June 8, 2001


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

The Greek tragedy in Nepal

The stunning massacre of the Nepalese royal family is too bizarre for words. Like a Greek tragedy it has ended the eleventh generation of direct descendants of the Shah dynasty founded by Prithvinarayan Shah in 1742.

That lineage will now be continued by the late King Birendra's brother Gyanendra, who had warmed the throne for four months as a four-year old in 1950.

Murder and assassination have been common and a struggle for power as old as the history of Nepal. In the past, power in Nepal alternated, sometimes viciously, between the Thapa and Rana prime ministers and the Shah kings. Cloaked in secrecy, Kathmandu was known as the rumour, intrigue and conspiracy capital of the east. It was also the window to China. Fact and fiction, like poverty and riches, have always lived together.

Prithvinarayan Shah rose from the hill district of Gurkha and by the late 18th century had not only consolidated the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, but also extended it to the rivers Teesta in the east and Sutlej in the west.

The architect of the first great Kathmandu massacre in 1806 was Bhimsen Thapa. The second was by the legendary Jung Bahadur Rana, also called Seto Bagh (white tiger). He eliminated all his brothers and rivals to become prime minister and flagged off the 100-year-long Rana regime in Nepal in 1846.

The Shah kings were relegated as titular rulers -- prisoners in the palace -- till Nepal's first India-aided revolution restored their rule in Kathmandu in 1951. Forty years later, with the advent of India-inspired democracy and the second revolution, the Shahs became constitutional monarchs. The transition from an absolute monarch to a constitutional head was not an easy one for King Birendra.

The restoration of the monarchy in 1951 had merely replaced Rana autocracy with a palace dictatorship, euphemistically called Panchayat Raj. But veneration for the monarchy never dimmed except in the run-up to the movement for restoration of democracy in 1990.

There were three centres of power in the Narayanhitya Durbar -- the king, his palace coterie and the queen. She was reputed to be the real power behind the throne and possibly the cause of this avoidable tragedy.

The love-hate relationship between the one-time Rana prime ministers and their Shah kings is quixotic. Imprisoned by the Ranas in the royal place, the kings did the bidding of their prime ministers. Even after restoration of their power, the Shahs have traditionally taken Rana women for their wives. For example, the late King Mahendra's three sons -- Birendra, Dhirendra and Gyanendra -- were married to three sisters of a high Rana clan, the Judhashamsher family. Only Gyanendra is now alive.

Gyanendra has had a chequered career. In the past he is known to have enjoyed, and at many times exercised, extra-constitutional powers. While there is little doubt about his calibre, it is lack of the experience that his brother had for 30 years that will be his main handicap.

He carries the baggage of a delinquent son, hugely unpopular with the people, who is now heir apparent. One will have to watch how Gyanendra is able to establish his relationship with the government on the one hand and the Royal Nepal Army on the other, whose supreme commander is the king.

The massacre in Kathmandu is the biggest jolt to the Shah dynasty since the advent of monarchy in Nepal. Just when King Birendra had established his bona fides as a fair monarch acting strictly within the constitution -- bar his reluctance to authorise the use of the army against Maoist insurgents -- there are calls for a constitutional review.

The political contest in Nepal is not so much between monarchy and democracy any more, but within the political and social class itself. The elimination of the royal family and King Birendra is a body blow to the evolution of constitutional democracy in the country. The timing could not have been worse, with political instability, social disequilibrium and internal Maoist mayhem.

The country is facing its worst politico-security and economic crisis in its history. It was hoped that the monarchy would apply the healing touch, but that was not to be.

The last supper in the royal dining room at the Narayanhitya palace is shrouded in mystery and contradiction. Now that the king has ordered an investigation, the air will be cleared soon.

Whoever pulled the trigger has nearly fulfilled one of the 43 demands of the Maoists -- abolition of the monarchy -- except that he did it literally. Maoist leaders have reason to cheer, though in the bland statement in Marxist lexicon put out on a Web site, they have blamed the massacre on 'reactionary forces inside and outside the country' and called it a conspiracy.

It is uncanny that the leadership of the Maoist challenge to monarchy has emanated from the very same Gurkha district from where Prithvinarayan Shah started his revolt against Kathmandu more than two centuries ago. Gurkha is the home of Baburam Bhattarai, one of the two major Maoist leaders.

The last act of King Birendra was to grudgingly give royal assent to the deployment of the army in Gurkha and four other districts -- not for employment against the Maoists but in a social and infrastructure development campaign to win back the hearts and minds of the people hijacked by the Maoists.

Ordinary Nepalese are angry and curse their fate. They have been at the receiving end of 100 years of Rana misrule, 40 years of palace autocracy and ten years of inept democracy. Heightened expectations from democracy, freedom of speech and expression did not usher in economic development and freedom from want, but perpetuated corruption and misgovernance.

Nepalese anger and frustration finds strange outlets as the Hrithik Roshan non-incident proved recently. It follows the grain of geography. Further Pakistan's ISI, thriving in Nepal, could once again be fishing in troubled waters.

In the pre-democracy period, the monarchy was widely regarded as a unifying force in a closed Nepal. With the unravelling of Narayanhitya, the role of the monarchy may require a redefinition. Certainly in the short ten-year democratic dispensation, the palace and the king, under the pretext of a restrictive constitution, have not played as stabilising a role as they have usually been credited with. King Birendra chose not to be pro-active and let an erring democracy get further discredited.

Relations between India and Nepal have never been hunky-dory though both sides have maintained a fašade of cordiality. Once the dust settles in Kathmandu, the two sides should examine the irritants in this relationship. No one should fool themselves about the so-called "special relations" which ended with King Tribhuvan in the late 1950s.

These are extremely testing times for Nepal. The priorities for Kathmandu are a judicial enquiry into the massacre and the transition and resurrection of the monarchy. The question remains as to how long it will be before the people of Nepal and the Royal Nepal Army fully accept their new king.

Time is a great healer. Meanwhile, a government of national reconciliation -- with, who knows, the Maoists included -- and the full backing of the palace should be able to guide Nepal out of the woods. As in the past India must support the will and wishes of the people of Nepal.

Who killed the royal family of Nepal?

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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