Kumaoni writer Shekhar Pathak, however, does not agree with this interpretation of history. “The Anglo-Gorkha war and the loss of Kumaon and Garhwal were monumental setbacks for the Gorkhalis,” he told Nepali Times in an interview in Nainital. “However, it wasn’t just at Harsh Dev Joshi’s instigation and alliance with the Company, it was due to the ruthlessness of the Gorkhali rulers. Their heavy-handed rule had cost them public support, and the Gorkhali cruelty is a part of Garhwali and Kumaoni folklore to this day.”
While Kumaonis already disliked the Gorkhali governors, the tipping point for the Garhwalis came with the great 1803 earthquake. In the aftermath, Pradyumna Shah could not pay his annual revenue to the conquerors, so Gorkhalis attacked Garhwal in what is known today as the brutal Battle of Khurbura.
“The attack happened during the most vulnerable time for Garhwalis as many had lost their lives, families and their homes in the earthquake, it wasn’t the right time to wage a war,” says Pathak.
After the war, the histories of the rise and fall of the Gorkhali territories have been written differently in Nepal, in Britain, and later India. In Nepal, it is all about bravery, patriotism, and sacrifice. In India, to this day, it is about the ruthlessness, greed, and corruption of the Gorkhali governors.
Nepali historian Mahesh Regmi often cites in his research paper the Garhwali historian and writer Shiv Dabrawal who has written about the history of Uttarakhand in his series, Gorkhayani. In it, he depicts the behaviour of Gorkhali rulers as being the reason why the people harboured such resentment against the invaders, and preferred their own Chand dynasty which had been ruling the region since the 11th century.
The Gorkhali governors (Subbas and Jagirdars) were transferred every year as per the system followed in Kathmandu, but the governors in these regions were brothers and often close relatives. There were many small military camps in Kumaon which were in charge of collecting taxes from villagers.
Among the governors was Nara Shah, notorious for his oppressive ways, who led the massacre of the Nagarkotis and an unnecessary coup, resulting in more animosity against the Gorkhalis among the people of Kumaon-Garhwal.
Dabrawal suggests in his book that Gorkhali administrators took full advantage of the power and exercised judicial authority since the royal court in Kathmandu was too far away. They were known not just for imposing hefty fines but also for inflicting harsh, corporal punishment – all of which have been burned into the memory of the descendants of Kumaon and Garhwal today.
There was no standard penal code, these governors and military officials could do inflict any arbitrary punishment. Says Shekhar Pathak: “If there was a theft, a person’s innocence was tested by candle fire. If the hands of the accused were unburnt, they were innocent, otherwise they were sentenced to death.”
The royal court and nobility in Kathmandu were too embroiled in their own intrigue and infighting to care much about what was happening in the western front, so the Gorkhali governors did pretty much what they pleased, including forcing local villagers into slavery, and trading them like livestock.
While historians have mentioned Gen Amar Singh Thapa’s loyalty to the throne in Kathmandu, his spirituality, and his respect for women and children, Shiv Dabrawal has a different take on the man.
In Gorkhayani, Dabrawal writes that Amar Singh’s rule in Kumaon and Garhwal along with the governors and the military administrators was in fact cruel, tyrannical, and ignored local sentiments.
Shekhar Pathak also mentions that in the region, the ‘Kaji’ governors were brutal whereas the Gorkhali ‘Chautariya’ administrators behaved better. “People talk about the bravery of the Gorkhalis, but history should also acknowledge their brutish ways. Nepal’s history books should also mention this side of the story,” Pathak adds.
Also unpopular for his harsh rule was Bam Shah, the Gorkhali governor of Kumaon. It was he who prompted Harsh Dev Joshi to get Lt Col Gardner to bring the unrest in Kumaon-Garhwal to the attention of Lord Francis Edward Rawdon-Hastings in Calcutta.
When the British forces attacked in 1815, Bam Shah had only 750 Gorkhali troops and 750 Kumaonis to defend himself. Meanwhile, Harsh Dev also influenced many Kumaonis to desert the Gorkhali army, and over 300 from the Gorkhali army joined the British side to fight against their former side when the East India Company marched in.