Article by Suman Golay ( UWB received this article in email)
I met a travelers from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
By Percy Shelley
Who could have expressed better than Shelley himself, about the fate of great kings. They are relics of the past, whose only refuge is between the pages of history books. The fast receding number of monarchs in the modern history invariably suggests– they are irreversibly dying breed, heading fast towards the Dodo’s club.
Monarchy comes in three flavors: absolute, constitutional and abolished. Among the living royals, most are relegated to oblivion of constitutional monarchy, while some still assume absolute powers, and rests are abolished. Those that are absolute are mostly in Middle East, still living in the reels of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and one in our own backyard– Bhutan, which is striving for Gross National Happiness as a national goal. In retrospect, we can see their conceit and insecurity in their magnificence and ambition, one with new found wealth other with sheer stupidity.
The metamorphosis from absolute to constitutional didn’t happen on their own volition, they had to oblige to the consensus of people (proletariat or bourgeoisie), in retrospect quite a prudent move on their part, which is, to trade socio-economical status quo with the political reign. But not all usurpations were peaceful, gore of the French and the Bolshevik revolutions have splattered the pages of history books red.
Regardless of the means, may they be political, social, economical or theological, violent or peaceful; the proclaimed manifestations of the ends of any revolution is always—emancipation and empowerment of masses, at least in theory.
Among such transformations of power structure, results can be summed up in an assortment of – good, bad, and ugly. Countries of Western Europe like Great Britain, Spain, Sweden etc. formerly having an absolute monarchs, but declared constitutional or abolished since, seems to be doing good in developmental indices, and in the pacific—Japan, if development indices were to be taken as a yardstick of success alone of such transformations.
But, there are as many ugly results as there are happy ones, in terms of atrocities and murder committed. In most of the ‘revolution gone bad’ cases, burying the archaic feudal ogres has resurrected the tyrannical republican monsters. Of these revolutions, ‘republic’ might have been the mantra, but irony is: that might as well be their epitaph. These are not just limited to the proletariat movement of communist countries of Russia, China, Cuba, Cambodia and North Korea, where struggle was targeted at redistribution of wealth to hammer hierarchical social classes into more horizontal masses. Beside political and economical revolts against kings, there has been others, fought over higher and divine causes, one such example is: ousting of Shah of Iran during the Cultural Revolution– the public sentiment then was: the need to purge the society of evil and decadence, which helped to usher theocratic government headed by God’s men, in exigency of purgatory, the same generation of people now find their basic human rights and liberties stifled.
Along the tortuous path of history, some transformations have been smooth, some violent and some are bumpy while still trying to find its niche, I would put Nepal in this category. Rather than who succeeded or failed, the more profound question to be asked is: What provokes the need for such changes and why some succeed and some don’t?
Gone are the days of fighting with the pillaging barbarians, thus the need to protect its denizens. Gone are the days of riding with the marauding army to pillage the next country to grab land, gold and women for greater cause—unification and proselytizing. And, gone are the opportunities for the individuals to rise up to the adversaries with ones infinite valor and wisdom to reach the station of a king (the legend goes, the Shah dynasty won the kingdom in the race).
Time’s changed, so did the forms of challenges and adversaries. The late kings might have fought fire-spewing dragons, but for their successors, the Excalibur proved helpless to fight the changing social, political, economical and religious problems. Their leadership qualities, what made them king in the first place like: intelligence, wisdom, valor got washed away in the debauchery, whatever sense and energy that was left with them was invested in internal politics to hold to power. They distanced themselves with the subjects, by surrounding castle with moats and themselves with incompetent advisors.
Every king is not King Canute, after all.
Already genuflected subjects with the burden of loyalty, myths and legends about their royals, even stoop further with the taxes, but paid happily without any questions, since there was always a fear of return of barbarians or the dragons. When it became apparent that there were no such imminent threats and even if there was one, and adversary insurmountable, to keep the loyalty unscathed, royals injected the masses with propaganda. Primarily, projected themselves as ‘unifier’, painted the picture– in their absence, nation would disintegrate or be conquered by greater nations. If this patriotism didn’t work, they exalted themselves onto the station of Divine Providence. Now, who could question that?
This trick worked for centuries, not because the royals, nobles and their advisors were shrewd enough in planning their propaganda well, it worked because the people were ignorant. People were ignorant not due to lack of intelligence; they were so because most of faculty of intelligence was invested into making an existential survival. Even Frankenstein’s monster indulged in reading when it was at leisure, but people never got that chance out of daily drudgery. So, there had to be something, which would break this feudal yoke, give some leisure time to exercise their brain and ask some philosophical questions, like– is there any other purpose of life other than tilling the fields of some lords, which they have us believed otherwise.
In true sense, the Industrial Revolution of late 18th century changed everything, especially for Europe, but its repercussion could be felt all around the world. With the advent of technology, agriculture was less labor intensive and more productive; better control of epidemic diseases ensured longer life expectancy hence more population. Since agriculture couldn’t absorb everyone, they turned to cottage industries for employment, primarily in textiles, giving rise to more complex industries. There was mass mobility of population in terms of physical and commerce; hence the need of locomotive, which gave rise to steam engine, and the rest, is history.
But the paradigm shift of this socio-economical evolution was: shifting of labor market from agriculture to trade and commerce. This is when yoke and shackles of feudalism began to lose its grip, the bond became gradually tenuous and finally faded away between feudal oligarchs and the masses, and the labor was no more isolated activity rather it morphed into an institution, which eventually emerged as a major force to restructure otherwise an archaic society. As a result, for the first time more people had access to more resources, which gave rise to different schools of thoughts on its methods of distributions. While Adam Smith conceived ‘The Wealth of Nation’, the contrary view was propounded by Karl Marx in ‘Das Kapital’.
Regardless of the contrary philosophies and their clash– heads on, eventually giving birth to the Cold War, masses were the sole winner, monarch and the feudal realized that their place at the top was unimaginable anymore; more so they found accommodating themselves in this new social structure– very incongruous. They had a choice of deciding to go into oblivion with constitutional monarchy or be usurped violently, which often happened in proletariat movement, where they had to bear the wrath of their own subjugated mass for centuries. Pragmatic ones turned into artifacts of past glory and majesty rather than lose everything, their palaces turned into tourist spots and their pictures into travel postcards.
There is no denying that people still adore their dying royals, but people are discreet enough to separate their romanticism with pragmatism, no one expects Emperor Akihito or Prince Charles to run their countries any more. Sadly, we can’t say same with our monarchy and our people.
Power changed hands; now it’s people who decide the fate of the kings, not other way round, anymore. And, it’s no wonder, why most of abolished monarchs were in the 20th century than in any other time in history, since time was right and ripe, since kings were no more needed to slay dragons, people could do that for themselves. Before this period, all the usurped kings were by other kings, never by their own subject. As comets were to dinosaurs for their extinction, intellectual empowerment of masses was to the demise of monarchies.
While all these socio-eco-political turmoil were brewing elsewhere, we were frozen in time, as if we were an extension of medieval period, stretching up to 21st century, unaltered and preserved (don’t consider Kathmandu, it’s an anomaly). While everybody else marched into 21st century, we stumbled into it unprepared; as a result, we are cumulatively confused as a nation, as if walked through time portal. It would be tad exaggerated but not completely wrong to state that diseases still kill us, which have been eradicated everywhere, death rate, birth rate, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, chunk of population engaged in substantial agriculture are comparable to the developed nations when they were in their medieval ages.
Out of all these indices, what is important and interesting to note is: our literacy rate. Total is 48.6% and by gender, male: 62.7%, female: 34.9% (source: CIA website, whose accuracy is plausible, but so are our government’s data).
These numbers extrapolates the conclusion– why we are still under the royal aegis, and the countries like ours elsewhere. We are like confused toddlers, in constant need to hold elders finger for guidance, thus danger of placing an infinite hope and faith in our leaders, while they may be: political, religious or royals, as a result, we are not mature enough to practice electoral system yet. For electorate system to work, it needs thinking people, not a driven one. Dedication and loyalty to any party line is fine, even to royals, but it should not turn one into conformist and march to the drum beats like zombies. Our electorate system is nothing but a proxy for vested interests; it has a veneer of participatory democracy, with whatsoever no comprehension of what one is participating into. One good example is advocacy for CA, to begin with half the population can’t read, other half who can, won’t (I haven’t either), and those who have always misinterpret, always a case of lost cause in translation, of blind giving a direction to deaf. Our sentiments and opinions are swayed easily, we always run, never pause to think for ourselves, and the people who make us run would never want us to pause, since ours is a democracy in hurry. It’s a running democracy with no general direction.
When every second person is an illiterate and every three out of ten are under poverty line, every four out of ten are unemployed, no one has luxury and time to pause and think, in confusion of running everywhere, whoever promises to deliver freedom, justice and equity fastest by any means would get unquestionable faith and loyalty, hence the supreme leader.
Same has been the mantra all political upheavals in our short history—Tribhuwan used the same trick on Ranas, Mahendra on political parties, political parties on Birendra, Gaynendra on political parties, now Maoist using it in its finest form.
Until we pause to see this vicious cycle, which we help to drive, while running amok during crisis, we are not ready to be a nation without kings and state heads, and rest be assured we will still be ruled by kings, if not King Gaynendra, then King Prachanda, if not King Prachanda then King Timbuktu.
But, I truly believe, days are numbered for any kind of kings, as we stop stumbling, regain our gait and confidence (in my opinion only way to achieve this is to increase literacy rate, which is not a priority for any government, by any measure it’s an Herculean task), and march forward, by pausing to THINK, sometime greater distance is covered while stationary, and that is what we need at this hour. Some day soon, I dream to see ruins of our own Ozymandias in and around Kathmandu, and be a nation in stride, instead by slowing down right now.
If such a day is realized, my king would turn into a Dodo, and we will bid him a good riddance.