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Monarchy in Nepal

By Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri

ON JULY 7, Maoist rebels shot dead 47 policemen and a civilian in a string of attacks on security posts in Lamjung, 190 km west of the capital Kathmandu, and in Nuwakot, 90 km north of the capital. The killings took place on the eve of the new King Gyanendra's birthday which was celebrated on a low key. The day had been designated a public holiday and various events were due to be held across the country, but witnesses said arrangements remained subdued.

The attacks were the worst violence in Nepal since last month's massacre of virtually the entire royal family. The toll was the highest in a day since the Maoists began their rebellion more than five years ago to try to topple the Himalayan kingdom's constitutional monarchy.

In traditional societies, it is difficult at the best of times to distinguish between fact and fiction and between history and mythology. In a Nepal gripped by tension and uncertainty and captivated by the bush telegraph after what happened in Narayanhiti Palace on June 1, the exercise is many times more difficult. Consider this quaint but suggestive tale which did the rounds across the entire kingdom after the grisly tragedy.

When King Gyanendra was born in July 1947, a court astrologer - and they are legion in Nepal - told his father, the then Crown Prince Mahendra, to avoid looking at the newborn because it would bring him bad luck. Consequently, baby Gyanendra was dispatched out of Kathmandu to live with his grandmother at a distant palace. Three years later, when, exasperated by the high- handedness of his Rana Prime Minister, King Tribhuvan with Crown Prince Mahendra and notable royals in tow fled to India, Prince Gyanendra was the only male royal of consequence left in Nepal. Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana brought the child to Kathmandu and had him crowned king on November 7, 1950.

However, his first reign lasted a little over three months, with India ensuring King Tribhuvan's return. For Gyanendra who was crowned King for the second time in very unusual circumstances on June 4, it has been a tussle between irony and destiny. If it was Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana who ensured his first coronation, it was the shadow of the Rana's great grand-daughter, Devyani, that hung over his second kingship. It is, as they say in Nepal, the Rana's ultimate revenge.

The country which was under the authoritarian regime of the Rana Prime Ministers, who had usurped power from the ruling Shahs, was again brought under the Shah dynasty in 1950. King Tribhuvan had allowed limited democracy and, in 1958, the Constitution of Nepal was promulgated and the first democratically elected government of B.P. Koirala came to power.

However, after King Mahendra ascended the throne in 1955, the democratic process was interrupted and the rule of the Koirala Government was cut short in 1960 on charges of corruption. The King installed his own one-party panchayat rule which lasted from 1960 to 1989. The new system of governance triggered widespread public resentment against the authoritarian regime and the curb on the freedom of the political parties. The people were up in arms because of their feeling that the monarch was non- representative of the masses. And it was at this juncture that Crown Prince Birendra was crowned King in 1972.

Taking advantage of the resentment amongst the people against the regime, the Nepali Congress (NC), supported by the United Left Front (ULF), launched a ``people's awareness programme'' in December 1989. The topmost agendas of the programme were a nationwide campaign for democracy, the end of the panchayat system of government, and the restoration of the functioning of political parties. When the campaign assumed the form of a massive violent movement, the Government of Marich Man Singh was dismissed on March 6, 1990, and Lokendra Bahadur Chand became the Prime Minister. But on April 6, the Chand Government was also dismissed and Mr. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai became the Prime Minister of an interim government.

The greatest achievement of the interim government was the royal promulgation of a Constitution on November 9, 1990, which declared the people of Nepal the source of sovereign authority and the King the symbol of Nepalese nationality and unity of the people. It introduced a parliamentary system of government, a multiparty democracy, adult franchise, rule of law and, of course, a constitutional monarchy.

In accordance with the provisions of this Constitution, the first parliamentary election was held on May 12, 1991. In the 205- member Parliament, the NC secured 110 seats with 37.75 per cent of the votes and the Communist Party of Nepal=United Marxist- Leninist (CPN-UML) got 69 seats with 27.98 per cent of the votes and became the main Opposition Party in the Lower House. This was a glorious event in the history of Nepal and, no wonder, King Birendra became the people's favourite.

Now that the massacre of June 1 has decimated the entire line of the Shah family which has ruled for 233 years, there is a huge question mark over the future of monarchy in the Himalayan kingdom. In fact, there are many reasons for conspiracy theories to bloom and public fury and outrage to simmer against the new King who, it is common knowledge, opposed the 1990 movement that brought multiparty democracy to Nepal. And it is not without significance that the people vent their spleen on Mr. G. P. Koirala who as Prime Minister was the first to genuflect before the new King. The people's wrath against Mr. Koirala has finally led to his outer from office.

That the new King is now a tormented man is also clear from the fact that he faces a serious dilemma over his son, Paras. Convention demands that the King nominate his heir, who can then be anointed Crown Prince by the 125-member Raj Parishad. By the practice of male primogeniture, the position should go to Paras. But Gyanendra knows better than anyone else the political cost of making Paras Crown Prince at this juncture. Such a move could trigger popular upheaval and jeopardise the monarchy's survival. Yet, not appointing an heir carries a similar risk and exposes the uncertainty of the monarchy.

In all probability, the new King will leave no stone unturned to buy time. It is going to be a long haul. After the findings of the Inquiry Committee which probed the palace massacre, both the King and his then Prime Minister are being accused of a cover-up and the Maoists rebels are already posing a serious threat to the monarchy. No wonder, then, Paras is now an albatross round the new King's neck.

Now, when the monarchy is in tatters - an unproven king with an unpopular heir - where can the Nepalis turn to? No Nepali seems to have an answer to this question.

(The writer is Emeritus Fellow, University Grants Commission.)

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