Print edition : June 09, 2001

The violent death of King Birendra and the rest of Nepal's royal family leaves a serious political vacuum and even raises fears about the nation's future.

GRIEF, shock and even shame, the dominant feelings in Kathmandu over a numbing weekend, gave way to suspicion, anger and tension by Monday, June 4, as the contradictions widened around the Narayanhiti Palace massacre, raising more questions and uneasy doubts about who, how and why the members of the royal family of Nepal were killed at a weekly dinner. Forty-eight hours after the news of the killing of the night of June 1 had come out, growing numbers of tonsured demonstrators on motorbikes took to the streets, giving vent to their anger at the elected government and over the news blackout, demanding that the killers be hanged - Hathyaro lai fashi de. But who are the hathyaro? Crown Prince Dipendra, who was named King even as he lay in a deep coma in Kathmandu's Military Hospital but whose death was later announced on the morning of June 4? That question was becoming more and more difficult to answer as a web of conspiracy theories deepened the mystery and confusion about the actual turn of events at the fateful Friday night dinner. Mounting public protests finally prodded Nepal's reluctant political parties to demand a transparent inquiry into the circumstances of the tragic events.

The funeral procession of the royal family members crossing the Bishnumati river in Kathmandu on June 2.-PAWEL KOPCZYNSK/REUTERSI

Within hours of the killings, the international media had come out with the version, as quoted from a highly placed military source, that Crown Prince Dipendra had killed his father and King Birendra, mother and Queen Aishwarya, and his siblings, Princess Shruti and Prince Niranjan, in a fit of inebriated rage and then turned the machine-gun on himself. Incredible though it sounded, the explanation managed to keep at arms length lurking conspiracy theories involving palace intrigues, army putsches, Maoist revolutionaries and the democracy-monarchy power tussle. Momentarily, the framing of the massacre as an internal family matter and a family tragedy seemed to have contained the destabilising fallout on the bulwark of the institution of Nepal's constitutional monarchy at a time of parliamentary democracy decrepitude.

But cracks soon developed in the version of the events. The first crack came when the Crown Prince, reportedly announced as dead by the Interior Minister earlier on Saturday morning, was by that afternoon announced by the Raj Parishad (State Council) as the new King, Dipendra Bir Bikram Dev, and his uncle Prince Gyanendra as the acting monarch. (Gyanendra was officially made King on June 4, following the death of Dipendra earlier in the day.) His first official statement as Regent (indeed the first official statement from the Palace since the massacre) declared that a 'sudden' burst of machine-gun fire had killed off the entire family. Was he saying it was an accident? How did it go off? Was it Dipendra who fired the assault rifle? The statement opened the floodgates of questions, feeding suspicions that the Crown Prince, by then King, was being made a scapegoat to protect hidden forces. the only eyewitness survivors, Princesses Komal and Shova, said to be in a satisfactory condition in the off-limits Military Hospital, could hold the key to the gunning down of seven members of the royal family.

The wall of secrecy erected by the Palace - a wall which even Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was unable to breach for he too was denied entry into Narayanhiti when he rushed there after the killings - the absolute denial of the people's right to know the full story and about the medical condition of the injured, archaic rituals which justify a news blackout and require the peremptory cremation of the bodies, spawned sensational rumours with destabilising potential. At the crux of it all is deepening incredulity about Crown Prince Dipendra 'suddenly' turning a psychotic killer over frustrated love or, as the latest version would have it, an 'accidental' killer.

That the Crown Prince, born on June 27, 1971 and declared heir-apparent in January 1972, was still unmarried was a source of concern and tension in the royal family. In Kathmandu's elite social circles it was said that Queen Aishwarya was dead set against Dipendra marrying the love of his life, Devyani Rana, the daughter of a former Minister, Pashupati Shamsher Rana. Indeed she emerges as the villainess in most of the stories. The story trails off into confusing details of rivalry between the yudhvanshi and chandravanshi clans, the superiority or inferiority of the noble origins of the Queen's familial connection with the Scindia house of Gwalior, takes a detour to identify Devyani's uncle who married out of caste, and finally rests on the young woman threatening to marry an Indian Rajput 'prince'. There were said to be heated arguments in the family over the unsuitability of the Prince's choice of the bride.

The body of King Birendra, lying in state.-JOHN McCONNICO/ AP

In the reconstruction of the events of that day in circles close to members of the royal family, it is said that earlier in the day the King, the Queen and the Crown Prince had graced an annaprasan ceremony where in hindsight it is recalled that the Crown Prince seemed out of sorts and had against tradition been dressed in black. Subsequently, the Crown Prince had been the chief guest at a state athletic meet in the city and photographs show him gaily encouraging athletes - a passion, which in recent months had won him popularity. How then to account for so violent a change of mood?

The Prince reportedly stopped over on his way back to drink with some army buddies and is said to have ingested some 'drugs' - amphetamines. Back home for the weekly family dinner, a row broke out, during the course of which the Queen reportedly threatened to disinherit him in favour of the younger son if he persisted in his infatuated obstinacy. As he was in an inebriated state he was sent or taken out of the room to his bedchamber or living quarters. But soon he returned, dressed in army fatigues and carrying a G-36 German assault rifle, and opened fire.

The Crown Prince was known to have a fetish for guns and would often test out the latest weaponry that the Royal Army was planning to buy. The German assault rifle had been short-listed by the Army, which was in the market for 50,000 new guns. And evidently the Crown Prince had it lying around ready with live ammunition. An inquiry will no doubt go into questions of where the bodyguards were, the time it would take for the Prince to go back to his room and return and so forth. But the critical question in the people's minds is - how could this Prince go berserk? Namacchine ping ko saya jhaddka (the heavy swing is the slowest to move, and it swings the hardest), said a grandmother who has lived through three generations of the dynasty. Others recall the warning of the royal astrologer, for whatever it was worth, to the grandfather King Mahendra (reigned from 1955 to 1972) that the conjunction of stars at the time of the impending birth of Prince Dipendra was inauspicious and bode ill for the survival of the royal family. Sedatives administered to the mother to delay the birth failed and Dipendra was born. Soon thereafter King Mahendra died of a heart attack.

The Crown prince's friends from his early schooldays at the Budhnilkantha school in Kathmandu (before going on to Eton) and his days as a student in Tribhuvan University, recall a gentle and even obliging character with no trace of pathological rage. In fact, he was stated to be just the opposite of his bullying and intemperate cousin Prince Paras Shah, Gyanendra's son.

King Gyanendra, newly enthroned, being greeted by officials at the Hanumandhoka Palace in Kathmandu on June 4.-JOHN McCONNICO/ AP

Prince Paras Shah has been mired in controversy with accusation ranging from drunken armed assaults in discotheques to shooting a police official who dared to stop him during a 'bandh'. Last year the police filed a first information report against him in a hit-and-run incident in which a well known Nepali musician was killed under the four-wheel drive vehicle belonging to Prince Gyanendra. Charges were subsequently withdrawn after a junior army officer claimed responsibility for the incident. However, there was a public outcry demanding that Prince Paras Shah should be stripped of his princely privileges - as King Birendra had done to his own younger brother earlier. The King forbade Paras Shah from driving cars but allowed him to race around in a motorbike.

Paras Shah was present at the weekly dinner but escaped unhurt. Did he run out before the shooting, or as some people suggest, went off to a discotheque in Hotel Everest? It is yet another piece of the puzzle which does not fit.

Prince Gyanendra himself was away in Pokhara. At the age of two and a half, he had been made King of Nepal by the Rana Prime Minister in 1951 when King Tribhuvan fled from the country with the rest of the royal family seeking asylum in India. King Tribhuvan (reigned from 1911 to 1955) was soon restored to the throne with the help of India and baby Gyanendra's kingship ended. However, circles close to the Palace spoke of Prince Gyanendra's obsessive visits to astrologers to find out if he would be king again. Conspiracy theories, which thrive in the atmosphere of the Palace's secret style of functioning, have taken wing over the Regent's 'hardliner' reputation and its consequences for the tussle between the emergent democratic forces and the conservative royalists. A recent controversy over who controls the army had brought this issue to a head.

In April, the Maoist insurgents, taking the five-year-old People's War in Nepal to a new offensive phase, had struck at several police posts killing 70 policemen while the Army remained in the barracks (Frontline, May 11, 2001). The ruling Nepali Congress declared that "all security forces" would be used to tackle the Maoists. But the issue of calling out the Army got stuck in the fine print of who under the post-democracy Constitution controls the Army - the King, the Supreme Commander, or the people's representatives through the National Security Council? Moreover the operational strategy would have placed the Army under the civilian direction of the regional district council head, making Nepal's highly privileged Army accountable for the first time. In an unprecedented move, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Prajwalla Rana, publicly announced that the Army will be involved in the operation only if there is unity among the political parties. The dominant Opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), is opposed to the deployment of the Army against the Maoists, fearing an all-out civil war. Eventually, King Birendra is understood to have favoured the elected government deciding whether to deploy or not to deploy the Army under the Integrated Security and Development Plan (ISDP). But it was clear that within the Palace there were two tendencies. One of these was represented by King Birendra's liberal commitment to assume the role of a constitutional monarch and to be circumspect about not interfering in political democratic functioning. The other tendency favoured the King re-assuming a more active political role.

Prince Dipendra examining an automatic rifle at an ordnance factory at Wah near Islamabad, a February 20, 1998 file picture.-IQBAL AHMED/ AFP

KING BIRENDRA had been an absolute monarch for 18 years before ceding ground to a popular pro-democracy agitation in 1990. But the political tussle between the democrats and the monarchists has largely remained unresolved. Indeed, it became sharper against the backdrop of the whirligig of parliamentary political games for power and corruption and the abject failure to deliver good governance and development. It has produced the Maoist People's War which since 1996 has gained in strength and support to cover more than two-thirds of Nepal. More than 2,000 people have been killed, the police have been left demoralised and the Maoists clearly have gained the upper hand by setting up "liberated zones". Moreover, the functioning of Parliament has been virtually paralysed and the city is in the grip of a cycle of 'bandhs' over the ruling party-Opposition stand off over corruption scams (Frontline, May 25, 2001). As parliamentary democracy in Nepal gets discredited, the royalists waiting in the wings have gained a new lease of life.

Whosoever or whatever may have caused the Palace massacre, one of its consequences, say political analysts, will be to strengthen the hand of the hardliners who want the monarchy to take a more active role in the affairs of the country. It is a role that the Army, never far off from the Palace, is likely to support, that would ensure Army's autonomy and privileges. Prince Gyanendra's reputation during the partyless panchayat days before the restoration of democracy in Nepal was that of a 'hardliner' intolerant of notions of 'liberal democracy', said Lok Raj Baral, an academic and former Nepalese Ambassador to India. Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a former independent parliamentarian, observed that while King Birendra was accessible and indeed 'listened to what you had to say', Prince Gyanendra was a known 'conservative' and kept himself haughtily aloof. After the restoration of democracy few politicians had met the Prince.

However, Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor of the Kathmandu-based Himal Khabarpatrika, urged caution, arguing that the image of Prince Gyanendra as a hardliner belonged the panchayat days, and that how he would react to today's changed political situation should not be prejudged. Moreover, at this time when the massacre of King Birendra and the rest of the royal family has left a serious political vacuum and raised fears about the survival of Nepal as a nation, Prince Gyanendra's no-nonsense clarity of direction as demonstrated during the funeral was reassuring, says Deepak Gyawali, who has worked with Prince Gyanendra in the King Mahendra Conservation Trust. He can be ruthless, but who knows, it may be the very reason he may get along better with Girija Prasad Koirala than the vacillating King Birendra.

FOR Nepal, a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic state, the institution of monarchy is seen as being pivotal to keeping Nepal as a nation-state together, especially as it is buffeted by post-democracy assertions of ethnic, linguistic identity and demands for power-sharing in what is a highly-restricted upper caste-centred political elite with gross inequities of horizontal caste, regional and ethnic discrimination. The Maoists have challenged this thesis of the centrality of monarchy for Nepal's nation-state project and have been demanding the abolition of the constitutional monarchy. The King of Nepal is worshipped as the avatar of Vishnu and occupies a very special place in the hearts of the Nepali people - as has been evident in the spontaneous outpouring of grief in these past few days.

The Maoists were the first political group to denounce publicly the massacre as a 'grave political conspiracy' and ruled out the possibility of a family conflict. In a statement, CPN (Maoist) supremo Prachanda said that "to think that King Birendra's patriotic stand and liberal political ideology were not the reasons for the royals' death would be a misreading of politics". Koirala, Indian capitalists and hegemonist rulers are indicted for not tolerating the King's liberal politics and his reluctance to deploy the Army against the Maoists.

While the Maoists see the latest massacre as precipitating the end of the system, no other political party has demonstrated a 'republican' tendency. Indeed, the political representatives of the two main parties, the Nepali Congress and the CPI(UML), were said to have gone underground immediately after news of the massacre broke, fearing a royalist coup and the overthrow of democracy. It is the widespread public anger which has pushed the CPN(UML) to demand a public inquiry. Nepali Congress politician Shailaja Acharya has also voiced the demand for a proper investigation.

MEANWHILE, closely watching the political consequences of the palace massacre is neighbouring India. That Prince Gyanendra is known to be a businessmen with far-flung trading interests which have mired him in links, it is reported, with some unwholesome networks, could be a matter of worry for the Indian authorities. Issues of Nepal becoming a staging ground for anti-India activities by Pakistan's intelligence agencies has troubled the India-Nepal relationship. Then there are the problems of the Indian authorities adjusting to democratic demands in Nepal for mutual respect for sovereignty and equality.

Instability in Nepal is clearly not desirable. Public anger is likely to intensify on the streets as more and more young men come out with their heads shaven in mourning and rage at the web of lies and spin conspiracy theories. If the news blackout is lifted, tensions could ease as the truth comes to be known. However, whether the truth with regard to such assassinations can ever be known is the question of history.

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