Saturday, July 15, 2006

Royal Responsibility

With most ministers and officials of King Gyanendra’s 15-month regime having shifted to the palace responsibility for the deaths and injuries inflicted by the state’s brutal response to the April Uprising, the Rayamajhi Commission appears emboldened enough to seek to question the monarch.
A few royalists, such as former Home Minister Kamal Thapa, have been politically prudent in articulating the collective responsibility of the cabinet. On the other end, royal aides such as former commander in chief Satchit Sumshere Rana have questioned the jurisdiction of the panel. Why stop at 19 deaths (or 22 depending on how you count) when the country has lost over 13,000 lives in a decade of political violence?
More succinctly, Rana sought to know who would take responsibility for the nine deaths (a number that has risen since his testimony) that occurred after the monarch reinstated the House of Representatives in April.
Contrary to prevailing belief, the palace accepting responsibility for its actions is not unprecedented. After the 1990 protests, King Birendra took responsibility for the Panchayat system in a highly mature way. The late monarch’s interview in January 8 1992 with the now-defunct Independent weekly made headlines for the propriety or otherwise of a constitutional monarch speaking to the media. In one question, the interviewer pointed to claims that courtiers deliberately kept information from the monarch regarding the nature and extent of public disenchantment in the country.
The late monarch’s answer was revealing: “I believe in direct interaction with the people and their representatives and it was with this objective that I spent time outside the capital every year meeting (people) and visiting various parts of the country. This type of accusation has been leveled in the past and will continue to be leveled in the future on anyone holding positions or responsibility.”
Should the Rayamajhi Commission summon King Gyanendra, his testimony would help shed considerable light on the dysfunction that passes for democratic politics. In the more than two months since he was forced to give up power, the reasons for the February 1, 2005 takeover have been amplified. The political value each player has been coveting and extracting from war and peace over last 10 years is at the heart of Nepal’s crisis. The trivialization of vital national issues – which King Gyanendra specifically stated as a reason for the takeover – has returned in its full lethality.
Initially, there seemed to be firm commitment from the political parties and the Maoists to restore the nation’s vitality. The performance of both suggests that the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists – and the Indian architects of the 12-point accord, had envisaged little beyond clipping the political powers of the monarchy.
To be fair to the SPA, the skepticism of the people, spurred by the mainstream parties’ ineffectiveness and squabbling between 1990 and 2002, has held them to a higher standard. But, then, recognition of this heightened threshold was implicit in their acceptance of King Gyanendra’s reinstatement of the legislature.
Should the occasion arise, it would be inconceivable for King Gyanendra not to take responsibility. The laws of the time had banned protests. Those breaking the curfew were consciously using their defiance to reinforce their message to the palace. As the chief executive responsible for maintaining law and order, the monarch can be expected to articulate the thoughts that went behind his government’s decisions.
For the sake of consistency, however, King Gyanendra might want to insist on everyone taking responsibility for the destruction of life and property. This won’t be an easy task. For one thing, what is the standard for apportioning culpability for the 13,000 deaths during the Maoists insurency? In terms of numbers, the Maoists and their supports might seek to evade responsibility by repeating that two-thirds of those deaths resulted from the state. Even going by this claim, can there be a moral equivalence between the Maoists, who started the violence, and the military mobilized as a response through political consensus?
Moreover, can political expediency of the moment ignore the reality that the political parties, which first unleashed the full coercive powers of the state against the Maoist insurgency, were in fact “suppressing” the “People’s War”?
In terms of the destruction of state property and development infrastructure – along with the more pernicious psychological damage -- that would have a longer term adverse impact on the country, are the Maoists ready to accept proportionate responsibility?
As William Blackstone said, every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject whether practiced by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. Voltaire may have been speaking of the perils of the SPA’s and Maoists’ propensity for blaming a “despotic” palace for Nepal’s ills even after having eviscerating the monarchy: A despot always has his good moments; an assembly of despots never.