This Turbulent Monarchy: Nepal and the Shah dynasty

This Turbulent Monarchy: Nepal and the Shah dynasty

Will Tuladhar-Douglas provides a primer on the historical events that led to King Gyanendra's reign and his six-month coup

By Will Tuladhar-Douglas
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Bloody oppression is nothing new in Nepal, nor is resistance to particularly unpleasant Shah kings. The difference today is that Nepalese had already won the struggle for democracy once, fifteen years ago, before this most recent king tore up the constitution and brought in the army.

The modern state of Nepal was forged by an 18th century military king whose bloody conquests are celebrated by the dynasty he founded. To establish his rule, Prithivi Narayan Shah laid siege to the Kathmandu Valley for decades. When he finally broke in, by virtue of treachery on the part of the Newar governors of the city-state of Lalitpur, he duly executed those same untrustworthy men. He also cut off the lips and noses of every male citizen of the city-state of Kirtipur (save those who were musicians) after they successfully resisted his invasion force. Having taken the Kathmandu Valley in 1768, his empire expanded rapidly. He clashed with the East India Company and the Tibetans, who were forced to call upon the Chinese to help them. Although the final extent of the Shah empire was much less than the maximum territory he had conquered, the East India Company was so impressed by the military skill of these tough hill fighters that they bargained with the new dynasty in order to win their services as a permanent core of mercenaries, the seed of modern Gurkha regiments.

The nation Prithivi Narayan Shah and his immediate successors built was indeed an empire. Nepalese are proud that their nation never submitted to the colonial yoke, but this masks the fact that the state of Nepal itself was a colonizing power. Unified by a dynasty that spoke a North Indic language and worshipped Hindu deities, it came to include dozens of distinct linguistic and religious communities. Religions of the new empire included Buddhists of both Indic and Tibetic sorts as well as Muslims, though Kashmiri traders were summarily ejected as they were to sympathetic to the old Newar rulers.

From 1846 to 1950 the Shah dynasty of Nepal was held captive and managed by a parallel hereditary succession of prime ministers, the Ranas, who ran the country as their playground. It was a closed country with an extractive economy. In 1950, the titular but powerless descendent of the royal dynasty escaped to take refuge in the Indian Embassy. The Ranas, desperate to hang on to power, nominated an infant nephew of the escapee to be the next king. His name was Gyanendra.

The Rana gambit failed and the Shah dynasty was restored. Tribhuvan pursued what was, for one of the last remaining princely states of South Asia, a progressive policy, and Nepal slowly began to open. Political activists based in India began to agitate openly for the shift to a representative form of government, and the major political parties of modern Nepal took shape, albeit in exile. Tribhuvan was followed in 1955 by his son Mahendra, and in 1959, Mahendra gave Nepal its first taste of democracy. This was, however, deemed a failure and from 1960 to 1990 Nepalese lived under a 'partlyless democracy', the panchayat system. Mahendra passed the throne to his son Birendra in 1974.

The corruption, oppression and surveillance of these years is well remembered. Although government rhetoric and the activities of international NGOs was couched in terms of development, ordinary Nepalese in the hills saw no improvement in their standard of living. While it has often been claimed that Nepalese see their king as a god, this was particularly true for those linguistic and religious communities closest to the dominant Bahun-Chetri group from which the Shah dynasty sprang. Nonetheless, almost all Nepalese placed great confidence and trust in their royal family.

By 1960 Nepal's foreign policy context had also been settled, a situation succinctly described by Nepalese as being 'like a gourd between two stones.' The aggressive expansion of China under Mao to the north led to the collapse of the vital trade links between the Kathmandu Valley and Lhasa, and the influx of Tibetan refugees. In the south, India pursued an equally aggressive line, annexing Sikkim in 1975. Nepal's foreign policy involved a balancing act between these two regional powers, an act sometimes complicated by global considerations, such as the CIA-backed Tibetan guerilla bases in Mustang that ran through the 1960's. A journey from Tribhuvan Airport is perhaps the best way to see the effect of this balancing act: the Ring Road was built with Chinese money while the three-wheelers and Maruti taxis that crowd the roads are manufactured in India.

Political agitation continued, albeit often underground. A confrontation with India in 1989 closed most borders and drove prices to unbearable limits, and the resulting unrest strengthened the democratic initiatives of the People's Movement (janandolan) of 1990. It was a crucial test of Birendra's monarchy. Although the police did act to contain protests, there were relatively few casualties, and by late 1990 Nepal was a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral elected government. While the draft constitution conceded that Nepal was multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, Birendra refused to allow Nepal to be anything other than a Hindu monarchy, thus preserving the peculiar Shah ideology of kingship. His careful concessions and willingness to surrender overt authority for the good of his people won him tremendous respect and affection among most post-1990 Nepalese.

In the first round of elections the Nepal Congress Party won; in the second, the Communist Party of Nepal won, but was soon driven into a minority government; by 2000, there had been a series of party splits, ineffective minority governments and, above all, a sense of deep dissatisfaction with the personality cults of political leaders and the lack of any real improvement to the lives of ordinary Nepalese.

So severe was this sense of dissatisfaction that hard left political groups, allied to the Naxalite and Maoist movements found across Northeast India, were able to build a constituency among the population of particularly deprived and isolated areas of Western Nepal. In 1996, this movement took root as a People's War, organised along Maoist lines. By 2000 these Maoists began to wage an effective, low-level insurgency that controlled a significant part of mid-Western Nepal, especially in the Rolpa and Rukum districts.

Birendra's policy towards the Maoists was cautious; he refused, in principle, to deploy the Nepalese Army against them because he did not want to ask the Nepalese Army to kill Nepalese citizens. The political parties were by and large too concerned with gaining power to actually act on behalf of the elected government and so provided no clear response to the People's War. Thus, by 2000, political power in Nepal was distributed among three distinct agencies: king Birendra, characterised by restraint; the elected government, crippled by quibbling; and the Maoists, who were steadily expanding their popular and geographic base.

All this was to change as a result of the notorious palace massacre of June 2001. Whoever was responsible -- and very few Nepalese believe the official story -- the result was clear. The entire royal succession was dead, save for one slim thread: the Queen mother, her younger son Gyanendra and his son Paras. Gyanendra was known to take a far harder line towards the Maoist question than his elder brother had, and his son was implicated in a series of violent attacks and road traffic accidents that made him a highly unpopular member of the royal family. It was a very different dynasty that now sat in the Nepalese throne.

The Maoists soon challenged Gyanendra's authority with an attack on Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) bases in the Solu-Khumbu region. Gyanendra's response was thorough. On Nov. 26, 2001 he declared a state of emergency, suspended civil rights and brought the army in to attack the Maoists. Amnesty International recorded a sharp rise in the number of extra-judicial abductions and killings on both sides, with the lion's share of abuses committed by the king and his army. The US, recognising Gyanendra's claim that the Maoists were 'terrorists', supplied a small number of Special Forces personnel to train the RNA in counter-insurgency tactics. Money and guns began to flow in from all sides, including China, India, the US and UK, to support the army. At the same time, the UK, the European Union, India and the US made a point of insisting that the elected government, constituted by the political parties, was the legitimate government and should take the lead in any negotiated settlement. India, in particular, insisted on its regional prerogatives and all air shipments of arm coming from the US were obliged to stop for inspection at an Indian airport before continuing on to Nepal.

The state of emergency expired after six months. The human rights violations did not. Elections were proposed and postponed; ceasefires were achieved and squandered. The Maoists gained further territory, and consolidated their image as a popular alternative to an autocratic king or ineffective political parties. In the hills, where the Maoists were making significant gains and setting up an entirely separate government, the group had a reputation for honesty, consistency, a sense of humour and astonishing brutality. Their army was simply brutal. Young men were earmarked for Maoist recruitment and abducted. Families where sons had joined the Maoists were marked as collaborators by the army. Maoists took protection money from businesses across the country, including inside the Kathmandu Valley. The RNA 'disappeared' some of those whom it suspected of collaboration with the Maoists. Asylum claims from Nepalese trying to flee their country skyrocketed.

By January of 2005, the Maoists controlled almost the entire area of Nepal outside the Kathmandu Valley. In their village theatre performances they began to co-opt the same heroic and martial rhetoric which had previously been used to legitimate the Shah dynasty. For his part, Gyanendra had summoned and dismissed a series of puppet governments which failed to find a way to restart the electoral process or bring the Maoists to the negotiating table. Ironically, the Shah dynasty found itself barricaded inside that same valley into which it had pinned the Newars 250 years before. The Maoists called general strikes at will and had successfully closed down all roads into the Kathmandu Valley twice. It was known that Gyanendra had been looking to the Indian government for some sign that they would condone his resumption of absolute power, but the Indian government resolutely insisted that the proper government of Nepal was comprised of the electoral parties. Then, in the last week of January 2005, the Nepalese government shut down the two NGOs assisting Tibetan refugees from China and working with the UN Human Rights Commission. The reasoning was that because they were not run by Nepalese citizens, they could not be legal NGOs.

On Feb. 1, 2005, Gyanendra appeared on Nepalese television and declaring a second state of emergency. He heaped scorn on the political parties, and emphasised the special bond between his dynasty and the people of Nepal. As his speech ended, all telephone and internet communications were switched off. Internment camps were set up and journalists, politicians and student activists were rounded up. In the days that followed many activists went underground. A student demonstration in Pokhara was fired on from an Army helicopter. The Maoists shut the main roads out of the Kathmandu Valley. Army units arrested a BBC stringer trying to cross into Nepal from India.

India, the UK, the US and the European Union all condemned the suspension of human rights. Travel advisories were issued by several countries. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, issued statements thanking the Nepalese government for their helpful gesture in closing the Tibetan offices and wished the king every success in restoring peace to his country.

One week later, the phones and internet feeds came back online. There are some reports of popular protests, but by and large the country is keeping quiet. Very little news is reaching the outside world from places other than the Kathmandu Valley, although there are government reports of army offensives against Maoist bases in the west of the country and Maoist blockades on the road leading to Dolakha and the Tibetan border. All media sources are now subject to army censorship, with ranking officers posted in every newspaper and radio office.

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Dr. Will Tuladhar-Douglas is a History and Religious Studies Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He received his PhD at Oxford and was a Boden Fellow in Sanskrit. Tuladhar-Douglas has published several articles about the history and religions of Nepal and is the author of the forthcoming book, "Remaking Buddhism for Medieval Nepal" (RoutledgeKegan, 2005). He is also the Review Editor for 'H-Bhuddism,' The Buddhist Scholars Information Network, an academic exchange listserve.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.