If the old adage is true, in the 52 years since Nepal entered the modern era, there certainly have been personalities who were born ‘great’, even more have had ‘greatness’ thrust upon them, while very few have achieved greatness. Rishikesh Shaha, who died of lung cancer on 15 November, 2002, definitely belonged to the last category. Politician, diplomat, scholar and human rights activist, he strode the Nepali national stage with a presence as large as his physical self and though there may have been reasons to disagree with him, he was someone who could certainly not be ignored.
Born in 1925 into the ‘ruling’ house of Bhirkot, one of the few mid-hills principalities then still given nominal recognition by the Nepali state, Shaha’s accomplishments had very little to do with his relatively privileged background. It was through sheer force of talent, and sagacity in his later years, that he was able carve a place for himself in Nepal’s history.
While I was working in this magazine, we used to describe Shaha as Nepal’s scholar-statesman, and I doubt if there is any other Nepali who can share that designation with him. His career graph tells it all. Politically, he had reached the pinnacle at a very young age. He was a founding member of the Nepal Democratic Congress, one of the constituents which later became the Nepali Congress, the party that spearheaded the 1950-51 revolution against the Rana oligarchy to usher in democracy in Nepal.
During the first half of the turbulent 1950s, Shaha was in the thick of things. He became leader of the opposition in the 1952 Advisory Assembly (the ‘little parliament’) and was embroiled in the hurly burly of politicking that characterised the entire decade. But despite his deep involvement in the unprincipled politics of that period, he had already made a name for himself for his integrity and scholarship.
In 1956, he left for New York to set up Nepal’s permanent mission to the United Nations (and also to serve as the country’s first resident ambassador to the US). Shaha plunged into the business of his UN work with a vengeance even as he tried to adjust to life in the West. (An unfortunate incident during his tenure was a stabbing in New York’s Central Park. But his sanguine nature was not to be affected by that. Recalling the incident, he writes: “From this incident I received more publicity than I had at any time before. I was featured on page one of the New York Times for several days in a row. Also, I had the unique privilege of receiving, in pajamas, no less a person than Mr John Foster Dulles, then the US Secretary of State”.)
That was an era when the third world was trying to maintain an equidistance between the two superpowers; the Bandung Summit had just been concluded; and the Panchsheel was being bandied about as the mantra of the South. By the time the Non-Aligned Movement had come into being in 1961, with Nepal as a founding member, the workhorses who did much of the adroit footwork were recognised by Time magazine, thus: “The year 1960 may come to be known as the year neutralism became respectable…The Big Five of neutralism—Tito of Yugoslavia, Nehru of India, Nkrumah of Ghana, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia—are magnetic, colorful and messianic personalities, but too much so. The most effective work has often been done by second-echelon diplomats: men like Burma’s U Thant, Nepal’s Rishikesh Shaha and Tunisia’s Mongi Slim”.
It is a measure of the great respect that he was able to garner for Nepal and for himself within the world body that just five year later he was appointed chairman of the international commission to investigate the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary-general who died in a plane crash in Zambia in 1961. There were even attempts in certain quarters to advance Shaha as a candidate for UN Secretary Generalship. It is believed King Mahendra cold-shouldered the proposal. But that this was a possibility can be inferred from the Time story, which had written of him in the same breath as U Thant, and the latter did end up as SG of the UN.
King Mahendra had other plans for Shaha. He was brought back to Nepal after Mahendra’s December 1960 ‘royal coup’ that dissolved parliament and ended parliamentary democracy. Shaha was appointed to the king’s new cabinet on the very day of his arrival in Kathmandu. He was later appointed chairman of the commission to draft the ‘Panchayat’ constitution that governed the country from 1962 to 1990. He was also made foreign minister and special ambassador to the UN in those first years of direct rule by the king. Shaha was also made chairman of Standing Committee of the Raj Sabha (Nepal’s equivalent of the Privy Council). But his deep belief in the inviolability of the then suspended fundamental rights led him to express views that were not palatable to King Mahendra, and his tenure was soon terminated.
Unshackled from public office, he soon became an active member of what political scientist, Lok Raj Baral has called the ‘systemic opposition’ within the king-led Panchayat system. He won a seat in the national legislature from the ‘graduates’ constituency’ in 1967, and his statement calling for a more representative and responsible political system landed him a 14-month prison sentence.
That was the end of his political career, but one that led to a prolific one as a scholar. He taught at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, served as visiting professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and was Regents’ Professor at the University of Calfornia at Berkeley. His books, most notably, Nepali Politics: Retrospect and Prospect, Essays in the Practice of Government in Nepal and Modern Nepal: A Political History have become standard reference works, while his Introduction to Nepal provides perhaps the best all-round introduction to the country. It is somewhat surprising that in none of his works does Shaha criticise any of the three kings he knew personally, Tribhuvan, Mahendra and Birendra, although he does not mince words when it comes to their policies. It was perhaps the gentleman in him that realised that given his proximity to the monarchy any deprecatory comments against them would be hitting below the belt.
Rishikesh Shaha’s firm commitment on the issue of personal freedom led him to be a founding member of the Nepal chapter of Amnesty International. This was during the Panchayat period when even recipients of AI newsletters were viewed suspiciously by the powers that be. In 1988, he became the founder-president of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal (HURON) and was active during the 1990 movement against the Panchayat system to restore democracy.
He later left HURON but did not let up in his own personal crusade against injustice. One of the most significant instances of these was the case of Amar Lama, the driver of the jeep that killed Madan Bhandari, general-secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) in 1993. Despite two investigating commissions having absolved Lama of any conspiratorial involvement in Bhandari’s death, as alleged by the CPN (UML), the largest communist party in the country, Lama was jailed. None of the human rights organisations dared take on the communists, who were bent on making political capital by using Lama as a scapegoat, but Rishikesh Shaha persevered with his appeals and write-ups until Lama was freed.
In the last few years, he faced accusations of being an apologist of the Maoists as well as being an advocate of an active monarchy. The first charge was leveled because of his friendship with the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Baburam Bhattarai, with whom he had worked together in HURON. A firm friendship had grown between the two, and the correspondence that continued for some time between the two even after the latter went underground was not something Shaha kept hidden from anyone. Similarly, after the Maoist ‘People’s War’ began he publicly called on the king to ‘take back’ the 1990 constitution since it was one that he had ‘given’ in the first place. This was a very unpopular stance to take but not many preferred to hear the second part of his argument, that only then would an election to a constituent assembly, a key Maoist demand, be possible. Events by now have pushed the country very much towards that possibility.
Above all Shaha was a humanist, and it was the state of the country he loved most that moved him to say unpopular things. Writing in these pages in 1996 after a visit to the Maoist heartland of Rolpa in western Nepal, only months after the People’s War began, he had warned: “The signs of an imminent legitimacy crisis are already visible in Nepal’s fledgling democracy, and the immateriality accorded to the civilian deaths in Rolpa is a foretaste of difficult days ahead”. Seven years later, his prescient observation has proved vindicated.
One of Rishikesh Shaha’s better-known books is Heroes and Builders of Nepal. If someone were to update the text, its pantheon would be quite incomplete without Shaha himself.
Image: Penguin India
Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
From our archive:
Diwas Kc reviews The Hindus: An Alternative History. (March 2010)