Last of the Hindu kings?

Under pressure from Maoists, Nepal is set to become a republic following elections next week. But there is still public sympathy for the Himalayan kingdom's royal family
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The Independent Online

At the white-washed entrance gate to Kathmandu's Narayanhiti palace, a pair of guards in traditional topi (caps) were politely shooing away curious visitors. "No, you cannot come in. The palace is not open to the public," said one. "Yes, the king lives here. He will still be living here next week. Nothing will change."

Perhaps, but probably not. For while Nepal's King Gyanendra's dour face may still stare out from 1,000 rupee bank notes and while the palace still in theory flies the royal standard when he is at home, it seems that the country's monarch is the last of his line.

After 239 years with a royal family – and with a king having enjoyed absolute rule over his impoverished subjects for the overwhelming majority of those years – Nepal is poised to throw out the world's last Hindu monarchy. Next week voters will elect an assembly whose first scheduled task is to declare Nepal a republic and set about drafting a new constitution. New currency, minus Gyanendra's image, has already been printed.

Even now, with the process just days away, many Nepalis appear in a state of shock about the momentous step they are about to take. A closed, conservative society that only opened to Western tourists in the 1950s, Nepalis for many years considered their royal family to be living gods. The most recent polls suggest about half of voters would prefer to retain the monarch, at least as head of state.

But the royal family has very often been its own worst enemy. Most infamous was the June 2001 palace massacre when the Crown Prince Dipendra shot dead eight of his relatives, including the king and queen, before turning a gun on himself. Seven years later, the best explanation for the attack remains that Dipendra was crazed over his family's refusal to let him marry the woman he wished and retain his succession to the crown.

Yet even in the aftermath of such trauma, it has at times seemed that the royal family was committed to further regicide. In February 2005, Gyanendra, who was pushed on to the throne in the aftermath of the massacre, suspended the parliament and seized power, returning Nepal to a state of affairs not seen since 1990 when absolute rule was ended. The resulting outcry led to massive public demonstrations against the already unpopular Gyanendra.

"You can see just by looking at the pictures," said a Kathmandu bookshop owner, pointing to a series of photographs of the royal family. "King Birendra [the previous king, shot dead by his son] looks so nice. But Gyanendra does not look good."

But there is more to it than that. The abolition of Nepal's monarchy is inextricably linked to a broader story playing out in this Himalayan country about the end of the country's civil war which saw government forces pitted against Maoist rebels. A breakthrough to end a decade of fighting that cost at least 13,000 lives came in late 2006 when the rebels agreed to put down their weapons and re-enter politics.

But the Maoists insisted on one demand from which they refused to budge – the monarchy had to go. In the aftermath of Gyanendra's decision to suspend parliament and impose martial law, other political parties were inclined to go along with the Maoists' demand.

With the election just days away, no one is campaigning harder than the former rebels. The Maoists' third-in-command, Hisila Yami, the minister for water in an interim government established as part of the peace process, said the only time she had free to talk was at 6am. So we rattled through the rutted, barely awake backstreets of Kathmandu and asked directions to Ms Yami's headquarters. There, Ms Yami and her young cadres were already feverishly busy. A young aide brought cups of sweet black tea and moments later the minister appeared in a trouser suit, extending her hand.

"We have already forced our policies into the mainstream – republicanism, federalism, the democratisation process and, of course, the issues of gender and Dalit discrimination and class oppression," said a cheerful Ms Yami. "Technically we have already won but now we have to win at the ballot."

Most observers believe that neither the Maoists nor their main rivals, the centre-right Nepali Congress (NC) or the centrist and awkwardly named Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) have sufficient support to win a majority. As such, the resulting Constituent Assembly (CA) that will be created after Thursday's vote will have its work cut out to agree a constitution. Most believe it could take years.

But a concern much more frequently voiced is the possible reaction of the Maoists if the election does not go as they hope. Some of this can probably be dismissed as anti-Maoist bias that exists in parts of the conservative private media, but the Maoists themselves have done little to assuage the worries of those who believe the former rebels are not quite ready to give up their armed "people's war".

In recent days, the Maoists' charismatic leader, Prachanda, made a series of seemingly ambiguous statements as to what he and his colleagues will do if victory is not theirs come Thursday night. While he told Reuters his party would respect "any verdict of the masses ... even if we are in a minority", the very same day, the 53-year-old former teacher told a mass rally in Kathmandu: "We will be compelled to seize Narayanhiti [palace] if we are defeated through conspiracy."

In addition to this, there are also countless reports that the Maoists have been intimidating the candidates of other parties. While there is evidence that all parties have been involved in such practices, it appears that the Maoists and their Young Communist League (YCL) have taken it to greater levels and there are daily reports of YCL attacks on other candidates.

Ian Martin, head of the UN mission (UNMIN), said: "In the far west, the NC, the CPN-UML and the CPN-Maoist are the ones flouting the code and also disrupting one another's election meetings and engaging in violence. This does not augur well."

Amid all of this, the one person who has not spoken publicly is Gyanendra. Some reports have him stoically facing his final few days as Nepal's last king, ready to accept the will of a people he was only trying to help by seizing power. Other reports portray him as frantically filling his time plotting how to keep his position, working to undermine the parties opposed to him and gorging himself on newspaper reports and political blogs about the final days of his reign. A man who frequently received visitors, he has reportedly shut himself off in the past few weeks to all but his closest advisers.

"He loves [his position as king]. He would not stop it on his own. He is a very ambitious man who enjoys the trappings of power," said Kunda Dixit, editor-in-chief of the Nepali Times, which defied the censorship enacted by the palace after the king dismissed parliament. "He is probably plotting how to retain this somehow."

One such scenario discussed by Nepal's intelligentsia is that Gyanendra could even now stand down and form his own royalist party, following the example of Cambodia's Norodom Sihanouk. By presenting himself as a political candidate, Gyanendra could seek the support of the 50 per cent of the public who wish to see the monarchy continued.

Others say he is not interested in power. Pramada Shah, wife of the king's nephew, and whose parents-in-law were among those murdered in the palace massacre, said: "He is ready to accept the people's mandate. That has been the [royal family's] view since Binendra's time."

But Mrs Shah and other supporters of the monarchy see only more problems for Nepal if the monarchy is ousted. She says that in a country with more than 100 ethnic groups and tongues, the monarchy is a glue that holds the country together and resists the pressures of its huge neighbours, China and India. She also pointed out the examples of other former kingdoms that had recently got rid of their kings – Afghanistan, Sikkim and Iran. "The media has portrayed King Gyanendra as a despot, as a tyrant but I do not agree. Nepal needs a monarchy," she said.

For a country so long fixed in the past, whose cities are a combination of crumbling medieval architecture and ramshackle modern buildings, and whose roads were designed for oxen-carts rather than SUVs, the pace of political change is suddenly coming very fast to Nepal. Just seven years ago, in the aftermath of the palace massacre, civil servants shaved their heads and were ordered to refrain from eating salt for three days. Thousands of ordinary people followed the example. Flags were flown at half-mast and a formal 13-day period of mourning was enforced.

The day after the massacre, more than half-a-million people poured on to the streets of Kathmandu to throw flowers as the funeral procession bearing eight open coffins made its way to the Pashupatinath temple where the bodies of the royal family were cremated alongside the river Bagmati.

Two days later, the body of Crown Prince Dipendra, the royal assassin whose actions set in motion a series of events whose conclusion will be reached this week, was also driven to the same temple and similarly cremated.

That trauma still resonates in Nepal. Now the country – in which at best only half the adult population read and write – is having to confront the abolition of the monarchy and the adoption of a new political language – democracy, republicanism and even possibly the establishment of a federal state. Even the Maoists admit they need to do more to educate people about the political changes they are demanding.

In such circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that many ordinary people appear a little bewildered. Anecdotal evidence suggests unsurprisingly that the younger generation is more ready to accept change and sees less attachment to the palace.

Those a little older would perhaps prefer a sense of continuity. On Durbar Marg, a busy street located close to the palace, Sonia Upretti was selling newspapers. She said would be voting for the NC party, but she did not agree with its policy of abolishing the monarchy. "The king is the king," she said. "Who are we to throw him out?"