Nepali Historical Amnesia

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta


Mar 10, 2018-Every few months, some member of the Nepali journalism fraternity writes an article lamenting the decline of the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) as ‘a think-tank that did great work’ during the Panchayat Era. When I read such articles, I basically want to cry for three reasons.

First, CNAS was primarily an academic research centre not driven by the imperatives of public policy research for most of the Panchayat years. Second, CNAS’s work done with some policy pretentions was really not that great. Third, this repeating cycle of jhur reporting is a testimony to the historical amnesia and laziness that drives our influential newsrooms (but this is a subject for another day).

Let me lay out the relevant historical details in brief to substantiate my first claim: CNAS was primarily an academic research centre and not a public policy-oriented research institution (that would be the functional definition of a think tank). CNAS, one of the four research centres of Tribhuvan University (TU), was started on July 16, 1972 as the Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies (INAS).

Dr Prayag Raj Sharma, a first rate scholar who had trained in ancient history and archaeology, was the founding Dean of INAS. In the beginning, INAS had four faculty members, and it could grant degrees (MA and PhD) by dissertation. Due to lack of human resources, it initially gave priority to only Nepal Studies in history, anthropology/sociology and linguistics, the research in each being guided by a subject committee consisting of scholars from INAS, relevant departments of TU and other non-university institutions.

Sharma provided foundational leadership to INAS and prevented the institution from becoming a platform for Panchayat propaganda as demanded by some members of the then Royal Palace secretariat. Under him, it started a documentation centre and a seminar series.

It organised the first major seminar on the social sciences in Nepal in October 1973. The same year, INAS published the first issue of the bi-annual journal Contributions to Nepalese Studies. This journal is still around. In the mid-1970s, Sharma recruited new faculty members and students and INAS soon became a hub for all kinds of social science researchers.

Perhaps because there were, relatively speaking, more faculty members trained in history, some of the early research publications brought by INAS were historical documents and analyses. But by the late 1970s, INAS had also published works on migration and linguistics in addition to several bibliographies and indexes. Some anthropological works by its faculty were also published in the form of small monographs and journal articles. If my analysis of the publication list of INAS is accurate, none of the works published under Sharma’s care was policy-driven in its intent.

In the meantime, due to changes in TU’s academic structure, INAS was converted into CNAS in September 1977 and it lost its degree-granting status. Dean Sharma became the executive director and when he stepped down, anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista succeeded him in 1978. As is well known, Bista had worked under anthropologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf and published the pioneering book, People of Nepal in 1967.

Under Bista, CNAS did re-orient itself to becoming an institution where the country’s bikas issues were discussed more directly in its seminars. A few of its publications during Bista’s tenure also reflect this reorientation towards bikas but they were primarily academic ruminations about development rather than public policy options-focused writings.

Bista served only one three-year term as the executive director of CNAS. After he stepped down in 1981, several people held the office of the executive director for short tenures until Kumar Khadga B Shah took over in 1984. Under Khadga B Shah, the Asian studies remit of CNAS picked up in several ways. He brought a remarkable group of political scientists (with sympathies toward various power centres) to CNAS and asked them to focus their attention to studying Nepal’s neighbours in South Asia and other countries such as China and Japan.

At a time when Nepali political scientists could not really do deep research on domestic politics, Shah started regular interactions among these researchers about international politics. He published the journal, Strategic Studies Series (1984-1986) where Nepali social scientists analysed regional politics, South Asian cooperation, Cold War themes and related issues. In 1986, the CNAS Year Review, containing several country-wise annual surveys for SAARC countries and a few additional countries was started. Similarly the CNAS Forum, Current Issue Series was started in 1987.

If under Prayag Raj Sharma, CNAS had made a name for itself largely based on works on Nepali history, under Khadga B Shah, CNAS enhanced its status as a centre for the study of contemporary politics in the South Asian region. But throughout these years (1972-1989), the primary orientation of most of the works done at CNAS was academic and not public policy driven. This is also evident in most of its publications. Hence it is factually incorrect to refer to CNAS as a think tank.

Let me now lay out the relevant details in brief to substantiate my second claim. As hinted above, under Bista and Shah, there was intention to make CNAS more “useful” to Panchayat’s bikas and foreign relations agendas, respectfully. However CNAS’s work done with policy pretentions was really not that great. For this let me just focus on the work that was done under the leadership of Shah.

As mentioned earlier, he assembled a remarkable group of scholars in CNAS and asked them to focus their attention to studying other countries in the South Asian region and beyond. Under this scheme, scholars like Dhruba Kumar and the late Govinda Bhatta published work on China, and Sridhar Khatri wrote on the US and also about regional cooperation in South Asia. Similarly Lok Raj Baral and geographer Vidya B S Kansakar wrote about demographic politics and regional cooperation. Pramod Kantha wrote on Pakistan, Dev Raj Dahal on Japan, and Krishna Khanal on India’s foreign relations.

CNAS scholars also participated in the academic exercises related to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In this connection, a special issue of the Strategic Studies Series (No 3) was published in Spring 1985 and subsequent issues of this journal contained other articles highlighting various perspectives on regional cooperation.

Khadga B Shah and Sridhar Khatri, Mohan Lohani, and Govinda Ram Agrawal wrote about regional cooperation in South Asia, highlighting Nepali perspectives. Krishna Khanal wrote on Indo-Soviet relationship and on the implications of the separatist Gorkha movement on Nepal-India relations.

Lok Raj Baral also published two books around the same time: one on Nepal and SAARC (1988) and the second—a CNAS supported effort—on inter-state migrations, ethnicity and security in South Asia (1990). Economist BP Shrestha published a monograph on SAARC from an economic perspective.

In addition CNAS launched a SAARC documentation series which included an index of relevant articles and books, addresses and statements and chronology of SAARC meetings.

The CNAS Year Review contained survey articles similar to those found in the annual country-wise survey edition of the American journal, Asian Survey. Starting from 1986, various scholars wrote chapters on the SAARC countries and two or three other countries outside the region.

For instance, India was covered by political scientist Govinda Malla whose own annual review articles on Indian domestic politics, economy, foreign relations and defence were unfortunately not the kind that could be called informed analyses. Based largely on Indian newspapers and magazine reports, these reviews did not engage with related scholarship on India from India and elsewhere.

They were superficial surveys written in a mode devoid of any serious disciplined perspective. At best they were useful as annual briefs on India for the general reader or the hack with policy pretensions.

That CNAS was a leading centre for basic social science research in Nepal between the time it was founded in 1972 and the end of the Panchayat regime in 1990 is beyond doubt. But it was not a public policy producing think tank.

The part of its work that had policy pretensions (for instance, those related to Nepal’s regional neighbourhood and foreign relations) was not of great quality. The sooner these three points are recognised, the sooner we will be relieved of the repeating cycle of jhur reporting about the institution’s past.

The author tweets at @pratyoushonta


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