Nepal at Crossroads

Brij Bihari Pandey

If one goes by the indicators of routine governance, life in Nepal has been put back to its normal self after the horrendous palace coup of June 1. The whole episode, in which not only 9 members of the Royal Family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, were killed during a royal feast, but subsequently even the alleged killer, Crown Prince Dipendra, died in the hospital on June 4, reminded many of the 1846 ‘Kot massacre’ perpetrated by Jung Bahadur Rana, who subsequently became the prime minister. Now that the 13-day period of national mourning is over on June 16, the newly crowned King Gyanendra called, on June 18, for the commencement of the delayed budget session of parliament from June 25, cutting short the normal 15 days preparatory period given to members of parliament to just one week. 

Another sign of resumption of routine parliamentary life is candidates filing their nominations on June 17 to fill the 16 vacant seats in the National Assembly, the upper house of Parliament, of which 11 are to be elected by the members of the house of representatives, the lower house, and 5 by the representatives of local bodies in five developmental zones. The elections will be held on June 27 this year.

Meanwhile, CPN (UML) and RPP have reached an agreement to support each other’s candidates in the Upper House election. In a joint statement issued by RPP president Surya Bahadur Thapa and CPN (UML) general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, it is stated that CPN (UML) would back RPP’s Lokendra Bahadur Thapa for the seat to be elected by members of House of Representatives, whereas RPP will support CPN (UML) candidates to be elected by local representatives from five development regions. 

In a show of royal generosity, fifty inmates were released on June 16 from various prisons after commuting their remaining prison terms, to mark the 13th day of the death of King Birendra and King Dipendra. 

In the meantime, on the other hand, some “confidence building measures” have also been taken by the new King. Just after his coronation, he had appointed a high-level three-member enquiry committee, which included Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Keshab Prasad Upadhyay, Speaker of the House of Representatives Taranath Ranabhat and Leader of the Opposition Madhav Kumar Nepal. However, Madhav Nepal resigned from the panel on the grounds that its formation by the King was not based on constitutional norms. He even said that the King was new and lacked experience, otherwise he would have consulted the prime minister and the Cabinet before its formation. A resolution taken by the Standing Committee of the Central Committee of CPN (UML) requested the Investigation Committee to conduct the probe “according to the constitution and acts prevailing in the country”. The resolution states, “We could not agree to the process of constituting the committee because every work must be done according to the constitution and laws in a transparent way.” Madhav Nepal’s other objections were technical, the small size of the panel and very short time allotted to it. Nonetheless, in his resignation Madhav Nepal mentioned that his party would abide by the findings of the Investigation Committee.

While accepting Madhav Nepal’s resignation, the King did not make any changes in the Investigation Committee. He however extended its period and assured all facilities like access to the Royal Palace, Hospital, Armoury and availability of other material needed for evidence, as well the right to question royal witnesses.

Secondly, the King appointed a five-member committee headed by the former king’s security advisor Lt. General Shanta Kumar Malla to probe into possible security lapses that led to the carnage at Narayanhiti Palace on June 1. The report was to be submitted in a day or two. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala too sought separate recommendations from a high-level committee of Government secretaries headed by Chief Secretary Tirtha Sakya. Internal palace security is the sole responsibility of two battalions of Royal Security Military Police and the unit of ADCs. The Army Chief has clearly stated that the Army has no responsibility pertaining to the inner security of the Palace.

Thirdly, whereas Gyanendra confirmed the status of Queen to his wife Komal, he refrained from proclaiming his only son Paras as crown prince as there were agitations led by left student unions, especially Maoists, protesting against any such move. It is to be noted that Paras is regarded a spoilt and notorious prince, accused of killing a motor-cyclist in a road accident while driving a car in a drunken state. He is also believed to be trigger-happy and people suspect his role in the Narayanhiti carnage, especially in view of his miraculous escape from the place.

Fourthy, the King reassured that the constitution that provided for multi-party democracy would remain in force.

Worth noting is the fact that life in Nepal did not get paralyzed after the Investigation Committee report was made public, as was expected earlier. This was being predicted particularly in the light of the violent demonstrations and complete disruption of the life of cities like Kathmandu that were seen subsequent to the carnage, especially after the death of Prince Dipendra and coronation of Gyanendra on June 4. Those days, widespread clashes took place throughout Nepal between agitating public and police and army, during which scores of people were killed in firing. Curfew was imposed everywhere and only on June 7 life started limping back to normal in Kathmandu with reopening of shops. 

However, after the investigation report came out indicting crown prince Dipendra, who was ultimately crowned the King of Nepal in half-dead state, most of the political parties did not oppose it, some of them even asked the people to believe it. 

Former Prime Minister of Nepali Congress Sher Bahadur Deuba has accepted the report without any doubt. Hridyesh Tripathi, General Secretary of Nepal Sadbhavana Party said that the committee has come up with the facts according to what it received. Dr Prakash C Lohani, Vice President of RPP has declined to make any comment. 

The main opposition party CPN (UML), after studying the report for two days, said that the Party had taken the report in a positive light. Madav Nepal clarified that his party supported the committee, and said that it would support the findings of the committee. However, CPN (UML) has criticized the government for its ineffective role “in all respects regarding this tragic incident”, which “remained as a helpless spectator and it seems like everyone else is trying to shy away from taking the responsibility of the incident. This type of attitude is very painful, grave and dangerous for any democratic system.” The party also raised its concern over the “flaws and weaknesses” in the security arrangement of the Royal Palace as mentioned in the report and asked the government to give serious thought to remodeling the security arrangements. Significantly, the party says that it has taken the incident and the situation of the country very seriously keeping international politics in mind and feels that the other parties should do the same.

The other view

However, the Maoists have been pointing to a conspiracy behind the carnage from the very beginning. Besides releasing an article by a senior leader Baburam Bhattarai to Kantipur on June 5, the Party also issued a statement signed by General Secretary Prachanda reiterating their claim that King Birendra and his family members were wiped out through a well-planned murder. The statement blamed India and the Koirala government as being part of the conspiracy.

Despite the restoration of near normalcy on the surface, there remain a large number of Nepali people who do not believe in the truthfulness of the report. They pointed to the fact that “there are many loopholes in the description put forward by the probe committee.” Some people said that the investigation into the royal massacre has been “a mere formality to calm down the agitated masses”. It is widely agreed that the government has failed to convince the ordinary people that Dipendra carried out the massacre. Some believe that the stage was being set for this outcome when one “eye witness” Army Captain Dr. Rajib Shahi called a press conference at the Royal Military Hospital to proclaim Dipendra as the killer, even though the King had appointed an investigation committee. Some people point out to the complicity of the Army in the carnage, in the light of the fact that despite much furore, Rajib, son-in-law of Prince Dhirendra, has ultimately escaped a court-marshal. Weight is added to the logic by the fact that the press conference was held at the premises of the Army Hospital, where a number of persons injured in the shooting were still recuperating. On the other hand, one Army Hospital doctor has claimed that blood sample of Dipendra did not test positive for alcohol; while according to the investigation he was in a drunken state. And so on…

The ghost of June 1st thus refuses to leave the scene for the time being, no matter how ceremoniously it is sought to be banished. In any case, it would certainly prove to be an event of far-reaching significance in Nepal’s history because the institution of monarch is at present at its lowest rung of prestige or legitimacy. Incidentally, the new King Gyanendra is the same person who was first crowned at the age of 3 years in 1950 by the Rana prime minister, when his grandfather Tribhuvan Shah had fled to India, seeking refuge there. Soon anti-Rana forces in Nepal and the Indian govt. cooperated in installing Tribhuvan as the king of Nepal, putting an end to the Rana regime.

Significantly, the theory holding Dipendra responsible for the massacre on the basis of a sensational love story dominated in Indian, British and American media. Indian media, especially Zee TV and Star Plus channels, has been described as a source of misinformation in some Nepali newspapers. Among the politicians in India, while Bal Thackrey blamed ISI for its hand in the Palace carnage, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went on record saying that he did not see any conspiracy behind the killings. The latter statement was rightly criticized by ex-Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who pointed out that nothing official should be said in this regard when an enquiry has been set up for the same in Nepal.

No matter whether the conspiracy theory suggesting CIA-RAW joint operation has any substance or not, there can be no denying the fact that that events in Nepal have altered the power equations there in a direction that favors India and the USA. It would of course be too simplistic to surmise that American hostility to China had crystallied into some immediate US-India designs on Nepal. However, when the crisis in Nepal exploded there were objectively two poles in everybody’s reckoning – the monarchy and the Maoists. The emergence of Maoists upfront is no accident. They have been growing fast in feudal Nepal much to the concern of India and even the USA. In fact, informed sources everywhere expected Indian Army to be called in/march in within a couple of years if their present rate of growth continued. The Maoists even surprised everybody by showing the first sign of political sagacity in the wake of the crisis by calling for an interim government of united left. Didn’t the US ambassador in Nepal clearly the draw the lines of alignment the other day when he expressed concern that anti-American and anti-Indian communists are on the roll in Nepal? It is important to take note that he used the word communists in an all-inclusive sense and not exclusively the Maoists. The relatively independent minded late King Birendra reportedly stalled a major military crackdown on Maoists. He was also known to have maintained neutrality between India and China. He was never known for cozying up to India but reportedly had greater faith on China. Above all, he was resigned to a constitutionally limited role for monarchy. The CPN(UML) is poised for a comeback to power, and when they are in the saddle the Maoists cannot be arrested in their tracks. An understanding between them would alter the balance in a far-reaching way. Does King Gyanendra represent an alternative option for anti-left, anti-China, pro-restorationist (monarchic) forces within and without Nepal? Well, at the level of conjecture things might appear to fall into place. But what really could unravel the mystery behind that fateful evening was not any inquiry into the past but the future course of events. King Gyanendra’s future role is bound to throw more light into his clouded immediate past.

During the past five years, Maoists have been increasing their strength and today it is said that five western districts are effectively under the control of their parallel government. They have overrun a number of police stations and seized firearms from the police. It is also reported that they have significant presence in 35 out of 75 districts of Nepal. In some areas the Maoists did not even allow government machinery to conduct census operations and themselves fulfilled the task. The Girija Prasad Koirala government admitted that police was not effective in dealing with them, so he demanded army deployment to crush the Maoists. Although under the Constitution of Nepal, Army is deployed by a National Security Committee headed by the prime minister, still for all practical purposes Army owes allegiance only to the King. Birendra had turned down Koirala’s request and instead sent an emissary, the King’s appointee member of House of Representatives Ramesh Nath Pandey, to meet the Maoists. Of course, the King may also have in mind the opposition to Army deployment by the main opposition party, CPN (UML) as well as the adverse consequences of this step to his popularity, built up during the past decade. Anyway, King Birendra had objectively become an obstacle to the early deployment of the Army.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see that Maoists are pointing to a conspiracy from the very beginning. Baburam, an ex-JNU student and now a leading member of the NCP (Maoist) leadership, has written in his article that like the Kot massacre of 1846, which was a conspiracy hatched by Jung Bahadur Rana under British patronage to reinforce British domination, Narayanhiti massacre has been planned by India to bring Nepal under its tutelage. Baburam says that India wants to reduce Nepal to the status of Sikkim, and if it is not possible immediately, at least to the status of Bhutan. Whereas King Gyanendra is ready to play the role of Jigme Singhe (the ruler of Bhutan), Baburam alleges, Koirala is ready to play the role of Lengdup Dorji (the prime minister of Sikkim in 1975 when the country was annexed to India). Readers know that Bhutan is a protectorate of India and its defence and foreign policy are controlled by India.

Baburam has also appealed to the patriotic sentiments of the Army and their allegiance to the late King Birendra and exhorted them to join hands for safeguarding national independence and sovereignty. The appeal banks itself on the prospects of a civil war. Chances of success in waging a civil war are debatable, given the international and national situation. There are some unconfirmed reports of armed clashes within the Army just after the massacre, but there are no indications of any large-scale split within the Army or any significant desertion.

Indeed, democracy seems to be at stake in Nepal. Even though Gyanendra has reaffirmed the sanctity of the present constitution, his step of appointing the Investigation Committee without approval of the Cabinet or parliament smacks of taking authority in his own hands. CPN (UML) has already pointed to this tendency. Then, Koirala strangulated democracy in arresting Yubraj Ghimire and other staffers of the newspaper Kantipur, which published Baburam Bhattrai’s controversial article, under the charge of sedition. This act was condemned even by ex-prime minister KP Bhattarai, and of course by RPP and CPN (UML) leaders, civil libertarians of Nepal, as well as democratic and civil rights forces all over the world. In India, journalists staged a demonstration at the Royal Nepal Embassy in New Delhi. Our Party too condemned the arrest and sent a memorandum to the Govt. of Nepal through the Nepal Embassy.

Although the Army has not yet been deployed to deal with the Maoists, while these lines are being penned, a new draconian law has been clamped to deal with them on June 19. The law empowers the administrative heads of Nepal’s 75 districts to put under house arrest or limit the movements to a certain area of suspects in the name of national security. However, the opposition and human rights organizations have accused the government of trying to stifle democracy. More than 200 people demonstrated in Kathmandu on June 20 in protest. “This is dictatorship,” shouted the protesters from the Democratic Youth Forum. They marched through the streets of Katmandu, the capital, to the central secretariat that houses government offices. Police stopped them at the gate, but no scuffles were reported. CPN (UML) General Secretary Madhav Nepal says, “The intentions and timing of enforcing such a law do not look right”.

In Nepal, a movement against the Koirala govt. has been building up for the past few months. Just before the massacre, Kathmandu was completely paralyzed for three days because of the strike call issued by the six-party joint opposition led by CPN (UML). The budget session could not be held because of the boycott by the CPN (UML) in the month of May. When it resumes belatedly on 25 June, Koirala has to face a tough time. The opposition had stalled the winter session of parliament earlier this year demanding Koirala’s resignation for his alleged personal involvement in approving an inflated deal to lease a Boeing 767 from Austria’s Lauda Air for Royal Nepal Airlines causing the state airlines millions of rupees in losses. 

Therefore, the demand for Koirala’s resignation is very much in the air. Some people have even asked for his resignation in the light of the royal massacre. Maoists have demanded not only the resignation of Koirala but an end to the monarchy itself and given a call for an interim government of the united left. On the other hand, incidents of clashes between police and Maoists have once again started making headlines in the newspapers. Recently, four policemen were injured in bomb attacks on two police outposts for the first time in Dharan sub metropolis. In another incident, the Maoists attacked and destroyed the district education office in Chitwan. In yet another incident, Maoists overran a police post at Barchen village in Dang district and decamped with arms and ammunition. Recently, Maoists have destroyed three abandoned police outposts at Topgachi, Korobari and Kunjibari in Jhapa district.

It is true that parliamentary democracy stands on a very fragile foundation in Nepal. One of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal still reels under powerful vestiges of feudalism, apart from carrying the burden of outlived monarchy on its back. The political instability reigning there can be judged from the fact that ten governments have taken office in as many years. Barring the six-month tenure of Manmohan Adhikary led CPN (UML) government from November 1994 to June 1995, when a number of pro-people measures were taken up in right earnest, all other regimes came out to be tainted with corruption, repression of people and an anti-people callousness. All these lacune on the part of democratic institutions had contributed to the enhancing of the image of King Birendra and, particularly after 1996, to the rise of Maoist offensive. However, the situation is such that Nepal is crying out for a set of thoroughgoing reforms under a stable left government, it needs to have close fraternal relations with both India and China and their active help in building its economy. In any case, all attempts at usurping the nascent democracy by monarchy or autocracy must be resisted. Even before the last election, people in Nepal, as elsewhere, held that chances of the Left coming to power were bright had it not undergone split. Even now, people have not changed that opinion. The unity of the left on the question of democracy and development in Nepal is both desirable and feasible, and it is very much the need of the hour. Let us see whither goes Nepal.