King-size crisis

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

King Gyanendra. He seized control of power in February 2005 and suppressed democracy. - BINOD JOSHI/AP

King Gyanendra. He seized control of power in February 2005 and suppressed democracy. - BINOD JOSHI/AP

The institution of monarchy seems to be on the brink in the Himalayan kingdom as the protests continue to rage.

IN what is being viewed as the first major concession to the Opposition parties, King Gyanendra of Nepal, in a speech broadcast on state-run television on April 21, offered to hand over executive power to the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and asked it to nominate a candidate for the post of Prime Minister. The SPA, along with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), has been conducting a countrywide agitation since April 6 demanding the immediate restoration of democracy and the convening of a Constituent Assembly for the drafting of a new republican Constitution.

April 6 is an important date in the history of Nepal. On that date in 1990, the first major pro-democracy movement was launched, leading to the adoption of a democratic Constitution for the first time.

The demonstrations against the King's autocratic rule (he sacked the government and assumed full powers in February 2005), had peaked on April 20 and 21 when hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters assembled in Kathmandu. The King's forces used extreme force to stop them from marching into the heart of the capital city. Hundreds of demonstrators were injured and at least five persons were killed.

The SPA rejected the King's offer to end the crisis as not enough. The alliance interpreted his invitation to it to name a new Prime Minister as a move to sow divisions in the ranks of the Opposition. Besides, the Maoists, who have become a significant political and military force in Nepal, are not part of the SPA. Leaders of all the Opposition parties have demanded that the King immediately reinstate Parliament and form a Constituent Assembly. The King, in his speech, did not chart out a road map for democracy or propose a dilution of the powers he held under the 1990 Constitution.

The Indian government's special emissary, Karan Singh, who carried a special message from Prime Minster Manmohan Singh to King Gyanendra on April 20. On his return to New Delhi, he hinted at an imminent breakthrough in the political impasse in the Himalayan kingdom. "The ball is in the King's court," he said. India was quick to welcome the King's offer. The External Affairs Ministry, in a statement issued on April 22, welcomed the King's "intention to transfer all executive power of the state to a government constituted by the alliance of the seven political parties". New Delhi's stance is viewed by many in Kathmandu as a ploy to drive a wedge between the SPA and the Maoists, who so far have been unitedly waging the struggle for multi-party democracy. The Opposition in Nepal, however, seems to be determined at the present juncture to keep the unity of the anti-monarchical forces intact.

India continues to be suspicious about the Maoists and has indicated that it would prefer a government in Kathmandu without their participation. Opposition leaders in Kathmandu are of the opinion that India made a mistake by sending an "ex-royal" like Karan Singh as a special emissary.

The Opposition leaders vowed to continue their protests until the King met all their demands. Prakash Koirala, a senior leader of the Nepali Congress, the biggest political party in the kingdom, said that the mandate the SPA had got "is to get Parliament reinstated, have a dialogue with the Maoists and form a Constituent Assembly". Another Opposition leader, Madhav Risal of the Nepal Congress Democratic Party, said after the King's address to the nation that the setting up of a Constituent Assembly was the highest priority.

The pro-democracy protests have achieved wide acceptance with people from 65 of the 75 districts in the country participating in them so far. Day-time curfew has been imposed on many of the major towns and cities, including Kathmandu. The capital has been virtually paralysed since the protests began. Government employees joined the protests in the third week of April. Public sector workers are participating in the nationwide strike. The protests are taking shape on their own with people coming out of their homes spontaneously to demand the restoration of democracy. Until April 22 more than 3,000 people had been arrested; hundreds of people have been hospitalised with injuries sustained in police action. On April 20-21 alone, more than 100,000 people defied the King's shoot-at-sight day-night curfew. It was the largest demonstration since the protests began, and has been hailed as a milestone in the new struggle against despotism. On April 22, the authorities imposed an eight-hour curfew as protesters once again took to the streets rejecting the King's offer.

Restoration of democracy is not the only demand: protesters want King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (who came to the throne after the palace massacre of his elder brother King Birendra) to quit and the role of the monarchy to be either abolished or severely curtailed. The CPN(M) was the first major party to call for the abolition of the monarchy and the setting up of a constitutional republic - a view echoed by almost all Opposition parties, including the Nepali Congress, now. This is the reason why there is a strong demand for the convening of a Constituent Assembly. The younger generation is apparently in no awe of the monarch although some Nepalis still consider the King the reincarnation of Vishnu.

Some commentators fear that the situation may worsen if the King uses the Royal Nepal Army to quell the protest. The Army is the only institution that remains loyal to the Palace. The government alleged that the Opposition parties, in alliance with the "Maoist terrorists", were organising the street protests to overthrow the government. The government has warned that it could impose emergency rule and use the maximum force to crush the "terrorists". Before the street protest that rocked Kathmandu on April 20, the government's spokesman said that "a huge cache of explosives" had been discovered and alleged that "the Maoists were planning to use human shields to create violence".

On April 14, on the occasion of the Nepalese New Year, the King offered to resume talks with the Opposition parties. In his speech, he outlined his latest blueprint for restoration of democracy. There were no takers among the mainstream parties for the King's offer to set up a caretaker government until elections were held. The King, during a meeting with two former Prime Ministers, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Surya Bahadur Thapa, offered to hold multi-party elections by April next year. Bhattarai declined to accept the King's offer to be the caretaker Prime Minster until that time.

The majority of the Opposition parties have virtually derecognised the monarchy and refused to meet the King. In an effort to get the Opposition to the negotiating table, the government released two important Opposition leaders, Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist) and Rama Chandra Poudyal of the NCP on April 19. Both leaders refused the King's offer for talks and insisted that he restore democracy immediately.

The United States Ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, who until the other day had backed the authoritarian government, advised the King to restore democracy immediately or face the prospect of clinging on to a helicopter and fleeing the country. The U.S. State Department said that the King's rule "has failed in every regard".

The European Union expressed a similar view. The United Nations and international human rights groups have also issued harsh criticisms of the government's handling of the situation. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has accused the police of "brutally beating and shooting children as young as 12". The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal, Kieran Dwyer, told the media that he was concerned about the "escalation of excessive use of force by the authorities". According to news reports, the present demonstrations are much bigger and more widespread than the pro-democracy protests of 1990, which led to the abolition of direct royal rule for a decade and a half. The 1990protests were, however, confined to the capital and a few towns.

Another indication that the crisis was spinning out of control was the decision of the Indian government to send Karan Singh as special envoy to Nepal to impressing on the King the need to "take steps in the right direction". On April 19, Karan Singh, along with Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, held talks with the King and the Opposition leaders. On arrival in Kathmandu, Karan Singh said that India was "seriously worried with the worsening situation in Nepal". He also expressed his concern about the increasing "violence and anarchy".

The international community expect the King to restore immediately the 1990 Constitution, which was suspended after a royal coup d'etat 14 months ago. As protests intensified, King Gyanendra, for the first time in several months, invited the Ambassadors of the U.S., China and India for consultations. Washington, Beijing and New Delhi have been keenly watching the situation unfold in the kingdom.

Until recently, the U.S. and India were among the main backers of the King in his fight against Maoist insurgency. The U.S. had even branded the CPN(M) as a "terrorist group". Colin Powell, when he visited Kathmandu as U.S. Secretary of State in 2002, said that the King, like the U.S. government, was engaged in a fight against terrorism. The U.S. and the United Kingdom even supplied heavy weapons to the Royal Nepalese Army and sent military advisers.

The U.S., the U.K. and India have considerable leverage over the Royal Nepal Army owing to a variety of factors. Ex-Army personnel of Nepal are employed as "security contractors" by the U.S. government in places such as Iraq. The Nepalese Army earns considerable foreign exchange by playing important roles in the U.N. peace-keeping missions worldwide. The U.N. headquarters may not be too accommodating if the Army assists the King in repressing pro-democracy forces.

Many Nepalese serve in the Indian Army. This is one of the reasons why the Indian defence and security establishments are keeping a close watch on the situation in the kingdom. Many political commentators in Nepal say that it is the Army that is preventing the monarchy from being toppled. "We want a constitutional monarchy in the framework of a multiparty democratic system which was introduced in Nepal in 1990," Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had said a few days before the King's latest pledge to restore democracy.

Many Nepalese politicians and commentators are suspicious about India's decision to despatch a special emissary. They think that it is part of a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy. The King's April 21 offer and New Delhi's positive response to it seem to have reinforced their suspicions.

India, while expressing support for the restoration of democracy, continues to insist that monarchy is an important pillar in the politics of the kingdom, and has been providing the King "anti-terror assistance". The nostalgia of Nepal as the last remaining "Hindu kingdom" in the world continues to be a factor in this thinking. This is especially so among the right-wing parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Jaswant Singh, the former External Affairs Minister, before departing for Kathmandu to meet with the beleaguered King, told the media that the BJP considered "constitutional monarchy and an effective functional and elected democracy as two pillars of equal importance in the Himalayan state".

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad continue to sing the praise of the King.

The King has kept the Chinese government in good humour by cracking down on the activities of pro-Tibet groups in the kingdom and by issuing strong statements in support of China's stand on Taiwan. At the last South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka, King Gyanendra while criticising the Communist ideology, was all praise for the Chinese government. Nepal had spearheaded the move to give China a meaningful role in SAARC.

Informally, China has let it be known since the mid-1980s that it considers Nepal within India's sphere of influence. Many Indian analysts have expressed the fear that if India abandons the King, China will fill in the breach quickly and expand its influence to the detriment of traditional Indian interests in the kingdom. China's State Councillor, Tang Jiaxuan, who is the highest-ranking official to visit Nepal since the takeover by the King, made it a point to interact with the Opposition leaders during his stay in the kingdom in March. He said there was a need for reconciliation between the King and the political parties.

Meanwhile, the Maoists have been reiterating their commitment to multiparty democracy. The CPN(M) had signed a 12-point agreement with the seven main Opposition parties pledging adherence to parliamentary democracy. Their leaders have signalled to the Indian government that they do not necessarily share the same worldview or the goals of the various Maoist groupings operating in India, which are committed to waging a "people's war".

According to reports in the Nepalese media, India played a "facilitating role" in the signing of the 12-point "understanding". The talks as well as the signing took place in New Delhi. The Maoists agreed to end the insurrection if genuine multi-party elections were held and vowed that any future government in which they were involved would have normal relations with the U.S.

Their leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka "Prachanda" has indicated in various interviews given to the media that the CPN(M) has given up the option of taking Kathmandu by force.

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