Long leave the King
Fifteen years after a post-conflict Constituent Assembly abolished Nepal’s monarchy, growing public discontent with the successive governments is fuelling a drive to restore the country’s Hindu monarchy.
There were last-ditch attempts to retain the monarchy in some form, but the assembly voted on 28 May 2008 to turn Nepal into a federal, democratic and secular republic. King Gyanendra held a chaotic press conference at Narayanhiti Palace and drove off to his residence, where he has remained a private citizen since.
It was Nepal’s own ‘velvet revolution’--the country went from monarchy to republic without the king being hounded into exile or executed. And Gyanendra, till recently, has not made any overt political statements.
But with the rise of the Hindu-right in BJP-ruled India, the ex-king has been attending large pro-monarchy rallies by the RPP possibly thinking that the time is now ripe to sit on the Serpent Throne for the third time.
Journalist Kiran Nepal attended Gyanendra’s last press conference at the palace in 2008, and remembers how the palace guards abandoned their posts and media colleagues rowdily wrestled to sit on the royal chair to take photos.
“The chaos after the king left the room was a striking illustration of what was to come, and I remember thinking--is this the country’s future under republicanism?” Nepal recalls.
Indeed, although there have been 13 governments since the abolition of monarchy, most of the politicians are the same. Pushpa Kamal Dahal is Prime Minister for the third time, his coalition partner Sher Bahadur Deuba has been premier five times, the opposition UML’s K P Oli has also led the country three times.
Most Nepalis say there is little to show for Nepal becoming a federal, secular republic. War crimes and high-profile corruption cases go unpunished, the president pardons a murderer serving a life sentence. Nepalis have one of the lowest per capita income in Asia, and half of all Nepalis in the 20-45 age group are working abroad--yet the government does not want to give them the right to vote.
Besides those who genuinely feel that Nepal should have never abolished the monarchy, there are unsavoury characters who have also latched on to the bandwagon. A pro-monarchy demo last week in Kathmandu was organised by a bank defaulter who rallied others like him. Gyanendra kept away from this protest, travelling instead to attend the installation of a statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah in Jhapa organised by Rajendra Lingden of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP).
Lingden and former journalist Rabindra Mishra of the RPP believe Nepal needs a strong symbol of national unity embodied by a king. They point to the long queues at Gyanendra’s tika ceremony this Dasain, comparing that to the few who attended the President’s ritual down the road.
While keeping in the background, Gyanendra manages his social media presence to appeal to young Nepalis with clips of himself dancing to nationalistic songs at popular nightclubs. Even in Communist strongholds like Bhaktapur, there are large flag-waving crowds coming out to welcome him.
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“I strongly believe in preserving the institution of the monarchy because the country's future might be jeopardised without it,” the RPP’s Rabindra Mishra told us. “Prachanda’s ideology is taking the country into decline.”
Although past public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Nepalis would want Nepal to revert to a Hindu state, it is not clear if there is similar support for the restoration of the monarchy because of the persona of Gyanendra and his son, Paras.
Support for a Hindu state is due to most Nepalis taking the Nepali translation of secularism (धर्मनिरपेक्षता) to mean atheism, as well as the perception that there is rampant proselytisation by evangelical Christians.
Into this mix, add geopolitics. Nepal’s federal, secular republican Constitution was guided by India’s centre-left parties. But since then New Delhi has seen regime change, and while foreign policy architects there may not necessarily want Nepal’s monarchy back, the BJP (with an eye on elections next year) may not be averse to erasing ‘secular’ from the Constitution.
Gyanendra has been visiting India often, and on his last trip had a meeting with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is also the high priest of the Gorkahnath monastic order linked to the kingdom of Gorkha, the seat of the Shah dynasty.
Even though nearly 80% of Nepalis say they are Hindu, says Kiran Nepal, it is different from the political Hindutva spreading in India. Secularism was added to the Constitution to defuse ethnic tensions that arose while demarcating and naming the new provinces. Reverting this process may lead to instability in Nepal.
Perhaps the person most responsible for Nepal becoming a republic is Gyanendra himself. Historians have noted that before 2008, Gyanendra was presented with various proposals under India’s ‘twin pillar’ policy to retain a ‘cultural monarchy’ or under a ‘baby king’ formula.
Rabindra Mishra concedes: “His refusal to accept those options undeniably led to the end of the monarchy, influencing the current trajectory of our nation. But the former king is someone who has love, passion and aspiration for his country and its people, he is not hungry for power and money. He should return.”
One of the foremost proponents of a secular republic was Maoist ideologue and one-time Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. He is increasingly worried that the political trends in India will affect Nepal, and wrote on X: ‘The return to a Hindu monarchy will plunge Nepal into a quagmire of counter-revolutionary instability which will also impact India.’
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An excerpt of the interview with Rabindra Mishra of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party:
Nepali Times: You didn't have any problems with the Constitution until you joined the RPP party. How come?
Rabindra Mishra: Yes, until that time I was also ‘Prachandised’. We formed the joint party Sajha Bibeksheel in 2017 but I already had problems with the 2015 Constitution. The 12-point agreement only pertained removing an authoritarian monarchy and in agreement with the king, we agreed to keep the monarchy as an institution. The Constituent Assembly in its very first meeting on 17 April 2007 had also considered the eldest daughter as an heir to the throne.
Secularism was neither the demand of the Madhes movement, of 12-point agreement, nor the People’s Movement. It came out of nowhere. Even with federalism, it was the Madhes that wanted it but the whole of Nepal wasn’t even asked about it. When all these new issues entered Nepali politics, I started having my reservations. It just was not done properly. I entered politics with the belief that Nepal can be saved with good governance, corruption control, equitable prosperity and development. But after three or four years I realised we were on the wrong road.
Along with that, the relations between castes, languages and religions of Nepal have become very weak, bitter and sensitive. If I were to do politics only for you and my generation, I could easily become a minister, an ambassador or an MP? All my life I worked for myself, but politics must be about the country, and preparing for the challenges Nepal will face 30-40 years from now.
Due to the country's geopolitical and internal sensitivities, I decided that it would not be in the interest of this country to follow the politics of Prachandapath in a Prachandised society.
What do you mean exactly by Prachandaisation?
The Maoist party is on the road to failure. But personally, Prachanda has been quite successful, he took the entire society and politics down his Prachanda "path". If he changes course, there may be some redemption, but at the rate it is going the Maoists will shrink further if they fight elections alone. However, he must take the entire responsibility for bringing federalism, republicanism and secularism to Nepal.
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But secularism was agreed upon by two-thirds of the elected Constituent Assembly.
First of all, you should not see elections as representing the will of the entire Nepali people. It is just an electoral vote. Now, when the king (former King Gyanendra Shah) goes to Janakpur, the centre of federalism, when he goes to Jhapa, the hub of Nepal's leftist movement, even if he goes to Bhaktapur, the stronghold of the Communist Nepal Majdoor Kisan Party, or Nepalganj, or Surkhet, or Dhangadi, wherever he goes, tens of thousands of people come out to welcome him. But why do they not vote in elections? No matter where you go to village teashops, temples or anywhere else, everyone says, 'This was a Hindu nation. By turning it into a secular republic everyone became a Christian.’ But they still vote for the secularists and republicans. Why? Federalism has become a problem, we have to support 40,000 people's representatives. Instead of one king, we now have a thousand kings. Still the people vote for federalism. In Nepal's context, there is a distinction between the electoral results and public opinion. Vote banks are captured by political parties, so that nothing can be changed.
I have a counter question for you, is it the responsibility of journalists to protect the Constitution? Journalists say that this Constitution should be saved, the news is therefore one-sided. Opinions are also of one sided, and even if it is called a debate in a newspaper, they all take the same side. Is this allowed? For example, Nepal's media ignored the crowds that greeted King Gyanendra when he visited the bastion of the Newar community in Bhaktapur because they said it was the same king who censored the press at gunpoint in 2005. There is a tendency to do mission journalism.
Rather than serving a thousand corrupt and incompetent leaders, I am ready to serve a king who saved this country even in difficult times, kept the country's honour high at the international level and contributed to the rapid development of the country in a certain period of time.
In 2007-08, Nepal's leaders changed course, and the people were forced to follow suit. Now the entire country and the majority of the people have changed course, but the leaders have yet to change. When people demand change, change will come one way or other.
What do you think of Durga Prasai and his rally?
I appreciate the popular support that has been seen in favour of the monarchy. In whatever form and wherever it came from, it was for the return of the monarchy. The rally that was seen in Jhapa, Nepalganj, Itahari, Bhaktapur were more in favour of the monarchy than any individual's efforts.
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Alisha Sijapati is a correspondent at Nepali Times. With over a decade of experience she specialises in cultural heritage reporting with insights into socio and geo-politics. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from Central European University. Alisha has made significant contributions to various newsrooms in Kathmandu. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she is deeply engaged in discussions about the theft of Nepal's stolen heritage.