When historians look back at the beginning of the end of Nepal’s monarchy, they probably will not dwell long on a newly-elected Constituent Assembly declaring Nepal a republic in 2008, but on the night of 1 June 2001.
Sixteen years ago this week, as the country was buffeted by chronic instability and a spreading Maoist war, a routine clan dinner at the Naryanhiti Palace in Kathmandu turned into a gruesome massacre of royals unprecedented in world history.
Piecing together eye-witness information and cross-checking with doctors at the Army Hospital and other sources, this newspaper has followed the saga to maintain that Crown Prince Dipendra shot his father King Birendra, his mother Queen Aishwarya, his uncle Prince Dhirendra, his brother, sister, four other royals and finally himself (sitting at left in family portrait in 1981, above).
Even though he lay in a coma for four days, and as the rest of his family were taken in cremation processions through a capital in curfew, Dipendra was declared king. After Dipendra died, Gyanendra was crowned, making him the third king of Nepal in four days.
The royal massacre contributed to the Maoists deciding to accelerate their goal to abolish the monarchy, and within five months took the war directly to the Royal Nepal Army. However, the factor that was almost as important in leading to the abolition of the monarchy was King Gyanendra’s attempt to turn the clock back on democracy.
Although rocky, Nepal’s transition from monarchy to republic was civilised compared to other countries which have executed deposed monarchs, ransacked the palace or driven them into exile. The state also exercised restraint while dethroning the king and abolishing a 250-year-old institution.
However, the years since the abolition of the monarchy saw the country mired in a deadlock over the constitution, rulers openly flouting the rule of law, chronic political turmoil and economic stagnation. There is such great public disillusionment about the four-party cartel that runs this country that some sections have started openly speaking about a return to the relative stability of the monarchy years.
They argue that republican-ism, secularism and federalism were never the agenda of the 2006 people’s movement, and were foisted on Nepal by outside forces through proxies in the Maoist party.
One of them is former Army Chief Rukmangad Katawal whose sacking by Pushpa Kamal Dahal led to his resignation as prime minister in 2009. Katawal says the abolition of the monarchy was not done through a democratic process.
“If we are to follow the democratic practice as laid down by B P Koirala, the political parties should have first asked the people if they really wanted to get rid of the monarchy. The end of monarchy was an impulsive decision of the political parties,” Katawal told us.
The former army chief credits King Gyanendra for the smooth transition from monarchy to republic because he avoided a direct confrontation by vacating the palace peacefully immediately after the CA’s decision in 2008. But the
The political parties also showed accommodation, allowing the royal family to reside in Nagarjun Palace, the Queen Mother to stay in a section of Narayanhiti Palace and in Bharatpur.
Gyanendra himself has laid low in the past nine years, shuns interviews, and appears only occasionally in public. However, from time to time, he has made royal-sounding pronouncements that hint at impatience with political parties ignoring the people’s welfare.
Past public opinion polls in this paper have shown that Gyanendra’s popularity is still very low, there is a slight increase in support for a restoration of monarchy, but there has been consistently high backing for rolling back secularism from the constitution.
Political scientist Hari Sharma says Nepal’s monarchy has been contentious ever since the 1950s, and the people have always opposed dictatorial monarchs.
He added: “The transition from monarchy to republic in Nepal was smooth unlike other countries because the dethronement of the King had political mandate. Also, the social root of monarchy had become shallow and weak, and the institution was alienated from larger social discourse.”
After the end of the conflict in 2006, Nepal became a kind of ‘Maoist monarchy’. The country was still nominally a monarchy, but had an interim government in which former guerrillas were ministers. The legislature ordered King Gyanendra Shah to submit property details in a move that was the beginning of the process of nationalisation of assets belonging to King Birendra and his family which had been transferred to Gyanendra after the royal massacre of 2001.
An autonomous body called the Nepal Trust was set up a year later to oversee the process. Gyanendra refused to submit his property details, and even a decade after abolition of the monarchy and 16 years after the royal massacre, the office is still trying to piece together details of royal property and assets.
The Nepal Trust has taken possession of 21,000 ropanis of royal property across the country, but very little liquid assets have been identified. (Details online.) The Trust has not been able to obtain any information on the assets in foreign banks belonging to Birendra’s family.
Lekh Bahadur Karki of Nepal Trust Office admits there could be a lot more property and assets that belonged to King Birendra and his family that are in the names of others.
“We are still trying to find out what they owned, we are not convinced that this is all they had,” says Karki. The Trust recently uncovered 40 ropanis of land owned by former royal family members in Gokarneswor Municipality in Kathmandu and is preparing to transfer ownership.
The Trust is also eying the Nagarjun Palace even though the government had decided to allow Gyanendra to use the property as a country home after they vacated Naryanhiti in 2008.
According to the law, the Trust can confiscate any property belonging to King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and their sons Dipendra and Nirajan if it is found that they were transferred to King Gyanendra after the royal massacre.
Ram Bahadur Kuikel, who worked at the Narayanhiti Palace for more than 10 years, admits that the people find it hard to believe that Birendra’s family only owned what has so far been uncovered.
Property taken over by the Trust includes Gokarna Forest Resort, Standard Chartered Bank in Lazimpat, Kathmandu Business Complex, Nepal Red Cross building in Tahachal, Diyalo Durbar in Bharatpur, and Ratna Mandir in Pokhara. The Trust has also collected Rs 401 million revenue from the leased property.
Although the Trust is mandated to use the money for welfare of underprivileged families, the money is just sitting in the bank. Trust officials say that they are unable to allocate it because of the lack of proper guidelines on where to spend it.