Fall of the house of Shah
Smearing red sandalwood paste on a line of worshippers gathered outside the main pagoda of the Nepali capital’s imposing Pashupatinath temple complex, Hindu priest Raju Baje explains that the 400-odd shrines contain all but one of the religion’s 330Â 000 deities.
Through the smoke of funeral pyres are stone statues of roaring lions, a giant bronze cow, endless wooden images of the divine and framed pictures of the 11 monarchs from the Shah dynasty that ruled Nepal in the past 240 years—except the current King, Gyanendra.
The present ruler, says Baje, is a god who has been thrown out of his own temple. “We consider the king a divine figure. He is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu. But if we put a picture of him up it will be ripped down. The people don’t love him.”
Last week, Nepal’s new constitutional assembly held its first meeting and put an end to the monarchy, a key part of a 2006 peace deal with Maoist guerrillas who gave up the bullet for the ballot box on the condition that the country becomes a secular republic. The civil war lasted a decade and cost more than 13Â 000 lives.
The Maoists, who won last month’s elections to become the largest party in Nepal’s assembly, say the monarch will have an “honourable exit”, but the fall of King Gyanendra and the disappearance of the world’s last Hindu monarchy has been dramatic.
In the past few months the word “Royal” has been dropped from the army and national airline. Gone from the national anthem are any references to the king. The royal family—consisting of the king, the queen, the queen mother, the crown prince and his wife and children—left their pink-hued palace in the centre of the capital two weeks ago for the last time.
There is little doubt that royal belt’s will have to be tightened. The monarch’s state salary of $3-million has been revoked and the royal family’s seven palaces are to be turned into museums. Even the queen was forced to give up her retinue of beauticians.
After Friday’s vote the king, who once ruled by divine right, has been reduced to a commoner—albeit an extremely wealthy one with tea estates and tobacco holdings in the 12th-poorest country in the world.
The transformation from kingdom to republic still leaves unanswered the questions of what an ex-royal will be allowed to do.
The king still enjoys support from Hindu extremists and elements in the armed forces, a small fringe perhaps, but enough for the politicians not to go too far in humiliating the palace.
A previously unknown Hindu nationalist group, angry with the removal of royalty, said it was responsible for a series of pipe-bomb explosions that rocked the capital last Monday.
Bhekh Thapa, a former foreign minister under the king, says the royal family will have to be “guarded” and probably have a “privy purse”.
“This is a poor country with a large, uneducated population for whom the institution of monarchy is a symbol of unity. You have to tread carefully in dismantling it,” he said.
The Nepalese Maoists, said Thapa, cannot replicate what their ideological mentor Chairman Mao did to China’s last emperor, Puyi, whom he met in the mid-1960s as a young diplomat.
“I was introduced to this tall man in a plain cotton suit sweeping the leaves in a palace in Beijing. The last emperor had been a keen gardener and so Chairman Mao let him stay on to prune trees and plant flowers. That could not happen in Nepal, which is why our Maoists have been calling for a dignified exit.”
The fall of the house of Shah is a story of bloodshed, betrayal and intrigue. For almost two-and-half centuries the monarchy persisted, buttressed by the central role the king played in the national religion, Hinduism.
Even when the palace ceded power to a Parliament in 1990, the king remained in charge, retaining the right to dissolve Parliament and control the army.
The sudden collapse of the monarchy in the span of a few years, say even former royalists, is not a victory for communism but a failure of the 60-year-old King Gyanendra. He was unable to win over his subjects, suspicious of a monarch enthroned after the worst royal slaughter since the Romanovs were murdered during the Russian civil war.
The beginning of the end for the Shah kings came in the summer of 2001 when then king Birendra and his family were assassinated in the palace by the drunk crown prince who later turned the gun on himself. Ten members of the royal family died.
Birendra’s younger brother Gyanendra, a chain-smoking royal with a penchant for astrology and expensive cars, ascended to the throne and made no secret of his disdain for the Parliament. He sacked the government first in 2002 and then seized absolute power three years later, sayingÂ only a strong leader could end the Maoist insurgency then raging in the countryside.
“Trying to restore the absolute monarchy was a disastrous error of judgement, instead of negotiating with the Maoists and bringing them into the peace process,” said Lieutenant General Vivek Shah, King Gyanendra’s former military secretary. “This was his arrogance. He did not listen to views he disagreed with.”
Two years ago street protests forced the palace to concede to a coalition of political parties and Maoist rebels, who joined hands to oust the king. The popular dissent with his rule was exacerbated by the perception the king was interested in enriching himself rather than his subjects. This was a fatal flaw in a country that presents a striking picture of contrast between extreme poverty and vast wealth.
“I used to suggest to the king: ‘Why not convert a few of the royal residences into hospitals and schools?’ I thought it would improve the palace’s image,” said General Shah. “But he took no notice. Instead he brought a Daimler limousine for 50-million rupees [$712Â 000].”
While the king’s high-handedness never won the hearts of Nepalis, it was the behaviour of his playboy son, Paras, which infuriated the public. The crown prince was a regular on the Kathmandu party circuit, carrying a gun and a bad attitude. He allegedly killed a popular singer in a hit-and-run accident but was never charged.
“I once had to rescue him when he shot up a nightclub and attacked some members of the public,” said General Shah. “I arranged military training to instill some discipline in him but he just never showed up to the classes.”
The departure of the king leaves open the question who will be the country’s next head of state and what sort of political model the country will adopt. The Maoists campaigned for a presidential system, with their leader Prachanda as the candidate. The other smaller parties would prefer a Westminster-type Parliament with an eminent person “selected” as head of state.
Diplomats in the capital say the Maoist proposals have raised fears of a communist takeover. “The Maoists like to compare their suggestions to an American-style presidency. But in Washington the White House is balanced by Congress,” said one Kathmandu-based diplomat. “The Maoists don’t want that. They prefer to control things through a strong centre. However, nobody wants to see a royal dictatorship replaced by a communist one.”—Â