Infighting among Aristocratic Factions

Nepal Table of Contents

The Gorkha aristocracy had led Nepal into disaster on the international front but preserved the political unity of the country, which at the end of the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1816 still was only about twenty-five years old as a unified nation. The success of the central government rested in part on its ability to appoint and control regional administrators, who also were high officers in the army. In theory these officials had great local powers; in practice they spent little energy on the daily affairs of their subjects, interfering only when communities could not cope with problems or conflicts. Another reason for Gorkha success in uniting the country was the willingness to placate local leaders by preserving areas where former kings and communal assemblies continued to rule under the loose supervision of Kathmandu, leaving substantial parts of the country out of the control of regional administrators. Even within the areas directly administered by the central government, agricultural lands were given away as jagir to the armed services and as birta to court favorites and retired servicemen. The holder of such grants in effect became the lord of the peasants working there, with little if any state interference. From the standpoint of the average cultivator, the government remained a distant force, and the main authority figure was the landlord, who took part of the harvest, or (especially in the Tarai) the tax collector, who was often a private individual contracted to extort money or crops in return for a share. For the leaders in the administration and the army, as military options became limited and alternative sources of employment grew very slowly, career advancement depended less on attention to local conditions than on loyalty to factions fighting at court.

Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa, in collusion with the queen regent, Tripurasundari, remained in power despite the defeat of Nepal. He faced constant opposition at court from factions centered around leading members of other families, notably the Pandes, who decried what they felt was his craven submission to the British. Bhimsen Thapa managed to keep his opposition under control by maintaining a large army and modernizing its equipment and by convincing the suspicious British that he had no intention of using the army. During the minority of King Rajendra Bikram Shah (reigned 1816-47), the prime minister kept the king in isolation--he did not even have the freedom to leave the palace without permission. Bhimsen Thapa appointed members of his own family to the highest positions at court and in the army, giving his brother, Ranbir Singh Thapa, control over the western provinces and his nephew, Mathbar Singh Thapa, control over the eastern provinces. The Pandes and other opponents were frozen out of power. Aside from the army and some attention to increasing trade, little effort could be expended on issues of national development.

The power balance began to change after the king came of age and Queen Tripurasundari died in 1832. The prime minister lost his main support at a time when the young ruler was coming under greater influence from the Pande faction at court. In 1833 Brian Hodgson became British resident and began a more aggressive campaign to increase British influence and trading opportunities; because Bhimsen Thapa opposed him, Hodgson openly favored Bhimsen Thapa's opponents. In 1837 the king announced his intention to rule independently, deprived both Bhimsen Thapa and Mathbar Singh of their military powers, and promoted some members of the Pande faction. Shortly afterward the youngest son of the elder queen died, and Bhimsen Thapa was arrested on a trumped up charge of poisoning the prince. All the property of the Thapas was confiscated. An eight-month trial led to an acquittal, but the Thapas were in disarray. When Rana Jang Pande, head of his family, became prime minister, he reimprisoned Bhimsen Thapa. The man who had ruled the country with an iron hand committed suicide in prison in August 1839. This series of events marked the end of the longest stable period in the early history of the Shah Dynasty of Nepal, dominated by the prime minister in the name of the king.

The fall of Bhimsen Thapa did nothing to solve the factional fighting at court. The Pandes were dismissed, and Fateh Jang Chautaria was appointed prime minister in November 1840. His ministry was unable to control renewed competition between a resurgent Thapa coalition and the disgraced Pandes, who preferred the abdication of the king in favor of the heir apparent. The king became increasingly attentive to the advice of his wives. Under intense pressure from the aristocracy, the king decreed in January 1843 that he would rule the country only with advice and agreement of his junior queen, Lakshmidevi, and commanded his subjects to obey her even over his own son, Surendra. The queen, seeking support of her own son's claims to the throne over those of Surendra, invited back from exile Mathbar Singh Thapa, who was popular in army circles. Upon his arrival in Kathmandu, an investigation of his uncle's death took place, and a number of his Pande enemies were executed. By December 1843, Mathbar Singh was appointed prime minister, but he proved no more capable of extinguishing court intrigues than had his predecessors. Against the wishes of the queen, he supported heir apparent Surendra. Once Mathbar Singh had alienated the person who officially wielded state authority, his days were numbered. On May 17, 1845, he was killed, most likely on the queen's orders. The assassin apparently was Jang Bahadur Kunwar, his nephew, then a minor but rising star in court politics.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress