Gantantra Smarak (Republic Memorial): The Politics of Memory
The damage caused to the perimeter wall of the Narayanhiti Palace by the 2015 earthquakes revealed the construction site of the republic memorial (Ganatantra Smarak), to anyone walking past the North East corner of the palace compound. The design competition was launched in 2009 with initial fanfare by the (then Maoist-led) government (and the entries and process critiqued by members of the architectural community); since then construction and design has continued concealed behind the palace walls. This paper will examine the design competition (including the intentions of those who entered) and process to date, to reveal the politics of this difficult project that embodies the problems of re-imagining the nation and proposing a credible resolution to the recent conflict.
The foundation stone of the (as yet uncompleted) republic memorial was laid four times, in four locations between 2009 and 2012. The most recent one in the grounds of the Narayanhiti Palace was laid by then Prime Minster Baburam Bhattarai with the promise that this structure would commemorate people’s contribution to the ‘New Nepal’, from the Maoist insurgency to the second jan andolan. Memorials or sites of conscience that address the violent histories of recent wars and human rights abuses have become part of the process of transitional justice across the world, on the assumption that any transition from violence to peaceful coexistence requires the disclosure of past events. Yet, the design competition and proposed contents for the Ganatantra Smarak suggests it is not intended as a site of conscience, but a physical framing of a unified national identity that did not and does not exist.
I will also consider public debates surrounding the Ganatantra Smarak. Articles in the Nepali press from 2009-2012 reveal that the memorial was a source of debate and confusion, both in terms of its location and design but also whether a memorial was the right course of action.  It is apparent that the various interested political parties could not agree on what the proper tone or overarching narrative should be. The constant re-positioning and adjustment of the design reveals a level of political ambivalence towards the notion of transitional justice and demonstrates confusion over the construction of a new national identity, for example, tensions between modernist notions of a unified nation-state and the reality of an ethnically diverse nation.
This paper takes a long view of the process now nearing completion (the memorial is due to open in May 2016). The proposed contents for the gallery celebrates the different ethnic groups within Nepal alongside an array of traditional national symbols, revealing a current political reluctance to create a space that might be contested at a time where political change threatens to reopen wounds that are incompletely healed. The politicians who are defining this public history would appear to agree that the best way to put the recent past behind is not to dwell on it too much.
Buckley-Zistel, S. & Schafer, S. (eds.) (2014). Memorials in Times of Transition. Cambridge: Intersentia.
Walkowitz, D.J & Knauer, L.M (eds.) (2004). Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space. Durham & London: Duke University Press.