STATE OF FLUX

Print edition : June 23, 2001

Nepal remains calm as the inquiry committee comes out with its report a fortnight after the palace massacre. But beneath the quiet are deep worries about the future of the polity, which has on the one hand a monarchy that is above the law and is, on the other, threatened by a growing Maoist insurgency.

IN accordance with royal tradition, on the 11th day the ceremonially draped elephant bore the katto-eating, royally attired Brahman across the Bagmati river away from the Kathmandu valley forever. It is a ritual meant to exorcise the ghost of the uncrowned King Dipendra. But, it appears, there is no laying to rest of conspiracy theories that have transformed Kathmandu into a valley of halla (rumour) and mired what should have been a smooth succession in a continuing crisis of legitimacy. The handling of the royal massacre has exposed the trappings of a feudal absolute monarchy, which is anachronistic in a modern era, that is, a Palace above the rule of law - above Nepal's government, Parliament and the courts. To understand what is happening in Nepal, one would have to unravel the mystique of its royalty - a mystique that is maintained by distance and isolation and by the coercive instruments of state power.

King Gyanendra, crowned on June 4.-AFP

As Nepal's Foreign Minister Chakra Prasad Banstola told Frontline, there is no constitutional provision that enables the government, Parliament or the courts to involve themselves in matters that have to do with the Palace or the royalty. So you have a situation where the Prime Minister of the country rushes to the Palace on learning about the massacre of the royal family - and is kept out; and when he goes to the military hospital where the victims had been taken to, he is made to hang about. (The habit of secrecy demanded that the injured be taken to the military hospital and not to Kathmandu's premier medical institution, the Kathmandu Teaching Hospital.)

The functioning of the elected government seemed to have been suspended as the Privy Council managed the question of succession. It declared the man reportedly responsible for the regicide, the brain-dead Crown Prince Dipendra, the new King. Meanwhile, as Banstola candidly acknowledged, for the first time in the history of Nepal, the common people expressed a passionate concern at the tragedy that occurred behind the closed doors of the Palace. It was a concern mediated by sentiment and politics. In the last 10 years of multi-party democracy in Nepal, King Birendra had astutely played the role of a constitutional monarch, preserving the role of the Palace as a key political player while projecting the monarchy as a symbol of Nepali nationalism and unity that was above fractious, self-seeking politicians. Many of the thousands who turned out to mourn the King had been in the forefront of demonstrations against the autocratic monarchy in 1990. Evidently, the more Nepal's democratic politics disappoints, the more is the popular love and reverence for the monarchy.

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (second right), Chief Justice Keshab Prasad (centre) and Speaker of Parliament Taranath Ranabhat at a ceremony in Kathmandu marking the 11th day of mourning for King Birendra.-JEWEL SAMAD/ AFP

But the public's right to know in a modern democracy met with the archaic Palace practice of secrecy. The accounts of eyewitnesses to the massacre were available to select sections of the elite but the ordinary people had to make do with street-corner rumours. Given the information vacuum, conspiracy theories thrived. Worse, Nepal's television and radio (and independent FM channels) went into mourning, leaving the public dependent upon foreign news channels - the BBC, CNN, Star and Zee TV (Star and Zee TV were taken off the air initially but Star made a comeback). Under whose direction were the media silenced? The predictable answer in Nepal is: 'mathi', a higher authority, a euphemism for passing the buck as Banstola suggests, or, if you have a conspiratorial bent of mind, the Palace. The final straw was Prince Gyanendra's first public statement on the massacre. He attributed it to a "sudden burst of fire". Whatever be the legal conundrum behind this equivocation, it fired suspicion. King Gyanendra's coronation and Dipendra's funeral procession amid curfew evoked another round of anger and frustration on the streets.

Eventually, a three-member probe committee headed by the Chief Justice was appointed by Nepal's new constitutional monarch, King Gyanendra, apparently at the Prime Minister's request. According to Banstola, the gap between the people's concern to know and the Palace's (non-accountable, non- transparent) style of functioning could be bridged by instituting a probe under the laws of succession. However, Madhav Kumar Nepal, the leader of the main Opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), withdrew from the probe team, ostensibly because of "procedural" problems which hinge on the issue of the balance of power between the democratic forces and the Palace in a constitutional monarchy. (However, a statement he made to the BBC subsequently suggested that he pulled out of the committee in order to avoid the political risk of being associated with a committee whose findings might not be deemed credible.) King Gyanendra, demonstrating his characteristic no-nonsense style, did not hesitate to ask the truncated team to go ahead with the probe.

Taranath Ranabhat displays the weapons that Crown Prince Dipendra used.-BINOD JOSHI/ AP

However, before the committee began its work, Capt. Rajiv Shahi, the King's nephew and one of the eyewitnesses, jumped the gun. He held a press conference in the military hospital and gave a blow-by-blow account that corroborated much of what was already in the public domain. And his account met with equal disbelief, especially as it began the process of salvaging the image of the King's son, Prince Paras. He was said to have protected the lives of his sisters at considerable personal risk. Significantly, the new King, while naming his wife the Queen, did not name Paras the Crown Prince. In the popular imagination, Paras was all that Dipendra was not. He is known for his public outbursts in a drunken state and for whipping out revolvers in the young royals' favourite discotheque, X Zone. There are two charges of murder pending against him, including the hit-and-run murder of Nepali singer Pradeep Gurung. Indeed, one conspiracy theory that is doing the rounds is that the discussion at the royal dinner on that fateful Friday night was not about Dipendra's choice of a bride but about stripping Paras of his royal title. His miraculous escape from the orgy of violence keeps this theory alive. A taxi driver told this writer: "Everyone knows who really did it, but nothing will come of it. You think Nepal is a multi-party democracy - that's a sham. The Palace is all-powerful." Ironically, the response to Capt. Shahi's disclosures showed that an elected government and political parties do exist in Nepal. Political parties protested against the irregularity of his holding a press conference and he was reprimanded.

A headline in the Nepali Times summed up the probe committee's findings: "It was Dipendra." The findings are based essentially on eyewitness accounts. The probe is said to have yielded a count of those present at the scene of the crime and the weapons used, leaving unaddressed the crucial question of motive. Constitutional lawyers have criticised the report for having drawn from eyewitness accounts an inference only about who committed the crime but not about why it was committed. Medical experts are quoted in the Nepali press as having raised questions about the effect of the deadly cocktail of alcohol and drugs which the Prince was said to have consumed, suggesting that a mixture of marijuana and alcohol would have had a calming effect.

Political parties, including the CPN (UML), have "taken the report positively". Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba said: "There is no doubt that it was the Crown Prince who was behind the incident." The royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) expressed "satisfaction" over it. However, the Marxist Leninist and Maoists (Malema), a combine of minor Left parties, criticised the report, saying that it had only strengthened suspicions. The United People's Front denounced the report as a cover-up exercise.

At the popular level, many assert that the report was prejudiced against the Crown Prince. There were others who said that any investigation that stopped short of accusing King Gyanendra and/or his son would be rejected as blasphemy or a cover-up. The day after the report was made public young men with shaven heads could be seen on street corners poring over newspapers and pointing out discrepancies in the report. Here are some comments that were overheard: "How could the right-handed Crown Prince have shot himself with a pistol from the left?"; "We are told that the cigarettes mixed with marijuana and a black substance were handed to Prince Paras. Why? And how did they reach the Crown Prince?"; "If he was unable to even unbutton his shirt less than a quarter of an hour before, how could he have got into army fatigues, laced up the boots, returned to the hall with 15 kg of weapons slung about him and then shot with precision?"; "Why did the ADCs not rush in and why did they take the longer route through the window when it was evident the Prince moved in and out"; "Why did the probe report refer to the Queen as a woman in a red saree and not as the Queen?"; "Crown Prince was quoted as saying to his girlfriend Devyani Rana that he was going to sleep and that he would talk to her the next day. Yet, the next minute, he armed himself to massacre everyone."

Captain Rajiv Shahi giving the first on-the-record eyewitness account of the massacre, at the Military Hospital in Kathmandu.-JOHN McCONNICO/ AP

There were other questions too: Why was not an autopsy performed? Why were not the blood samples of the Crown Prince and the King kept for analysis? Why was the Prince in battle fatigues at the time of a family dinner? If the Crown Prince was smoking cigarettes laced with marijuana and a "blackish substance", which were ministered to him by his personal entourage and his ADCs, why were no questions raised about it? And why did the ADCs not react sooner than they did? Apparently no heads have rolled. And the Army chief has gone on record to say that security at the Palace was not his responsibility.

The answers lie in the mystique of royalty that set the feudal practices of the Palace beyond accountability. It was not only that the Crown Prince had replaced the older ADCs with men about his age, but also that the ADCs and the senior Palace security staff were all related to the royals. Supriya Shah, his childhood friend whom the family preferred over Devyani Rana, was the daughter of an ADC whose father was married to the sister of the Queen Mother.

Bloodstains on a staircase where Queen Aishwarya was shot.-RAVI MANANDHAR/ AP

Questions are also raised about gross security lapses in the three-tier security structure of the Palace. Asked whether the security apparatus will be overhauled, Brigadier General Tula B. Thapa, a former army General close to the royals, said: "If the Palace wills it." That the people have a major stake in the security of the monarchy and therefore have a right to be assured that it is professionally managed seems to be an odd notion in Nepal.

CONTRARY to apprehensions of violence, the streets of Nepal remained calm when the report was released on June 14. The day before, addressing a meeting of human rights activists, lawyers and intellectuals at the Nepal Bar Association in Kathmandu, Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a former Member of Parliament, said that the government had prepared a gazette notification suspending some fundamental rights. Hours before the release of the report, some 300 persons took out a procession under the banner of a forum to protect democracy and fundamental freedoms. People watched it warily. "People are being arrested if they are heard saying anything critical of the King or Prince Paras. Plainclothesmen are all over the city," one among a group of nervous young men with tonsured heads told this writer, constantly looking over his shoulders. Did they know anyone who had been picked up? "No." But rumours - of mass arrests and of poisoning of drinking water and milk - spread like wildfire.

Activists of the Save Democracy and Human Rights Society take out a procession demanding that the investigation into the massacre bring out the truth.-DEVENDRA M. SINGH/ AFP

A pall of fear and terror hung over Kathmandu and a generation that had grown to maturity under the multi-party democracy was reacting as if the bad Pancha days of midnight knocks and disappearances were back. Just a week before, Yuvraj Ghimire, the Editor of Nepal's largest-selling daily Kantipur, and two management executives of the paper were arrested on charges of treason for publishing an article by the Maoist ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, reiterating his party's line that the massacre was the result of a political conspiracy involving Prime Minister G.P. Koirala, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India and the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. He had called upon the Army to disobey the orders of an "illegitimate government". Widespread protests at the national and international levels failed to get the journalists released for 10 days.

Subodh Pyakurel, Director of INSEC, a human rights organisation, pointed out that for the first time since 1990, curfew had been imposed and the Army deployed to curb street violence in Kathmandu. Curfew was not imposed when violence broke out following some alleged anti-Nepal remarks made by Indian film actor Hrithik Roshan. Nor was the Army deployed. It was well known that King Birendra was opposed to the deployment of the Army against the people. Clearly, a new style of governance was becoming visible.

Yubaraj Ghimire, Editor of Kantipur, on his release from jail.-BINOD JOSHI/ AP

According to official sources, about 450 people have been arrested. Some press reports have put the figure at 1,000. The arrests were meant to pre-empt the Maoists who were believed to have infiltrated Kathmandu from their rural bases. A rumour doing the rounds in Kathmandu is that the curfew that was imposed hours before the funeral of Dipendra was prompted by the fear that the Maoists would take away the body so that they could verify the location of the bullet wounds. The conspiracy theory has it that Dipendra was shot in the back. It is not unusual in Kathmandu to be told that it is the Maoists who could bring out the truth.

Prachanda, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), was the first to denounce the massacre as a political conspiracy to remove King Birendra, who was hailed as a nationalist and a liberal and who was against deploying the Army against the Maoists. In subsequent statements and Bhattarai's article in Kantipur, the Maoists suggested that they had an "undeclared working relationship" with King Birendra. Political analysts close to the mainstream parties have criticised the Maoists as "opportunists". Ever since the Maoists launched the "people's war" in 1996, there has been speculation that despite their professed stand favouring the abolition of the monarchy, they had back-door dealings with the Palace. It is argued that by posing a challenge to the elected government and Parliament, the Maoists' campaign indirectly bolstered the Palace and facilitated its return to real power.

Devyani Rana, whom Crown Prince Dipendra wanted to marry.-KEDAR JAIN/ AP

The Maoists see a political opportunity in the crisis of legitimacy faced by the monarchy and have called for a republican, nationalist or interim government. While members of Kathmandu's intellectual elite argue that the Maoists have shot themselves in the foot through their double-talk on the monarchy, the Maoists enjoy a certain level of credibility among the people. They have tried to tap the popular outpouring of sympathy for King Birendra and stoked the conspiracy theory against the new King and the Koirala government. It is widely expected that unlike King Birendra, Gyanendra will only be too willing to use the Army against the Maoists. According to Om Sharma, Editor of Jana Awham, a Maoist publication, the Maoists have established liberated zones or their "government" in about eight districts and are expanding their influence in 65 of Nepal's 75 districts. Some analysts feel that the Maoists are now likely to prepare themselves for a confrontation with the monarchy and India. Bhattarai's article accuses India of wanting to do a Bhutan in Nepal and then grab the country a la Sikkim.

Political analysts have been watching the emerging relationship between Prime Minister Koirala and King Gyanendra. Koirala, a tough politician, has facilitated a smooth succession in the Palace and has deliberately chosen to keep a low profile. Is his survival the quid pro quo? For many months now Koirala has his back to the wall, facing detractors within his party and the Opposition which has levelled corruption charges against him and demanded his resignation. As a result, there has been a total paralysis of Parliament and governance (Frontline, May 25, 2001). It is still uncertain whether the Palace crisis will break the political deadlock.

The body of Dipendra on June 4 at the Pashupathinath temple.-JOHN McCONNICO/ AP

The Koirala family has a history of troubled relationship with the monarchy. Adding to the strain is the incipient conflict over business interests. Analysts like Deepak Gyawali of the Royal Nepal Academy of Sciences, who have known Prince Gyanendra as Chairman of the King Mahendra Nature Conservation Trust, says that Gyanendra is very much in the mould of his unsmiling and decisive father. King Mahendra declared an emergency in 1960 and restored absolute monarchy. King Birendra had a reputation for waffling and, indeed, the Crown Prince and the King had quarrelled over the issue of a more active role for the monarchy. Birendra wanted to go down in history as the King who ushered in multi-party democracy. Gyanendra can be expected to assert himself and fill any political vacuum.

Nepal's political system is far from settled and the threat comes not only from the Maoists. There is a lurking fear of instability and India taking control. The relationship with India is further complicated by the fact that the ruling elite - royalist or democratic - knows it is in India that they must seek asylum in the event of a crisis. It is not incidental that on the night of the massacre, many politicians went underground fearing a coup and made telephone calls to India. But the Indian connection is also the stick for the nationalists to beat them with.

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