Friday night, faith died. Belief succumbed to the cruelty of history. Impregnable walls could not stop the flight of an age towards eternity. The king is dead, may his soul rest in peace. Long live the king, the symbol of Nepali unity and cultural identity. It is with this mixture of grief and hope that we are coming to terms with a tragedy too painful and complex to comprehend.
When telephone calls with the 'news' woke us in the dead of the night, we checked the time. First there was disbelief, "This cannot be true." We checked the date. There was horror, "This is far too serious to be a prank." And then the shock sunk in, numbing us. That numbness still persists. And with grief there is now fear for the future. The question on everybody's mind, that nobody dares speak is, "What now?"
The unpredictability of the future is frightening. King Birendra was a link with the past. He offered a reassuring continuity with the hoary traditions of an age when the king was not just the provider and protector of his subjects, but the very incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He carried the duality of a god-king and a constitutional monarch with nary a trace of contradiction visible in his demeanour.
King Birendra ascended to the throne during that stage of conflict between tradition and modernity when every step forward is followed by two steps backward. Nepali politics in 1972 was tightly controlled by the palace. The kingdom still resembled a mythical Shangri-la, good for the mind and spirit, but with few physical amenities. Development was the dream of Nepalis in those days; and the young, western-educated monarch promised us all that and much more.
From his coronation platform, King Birendra called for Nepal to be declared a Zone of Peace. It is a paradox of history that he himself was destined to fall prey to an act of violence. Apart from that one instance of trying to redirect the course of history, King Birendra preferred to respond to events and facilitate the march of time. He seldom made a conscious attempt to determine the pace of change, but was always there at the head of the caravan as the nation moved forward. This is what made him a peoples' monarch-loved by all, adored by few, but feared by none.
Perhaps the hard-liners of Panchayat were less than happy when King Birendra called for a referendum in 1980 in the wake of a students' agitation. But he went ahead with it, and initiated a gradual process of political openness. It was this process that culminated in the Peoples' Movement, and finally the promulgation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal in 1990 that has guaranteed me the freedom to write and publish this tribute, apart from ensuring other liberties.
King Birendra will go down in history as the sovereign who made his subjects sovereign, and transformed them into citizens of his own accord. He was, in that sense, the very personification of history. Not many rulers of the world can lay claim to have guided the journey of a nation from autocracy to democracy with relatively few setbacks along the way. If there was a price to pay, he ultimately paid it with his own life and the lives of his immediate family members.
But that does not mean we can absolve ourselves of having been a part of it, no matter how marginal our roles were. We may have been mute spectators as the tragic drama unfolded, but we are collectively responsible for building a society that allows a tragedy of this magnitude. Where have our religious moorings gone? What kind of values have we established? What sort of education system we have we adopted that prompts people to run amok with guns? It is the decadence of the middle-class that is on display, in exaggerated form, in the lifestyles of the power elite. The truth about what really happened behind the four walls of Narayanhiti on that fateful Friday night is yet to emerge, but what is most certain is that the values of Nepali society have crumbled, leading to the death of our faith and beliefs.
That said, let it be remembered that cruelty is not unique to Nepali society, as the ill-informed recklessly suggest. Throughout human history, killings have been a favourite way of choosing heads of state. Somewhere deep down, we are all savages. Rather than freeing us from the vagaries of nature, technology often makes us greedier, more envious of our fellow human beings, and hence more barbaric.
Savagery, as indeed all human failings and tragedies, is independent of time and space. Nepal's history is replete with "crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind". The execution at Makawanpur, the cruelties at Kirtipur, the massacre of Kot Parba, the barbarity of Bhandarkhal Parba, or the massacre of Alau Parba scream out from our history books. It is said: the only lesson of history is that no one ever learns anything from it. Every generation has to bear the agonies of human failings and death all over again in order to learn to live with the pathos of the politics of power.
Having borne the brunt of heart-breaking deaths, the challenge now is to get on with life. The departed soul of our beloved king does not need copious tears, it needs our commitment to the cause he personified: the sovereignty of every Nepali citizen through equality in politics, equitability in economic opportunity, and respect for each other in society. Coming to terms with painful realities is so difficult that we often tend to take recourse to philosophies that suit our mood. At times like these, fatalistic philosophies that point towards the inevitability of history are most appealing. This was evident in the shouts of a section of the crowd during the royal funeral procession. But as Marx said: "Philosophers have so far interpreted the world. The point is to change it."
The most lasting tribute we can pay to our departed monarch is to devote ourselves to building a just Nepali society. We can, and we must do so to atone for the sins of having been a part of a decadent society. The march of history does not allow long periods of grief.
As I write this, King Gyanendra has just ascended to the throne after it was officially announced that King Dipendra "left for his heavenly abode". King Dipendra became perhaps the only monarch in the world who passed his entire reign in a coma. The throne of Nepal is not new to King Gyanendra. He was crowned king in 1950 by the last Rana prime minister, Mohan Sumshere. People refused to recognise the infant-king, as the then King Tribhuvan and Crown Prince Mahendra were both alive and well, though in a self-imposed exile in India. This time, it is a different story altogether. After the decimation of King Birendra's family, King Gyanendra is the legal heir to the throne sanctioned by the customs and traditions of Nepal.
The challenges faced by the new king are enough to keep his sharp intellect on edge. As expected, Maoists see a conspiracy behind the tragedy and Comrade Prachanda has called on people to intensify the People's War. Though all the major political parties of the country have shown surprising maturity in calling for restraint, there is no saying which of them will succumb to the fatal attraction of cheap populism and fall prey to conspiracy propaganda. King Gyanendra has already promised to bring to light the truth behind last week's tragedy. There is a chance that facts will emerge as some of the survivors are now said to be out of danger. Restraint is what we all need, not rumour-mongering.
The most important challenge before us is to start building a culture of peace. This is the country of Buddha. Peace is never a legacy of ancestors and ancients, we must build peace by ourselves. The creation of a culture of democratic values, tolerant beliefs, and responsive social institutions through the stable mechanism of universal suffrage and constitutional governance may sound like well-worn clich?s, but salvation lies in living by these canonical beliefs rather than simply parroting them. Lord Buddha is an inspiration, late King Birendra was an example, but each one of us has to start building peace by being not just a believer, but a practicing democrat.
History is a resource that enables us to endure the present and face the future. A tribute to the memory of King Birendra is a tribute to the march of Nepali history for over two centuries. The grief is debilitating, but together we shall overcome. We must, for we owe it to the future generations of Nepalis. The king is dead, long live the king.