Sunday, June 07, 2009

He Knew They Hated Him From The Start

In the immediate aftermath of the Narayanhity carnage, Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai revealed how Dhirendra Shah had expressed fear for his life. This week, another communist – academic Manik Lal Shrestha – posited that King Birendra shared a similar fear.
If the late king could open up so candidly to the estimable professor, he certainly would have made his security concerns known to the prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, who was also in charge of the royal palace portfolio. Koirala, as far as the public record shows, was locked in a power struggle with the monarch over such diverse issues as the citizenship bill and the mobilization of the army against the Maoist rebels.
If King Birendra didn’t convey his concerns to Koirala, then that does open an entirely different line of inquiry. After all, this would not be the first time that one of the plotters himself turned out to be the whistleblower on a “grand design”. Moreover, Koirala was the head of the party that had mounted assassination attempts on Birendra as well as his father, Mahendra.
The new story this anniversary of the horrendous night is not about how one royal ADC had prevented another from felling Crown Prince Dipendra, thereby permitting a wider bloodbath. It’s the series of revelations – scattered in the less-prominent Nepalese press – that King Birendra had survived earlier attempts on his life. What was it that made Birendra such a despised man among some? Clearly, his responsibility to Nepalese nation handed down by his ancestors.
Doubtless, King Birendra’s Western education and modern outlook personified the extension of Nepal’s international profile. This came on top of the monarchy’s traditional supervision of Nepal’s precarious balancing act between its two giant neighbors espousing antithetical values on virtually everything.
To be sure, there were old-style campaigns to denigrate Birendra, especially over issues of rifts within the royal family and romance. Those didn’t fly. Geopolitics had exacerbated Nepal’s sense of vulnerability. The Soviet-backed overthrow of the monarchy in Afghanistan in July 1973, through Indian abetting, confirmed the palace’s suspicions that India had virtually become the eighth member of the Warsaw Pact.
In an interview with Newsweek over a year after his enthronement, King Birendra said that the basic problems facing Nepal “are development and the preservation of our identity as a nation”. Nepal, he said, was not a part of the subcontinent; it was really a part of Asia which touches both India and China. The Khampa rebellion was rooted in, among other things, Nepal’s existence as a trans-Himalayan state. Yet the pressure from the south was unremitting. Nepal, the palace was politely but incessantly warned, should not exaggerate its geopolitical compulsions.
In the machinations underway in neighboring Sikkim, the palace saw the Indian political leadership less as an instigator. The bureaucratic-intelligence-security axis long subverted the political process and ultimately presented the political leadership with a fait accompli. Yet, given the end result, the distinction didn’t matter.
During his coronation in 1975, Birendra articulated Nepal’s quest to preserve its national independence through the Zone of Peace proposal. India held out, citing the urgency of further study. It contended that the proposal contravened the 1950 Treaty, at least in its interpretation. The palace persisted and, predictably, the Panchayat system was denigrated as a dictatorship.
Apparently 116 countries would not necessarily see the ZOP a tool of an autocrat aimed at consolidating his rule. Nor would a galaxy of international leaders, ranging from French President Francois Mitterand to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl consider Nepal off-limits as an international pariah.
The quaint and exotic image Kathmandu wore for the world could not conceal the deepening international power games. India, not surprisingly, was the prime mover and shaker. Amid the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, months after the anti-Shah revolution in Iran, King Birendra perceived a grave threat. Admittedly, the palace was fearful of Soviet-Indian subversion amid an emaciated America under President Jimmy Carter. But much more than the monarchy was at stake. It was easy to berate the monarchy’s invocation of a custodianship of national independence, especially by those who bore no such responsibility.
King Birendra recognized the risks therein. In August 1979, when the Irish Republican Army assassinated Lord Mountbatten, King Birendra was in China. The sorrow that had descended on the royal entourage could not hide the deep sense of foreboding.
The 1980s witnessed behind-the-scenes arms-twisting from the south. New Delhi became more brazen in linking trade and transit concessions Nepal felt entitled to under international law to acknowledgement of its security concerns. The problem, as usual, was that profound gap in perceptions. What India considered its “legitimate” security concerns encroached upon Nepalese sovereignty. A foreign-inspired attempt on King Birendra’s life was foiled after another embassy provided the palace with information it had intercepted. In public, the controversy over the mysterious import of 84 cases of arms camouflaged the wider conspiracy.
King Birendra embarked on a renewed drive to bolster Nepal’s international profile. During a state visit to the United States in December 1983, President Ronald Reagan not only heartily endorsed the ZOP proposal but also described the monarch’s innovative approach to peace and development as possible foundation for progress throughout the region. The message was not lost on New Delhi.
Following Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension to power – in the aftermath of his mother’s assassination in 1984 -- there was some hope that New Delhi would finally discard its outmoded notions vis-à-vis Nepal. That was short-lived. The series of explosions that rocked Kathmandu in 1985 was observed and explained in terms of the non-cooperation movement launched by the Nepali Congress and the republicanism espoused by Ramraja Prasad Singh. Before the full implications of the linkages between the two central venues – the Royal Palace and the Rastriya Panchayat – could be probed, anti-palace propaganda machine was in overdrive.
The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu in 1987 provided Kathmandu with a fresh opportunity to fortify its international profile. King Birendra’s adroit handling of the post-summit news conference allowed Kathmandu to articulate its aspirations clearly and candidly.
The Indian Army’s intervention in Sri Lanka that year once again heightened King Birendra’s anxieties. Indian incursions into Nepalese airspace forced Nepal to rethink national security. The purchase of anti-aircraft guns, along with other materiel, from China was purely defensive and based on cost.
For India, this provided the pretext to try to turn the clock and reinforce the 1950 Treaty by bringing trade, transit and other aspects of the bilateral relationship under a single comprehensive treaty. What began as an Indian embargo expanded into active political subversion. The Nepali Congress and the communists joined hands against the partyless system. Yet it was no coincidence that the movement happened to peter out at the precise moment the draft of the comprehensive treaty was being worked out before it could be foisted on the palace.
The Reagan administration’s enthusiasm for the palace’s efforts to preserve Nepal’s independent existence had diluted significantly under its successor. Under the George H.W. Bush administration, Nepal became increasingly vulnerable to the Christian evangelism and anti-China strands of the Republican party. The palace nevertheless pressed on. The fallout from the Tiananmen Square massacre wasn’t the only reason behind China’s diffidence in coming out in full support. Deng Xiaoping had revived the east-west swap on the border dispute with India. Rajiv Gandhi, fresh from his landmark visit to China, recognized the opportunity to act against Nepal.
Clearly, the restoration of multiparty democracy was not the result India expected. But it had to make the most of it. So when Ganeshman Singh was asked what the new constitution would be like, he could offer no specifics. Except that he would drop the ZOP proposal. (A statement that effectively ended his political utility for India. A man projected as the first president of Nepal could not wield enough influence several months later to save his wife and son from electoral defeat in the face of their own distinct political records.)
Three years after the restoration of multiparty democracy, the principal critic of the Tanakpur project, Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Madan Bhandari, was eliminated. That was shortly after Bhandari acknowledged the palace as a power center and was working on a common front. (Significantly Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal revealed the other day how Bhandari’s successor-in-waiting, Madhav Kumar Nepal, conceded that the charismatic leader had fallen victim to international politics.) The net was cast for the wider Mahakali Package under the new leadership of the UML.
As the Maoist insurgency benefited from the political instability, geopolitics took another ominous turn. India conducted a series of nuclear tests, citing the threat from China. The US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in what was officially described as an accident. President Jiang Zemin refused to take President Bill Clinton’s phone call.
The Indian Airlines hijacking capped a sordid reality: India’s relations with the world’s only Hindu kingdom hit its nadir under the leadership of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. New Delhi accused the palace of abetting Kashmiri militants. Kashmiri militants, for their part, were sore that the palace systematically blocked the convening of an international conference on Kashmir. The most bizarre explanation for the Hrithik Roshan riots came from Prime Minister Koirala, who suggested it was a public reaction to King Birendra’s machinations against their hard-won gains.
Some Western powers continued to egg on the monarch to intervene politically. Birendra, citing how his pleas for sympathy fell on deaf ears in 1989-1990 on the instigators, refused. In an effort to defuse the looming showdown, the anti-Koirala faction of the Nepali Congress walked during a general shutdown to register a no-confidence motion against the premier. Premier Zhu Rongji’s trip to Nepal, shortly after King Birendra’s own visit to China, thickened the plot.
In the end, what happened on the night of June 1, 2001 and its aftermath may have been the outcome of a divergence between the objectives of King Birendra’s detractors. Specifically, between those who wanted an immediate end to the monarchy and those who sought to widen their own room for maneuver before the denouement.
For both groups, what better way to gain access than discredit the new king? But King Gyanendra was fully aware of the machinations played out in Kathmandu over the decades, honed though the close consultations the royal family always held on political and national-security affairs.
During the first phase of royal assertiveness that began on October 4, 2002, Nepal veered too closely to the south and west. The February 1, 2005 takeover thus came as an inevitable corrective. The aftermath of the collapse of royal rule bore its own oddity. Nepal’s official Hindu status had to go first.
And when it was time for the monarchy to go, there was that historical record hanging in the air. Before he walked out of the palace, Gyanendra Shah complained of the long-running campaign of vilification, challenge the leaders of New Nepal to reinvestigate the palace massacre and confidently offer his full cooperation.
The day prime minister Dahal made that commitment – regardless of his sincerity – everybody inside the country and abroad who had thought they had gotten away by dumping everything on the deposed king and his son for the June 1, 2001 carnage began scurrying for cover. And they still are.