Nepal: the World's Newest Republic
by Thomas Bell
www.telegraph.co.uk/, June 21,
Nepal's ousted King Gyanendra said in
his farewell address to the nation that he respected the decision
to abolish his monarchy
He decided to call a press conference
- and for dismayed royalists the ensuing scene encapsulated the
fall of an ancient institution that had collapsed from within.
Excited journalists climbed on the palace
furniture. They posed for pictures in the chair where Gyanendra
would sit, flanked by two stuffed tigers. When the ex-king arrived
they heckled him with the rudest words in the Nepali language.
Yet he gave his speech with dignity. Five
years after sacking his first prime minister, three years after
he used the army to seize absolute power, he was going quietly.
The king had seized power to defeat a
powerful Maoist insurgency that was fuelled by the poverty and
injustice of village life. But while the royal army floundered
against the rebels in the hills, republican protests swelled on
the streets of the capital. A peace process led to elections earlier
The next government will be led by the
Maoists, who have already abolished the monarchy. The king - seen
as a living god, and worshipped as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu
- became just another commoner.
And yet, in the manner of his departure,
Gyanendra won sympathy from some unexpected quarters. On the day
he left the palace a well-known commentator, not noted for his
royalist sympathies, sent me an email. "It was a day full
of thrill and tears," he wrote. "Some people are really
sad today. His exit was a tragic day for an institution."
"Leaving the palace was the best
thing he has done in two years," says Sirish Shumsher Rana,
the king's former information minister. "What the king did
[when he seized power] was necessary, but he failed."
Monarchists still cling to the hope that
if Gyanendra's reputation is repaired, and if the next government
fails as most Nepali governments do, some kind of royal revival
might one day be possible. After all, abolishing an institution
with such deep roots - Nepal was forged in war by the king's ancestors
239 years ago - is no small matter.
In some ways, nothing has changed. At
the shine of Pashupatinath - Nepal's protector deity - the traditional
rhythms of life and death continued this week.
A cremation was taking place on the river
bank, observed by teary-eyed mourners.
Nearby, a woman sang devotional songs
to the accompaniment of tabla drums and a harmonium. Young couples
held hands and flirted in hidden corners.
The chief priest at the temple still recognises
the king and still goes to him to make offerings, although he
has been told that he must stop. Gyanendra was the nation's religious
leader, as well as its would-be ruler. It was his duty to preside
at the rituals which keep Nepal in harmony with its gods.
One of those gods is Chanira Bajracharya,
the 13-year-old living goddess of Patan, who is worshipped as
an incarnation of the goddess Telaju. Every year the king would
come and make an offering of rice and coins at her feet.
"I think there should be a king in
the country," said the precocious child, in fluent English,
sitting amid her maths books. She is only allowed to leave her
house a few times a year, so that the outside world cannot pollute
her, and she receives tuition at home.
Every day she wears the elaborate eye
make-up, special jewellery and red dress of a goddess.
"It's a great burden on me, because
it is difficult to do the rituals without the king," she
said stoically. "Last year, when he did not come to the festival,
I felt sad. The prime minister came instead. That's not right.
Who will come this year? I don't know."
In theory, it ought to be the president,
but Nepal's political leaders are deadlocked in seemingly endless
discussions over the formation of a new government, and no such
figure has been appointed. The Maoists, who won the biggest vote
in the recent elections, will lead the new administration when
a deal between the many political parties is eventually reached.
Sitting in his government office, Krishna
Bahadur Mahara, a senior figure in the Maoist party and spokesman
for the outgoing coalition administration, outlined plans for
the transformation of Nepal that go far beyond just the abolition
of the monarchy. "Our kind of republicanism is not only a
political change. It is a socio-economic and cultural change because
we want to remove feudalism as a whole," the former school
That means overcoming the "status-quo-ists"
in the country's old political class, he said. "It also means
changing the mode of production and economic relations by establishing
industries and scientific agriculture," he explained. "If
we change the mode of production, then automatically the social
relations and the state of mind of the people will change."
It is no exaggeration to describe Nepal
as feudal, and few people question that rapid reform is needed.
During the conflict, when aristocratic landowners were in danger
if they ventured into the countryside, the army was sometimes
used to collect the harvest from the peasants.
In much of the country there is barely
a trace of modern infrastructure. People live in poverty that
has changed little in centuries.
Kathmandu is reeling under the pressure
of rapid, unplanned growth and mass unemployment. Rising fuel
and food prices are threatening to pull millions of ordinary people
below the poverty line.
This week in the city tires were burnt
and bricks were thrown in dozens of small protests over everything
from the price of petrol to the lack of school textbooks. In a
country full of social upheaval, such scenes have become commonplace.
Many people believe that the Maoists will
be more pragmatic in power than their Communist rhetoric suggests,
but it is doubtful that the new government will be able to solve
these problems. For now the politicians are occupied in jostling
for position and with tricky questions of procedure.
If a new government is to be formed, the
current prime minister must resign - but without a head of state,
to whom does he tender his resignation?
Such petty behaviour among their rulers
infuriates the people, who are desperate for improvement in their
lives. A few minutes' walk from the government ministries in the
centre of Kathmandu, 300 families have built a new squatter settlement
on the banks of the Bagmati river. It is Nepal's holiest river,
but as the city has swollen it has become little more than an
Living there under a plastic sheet in
the monsoon rain is Hera Lal Paswan, a 35-year-old plasterer who
migrated to Kathmandu with his wife and three children seven months
ago. He's not the lowest of the low - as a semi-skilled worker
he makes about £1.50 a day.
"A kilogram of rice costs 30p,"
he complained. "How can I feed these kids here and how can
I build a house? If they are sick how can I buy medicine? I don't
care about politics. The days are the same for me."
His greatest hope is that the government
will allow him to permanently occupy his smelly and damp piece
of ground. Seven times in the last seveb months the city council
has come and torn down these illegal shacks.
A text message arrived, summoning The
Daily Telegraph to a rare meeting with a member of the royal family,
Gyanendra's son-in-law Avynes Shah. He wanted to put the family's
point of view - above all their feeling of injustice at the way
they have been treated.
"The decision made by the parliament
[to abolish the monarchy] was not lawful," he says. "It
was not fair. It was not done right. Although I believe in the
democratic norms and values, the process of deciding the future
of the monarchy was against the theory of constitutionalism."
Nevertheless, the king has accepted his
fate. "Now he just wants to be a simple family man,"
said Mr Shah. "He likes to be with his family and friends,
relax, that's it. For now, he has no intention to do any political
But Mr Shah did not rule out the possibility
that the former king could one day return as a politician. In
Nepal, it sometimes seems that the more things change, the more
they stay the same.