Social Science Baha

Historicising Nationalism in the Eastern Himalayas and the Importance of Being Kumar Pradhan: A Commentary on the Little Known Historian and His Contributions

Swatahsiddha Sarkar

Because of its innate ideological complexities and debatable subject matter any attempt to historicise nationalism has always been an uphill task. The study of nationalism in the Eastern Himalayan context has long been known to be the cup of tea of Nepal and West based historians. In this context the contribution of Kumar Pradhan, a historian by training from Darjeeling, India (who died in the recent past on December 20, 2013) seems to have added some fundamentally new dimensions in the Eastern Himalayan nationalist history. Pradhan did question the obsession of ‘glorifying the history of unification’ as the only paradigm of Nepali nationalist historiography at that period of time when we rarely heard about janjati politics that in fact, stymied the Bahunbadi discourse of Nepali nationalism in course of time. Pradhan’s contribution has involved not only the analysis of nationalism in the context of Nepal but his writings were equally insightful in contextualising the historical evolution and spread of Nepali nationalism outside Nepal as well.

Though Pradhan has not published widely but the worth of his scholarship can be appreciated through his two major English pieces and several other little known quality pieces written in Nepali. The name of Pradhan became familiar in the Eastern Himalaya centric global scholarship since the 1990s. Though lately Gorkha Conquest (1991), the most prominent among his works, brought him the recognition in the wider academy, the credit of being an erudite historian of the Eastern Himalayas he deserved since the days of Pahilo Pahar (1982) – another significant piece written by him in Nepali. Pradhan has been widely referred to and quoted by scholars like Michael Hutt, David N Gellner, Mark Turin, and Sara Shneiderman among others. John Whelpton has even praised his Gorkha Conquest with high claims of admiration in his introduction of its new edition (that came up in 2009). However, his Baarta Haru (1971), Pahilo Pahar (1982), A History of Nepali Literature (1984), Adhiti Kahi (2005) did not receive much attention that they deserved. The proposed paper seeks to unfold the rarely discussed issues that his contributions reflected upon. Besides his well founded critique of Nepali Nationalism vis-a-vis the history of Gorkha conquest and empire Pradhan has taken up such crucial issues for historical probing like – the evolution of Nepali nation outside Nepal, the distinctiveness of Nepali ethnicity in India vis-a-vis Nepal, the origin of Nepali print capitalism in Darjeeling and its consequent politico-cultural implications for a Nepali public sphere both in India and Nepal, the embodiment of Indian nationalism in the life and works of Indian Nepalis and the controversial issue of Nepali migration and social change in Nepali dominated areas of India.

What is unique in Pradhan’s approach to history is his concern for – what Hardt and Negri would put it as – the multitude as reflected in the tapestry of empire and incipient nationalism. In his pieces we not only get hold of the rare combination of facts, causality, and analysis but in addition his contributions contained enough reflections upon what he himself preferred to term as the ‘temporality of desire’ and ‘expectation’. He aptly framed the progression of time as an act of balancing between ‘achievement’ and ‘non-achievement’ of these ‘desires’ and ‘expectations’ which in fact helped him bring down the Bir history – to use Onta’s provocative provenance – to the life experiences of the subaltern. On the whole the proposed paper would attempt to indicate the importance of Kumar Pradhan so far as the question of historicising nationalism in the context of Eastern Himalaya is concerned.