The Fall of King Gyanendra

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The story of the Nepalese monarchy is a complex one and the fall of King Gyanendra has been its climax. Many factors were at play but the scale of Gyanendra’s failing is self-evident. In a few short years he took the monarchy to the depths of despised and failed despotism. The outcome of a disastrous reign is the downfall of the Shah dynasty, the demise of the two hundred and forty year-old monarchy. The coup de grace had been anticipated for some time and in real terms the end of the monarchy was inevitable following the decision of the Constituent Assembly of December 24, 2007. The by then hugely unpopular Gyanendra still had a few die hard supporters, and some even suggested a monarchy stripped of its powers could fulfil a constitutional role of some sort. But supporters were an endangered species and abolition of the monarchy was the price demanded by the former Maoist rebels in exchange for their participation in and support for the assembly. Inexorably the end drew nearer until on May 27, 2008, the King was given fifteen days to vacate Narayanhity Royal Palace. The following vote in the Constituent Assembly left no room for doubt as to the finality of the event: 560 – 4 voting in favour of a secular republic. Although The Shah dynasty had played a central role in Nepalese history one can truly speak of the monarchy having been consigned to the dustbin of history. Whether or not its demise was inevitable is debatable but King Gyanendra proved to be a man singularly unsuited for the role history had assigned him. Throughout his seven year reign he seemed thoroughly out of touch with the popular mood. Gyanendra was, however, a product of the dynasty into which he was born into and his formative years may help explain his political character. Nepal had developed autocratically, as an absolutist feudal monarchy. The irony for the monarchy was that despite being the living incarnation of Vishnu, the Hindu god who safeguards creation, real power lay elsewhere.

This dichotomy over-shadowed the monarchy throughout much of its history and surely helped shape Gyanendra’s views: the reactionary nature of his rule stemmed in part from his own experience of dynastic politics as both his reigns (Nov. 1950 – Jan. 1951 and June 2001 – May 2008) were the results of extraordinary dynastic-political events. Gyanendra’s first period of rule came about when his grandfather, King Tribhuvan, and the royal family fled to India. Tribhuvan had fled his “palace prison” and the power of the Rana family. If the monarchy could claim a grandiose universal authority it counted for little as the Rana monopolised the temporal sphere. The family had come to power in Nepal in 1846 and were actually far more powerful than the monarchs, dominating the country’s political life and making the post of prime minister hereditary. Making the three year-old Gyanendra king was their response to Tribhuvan’s power play. What effect this episode had on the youngster can be imagined. And it was an episode illustrative of Nepalese politics – a weak monarch, an administration dominated by the nepotism of one family and a nation sorely in need of modernisation both political and economic. Some have viewed King Tribhuvan as an opportunist but it cannot be denied that through his return, brought about by his alliance with Nepal’s Ghurkas, he brought the Rana era to an end. Concessions to democracy were won and the last Rana prime minister, Mohan Shamshere Jung Bahadur Rana, resigned and went into exile. But King Tribhuvan’s claim to be a genuine reformer is questionable. He had co-operated with the Rana in suppressing the democratic movement – for which some paid with their lives via death warrants signed by the King – and after their downfall he soon backtracked on his promise of a constituent assembly. King Tribhuvan died in 1955 and was succeeded by his son, King Mahendra. The new monarch was no more inclined to build upon the opportunity the downfall of the Rana had provided and instead set about oppressing Nepal’s fledgling democratic movements. By the 1960s he had succeeded in having opposition parties barred from the political process. Mahendra died in 1972, bringing his son Birendra (Gyanendra’s older brother) to the throne. Of Nepal’s modern monarchs, King Birendra is the most substantive and remembered with a degree of nostalgia as a unifying figure. In his early years he was an autocrat but also successfully defended the country’s independence from the designs of China and the Soviet Union. When pro-democracy riots erupted in 1990 Birendra relented, granting a constitution, multi-party democracy and a bill of human rights. However, the democratic experiment brought its own difficulties, in particular giving rise to the Nepalese civil war, which would be pivotal in the monarchy’s demise. For several years the conflict between the Communist Maoist rebels and government forces rumbled on inconclusively and it would be King Gyanendra’s role to bring matters to a head.

Whilst political troubles loomed ominously large the royal family would face a more immediate and terrifying threat to its survival. On Friday, June 1, 2001, following a row at a family dinner, King Birendra’s son, Crown Prince Dipendra, massacred his family and then attempted to commit suicide by turning the gun on himself. The official report asserts that Dipendra, who had been drinking heavily, had been ordered from the dinner table by his father for “misbehaving with a guest”. An hour later he returned armed with a sub-machine gun and a rifle. The first shot was fired into the ceiling after which he shot dead his father, one of his aunts and his uncle Dhirendra, who had tried to stop him. Dipendra’s cousin, Prince Paras had also been hit but was only slightly wounded and managed to save himself and three others by covering them with a sofa as Dipendra ran in and out of the room firing. Leaving the dining room, Dipendra was confronted by his mother, Queen Aishwarya, and his brother, Prince Nirajan, in the palace garden. They were both shot dead. Dipendra then went over to a small bridge over a stream that ran through the palace and shot himself in the head. The suicide attempt failed but, bizarrely, the mortally wounded, comatose Dipendra was proclaimed king; a reign which lasted for three days until his death on June 4, 2001. Prince Dipendra’s motive, according to the official report, was anger over his parents’ refusal to allow his marriage to Devyani Rana, a member of the same Rana dynasty that had been ousted in the 1950s. The Shah family had in fact continued to marry members of the Rana since that time and in Devyani’s case it seems it was her lesser status within the Rana family hierarchy that made her an unsuitable bride. Queen Aishwarya in particular was said to be vehemently against the marriage. Following the massacre Devyani fled to India and subsequently married an Indian businessman. Supporting the official account were details of Dipendra’s unstable personality and a rather tormented inner life, including his drug usage and an interest in guns. However, in the immediate aftermath of the massacre accusations were made against Gyanendra. As third-in-line to the throne he was the obvious beneficiary from the deaths of his brother and nephew. Having ‘disposed’ of his more popular relatives, Gyanendra was now on the throne. And having been conveniently out of the capital on the night of the massacre, for some Gyanendra’s complicity was all but proven. Further ‘proof’ of foul play was the claim that Dipendra’s self-inflicted wound was to the left side of the head but Dipendra was right handed. Could Gyanendra have masterminded such a brutal coup d’etat? Some Nepalese certainly think so, but there is no evidence to support the claim and his wife, Princess Komal, and son, Prince Paras, were in the room at the royal palace when the massacre took place and both were injured in Dipendra’s murderous spree. And even if Gyanendra were some sort of Shakespearean anti-hero thirsting for the throne, why had he not moved against his brother earlier in King Birendra’s twenty-nine year reign? It was the convoluted nature of dynastic politics that gave the conspiracy theories credibility and, given such a tangle, the outcome of the massacre was not an outpouring of sympathy for the surviving members of the royal family. Instead it served to blacken the image of the monarchy and King Gyanendra’s position when he came to the throne was far from an enviable one.

Gyanendra’s first thought as king was to bring back political power to the monarchy. It was an understandable position to take as the country’s unity was under threat with the civil war continuing and the recognised political parties divided amongst themselves. He began by supporting Prime MInister Sher Bahadur Deuba, leader of the Nepali Congress Democratic Party, who set about ousting his rival, Girija Prasad Koirala, who was being heavily criticised for his failure to deal with the Maoist rebels. Gyanendra’s next move was to dismiss Deuba in 2002. The King continued to intervene politically until taking on direct rule in February of 2005. Gyanendra claimed he was doing it to restore democracy and bring peace to the country but it bore all the hallmarks of a coup d’etat. Flights in and out the country were cancelled and communications were shut down. The house of the Prime Minister and other leading politicians were surrounded by troops and the streets of Kathmandu were patrolled by tanks. As head of the country’s 78,000 strong armed forces Gyanendra had seized power, but he promised it was only temporary and said that human rights would be respected. “This will restore peace and effective democracy in this country within the next three years” he told the nation. Misjudged as they proved to be, Gyanendra’s actions need to be seen in context. Prime Minister Deuba had been given the task of calling elections but had found himself trapped between his duty to the King and other political forces, most notably the Communists. And at this time the Maoist rebels were taking a hard line, threatening a bloodbath if Deuba were to call elections. If his prime minister could not be effective, Gyanendra felt justified in taking on direct power.

However, the effect of Gyanendra’s coup was to bring about a shift in the tactics of the Maoist rebels who set about forging fresh links with Nepal’s recognised political parties. This meant that the King, having embarked upon despotism, shouldered much of the blame for the nation’s woes and a series of mass protests followed, culminating in a general strike in 2006. Confronted by the masses Gyanendra backed down but the Maoists were one step ahead of him. By laying down their arms and offering to participate in future elections they succeeded in having themselves taken off the lists of terrorist organisations by several European nations. The rebels, whom Gyanendra had vowed to defeat, were now a legitimate political force. It led to a democratic revolution around which the often disputatious political parties could unite. Rather than making himself the strong man of Nepalese politics, Gyanendra had become the focal point for a nation weary and disillusioned by decades of incomplete political reforms and a decade of civil war. The Nepalese were finding ways to reconcile their differences, but the one element that no longer had a role to play was the monarchy. That Gyanendra ultimately went relatively quietly suggests he was not a monster, rather misguided and ill-informed. Few will eulogise Nepal’s last monarch but his downfall may have been as much about political naivete as cynicism. A more adept politician might have chosen a policy of divide and rule, giving more power to the political institutions and sitting back whilst they floundered.

Nepal is an ethnically and culturally diverse nation. Most are the descendants of three great migrations from India, Tibet and North Burma/China. The country officially has ninety-two living languages, though some claim there are over one hundred. By way of contrast, around 80% of the population are Hindu in religion, with 11% Buddhist, about 4% Muslim and 4% follow the indigenous Kirant faith. However, the divisions between religions are not always clear and many have combined Hindu and Buddhist practices. In addition the caste system still prevails in the countryside, which was one of the reasons for the Maoist insurgency; while the younger generation were looking toward democracy and on the whole supported the left-wing political parties. All this could have provided plenty of material for a more Machiavellian approach, but instead the King took on the role, admittedly self proclaimed, of national saviour, and found himself held to account for most of its troubles. Ultimately Gyanendra’s reign was a failure of ineptitude. His hopes of reasserting control through the military proved anachronistic as the long repressed democratic forces in the country showed that they could unite against royal despotism, and behind them lay the will of the Nepalese people. With that perspective in mind, King Gyanendra inadvertently unified the nation more than any of his predecessors had. The choice facing the monarch was to align himself with the democratic surge or oppose it. By setting his stall firmly against the popular will, he united the nation against him. Gyanendra hoped a period of benevolent despotism would restore peace and a degree of democracy but he completely misjudged the mood of the times. From the crisis he did not start but certainly exacerbated a new Nepal has emerged, the first incarnation of the nation which can be said to be genuinely democratic. The future for republican Nepal is undoubtedly fraught with dangers but whatever the challenges ahead the people are unlikely to call again on their discredited monarchy. (Royalty Magazine Vol. 21/02)