As if the catastrophic curse that befell Nepal this weekend was not bad enough, the information blackout that followed it made matters worse. Deprived of accurate information, Nepalis from all strata of society began to construct and believe their own wildest theories about what happened at the royal palace that gruesome Friday night.
Numerous royal family and army sources have confirmed to us the original account of the tragic calamity (see www.nepalitimes.com). There are slight discrepancies in the exact sequence of events: where precisely were the members of the royal family during the first and second bursts of automatic weapon fire, where were the wounds on the bodies, where were the ADCs, where exactly was Queen Aishwarya, did Paras leave the room? But on the question of who was involved, what emerges from extensive interviews is confirmation of a family quarrel gone horribly wrong. The whole truth may take weeks, if not months, to become public, but the inquiry commission set up by King Gyanendra in his first proclamation is expected to bring at least preliminary facts to light.
Curfew-bound Kathmandu listened to their new monarch on television Monday evening as he announced the formation of a three-member probe consisting of the Chief Justice, the House Speaker and the leader of the main opposition party. The inclusion of UML general secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, was unanimously hailed as a very astute move-the devastated royal palace had taken the unprecedented step to open up.
But it may have been too astute to work: it hadn't taken into account the Byzantine world of Nepal's left politics. In a bizarre twist, Madhav Nepal decided to pull out of King Gyanendra's inquiry commission citing "a procedural lapse" in the formation of the probe. The party says that in keeping with the constitution, a committee should have been formed by Singha Darbar, and not by the palace. Latent feuds within the party, the latest having to do with the still-warm aircraft leasing scandal, made KP Oli and Subhas Nemwang challenge Madhav Nepal's agreement with the prime minister and the king at Naasal Chowk at Monday's crowning ceremony to be a part of the probe. (Nepal later publicly denied ever making such an agreement.)
The UML seemed once more to be putting its politics before the national need to avert deep crisis. The inquiry commission is a pivotal effort to cool down heated passions about the royal succession, and to defuse conspiracy theories. The communists may have defended their move by referring back to the constitution, but many are baffled: why did they not take the opening provided by the royal palace statement and instead rely on sophistry? "They are haggling over legal niceties when the important thing is to have a commission with credibility that the people will accept," said a leading leftist from within the party. Nepal himself told a BBC interview on Tuesday that he had to leave for "personal reasons", but upon being grilled from London failed to explain what they were, and why they were more important than the national interest.
The UML appears to have been pressured by two members of its alliance (the Nepal Workers' and Peasants' Party, and the Popular Front), which had decided that the royal crisis was the right time to activate the long-pending strategy to oust Prime Minister Koirala. "We didn't like this being done by royal decree, the government should have proposed the committee and we would have assigned a member instead of the king naming an appointee," was what a party official told us. "This was a typical ploy by the king, a conspiracy, to get us bogged down with a possibly predetermined outcome to the inquiry," said another UML parliamentarian.
Information is key
On the streets of Kathmandu, the curfew has helped in quieting things down, and the curfew hours are expected to be gradually reduced. Security officials told us that the curfews were necessary because of Maoist infiltration of the protesters, and the potential for provocation that could lead to deaths in police shootings. At least 250 suspected Maoists with shaven heads were taken into custody in raids in the Baudha and Baneswor areas during the curfew on Tuesday, one source said. "If they are not Maoists, they will be released," he told us. The Maoists seem to regard the crisis as a good opportunity to hasten their strategy of destabilising the government in conformity with their new Prachanda Path doctrine of a "mass uprising" in the cities. In a statement Monday, the Maoist leadership extolled the late King Birendra's "liberal" attitude, and cited that he had opposed the government plan to use the army to fight the insurgency. The statement also said that the royal killings were "not a family dispute, but a conspiracy".
The ruling party apparatchiks were working overtime on Tuesday to find a way to begin the probe on the royal killings. Their were trying to cajole the UML to remain involved. It is expected that the UML, which disbanded unresolved on Tuesday, would continue talking Wednesday morning, and a compromise solution would be found to the party's participation if KP Oli in particular could be persuaded.
The government has also been busy quashing unlikely rumours that have mushroomed, much as they did more than a decade ago during the People's Movement. The authorities acted swiftly to refute rumours about Kathmandu's water supply being poisoned, and about the disappearance of prominent personalities and the further deaths of royalty. It has also asked cable operators to resume broadcasting sports and entertainment channels in the hope that tyre-burning youths will stay at home to watch television instead. FM stations are expected to be given more latitude in resuming phone-ins and studio discussions. Meanwhile, Sheetal Niwas has appealed to the Indian government to rein in satellite television, which tends to be insensitive to Nepali emotions, and New Delhi has obliged with a press release and even a statement from Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
King Gyanendra's address to the nation was favourably received by the political class, and they welcomed his emphasis on parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, as well as his statement that Nepal's sovereignty was at stake.
Friday night's shootout at Narayanhiti killed almost the entire royal clan-10 members of the royal household, including late King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya. Although rumours abound, it is not clear what all happened in the Royal Palace after the shooting incident, and whether, as many suspect, there were many more dead among the soldiers and retainers. Another three people were killed after the curfew took effect on Monday and Tuesday. There is a pall of gloom and uncertainty in the air, as the country is caught between grief and anger.
Despite the hiatus created by Madhav Nepal's withdrawal from the inquiry commission, ruling party sources say that the panel will continue its work even if the third member does not join. The respect enjoyed by the Chief Justice, it is thought, provides the commission with enough credibility to proceed without Madhav Nepal if necessary. The panel is expected to take at least until the weekend to present its preliminary report, and sources say that rather than immediately point fingers or name the perpetrator, the commission is likely to suggest guidelines for a thorough investigation.
As protests continued for the second straight day, coming on the heels of assorted bandhs and closures, business was hurting. "Ten years ago there was similar chaos but we knew what most people wanted. Now we don't," said an industry leader.