Friendship Forgotten – 1887


William Digby, A Friend in Need-1857: Friendship Forgotten -1887' [London: Indian Political Agency, 1890]

The Rana rule has often been the focus of many writers who wrote the history of Nepal following the rise of Prime Minister (General) Jung Bahadur Rana.

Perhaps the only book which comprehensively deals with Prime Minister Ranadip Singh, who succeeded Jung Bahadur upon his death in February 1877, is the book of William Digby – a British author, journalist and a humanitarian. As Digby was an independent critique, and differed so much with the rulers of Nepal and the British establishment in India that his point of view about the transition could be interesting for many readers.

In 'A Friend in Need-1857: Friendship Forgotten -1887' [London: Indian Political Agency, 1890], Digby writes about the brutal killing of Prime Minister Ranadip Singh, also spelt Renaudip or Ranodip in Nepali texts, in November 1885 by his nephews in order to usurp the throne of Nepalese prime minister, the throne which was based on the rule of hereditary succession established by Prime Minister Jung Bahadur. As per the family law of succession, Ranadip succeeded his elder brother Jang Bahadur following his death in 1877. The putsch established Bir Shumshere in power. Along with Ranadip Singh, the other person killed was Jagat Jung, who was known as 'Mukhiya Jarnel' at that time.

The author argues in his book that the British government based in Calcutta was most dishonest to Nepal, especially to the Prime Minister, who was brutally killed in the coup d'état. Not only it ignored the change of government, it also refused to help Ranadip Singh's family to deal with the situation. Also the author reminds us that Ranadip Singh's brother, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, and his army was the most trusted and obedient supporter of the British cause in India. Their help to the British government in dousing the flames of the revolt of 1857 was not just a small thing. Also known as India's First War of Independence, the revolt had begun as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company's army, in the town of Meerut, which soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions, largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to the present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh and the Delhi region. Jung Bahadur and the Nepal army that he led were crucial to help suppress the revolt. As an aftermath, the East India Company was dissolved in 1858 and its place was taken over by the British Crown.

Explaining the objective of his book, Digby states: "the story told in the following pages is one with which, unfortunately, the annals of our [British] Indian empire are familiar. No public department in any country, despotically or constitutionally ruled, ever had so short a memory, or one more oblivious to the teachings of history and the claims of justice, than the Calcutta Foreign Office has proved itself to possess. Its course is strewn with wrecks." He believed that the reigning family of Ranadip Singh had special claims, the strongest of which was the consideration for services rendered to the East India Company in the past: "rendered too, at a time when friendly assistance was of special value and of supreme importance."

Digby clearly expresses his dislike for the divide and rule strategy being applied to a trusted friend – a friend in need. He maintains that the British gave little importance to the fact that the government of Nepal was subverted by an ambitious officer. The reigning prime minister, a friend of the British government, was foully murdered. His family was forced into exile, and the 12-year old king was virtually made prisoner in his own palace. In these circumstances, he questions why the British government did not respond, even though the senior members of the royal family and the exiled princess had already appealed to the ex-viceroy of India for help. The appeal, according to Digby, was rejected with "what seems like studied contempt."

There are some additional important observations in the book. William Digby describes the decision makers in the British Indian Foreign Office as 'apologists' for stating that they had no other choice, but to recognize Bir Shumshere, because the Nepal Durbar was very quick to appoint him the next Prime minister. He emphasizes that this is a policy "so full of ingratitude and so fruitful of mischief." The author pleads that the argument of the Foreign Office that China is Nepal's suzerain, and that we are bound to respect China's rights is wrong. "The government of India went to War with Nepal in 1814, without for a moment thinking of China's suzerainty; nor did China help her feudatory in that conflict, or take any steps to prevent the cessation of Nepalese territory to India."

The author also remarks that the contention that Bir Shumshere was popular among the Nepalese people justifying the British recognition of the new regime is incorrect. One can infer this thing clearly in the following lines: "This is no more true than was the boasted popularity of British rule in upper Burmah when dacoit bands were resisting British arms in every district. The people of Nepal are quiet solely for want of arms and of leaders but to infer from this seemingly tranquility their cordially acceptance of Bir Shumshere's rules would be as rational as to conclude that a violence is extinct because for a time its fires are quiet and its action is not perceptible to the distant observer, who knows nothing of the unseen workings destined speedily to blaze forth. [In fact], the suddenness of the coup d'etate at Khatmandu in 1885, and the unexpected British support of the usurper, at first stunned the Nepalese."

William Digby has authored a very exciting book. It helps us understand Nepal of that particular time very effectively. The quotation with which the book starts is a powerful remark of Jung Bahadur Rana addressed to the British patriarchs: "I know my nation is not equal to yours, nor our power to yours. But there is one thing in which we are and ought ever to be equal, namely, Justice – Mutual Justice." A very commanding expression, indeed!

 The conclusion of the book is that the government of Britain was failing in this pursuit and the quest for the justice was not yet over.