King Gyanendra: The absolute monarch

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The Independent Online

When King Gyanendra of Nepal was a boy, he was sent to school in Darjeeling in neighbouring India. A story from his time there sheds light on the character of the man who this week sacked the entire government of Nepal and seized back the absolute power of a medieval king.

When King Gyanendra of Nepal was a boy, he was sent to school in Darjeeling in neighbouring India. A story from his time there sheds light on the character of the man who this week sacked the entire government of Nepal and seized back the absolute power of a medieval king.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of a newly independent India, was to make an official visit to Darjeeling, and one of the stops on his itinerary was at the school. Gyanendra and the other young Nepali princes were told they would have the honour of presenting the visiting dignitary with a flower. But Gyanendra refused. "I won't do it," the precocious prince is said to have told the headmaster. "I am higher than he."

The man who this week seized back absolute power in Nepal is a man who believes in royalty, who believes that from his birth he has been "higher" than other people.

Most of Gyanendra's life has been devoted to preserving the mystique and power of royalty. He even played a small part in the drama of Britain's own royal family. When Prince Charles came to Nepal in the late 1970s for some space to think about whether he should marry a young blonde called Lady Diana Spencer, it was Prince Gyanendra who took the English prince under his wing, playing host and devising the "royal trek", a route below Machhapuchhre mountain where Charles walked and meditated on his decision.

Gyanendra's life turned upside down on a hot night in Kathmandu in June 2001, when his brother, King Birendra, and most of the rest of the Nepali royal family were killed in the bloodiest royal massacre of modern times. What happened that night, at least according to the official version, is that the royal family had gathered for dinner, as it did every week. Crown Prince Dipendra had been drinking hard, and got into a row with his mother, who was refusing him permission to marry the woman of his choice. The drunk Dipendra was taken to his rooms, but in a fit of rage he returned armed with at least four guns, and sprayed bullets across the room, killing off almost the entire male line of the Nepali royal family.

After killing the rest of the family, Dipendra turned the gun on himself. For three days he lay in a coma in a hospital bed. He was named king but never regained consciousness. After he died, his uncle, Gyanendra, was crowned. There were no cheering crowds. There were riots in Kathmandu at the news of Gyanendra's accession, and as he rode to the coronation, his carriage had to be guarded by the army.

Except that it wasn't the first time Gyanendra was crowned king of Nepal. In 1950, when he was a boy of four, Gyanendra had been led to the throne to have the crown placed on his head in a hasty ceremony. And that curious episode also sheds light on what happened this week.

Nepal was in turmoil. The real power was in the hands of the Ranas, a family of hereditary prime ministers who used the royal family as figureheads. Gyanendra's father, Tribhuvan, fled to India, taking with him his heir, Gyanendra's brother. Gyanendra was left behind and the Rana prime minister, Mohan Sumshere, crowned the boy as a new figurehead.

Four months later, Tribhuvan returned and managed to overturn the Rana power with Indian backing. The four-year-old Gyanendra abdicated in favour of his father's restoration. Gyanendra was born into royalty, but he was born into a royal dynasty in trouble, and at the age of four he played his part in restoring its power. It was to become a common thread through his life. The dynasty Gyanendra helped to save was not just one of kings - it was a dynasty of gods. Devout Hindus in Nepal believe that their kings are incarnations of the god Vishnu.

But after those tumultuous events of his boyhood, Gyanendra had to learn to play the part of the dutiful younger brother. He developed his own business interests: a hotel in Kathmandu, a tea estate in eastern Nepal, and a cigarette factory. He also became a leading conservationist.

After his father died, Gyanendra became a trusted adviser to his brother, King Birendra, but they fell out in 1990. That was when Birendra agreed to give up absolute power and become a constitutional monarch.Gyanendra opposed the constitutional monarchy from the start. In many ways, it was a reversal of the victory Tribhuvan had won in 1950 with his return to the throne - a victory in which Gyanendra had played his small part.

The written constitution was part of the reason for the outpouring of grief at Birendra's death in the royal massacre of 2001. Not just any king had been killed - but the king who gave Nepalis democracy and constitutional rights. And when Gyanendra succeeded him, grief gave way to rage. To this day, many ordinary Nepalis do not believe the official version of the 2001 massacre, that it was carried out by a drunken and enraged Dipendra.

In the alleys of Kathmandu, it is considered highly suspicious that Gyanendra was conveniently away from the palace when it took place. It is considered even more suspicious that virtually the sole male survivors of the royal family were Gyanendra and his only son, Crown Prince Paras.

He inherited a Nepal in even more serious trouble than it faced when he was crowned for the first time, back in 1950. To date, the Maoist insurgency has claimed more than 10,000 lives and crippled the Nepali economy. Since Gyanendra ascended the throne, the situation has worsened, and now it is becoming critical.

Then there is Gyanendra's hated son. So unpopular is Paras that at first Gyanendra did not dare name him as crown prince and heir, but waited until he had been on the throne a few months, and then rushed the announcement out during a holiday when there were no newspapers to report it.In 2000, Paras allegedly killed a popular singer while drunk at the wheel. Half a million Nepalis signed a petition calling for him to be prosecuted. But Nepali royals cannot be prosecuted without the king's permission, and he has never faced trial.

Most of Gyanendra's life has been devoted to preserving the absolute power of the kings of Nepal and, seen in that light, his decision this week to tear up the constitution and reimpose direct rule is not surprising. It was just the latest in a series of efforts to take back the powers his brother gave away in 1990. In 2002, he also sacked the government until public protests forced him to reappoint Sher Bahadur Deuba, the prime minister he sacked then. This week the king sacked him again.

This time he also "suspended" freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly and freedom from "preventative detention". In his desire to recreate a medieval kingship, he is dragging Nepal back to the Middle Ages with him.

Just a few months ago, Britain, the US and India, who have been backing the Nepalese army against the Maoists, warned Gyanendra not to dismiss the government. By going ahead, he appears to have called their bluff, banking that, faced with a choice between him and the Maoists, the West and India will just have to accept his palace coup.

Nepal's political parties are mired in corruption. Gyanendra might well get away with his gamble - but for the Maoists. He may have seized absolute power, but it extends only over Kathmandu and a few government-controlled towns outside the capital.

The front line is just 20 miles from Kathmandu. Across it, you are no longer in Gyanendra's Nepal, but in the Maoists' Nepal. The signs are he wants to do something about it. Some Western diplomats in Kathmandu believe that when Gyanendra says he sacked the government because they were failing to tackle the Maoists, it's not just rhetoric.

Some say the king wants direct talks with the Maoists. Others say he is planning a new offensive against them. If he fails, what happened this week could turn out to be academic. Unless someone finds a way to stop their advance, it may be the Maoists, not Gyanendra, who decide the fate of Nepal.

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