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Monarchy at a crossroads
By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU - Shouting slogans against the reigning king is forbidden by law. Making disparaging remarks about the monarchy is also a punishable offense. Attempting to spread hatred against members of the royal family, too, amounts to sedition. Persons convicted on these charges attract sentences of up to three years in jail, and are required to pay a modest fine as well.

This is what government prosecutors wanted Kathmandu's special court to impose on three student leaders arrested by police on December 16 on charges of raising "objectionable" slogans against King Gyanendra and his heir apparent, Crown Prince Paras. The student rally had also voiced a demand that Nepal - in theory a constitutional monarchy - be transformed into a republic.

The authorities, however, changed their mind shortly before the court sat for a preliminary hearing. The judges were requested to grant permission to withdraw that high-profile case. Officials did not give any reasons, but student leaders affiliated to mainstream political parties claimed that the prosecutors were afraid because they did not have evidence to substantiate the allegations.

Instead, the incident made the students popular among protesters for their bold demand. December 16, the day the students chose to publicly register their protest against the dismissal of the elected prime minister on October 4, 2002 and assumption by the king of political duties, was also aimed at refreshing the public memory about the royal coup of 1960. It was on December 16 that year that King Mahendra, the present king's father, dissolved parliament and dismantled the country's first elected government on bland charges of corruption and incompetence. Subsequently, Nepal was placed under an autocratic monarchy, which lasted for 30 years.

Despite past bitterness, though, major political parties remain committed to support the constitutional monarchy, as provided for in the constitution written in the aftermath of the 1990 pro-democracy movement. But some of the country's prominent politicians have lately come out in the open with expressions favoring a republic. "Our party's current position on the monarchy [pro] is just a policy, not a principle," argues Narahari Acharya of the Nepali Congress, a party with centrist credentials.

"The policy can always be reviewed and changed in the context of emerging trends and requirements," he explains.

The palace carnage of June 2001 that claimed the lives of King Birendra and Crown Prince Dipendra, among others, and King Gyanendra's unconstitutional step of October 2002, are frequently mentioned in public platforms as the two main incidents to dent the monarchy's credibility. As The Economist (of London) wrote on January 17, the present king's preference for a hardline approach on Maoist rebels "cost hundreds of lives and led to a steep erosion of civil liberties. This is bound to inflict additional backlash against the monarchy from the alienated population. Western donors have already said they are reluctant to keep the aid flowing unless Nepal's human rights situation is visibly improved."

Left-leaning parties have never been supportive of the monarchy, describing it as a feudal entity. That is why the leaders of these parties are quietly welcoming the process of re-thinking within the Nepali Congress, the country's largest political group. Congress is one of the five parties now in the forefront of agitation launched to force the king to revert state powers to elected representatives.

"Our party does not have a republican agenda," says Madhav Kumar Nepal, leader of the main party in the opposition, the Communist Party of Nepal (UML). "But if this country becomes a republic one day, it will be the direct outcome of the king's behavior," adds the UML leader. Although Rabindra Nath Sharma belongs to a right-wing party, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, and is close to the incumbent (nominated) prime minister, he concedes that most of King Gyanendra's initiatives since he ascended the throne in 2001 have harmed the interests of the monarchy. After assuming executive powers in 2002, the king has appointed two prime ministers, but neither has succeeded in forming an all-party government capable of holding fresh elections. So the king still rules.

Political parties have publicly complained that the king has not been sincere to his own commitment to multi-party democracy. According to them, he has not been faithful to his role as the constitutional head of the state either. Some leading politicians have openly expressed displeasure at the way the king plays games through the royal audience he has been granting to the leaders of agitating parties. These meetings, they claim, are used to bide time with a view to marginalizing the importance of political parties. Expressing dissatisfaction, Ameek Sherchan, who heads a left-leaning front, declined to accept an offer of an audience with the king - an almost unthinkable act.

Another reason why politicians are suspicious about the king's motives is his well-publicized interest in playing a "constructive" role in national politics. This royal desire was inserted in an interview the king gave to Nepal, a fortnightly news magazine, last August. Experts are amazed because the present constitution does not leave any room for the king to play any creative or constructive role. Like the British sovereign, he is expected to perform only ceremonial duties as Nepal's head of the state. Nothing more.

Spreading discontent
But while frustration among politicians can be dismissed as an expression of their unfulfilled desire to get back into power, it is difficult to brush aside the views of enlightened citizenry as a thoughtless utterance. Constitutional experts, human rights activists, academics, media professionals and other members of civil society, too, appear fed up with the arbitrary rule of the king. The number of people subscribing to the divine right theory is in rapid decline.

"If 'popular' late King Birendra was so unpopular, you can make a guess about the popularity rating of King Gyanendra, who wants to have a strong say in state affairs," former chief justice Bishwa Nath Upadhyaya told The Kathmandu Post newspaper recently. Upadhyaya was head of the experts' panel which drafted the 1990 constitution. "Knowingly or unknowingly, we are heading towards a republic," he said during a separate conversation with this writer.

Krishna Pahadi, a human rights activist representing a younger generation of Nepalis, does not have any reason to differ with Upadhyaya. "The traditional structure of the monarchy collapsed on the day King Birendra was killed in the palace in mysterious circumstances," Pahadi says, alluding to the carnage of June 1, 2001. Ganga Bahadur Thapa, professor of political science at Tribhuwan University, points to the steady erosion in the traditional belief that the monarchy represents the country's nationalist force. "The king appears to have found it expedient to seek support from external sources, ignoring the popular base inside the country," says Thapa, obliquely referring to media reports about moral and material support that King Gyanendra and the royal army are receiving from India, the United Kingdom and the United States. (Norwegian Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, bills these countries as a "gang of three" in the context of their initiatives to contain the Maoist insurgency.)

"One man or one party must not be the arbiter of its [country's] destiny," writes Madhav Kumar Rimal in the Spotlight newspaper he edits. Rimal's remark represents the opinion of elderly people who traditionally have considered the monarchy essential for providing a symbol of unity to Nepal's ethnic diversity.

Changes being noticed in public thought are also based on the growing perception that the monarchy is gradually becoming an expensive institution. Although the number of royal family members dropped after the palace massacre, budget allocations for King Gyanendra's family have risen several fold. According to a Kathmandu Post report of January 18, the palace recently drew 14.2 million rupees (approximately US$313,000) to import three luxury cars to add to its existing fleet of costly vehicles. The irony is that at $238, Nepal's per capita annual income continues to be one of the lowest in the world; and about 40 percent of its 23 million people live under the poverty line - with earnings of less than a dollar a day.

Measures on Maoists
Meanwhile, the measures that King Gyanendra has taken thus far to address the country's ongoing Maoist rebellion have yet to yield encouraging results. This has made many Nepalis apprehensive about the real motive of the king, who also has the title of supreme commander-in-chief of the 70,000-strong Royal Nepal Army. In activist Pahadi's analysis, the king and his coterie are not in favor of resolving the issue. "He will remain powerful so long as the Maoist problem remains," a newspaper recently quoted Pahadi as saying.

Former chief justice Upadhyaya highlights another aspect of conspiracy to prolong the battle between the Maoists and the security forces. It is possible that "India wants ... treaties signed by Nepal in the light of the Maoist problem," he tells a newspaper interviewer. Though Indian authorities have not reacted to reports of extorting favorable pacts and agreements from Nepal, they have publicly admitted that some of the Maoist leaders have taken shelter on Indian soil, taking advantage of the porous border between the two countries. Indian foreign minister Yashwant Sinha himself told Nepal Television recently that Delhi was "embarrassed" to learn that a senior Nepali opposition leader managed to meet top Maoist insurgents in the Indian city of Lucknow last November.

Not all speculation is bereft of credible basis. Media reports that hardline elements within the palace might have had a hand in initially mobilizing an armed group in the form of Maoists may not be mere conjecture. Robert Gersony, a US expert on conflict studies, expresses surprise as to why no efforts were made to stop the activities of the insurgents for six long years once the rebels launched their "people's war" in February 1996 from a village in mid-western Nepal. Gersony, who concluded field-based research last October, poses a valid question: "Why did the government, particularly the palace, which has substantial authority over the armed forces, not mobilize the RNA [Royal Nepal Army] to combat a threat far greater than any the establishment had faced before?"

Gersony's report also contains references to some of the conspiracy theories he came across during his study tour of Nepal's western region. One of the theorists reportedly said: "To disrupt the multi-party system, the palace allowed the Maoist movement to flourish into a serious challenge which that system would be incapable of addressing."

A counter question logically arises here: if this theory is correct, who or what prevented the men and women elected to run the multi-party system from taking appropriate measures for foiling the royal ploy? Nobody but themselves. In the period after the restoration of democracy, in 1990, politicians belonging to two major parties wasted precious time in power-grabbing games, while the third party, the royalist RPP, did all it could to help the palace to stage a comeback. This is not all. Leaders of the ruling parties failed to utilize even those powers which are guaranteed by the constitution. The constitution, for instance, contains a provision for the National Defense Council to deal with army matters. The prime minister heads the council, which has two other members: the defense minister and the army chief.

Obviously, this provision gives a majority to the civilian side of the council, but most of the prime ministers in the intervening years never cared to appoint a separate minister to look after the defense portfolio. Usually, the premier kept the portfolio with himself (perhaps considering it a prestige), thereby effectively reducing the council's strength to two persons. Needless to emphasize, on military matters, it was always the army chief's words that became decisive. For this kind of negligence, prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala paid a heavy price in July 2001 when the commanders of army units deployed to take on Maoists at Holeri village in Rolpa district refused to carry out the orders issued by civilian authorities. The commanders reportedly said they would not make any move unless authorized by their supreme commander-in-chief: King Gyanendra.

But rebel leaders have consistently rejected allegations that they are helping the palace hardliners to destabilize the democratic system or are conniving at India's interference in Nepal. If these claims are to be taken at their face value, Maoists have to be accepted as a political force to be reckoned with. As they represent a radical leftist group, Maoists describe the monarchy as a feudal institution, and hence would like to replace it with a people's republic.

India, which shares Nepal's southern border, is a democratic republic, and its northern neighbor, China, too, is a republic, albeit of a communist kind. The point to ponder here is that neither of these two countries in Nepal's neighborhood is under a system which bears a semblance of feudalism. Yet they are the ones who have made enviable economic achievements. Should Nepal choose to maintain the status quo - and continue to depend on an economy based on subsistence farming? These are some of the questions that have begun to seriously exercise the minds of many in the country.

After all, what is the harm in transforming Nepal into a democratic republic? Well, there is no harm per se, but the issues that this proposition entails are delicate. Would King Gyanendra, for instance, volunteer to relinquish the throne he inherited in extraordinary circumstances two-and-half years ago? If not, the country's traditionally loyal army is there to vigorously work to defend the royal regime. And even the best efforts to avoid bloodshed in such a situation are unlikely to be effective.

Then there is another set of analysts who prefer to examine the emerging scenario at a different level. What happens if the king suddenly chooses to abdicate and clear the way for making Nepal a republic? These analysts are worried because fragile Nepal does not have any alternative, ready-made apparatus to hold the country together. The country's independence itself, they fear, may come under external threat. "It is a great challenge to sustain a republic," agrees former chief justice Upadhyaya, who does not, however, concur with the view that Nepal's very existence would be threatened in the absence of the monarchy.

But some Nepalis still hold a hazy idea about the viability of a republic in a traditional society like Nepal's. This is perhaps the reason why the educated - and privileged - class think it wise to distinguish the institution of the monarchy from one particular king. In the words of the Nepali Times weekly (January 16) "... people still appear to be drawing a distinction between the institution of monarchy and the intention of the monarch."

Young students in university campuses, however, possess a different concept of the monarchy in the 21st century ... people don't need it any longer ... but if the king is eager to salvage his throne, he should be the one to come forward for negotiations.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Jan 30, 2004

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