowed upon Jang Bahadur Kunwar the honorific title of Rana, an old title denoting martial glory used by Rajput princes in northern India. He then became Jang Bahadur Rana, and the later prime ministers descended from his family added his name to their own in honor of his accomplishments. Thus they all became "Jang Bahadur Ranas," and their line became known as the house of the Ranas. Jang Bahadur remained prime minister until 1877, suppressing conspiracies and local revolts and enjoying the fruits of his early successes. He exercised almost unlimited power over internal affairs, taking for his own use whatever funds were available in the treasury. He lived in the high style of an Anglicized native prince in the British Raj, although unlike the Indian princes he was the ruler of a truly independent nation, an ally rather than a subordinate of the British. He died as he had lived, a man of action, during a hunting expedition in the Tarai.

Data as of September 1991



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