Challenging the monarchy

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The political crisis precipitated by the anti-monarchy agitation by students has forced the political parties and the people at large to think of the `unthinkable' in Nepal - the inevitability of establishing a republican system.

in Kathmandu

ON January 23, in Nepalgunj, the urban hub of the mid-western region of Nepal, King Gyanendra was feted at a mass civic reception hosted by the International Committee of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). However, while the King was being honoured as the avatar of Vishnu presiding over the only Hindu kingdom and the symbol of national unity of a multi-ethnic polity in Nepalgunj, the streets of Kathmandu were witnessing students raising strident anti-monarchy and pro-republican slogans. `Royal' effigies were garlanded with shoes and burnt in mock funerals. Activists of the month-long student agitation staged the 13th-day funeral rites for the cremated effigy of `regression', a euphemism for the decline of democracy under the monarchy, despite Home Ministry warnings of stern action.

It was the King-nominated government's action of arresting three student leaders on charges of sedition - for chanting anti-monarchy slogans - that brought the students led by seven unions out on the street. Information Minister Kamal Thapa muttered embarrassedly about the `habit' of the autocratic Panchayat period to explain the controversial arrests and hastened to add that there was no question of using the Army against the students. "The police are sufficient," he said. Pitched battles were fought between the police and the students and, according to the All Nepal National Free Students Union (ANNFSU), the student union affiliated to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), 136 students were injured in the incidents. The students claim they are determined to push ahead, even if their political patrons and the parties in the dissolved Parliament compromise their cause. "We are not agitating so that Girija Prasad Koirala or Madhav Nepal can become Prime Minister. The issue is challenging `regression' once and for all. We'll not give up," Gururaj Ghimire, the president of Nepal Students Union (NSU), told Frontline.

In fact, the agitation reminds one of the 1990 student movement that forced the autocratic monarchy to accept multi-party democracy and the role of a constitutional monarch. Political scientist Krishna Hachchetu said: "Historically the students have radicalised the political agenda. They are from the student wings of the political parties and can be expected to create pressure from within the parties to move forward and not compromise." Gagan Kumar Thapa, NSU general secretary, said: "There is no way that we will give up our demand for a republic even if our leaders opt for a constitutional monarchy. We will not allow the leaders to use the students movement as a bargaining chip to secure their position." However, Hachhetu does not believe that the movement could spin out of the control of the political parties.

The student agitation has challenged the conservative `coexistence' political discourse of the mainstream political parties by opening up the debate on the once `unthinkable' - the inevitability of a republican system. Nepali Times wrote: "Now that we are forced to think the unthinkable, we have to say that Nepal will probably survive as a republic." The slogans on the street and discussion groups on the "Relevance of Monarchy" are not only reverberating within the political parties but framing the broad public discourse to include the once `unthinkable' - that Nepal can survive without the monarchy, once considered the bulwark against the forces of disunity in a multi-ethnic polity.

The pace at which the republican discourse has gained acceptability, if not legitimacy, has prompted the leaders of the two dominant parliamentary parties, the Nepali Congress (N.C.) and the CPN(UML), to put a lid on the debate and reaffirm the middle track of coexistence of a constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy.

Initially, N.C. president Girija Prasad Koirala had indulged the republican slogans raised by the students. "The students are raising slogans in support of a republican system out of frustration, but it is the King who is drifting the nation towards a system in which there will be no room for even a constitutional monarch. The students can be said to have done the right thing by raising slogans since it is the King who is violating constitutional norms," he said. Echoing the views of Koirala, N.C. leader Narahari Acharya said: "The demand for a republic in the street is neither an emotional outburst of the students nor confined to the street only. It has emerged as a topic of alternative discussion in the Nepali Congress. Nearly 20 per cent of the party's CWC [Central Working Committee] members do not see anything wrong in it." However, former Minister Chakra Prasad Bastola insisted that the republic-constitutional monarchy debate was not on the agenda of the party and that the focus was on limiting the extra-constitutional activism of the King. Significantly, the continued postponement of the party's general meeting has ensured that the republican challenge is kept at bay.

The CPN(UML), on the other hand, discussed the issue at the party's fifth central committee meeting. Party leader Madhav Nepal's announcement of a `coexistence' "Road Map to Peace" reflects the party's decision to check the radical agenda. The party, at least for the time being, is standing by Madhav Nepal's assertion that "our stand on constitutional monarchy remains unchanged, we do not support a people's republic." The party's nine-point "Road Map to Peace" is a compromise formula. Senior CPN(UML) leader K.P. Oli explained: "It accommodates a role for the King as a constitutional monarch. The King will never accept the risk of a constituent assembly unless he is above it." The emphasis is on flexibility and accommodating the three political forces of Nepal. The Road Map calls for an all-party government led by Nepal to initiate an all-party dialogue including the Maoists, the formation of an interim government to conduct elections supervised by the United Nations and amendments to the Constitution or the writing of a new one. Although confusion remains about various aspects of the Road Map, what is significant is that a major mainstream political party has publicly backed the proposal of a new constitution and stirred a dialogue not about why but how to go about formulating a new constitution, if necessary.

Oli emphasised that "only a new constitution can put an end to the prevailing crisis. The slogans shouted in favour of a republic are not a problem but an effort to resolve the problem. We are for a constitutional monarchy, but there is nothing sacred about it." When asked why he did not insist on a republican system given the level of mistrust, he said: "We don't want to be the first to precipitate a crisis."

The CPN(UML)'s Road Map follows Madhav Nepal's audience with the King and his secret discussions with representatives of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in Lucknow. The Maoist response has been cautious, welcoming the CPN(UML) move as a step forward. However, senior Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai said: "We had expected that the next move of the CPN(UML) leadership would be towards making a Constituent Assembly."

Meanwhile, CPN(M) chairman Prachanda has articulated a Maoist "Road Map", reiterating the party's three-stage formula of a round table conference, interim government and election to a Constituent Assembly under U.N. auspices and the demobilisation of both armies. He said: "In the given context of two ideologies, two armies and two states in the country, the party is agreeable to demobilisation of both armies." Apparently, the latter was the sticking point during Madhav Nepal's meeting with the Maoist leaders in Lucknow.

Others too have not accepted the Maoists' proposal. Koirala dismissed Prachanda's proposal as "foolish". Information Minister Kamal Thapa told Frontline: "What territory do the Maoists control? There is not an inch of territory where the Army cannot go." For the government, the Maoists can only be defeated militarily. The political parties' view, as expressed by Madhav Nepal at the Lucknow meeting, supports a negotiated solution. To counter the student agitation, the Palace tried the ruse of granting the political leaders royal audience. But this time the overall sense of distrust has hollowed out the politics of audience. Apparently, the King is being judged by his actions and the political leaders and the people at large mistrust him. The Palace massacre of 2001 had dealt a crippling blow to the institution of monarchy and the anointing of the unpopular Paras Bir Bikram Shah Dev as Crown Prince deepened that mistrust. Moreover, the King's takeover of executive powers on October 4, 2002 and his determination to marginalise the political parties and assume an active role, dealt a sever blow to the monarchy's credibility.

IRONICALLY, while the conflict grinds down the people of Nepal, the King is ordering three luxury cars. According to The Kathmandu Post, the King wants to add a Rolls-Royce, a Jaguar and another luxury car to his group of bullet-proof vehicles. The cost is estimated to be around 142 million Nepali rupees, which was cleared by a pliant government with no Parliament to ask questions. The publication of the report and an editorial in The Kathmandu Post itself speaks of a major change in the popular mindset regarding the monarchy.

Other developments too point to the fact that the times are rapidly changing in Nepal. Recently, former Chief Justice Biswo Nath Upadhaya said: "If the `popular' late King Birendra was so unpopular [during the drafting of the 1990 Constitution a snap poll conducted among 7,000 people showed a bare 3 per cent support for the monarchy], you can make a guess of the popularity rating of King Gyanendra who wants to have a strong say in state affairs." Upadhyaya pointed out that the King could not be a `constructive' monarch when he was not accountable to the people and would not tolerate criticism. Justice Upadhaya, who drafted the Constitution, blamed the prolonged confrontation between the King and the political parties and the conflict between the King and the Maoists as being responsible for Nepal "drifting towards a republic".

While the option of a republican system is increasingly being expressed in the public discourse, the N.C. and the CPN(UML), the parties, which represent the majority of the people, continue to evince a marked ambivalence towards abandoning constitutional monarchy. Arguably, if Nepal was delinked from the underpinnings of a Hindu identity as consecrated in the institution of constitutional monarchy, it could destabilise the existing caste hierarchies that have helped the upper-caste Brahmin and Chettri communities to occupy privileged positions in Nepali society. Sociologist Krishna Bhattachan points out that Nepal is a country of indigenous people, the janjatis, madhesias (terai people) and Dalits who form nearly 70 per cent of the population and are excluded from power. A republican Nepal could produce a very different polity.

Apparently, the Maoists, in targeting the King, are challenging the basis of this system. Developing this argument, former Minister Ram Sharan Mahat wrote in The Kathmandu Post: "Maoist writings make it amply clear that they consider monarchy as the historical bulwark of all class, caste, gender, national and regional and religious oppression." Maoist leader Bhattarai, addressing a public meeting in Kirtipur (Greater Kathmandu) during the ceasefire in 2003, acknowledged that the Maoists' programmatic agenda was shaped by the demands of the constituencies overwhelmingly drawn to the Maoist movement, that is, the janjatis, madhesias, Dalits and women.

The Maoists are also granting political recognition to janjati demands as is evident in their recent announcement of a Magarat Ethnic Autonomous Area. The government too seems to be keen to woo these constituencies. It has offered reservation for women (20 per cent), Dalits (10 per cent) and indigenous communities (10 per cent) in the civil service, which is otherwise dominated (80 per cent) by the upper castes.

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