America’s Reform Push in 1950s Nepal
Visiting Kathmandu in 1953, US Ambassador to India and Nepal Chester Bowles confronted a tricky issue: As an outsider working in a starkly hierarchical society, how much should you work with the existing power structure and how much to push for change?
Nepal’s land ownership patterns, some of the most unequal in Asia, spurred Bowles to ponder this question. He had come to Nepal to meet with Nepal’s King Tribhuvan to discuss land reform. How hard should the U S push?
Many foreigners in Nepal do not see the country’s harsh hierarchies. Or they see parts, such as class and gender divisions, but miss more unfamiliar caste and ethnic divisions. I still remember my disappointment visiting Dang a few years ago after the end of the Maoist war, and learning that, of the many foreign volunteers working in the district, all of whom lived with local families, not one lived with a Tharu or Dalit family.
But Bowles had an unusual background, and the early 1950s were a special moment. He had emerged from a progressive tradition, connected to the Great Depression of the 1930s, that had emphasised structural poverty and social reform. And because of family relations, he possessed a much deeper understanding of America’s history of racial discrimination than many white Americans. In the 1950s, he pioneered opportunities for African Americans as diplomats, including in Nepal.
In February 1953 Bowles travelled from New Delhi to Kathmandu to meet with Nepali government officials, including King Tribhuvan, to discuss new American development programs for Nepal. In the previous year the US had started mineral surveys, agriculture, and health programs. But most of all Bowles wanted to discuss land reform.