Why did Nepalese people abolish monarchy? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 13, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 13, 2008

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Why did Nepalese people abolish monarchy?

THE unexpected massive election victory of Maoists on April 10 has changed Nepal. One of their demands has been the abolition of monarchy, establishing a secular Republic.
On May 29, the royal flag came down from Nepal's sprawling, pink royal Narayanhity Palace as the Himalayan nation of 29 million people, with the exception of diehard monarchists, celebrated its first day as a Republic following the abolition of 240-year old Hindu monarchy. The modern state was formed with the Unification of Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah on December 21, 1768.
The palace received a letter on May 30 asking the unpopular ex-king to leave within two weeks, in line with the newly-elected assembly's vote to abolish the monarchy earlier in the week.
The constitution of Nepal describes the country as a "Hindu Kingdom," although it does not establish Hinduism as the state religion. Nepal's constitution continues long-standing legal provisions prohibiting proselytisation and discrimination against other religions. Nevertheless, Nepal remained the only officially Hindu country in the world.
The 2001 census identified 80.6% of the population as Hindu and 10,7% as Buddhist (although many people labelled Hindu or Buddhist often practice a syncretic blend of Hinduism, Buddhism or animist traditions). 4.2% of the population is Muslim and 3.6% of the population follows the indigenous Kirant Mundhum religion. Christianity is practiced by less than 0.5% of the population.
The new 601-member constituent Assembly was summoned in the Birendra Convention Hall on May 29, and 560 members voted to declare the country as a secular Republic.
For more than two hundred years the monarch enjoyed absolute power, revered by the subjects as incarnation of god or Buddha.
In June 2001, the monarchy received the severest blow when the Crown Prince Dipendra killed 56-year old King Birendra, the Queen, and sisters and aunts in the palace (total eight persons) after what was said to have been a dispute at a family dinner party over the son's choice of an Indian bride. In 1991, King Birendra had steered his country to constitutional monarchy with commendable vision and skill.
The tragic incident has dissolved the mystique around the monarchy. The Nepalese people, who used to regard the royals as different from them, came to realise that the royals are were actually no different from them. Human foibles exist in them and they are able to kill each other.
Why did the Nepalese people abolish monarchy?
There are many reasons, and some of them may be described as follows:
First, almost all monarchs, except a few in the Arab World, are constitutional monarchs. They reign, but do not rule the country. It is believed that King Gyanendra opposed constitutional monarchy when it was introduced by his brother in 1991. When he became king in June 2001, he said that he would not be a silent king like his brother. In February 2004, he famously said: "The days of the monarchy being seen but not heard ... are over."
The greatest political blunder he made was that he implemented his words when he took power in February 2005, declared emergency and sent troops to fight the Maoist rebels when peace talks collapsed. Some say he could not fathom the sentiments of his subjects when he took control of the state, and it was a move which precipitated the end of the country's 240-year-old Shah dynasty. Weeks of demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people secured the end of direct palace rule in April 2006.
Second, some people in Nepal suspected that Gyanendra was responsible for the royal palace massacre on June 1, 2001 (although he was away from Kathmandu), and blamed Dipendra so that he could assume the throne himself. Gyanendra, not as popular in the country as his brother Birendra, had been third in line to the throne before the massacre He was a businessman, and invested money in hotels, a cigarette factory and a tea estate.
Third, in November 1950, during a political plot, both his father Mahendra and his grandfather King Tribhuvan along with other royals fled to India, leaving the young Gyanendra (3 year old) as the only male member of the Royal Family in Nepal.
He was brought back to the capital Kathmandu by the then prime minister Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, who had him declared King on 7 November, 1950. After opposition to the hereditary rule of the Rana prime ministers from India, a deal was reached in January 1951, and his grandfather King Tribhuvan returned to Nepal and resumed the throne.
Some say that Gyanendra secretly cherished his ambition from his childhood to become the king again one day, and the conspiracy theory involving him in the killing of his elder brother, late King Birendra, gained ground easily among people.
Fourth, a wind of change began in 1975 when Nepal's neighbour Sikkim's Buddhist monarchs, the Chogyals, retreated in history when India annexed the territory in 1975, ostensibly to support a mainly Hindu Nepali pro-democracy movement. Furthermore, Tibet's "Priest-King" the Dalai Lama fled in 1950 to India when China ended feudalism in Tibet.
Pressure from prevailing political systems in China to the north and in India to the south, coupled with the disappearance of feudalism and absolute rule in Sikkim and in Tibet, influenced the Nepalese people who gradually became impatient with the monarchy and wanted democracy with a Republic.
In the Himalayas only Bhutan has a monarch, but he surrendered his power this year to a democratically elected parliament.
Challenges for the new government
Both the nation and elected political leaders are now in euphoria. This may not last long when they confront the challenges before them.
The Maoists, who won 220 seats in the elections in April, are expected to have a major role in the government. All leaders will require tolerance and respect for each other's views. They will have to compromise and accommodate each other's views to reach a national consesus on burning issues.
The Maoist leader reportedly wants to review all the treaties concluded between India and Nepal. This will not be an easy task because the country is a land-locked nation sandwiched between India and China. Furthermore, the US has not yet reconciled with the Maoists'past conduct. The international community will watch how the relationship develops with India, China and the US.
Nepal is a least-developed country, and poverty is widespread. Economic growth in Nepal was just 2.3% in the year ending in July 2007, compared with 3.1% the year before. Business and trade suffered because of political turmoil.
The people have great expectations from the Maoists because they promised jobs to the unemployed and land to landless farmers. Whether they can deliver or not is a big question.
Another issue is related to the integration into the military of Maoists former fighters. The army has so far refused to allow them into their ranks.
The political establishment faces an immense task to satisfy people's high expectations. In the meantime, the mood has been jubilant on the streets in Kathmandu. The sentiment is reflected by a Nepali, Rupesh Ranjitkar, 25, who reportedly said : "There will be peace now. I don't think anyone will miss the king or shed any tears."
We wish the Nepalese people well in their new journey under the Republic.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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