Monday, March 17, 2008

A Legacy Looming Large On Our Land

If any departed soul tenaciously hovers over Nepal today, it is surely that of King Mahendra. Despite the major political parties’ sustained campaign since 1990 to officially erase his memory, the late monarch stubbornly refuses to go away.
Allegations continue to be heaped on him some 36 years after his death. From prime minister to peon, almost everyone seems to have one tale or another to add to this collective denigration. Since the royals themselves have chosen to endure this onslaught of opprobrium, few “royalists” have risen in public defense of the man who did more than anyone to define our Nepaliness. Yet his legacy speaks for itself.
King Mahendra was no democrat, and he probably would have resented any such characterization. Not because he discounted the universality of the human quest for freedom. Nor because he questioned the commitment of its Nepali advocates. He simply didn’t believe in political parties’ ability to steer Nepal through the tumult of his times.
And tumultuous his times were. The founder of the modern Nepali state, King Prithvi Narayan Shah, described his new kingdom as a yam between boulders to the north and south. By King Mahendra’s time, two massifs had formed on the east and west, capturing all the chilliness of the Cold War. Democracy, after all, had become a distraction for far too many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Geopolitics was only part of King Mahendra’s story. The defining element was his personality. A virtual prisoner under the Ranas as crown prince, he had ample time to ruminate on the kind of realm he wanted. What he saw outside the Rana-induced confines was not pretty.
With the onset of the 1950s, the United States saw events forcing it to take a diplomatic interest throughout Asia on a scale without precedent. “Nepal Is Example of Area Where We Now Take Active Role,” The New York Times said in a sub-headline one February morning.
That was a period, one must recall, when New Delhi’s “hopeful neutrality” in the East-West ideological conflict was considered in Washington and London as a prelude to the triumph of communism in India and beyond.
The prospect of China’s absorption of Tibet precipitated the 1950 Treaty between the Rana regime and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. That didn’t go far enough amid the full-fledged Chinese invasion of Tibet. King Tribhuvan’s flight to New Delhi came as the next move on the geopolitical chessboard.
“[T]he unseating of the king to make way for his grandson is exciting general wonder,” The Washington Post reflected in an editorial. The real anxiety came in the next sentence: “Are the Chinese Communists preparing the way for an assault on India when Tibet has been subjugated?”
During their months in exile in India, King Tribhuvan and Crown Prince Mahendra would often find themselves conversing in Newari. Surely, it wasn’t their intention to impress their hosts with their linguistic dexterity. They wanted to keep their interpretation of the goings-on to themselves as far as possible.

Warranted Discretion
Their discretion was warranted. During this period, Washington and London had come closest to recognizing infant King Gyanendra. The death of Sardar Ballabh Bhai Patel, Indian home minister and purported advocate of Nepal’s formal incorporation into the Indian union, changed the dynamics. Returning with King Tribhuvan, the crown prince found himself officiating regularly for his father.
Long before B.P. Koirala could recognize Nehru’s real motives in forging the Delhi Compromise, Crown Prince Mahendra had made up his mind. He was not about to trade the Ranas for a group of foreign captors. Over the next four years, he became increasingly explicit in his disenchantment with the divisiveness democracy had wrought. Such fissures, in his view, could only exacerbate the balancing act his ancestor’s yam parable encapsulated.
By the time King Mahendra ascended to the throne in 1955, the Nepali Congress, like other parties, had lost little time in political pandering. The party had already hailed a letter from Crown Prince Mahendra supporting its demands for the early election of a constituent assembly and an independent judiciary as the equivalent of the Magna Carta.
King Mahendra may have foisted multiparty elections to parliament in place of one to a constituent assembly his father had promised. But could he have really succeeded in “gifting” a constitution without the acquiescence of B.P. Koirala and other leaders of the democracy movement?
Amid the Nepali Congress’ landslide victory in 1959, B.P. felt he could finally claim the premiership in full democratic style. If King Mahendra wasn’t comfortable about inviting B.P. to head the new government, the Nepali Congress leader wasn’t about to relent, either. B.P. sought – successfully – Nehru’s intervention and, as premier, began making thinly veiled references to the anachronism called the monarchy.
Royal wrath wasn’t the real reason for the brevity of Nepal’s democratic politics. Over the 1950s, Nepal came under greater pressure from the north, south, east and west. As B.P. readied for talks with visiting Chinese premier Chou En-lai, the monarch was preparing for a joint address to the United States Congress.
The American media was hungry for color. “[The] shy, slender little King in dark glasses, has caught Washington’s fancy,” The New York Times gushed. The Washington Post chimed in: “[D]ressed in a blend of East and West with a brown, doublebreasted suitcoat over an exotic Indian costume, [King Mahendra] told the National Press Club … there is practically no culture left without some Western influence.”

Quadrangular Contest
Back home, weeks after Chou’s visit, Prime Minister Koirala informed parliament that Chinese troops had killed a Nepali officer and captured 16 unarmed soldiers operating on the frontier with Tibet. China, which had initially expressed surprise at B.P.’s announcement, subsequently acknowledged the attack and apologized. Yet it would be a while before the Chinese pulled back their troops from the frontier. By this time, the Soviets had arrived in Nepal to join a quadrangular contest for influence.
Brazen as it may sound, if not King Mahendra, then Prime Minister Koirala would have had to terminate Nepal’s democratic experience. Simply put, there were too many fault lines flustering the increasingly assertive external players.
The first two years of the royal takeover were increasingly precarious. The banned Nepali Congress made an abortive attempt at regicide, while stepping up an insurgency from exile. To the casual observer, Nepal’s northward drift seemed strange, given the stark ideological incongruity. For the kingdom, it was part of – to borrow the title of a book by a prominent American scholar – a strategy for survival.
On a visit to India, shortly after returning from China, King Mahendra denied Nepal had ever tried to play off India and China against each other. A Chinese proposal for a confederation of Himalayan states -- including Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, the Northeast Frontier area and Nagaland, and possibly Tibet – was clearly aimed for India.
After India’s defeat in the border war with China in 1962, a chastened Nehru sought to engage with the palace. He forced the Nepali Congress to suspend its anti-palace insurgency. Still, it wasn’t hard to miss Delhi’s seething resentments. Nepal had turned a corner. Panchayat, as the new polity was enshrined in the 1962 constitution, was just the name for the geopolitical equilibrium the kingdom had attained.
As some foreign observers saw a growing rivalry between Peking and Moscow for the favor of Nepal, others were amused by what Time magazine called King Mahendra’s “wheeling and dealing in style.” One afternoon, a correspondent noted, the monarch attended the formal inauguration of a ropeway, only hours after Nepali and Chinese officials signed an agreement by which Peking would build two warehouses and a brick-and-tile factory.
The next day, the king and queen boarded a Soviet helicopter, flown by the Russian crew, to Paanchkhal to inspect a 70-mile road being built by Chinese engineers from Kathmandu to Kodari. Back in the capital, the magazine went on, Mahendra heard reports on negotiations with the Soviet Union for a sugar mill, cigarette factory and hydroelectric plant.

‘Neutral Cockpit’
While beatniks of the world were gravitating to Nepal, western diplomats were speaking of how King Mahendra had adroitly turned Nepal into a highly profitable “neutral cockpit”. The Indians, for their part, continued peddling the line that Chinese aid to Nepal was nothing more than grandstanding. They claimed, among other things, that abandoned projects were still listed in ‘active’ stage for propaganda purposes. Others saw Peking to be in good position to take over control of Nepal if a political upheaval threatened the personal rule of King Mahendra.
U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew arrived in Kathmandu in 1970 on 22-hour visit. “The crows cawed a welcome, the sacred cows were herded off the road to avoid a confrontation with the motorcade,” according to one chronicler. Clearly, those who saw Nepal struggling to emerge into the modern-day world under a system reminiscent of the Middle Ages were influenced more by its quaintness than its exclusiveness.
Conventional wisdom seeks to undercut King Mahendra’s legacy by citing the 1965 arms memorandum with India as well as the Kalapani dispute. As to the first, the Indians have benefited from Nepali unawareness. The Panchayat government, rejecting India’s interpretation, revoked the memo in 1969 when it ordered the Indian military mission to leave Nepal.
The fact that the Kalapani dispute stemmed from India’s insistence on holding on to the strategically vital territory for defensive purposes after the 1962 war with China remains a footnote in the debate. For some reason, Narayanhity Palace has clung on to documents that could have shown how King Mahendra had regularly raised the issue during meetings with Indian leaders.
On the way to the airport from what would be his last meeting with the Indian premier, King Mahendra conceded that the dispute had dragged on for too long. He told an aide that he had exhausted what he considered his “quota of irritants” for that particular year.
Wheeling and dealing in style? It is perhaps no coincidence that the period between 1965 and 1969 saw Nepal aggressively raising its international profile. The royal regime’s success in inviting the United Nations in the development of Lumbini as well as in becoming a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council did much to establish the kingdom’s independent identity. India, grudgingly, now started listening to Nepal’s grievances on the sidelines of international summits.
To be sure, Craven A cigarettes, Chivas Regal bottles and Patek Philippe watches continued to bring out the full regalia of what had become Nepal’s unchallenged political leader. Yet King Mahendra continued reaching out to the rural hinterland, encouraging ordinary people to speak up.
He extended the same privileges to his critics. Today we remember Ram Raja Prasad Singh, the doyen of Nepali republicanism, as a firebrand agitator who sought the abolition of the monarchy as a member of the Rastriya Panchayat. What Singh won’t tell us is the content of his discussions with King Mahendra at the palace, where he was whisked into from prison in the stealth of night.
We can make an educated guess, though. King Mahendra wooed leading communists to the new regime by describing himself as one of their own, albeit with a crown. The Rayamajhis, Regmis, Adhikaries and Upadhyayas may have used that to justify their own crossover. That ultimate revolutionary, Chairman Mao, didn’t need such prodding. Geopolitics, more than anything else, led the Chinese communists to consider the monarchy their principal ally in Nepal.
Akin to an amateur soothsayer, King Mahendra could size up his interlocutors and stun them with fairly accurate assessments. Some still look back and recall his remarkable accuracy in predicting the future as well. Yet the monarch was down-to-earth when it came to real life. Governing Nepal, he would say, consisted of shuffling around 200 people.
To the uninitiated, that may have sounded like undiluted braggadocio. But the king certainly didn’t consider himself omnipotent. Having received no formal education, the monarch would not hesitate to profess his ignorance of the intricacies of economics. Yet he was constantly on the lookout for talent.
During a visit to the United States, a young Nepali Ph.D. student instantly impressed him. Amid the hectic royal schedule, the palace secretary misspelled the first name of this individual. Later, in announcing the man’s appointment as the top economist in the government, Radio Nepal broadcast the wrong first name. The man in question – the youngest person ever to head a government ministry – went on to serve his nation with great distinction under two subsequent monarchs.
During another foreign trip, one Nepali pointed out a mild rebuke of the monarch that had appeared in the morning newspaper. King Mahendra was brutally candid. He didn’t have the power, in a foreign land, to haul the reporter in prison.

‘That’s The Way It Is…’
From attending wrestling matches to searching for Chihuahua puppies to take back home, King Mahendra made full use of his visits to the United States. So much so that, in 1967, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite wondered, in his customary that’s-the-way-it-is evening news sign-off, why his president should be lavishing such importance on the king of a country few Americans had heard of.
In 1968, B.P. Koirala and his associates were freed from prison under a deal with King Mahendra. The monarch had suffered a heart attack and B.P., too, was ailing in detention. If there had been any power-sharing proviso, B.P.’s subsequent decision to go into exile and harden his posture against the monarchy shut that door.
As King Mahendra was transiting in Bombay following medical checkup in Britain, B.P. happened to be in the city. In a gesture of reconciliation, the ex-premier stood in the airport receiving line. After a brief awkward moment that approximated a royal snub, King Mahendra returned to acknowledge B.P.’s greetings.
The ex-premier had little luck in scheduling a meeting with the monarch at his hotel suite. Yet he remained mystified by the monarch’s affability at the airport. It was almost as if the tumult of the sixties had never occurred.
Earlier, during another trip abroad, King Mahendra had stunned a few Nepalis by claiming that he thought B.P. was the only person qualified to be premier. One asked, with palpable diffidence, why the monarch had imprisoned Nepal’s only democratically elected prime minister.
King Mahendra said it would be wrong to blame him alone for B.P. personal and political torment. The questioner was too flabbergasted to volunteer a follow-up inquiry. (A careful reading of B.P.’s prison reminiscences also suggests that there was much between the teacup and the lips.)
India’s military intervention in East Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, evidently emboldened the Nepali Congress to harden its posture vis-Ă -vis the monarchy. King Mahendra, for his part, had been planning reforms that would have led to a restoration of multiparty politics.
The monarch had asked Shambu Prasad Gyawali, a former law minister, to draft the necessary constitutional changes. Gyawali reached the royal bungalow at Chitwan with his recommendations on the appointed morning in January 1972, only to learn that King Mahendra had died of a massive heart attack a few hours earlier.

Confronting Contradictions
An early and central feature of Nepal’s road to newness has been the renaming of state institutions bearing royal prefixes. Yet the facts are what they are. The monarchy’s leadership of the army will remain at the center of the history of modern Nepal’s emergence.
The renaming of the Royal Nepal Airlines and the Royal Nepal Academy cannot obscure the fact that both institutions were created under the monarchy as part of its campaign to consolidate Nepal’s independent identity. The removal of the royal portrait from banknotes cannot change that key piece of monetary history: It was under King Mahendra that the rupee began its rise as the national currency under a fully fledged central bank.
The Nepali mind must confront the contradictions this partisan change has brought about. Prithvi Narayan Shah’s campaign of national unification is now depicted as a war of aggression. Nepalis, we are told, have never really been united emotionally. Yet even the semblance of an attack on Nepaliness – Hrithik Roshan, anyone? – provokes a fiery response. The country, moreover, rejoices in the triumph of an Indian Idol contestant simply because he happens to be a Nepali speaker sharing a familiar surname.
With Nepal under growing siege from within and outside, even the worst critics of King Mahendra must find it difficult deep down to revile the man for what he really stood for.