When King Gyanendra of Nepal conducted a military-backed coup on 1 February 2005, even those who thought it was drastic and ill advised had expected that he had ‘a plan’ by which he would tackle the raging Maoist insurgency. Either he was aiming to bring the Maobaadi to heel by making the Royal Nepal Army effective, or he had a secret arrangement with Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the elusive Maoist chieftain. Indeed, all would be forgiven if the king were planning for peace and were able to deliver it.
Claiming to protect democracy and to save the Nepali people from the Maoists, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency, suspended civil right, muzzled the press, blocked telephone and cellphone networks, and jailed hundreds of politicians and activists. He went about dismantling the many achievements of a dozen years of unfettered democracy. Seeking a purely military solution to the runaway insurgency, he simultaneously weakened the state. By coming down from the high pedestal of the monarchy to play politics, he gambled with the future of his dynasty.
Five months to the day King Gyanendra took over, it is clear that he had no plan. The main purpose behind the royal coup seems to have been to expand royal powers beyond those provided by the 1990 Constitution of Nepal. And it is the people of Nepal who have lost the most in this royal move, with the successes of political pluralism achieved since 1990 negated and the possibilities of social and economic progress through a fully democratic – if at times anarchic – system denied. Kathmandu Valley’s population of a million plus is coddled, but the countryside is in shambles and human security in the hills, plains and valleys at an all time low in the wake of the king’s pustch.
It was after the half-takeover of 4 October 2002, when the King started appointing prime ministers at will, that the Maoists spread from their mid-western nerve centre across the terai plains and to the hills all over. In this interim, they went from having a presence in less that 15 districts to more than 70 of the country’s 75 districts. After the 1 February royal coup, when King Gyanendra also took over as chairman of the Council of Ministers, the public has been without anyone whom they might call their representatives. This translates into deep distress across the land, an anguish clearly not appreciated by the palace in Kathmandu as revealed in numerous cases of neglect over the past five months.
Nowhere else in Southasia today is there countrywide turmoil as there is in Nepal. Nowhere such public disregard for rule of law, in which a regime may maul an existing constitution, and every self-aggrandising whim of the palace may be implemented through fiat and ordinances. “Maathi baata” – orders from above has once again become a blanket explanation for all action and inaction on the part of the army, the police or the bureaucracy. The palace is seeking a return to the Panchayat era of kingly rule, or as much of it as it can revive amidst the chaos and confusion.
In no country of Southasia are senior most mainstream politicians in jail, except in Nepal: a former prime minister, a former deputy prime minister and speaker of the House, ministers, human rights activists – none of them the radical extremists King Gyanendra seeks to destroy. But for Nepal’s king, no other head of state and government travels to open-invitation international fora to castigate his own country’s democratic experiment. No other Southasian foreign ministry calls ambassadors of friendly democratic countries with such consistency to upbraid them for interference in internal affairs when they speak up for multiparty democracy, or the rule of law.
If it is possible to take a country back 30 years in time, King Gyanendra is doing it in Nepal. While officially the chairman of the cabinet, the king has left matters of state in the hands of two vice-chairmen, elderly gentlemen whose last connection to government dates back to the depths of the Panchayat era in the 1970s. One of them, in fact, had spent a quarter of a century in Colombo and Bangalore as a Jehovah’s Witness proselytiser before being called back to be the supercilious face of the regime. As for the king’s other ministers, they are to the last of them implausible individuals, nobodies brought to do the palace’s bidding.
King Gyanendra ascended the throne of Nepal in June 2001, aged 56, without prior experience in statecraft. He was an unknown quantity in a country that had just been through its first decade of democratic experimentation. But in his public utterances and interviews, the new king declared his intention to be a more proactive monarch than his murdered elder bother. The late Birendra’s retiring personality had suited the job description of a constitutional monarch post-1990, even though he had ruled absolutely for 18 years starting 1972. The pronouncements of his successor brother increasingly exposed the latter as ambitious and arrogant, and a non-believer in pluralism and rule by people’s representatives.
In King Gyanendra’s Nepal today, the economy is in nosedive. The daily death count from political violence is higher than before February 2005 and even higher than before October 2002. The value of human lives and human rights is lower than ever as Maoists become even more brutal and the army is kept out of the range of reporting by district journalists, who have been cowed down by threats and intimidations made on the basis of notices from the king’s Ministry of Information and Communication.
The king did Nepal’s military a disservice by utilising the soldiers to implement his coup. In a country where the army has been a ceremonial force throughout its modern history, the king’s action has locked in a process of militarisation that can only retard social, economic and political evolution. While its current political duties have dimmed the professionalism of the RNA and jeopardised the UN peacekeeping assignments it prizes, the real danger comes from the fact that army officers have become the de facto administrators of their respective regions and districts. At no point in history have the majors and colonels wielded so much power, and the urgency of a return to democratic rule by parliament is fuelled by the danger that this represents.
The 26 million people of Nepal do not deserve this atavistic return to autocratic rule at a time when they should have been fine-tuning their system of governance to make it more inclusive and corrective of myriad historical ills and discriminations. Since blaming all of history becomes meaningless, it must be conceded that the ills of today’s Nepal hark back to the 30 years of the autocratic Panchayat system put in place in 1960 by the royal father, Mahendra. Indeed, the best argument against an active monarchy is the fact that Nepal has already had tried three full decades of autocratic kingship. The miscalculation of son Gyanendra on 1 February was to think that the country’s demography, media, communications, mass awareness and middle class structures had not changed in the intervening years. This miscalculation now threatens the longevity of the dynasty.
The Shah dynasty provides a continuous thread that reaches back to the founding of Nepal in the mid-18th century by King Gyanendra’s tenth ancestor Prith-vinarayan. The past 15 years of pluralism, however, have confirmed that monarchy is no longer an indispensable adhesive for unity, and is therefore not essential for the survival of the nation state. It can now merely serve as a useful national symbol and a culturally potent instrument to promote social and economic progress, provided the person who wears the crown appreciates the definition of ‘constitutional monarchy’. In the modern context, and given the spoilsport attitude of all kings of the modern era towards democratic politics – Tribhuvan, Mahendra, Birendra and now Gyanendra – a ‘constitutional monarch’ must be defined as one who is ceremonial and without ‘residual’ powers.
The palace was clearly taken aback by the international reaction to the royal takeover, and in particular the responses of India, the US and the UK – countries crucial in providing military support to fight the rebels. Their condemnation was swift and uncompromising, demanding an immediate return to democratic rule and constitutional monarchy. The massive support being provided to the RNA to battle the Maoists was halted. The king had miscalculated, expecting the Nepali ‘war on terror’ to provide the cushioning for his takeover.
Lately, the Kathmandu regime has taken to ‘threatening’ the international community with the certainty of a Maoist takeover if military support remains withheld. Truth be told, the flow of arms assistance at this stage is needed to provide political legitimacy to the new dispensation. The talk of a Maoist takeover is uncouth scaremongering, and seems to have convinced no one but the American ambassador in Kathmandu, who likes to talk ominously about a rebel takeover, with khukuri knives no less. It is important to call the royal bluff, for the fact is that the rebels are not capable of defeating the RNA in conventional warfare, which is what would be required to take over the state. While they do have the run of the countryside because of the nature of Himalayan topography, the Maoists do not hold any territory, nor any of Nepal’s 75 district headquarters.
The Maoists began their insurgency nearly ten years ago against a functioning democracy. In the interim, they have managed to weaken the state geopolitically, pushing back the social and economic development of a needy population, and dragging the army out of the barracks. While it is true that the Maoists are homegrown and that they propose a class war rather than a more destablising insurgency based on identity-led divisions, they are nevertheless a lawless entity trying to force-fit a discredited ideology into the Nepali hinterland. It is important to bring this misguided insurgency to an end, and to try and convert the brutal interregnum into an opportunity for catharsis. This can only be done with the participation of the political parties and their countrywide networks and grassroots linkages. In going it alone and trying to crush the rebels by force of arms, King Gyanendra has antagonised the very parties that stand for rule of law and that have challenged the Maoists longer than he or the army have. Today, the army generals who had predicted a lightning victory over the rebels might be re-evaluating their long-standing animosities towards the politicians. The army’s anti-insurgency battle would have gained both legitimacy and effectiveness if the ‘supreme commander-in-chief’ had decided to cooperate with the politicians than throw them into jail.
It is not as if the Royal Nepal Army has been fighting an effective war. Brought reluctantly unto the field in late 2001, the soldiers were unprepared when confronted with a wildfire insurgency in possibly the most rebel-friendly terrain in the world. Deficiencies in training, logistics, motivation and leadership have come to light in the RNA’s inability to go on the offensive against the elusive enemy. High levels of extra-judicial killings and disappearances have cast a pall over the army’s record, as has a willingness to lob mortar shells out of helicopters to get at insurgents on populated hillsides.
A mechanism is required to inject ‘politics’ back into the veins of the body politic, and tragedy of the moment is that the person who holds the power of the state is so vehemently disagreeable to the idea. The way of autocrats is to grab a lot of power and then make token gestures of redressal, such as King Gyanendra’s peculiar pronouncement of holding municipal elections at an undetermined date. It is unlikely that such tactics will be acceptable to the people of Nepal, who have tasted freedom for a full dozen years, and half of whom were born after 1990 and know not the Panchayat era of hukumi sashan, or rule by diktat.
King Gyanendra in his takeover proclamation said he would set things right in three years and return the country to the people thereafter. It is certain that this will not deliver the return to ‘total democracy’ that the political parties and civil society are clamouring for. The ideal path to such a return is a general election to confirm people’s representation, but an election is impossible today because of the Maoists in the bush and an autocratic regime at the centre.
Things are extremely fluid in Nepal as we write these lines. King Gyanendra has rejected outright the united demand of the political parties for a reinstatement of the Third Parliament, disbanded in May 2002. Such restitution, indeed, would in one stroke resuscitate democracy, provide a political challenge to the Maobaadi, make way for a negotiated road to peace, give the beleagured people back their representation, and place the monarchy safely back into its defined ceremonial/constitutional role. Since King Gyanendra has publicly stated his unwillingness to go along, and in keeping at bay the very political forces that wish to work with him, he has succeeded in releasing the forces of radicalism in the mainstream of Nepali polity. Something has to give in Nepal over the coming months of the monsoon, given that the royal coup of 1 February is confirmed as a failed venture.