Old Weapons Sale: Have we really lost all of Nepal’s history
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on August 24, 2011
Claremont, California, USA
A recent revelation of the sale of Nepal’s 200-year-old weapons to an American antique dealer has sparked a debate in Nepal as well as in the Nepali Diaspora. I have read some of the emotionally-charged postings. There is nothing wrong with being patriotic and I respect those individuals who express love for their country in a positive way. However, if we examine the sale of the antiquated weapons to the American dealer objectively we will realize that we may have overreacted to an issue that really has not much merit.
Symbolically, these weapons stand for destruction. They are not objects of art that the maker took his time, energy and imagination to make. Nor are they the products of Nepalis whether of the past or the present. They do not reflect cultural, religious or even philosophical aspects of Nepal. Except for the Khukuris, Bhalas, Talwars, Khundas, Chakkus and Kardas, Nepalis never made guns or cannons. They were produced by Europeans as weapons of oppression, and were used and are still being used for killing. And Nepal in the last decade has seen much of that in the name of “Revolution of the People.”
What is the justification for taking national pride in weapons? The only positive value I see is that many of our brave Gorkha brothers—even using these antiquated weapons in World Wars I and II against would-be imperialists and oppressors—were able to shine, earning the title of brave race. As a result, many have been decorated with the highest orders of bravery. That is our only history associated with these weapons. Beyond that, they are simply weapons of destruction no matter who has used them against whom.
Losing a cache of rusting weapons does not equate to losing our rich cultural heritage as has been made out to be by the media. Some have even used the term “archaeological” to refer to these weapons. But that simply is not true because they were not artifacts dug from the ground like the ancient potteries, sculptures, remains of buildings and even murals now being excavated from various parts of Nepal.
Christian Cranmer, the American antique dealer who negotiated the sale of the Nepali arsenal with the help of an Indian broker, wrote in American Rifleman that the weapons were crammed in a room decorated with exotic murals of Lagan Silekhana. However, with 200 years of neglect, it should be pointed out that the weapons were in “absolutely filthy” condition.
In the opinion of Major General Pradip Pratap Bam Malla, “There was no proper way to save those ancient weapons from water, dust and heat, and their value was declining.” No matter who writes, it is true that the weapons were stored in a pathetic way, leading to decay. After all, they were made of metal, and one does not have to be a metallurgist to know that cold, dampness and dust are metal’s enemies.
I am reminded of a Nepali proverb: “Mal payara chal napaune.”
Where were the so- called historians, archeologists and protectors of Nepal’s heritage while these historic weapons rusted away locked in a dungeon? I concur with Bhusan Dahal’s comments: “the sale of antique weaponry at the price of scrap metal threatens to wipe [out] a portion of history. The antiques were directly related to the history of Nepal and it is our duty to inform the people about how they were undermined and traded to foreigners.” But why has nobody done anything to preserve the arsenal appropriately let alone prevent their sale on the first place?
The weapons include 50,000 guns, 180 bronze cannons, innumerable khukris, bayonets, musket flints and musket balls. If I understand the situation correctly, 146 cannons and an almost equal number of artillery carriages were scheduled to be smelted by the government of Nepal itself. If that was their imminent fate, what is wrong with an American antique collector saving them from destruction?
I sincerely hope that the weapons that have been purchased will be displayed in a dignified way. In the catalogue the dealer has acknowledged the source and the history of the weapons, tracing their origins back to Nepal. If we are history loving people, we should demand that our government keep a few samples of each of the weapons for display in the museum for the purpose of preserving Nepal’s history. From the interview of Nepal’s high ranking military officers, it is evident that 5% of the weapons have been retained. So contrary to the views circulated in the media, we have not really lost all of Nepal’s history. These weapons destined for melting would at least be restored and given proper care—albeit in a foreign land. They would not be piled up in a dungeon as they had previously been in Lagan Silekhana.
I am against reclaiming the weapons as some have suggested if there is no assurance from the present Nepali government that they would be properly restored and displayed in the museum for the public to learn their history. Do we really want to subject them again to the same conditions as they have been? I don’t think any sensible Nepali would want that. My only regret is that our government sold the weapons for a pittance. Had they opened the sale to antique collectors of the world, they could have received a price ten times higher than they did. What a pity!
Dr. Dwarika Nath Dhungel distributed a petition demanding the return of the sold weapons to Nepal. In my humble opinion, this is not the right course to take because the sale appears to be legitimate, contracted in transparently between the two consenting parties. In other words, the weapons were not stolen, although it is certainly true that the Nepalis were cheated by a cunning American antique dealer. But Christian Cranmer does have a bill of sale bearing the Nepali government’s official seal. So we cannot take him to the International Court to try him for stealing. The most we can do is accuse him of defrauding by not paying a fair price for the weapons in question. Being an antique weapons dealer, he knew well their actual value; but he did not pay the fair price. In other words, he took advantage of unwary Nepalis who knew little about the value of the antique weapons. I would be inclined to sign a petition that demands a huge restitution rather than the return of the weapons. This should make Cranmer feel guilty of the deal he struck with a desperate government that needed fast cash.