This is the last part of the article that proceeds debate on the necessity/relevance of monarchy in Nepal at a time when the country is heading for Constituent Assembly.
By Mahesh Poudyal
The culture of monarchy
What answer do you get/expect to get if you ask a British or other European who has a constitutional or ceremonial monarchy in their country – “what has your monarchy given you?”? The first thing I get from them is the sense of pride they have in their royal institution and their tradition. They (most of them anyway) seem very proud to have a father(/mother?)-of-the-nation-like figure in their country who they could look up to, like a model-family, role model for the people to follow. I have to admit this is more so with regards to the Dutch and the Nordic royal family than the British. Nevertheless, the British royal family never ceases to amuse its people – like Hollywood celebrities. Anyway, coming back to the point – our own monarchy – are we proud of our monarch? Do we accept him (its always him in case of Nepal sadly!) as a father-of-the-nation figure who unites our multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural society? Are we proud in the culture of our monarchy?
There is no doubt we Nepalese are very proud of our society where there is so much diversity and where there is so much richness in culture, heritage and tradition. But, has monarchy brought any additional value to our already rich culture? Do we have a culture of monarchy that we can be proud of, and that is worth hanging on to? Personally, I think the monarchy in our country, especially of late, hasn’t been that of a symbol of unity among diverse culture, heritage and tradition. Perhaps it wasn’t the same when King Birendra was alive, but even then this issue of monarch/y being a symbol of unity among diverse cultures is questionable. I find it hard to go along with monarchists’ viewpoint that without monarchy our society will just disintegrate into ethnic lines. How do we know? We have not seen our society disintegrating.
True, we haven’t had in our country’s history not have a monarch BUT over the course of this history, especially during the periods of absolute monarchy, weren’t the Shahs’ and the Ranas’ ruling us by dividing our societies rather than by uniting us? (remember “Divide & Rule” principle?). It was true during a century of Rana autocracy (with puppet Shah monarchy), it was true again during three decades of autocratic Panchyat regime under the Shahs, and except for a decade after the 1990 revolution (during constitutional monarchy of King Birendra), it has been true during Gyanendra Shah’s autocratic regime. The alienation of indigenous people, both from the hills and the Terai was/has been rife during these autocratic regimes. Even a few decades ago, a Madhesi (a person from Terai) was now allowed to serve in the “royal” army. How can that be a symbol of unity?
The strength of a culture/tradition can be seen from the legacy it leaves for the future generations. What legacy, if any, has Shah dynasty left for us, for our future generations? Arguably, Prithvi Narayan Shah was the most important monarch of Shah dynasty, who with the help of his brother and some able generals created a “unified” country – Nepal. Other than the legacy of King Prithvi Narayan, there isn’t much to talk about when it comes to legacies of other Shah kings. Tribhuvan had some role to play in overthrowing the autocratic Ranas but was he doing it for the greater interest of the people or for his throne? There were martyrs, such as Gangalal and Dharma Bhakta, however, who were definitely fighting against the Ranas for the greater interest of the people. King Mahendra turned out to be another autocrat, whose legacy – the “partyless” Panchyat – King Birendra took over for another 18 years before bowing out to the democratic forces in 1990. King Birendra did stay on as a constitutional monarch, however, with massively reduced power and never during the course of his 10-year-reign after the restoration of democracy in 1990 did he interfere in the democratic politics. Probably, that is why there was such an outpour of public grief when he and his entire family were massacred in 2001, and probably the reason why Nepalese people still remember him fondly. Unfortunately, in his five-year reign after the royal palace massacre, king Gyanendra has probably eroded the little good legacy left by his predecessors.
Talking about the legacy left by the monarchs in Nepal, perhaps we should look to an earlier era – that of the Mallas. The Mallas who ruled in and around the Kathmandu valley have left us with a rich cultural and traditional heritage, especially to the Newar communities who form a majority in the valley and in the adjoining the cities. They have not only left monuments that are listed as world heritage sites but also the legacy of the kings such as one benevolent king who used to keep watch over his people from the window of the tallest building in his durbar square to make sure that food was being cooked in every home (the smoke coming from the roof-tops told him whether or not a cooking fire was on in every house)! No wonder the Malla period is considered the Golden Age in the history of Nepal, especially that of the Kathmandu valley. Even today, thousands of visitors flock to these durbar squares to marvel at those legacies, BUT not to the Narayanhiti or the Singh Durbar. It is probably safe to say that the culture of monarchy, if there was any, and the legacy of the Shah dynasty has not been so great for an ordinary Nepalese to be proud of, except of course those of a few monarchs like King Prithvi Narayan.
The verdict again? In my opinion, the Shah monarchs haven’t really been a symbol of unity as the monarchists claim them to be. Of late, and especially at times of autocratic regimes, they have been more of a symbol of division than that of unity. Culturally, we had richer monarchies like the Mallas and the Lichchhivis, which have left richer tradition and heritage to the Nepali people, especially to those indigenous to the Kathmandu valley and the surrounding cities. Are we proud to have monarchy as it stands now? Again, personally I am not – especially after what happened in the royal palace in 2001. I think, we should be proud of the monarchs like King Prithvi for creating an politically unified Nepal, King Birendra for at least giving up his power and staying within his constitutional rule until his tragic death (or murder?). However, monarchs like Gyanendra who have not only brought about great suffering to the Nepalese people but also used brutal force against them to stay in power, have brought shame not only to themselves but also to the institution of monarchy. It is time we put an end to this part of our “culture” and “the culture of monarchy” and move on.
Following the events unfolding back home in Nepal for the past two weeks or so from this alien land, I have become increasingly “concerned” (as one blogger remarked, we are only good at being “concerned” and not acting on it!) not only about my family who live there but also about the country I was born and I grew up in. Having grown up “under” a monarch, in the beautiful Himalayan kingdom, I also used to think that our society (and nation) wouldn’t be complete without a monarchy. I also used to look at our monarchs as the symbol of unity in our multiethnic, multi-religious, multicultural land. However, the events of these past two weeks have forced me to analyse the role of monarchy in Nepal in the cold light of day, and this essay is the product of my analysis. The increasing stubbornness, and senseless political meandering of king Gyanendra, coupled with his current acts of using brutal force against the freedom loving (and peace seeking) people of Nepal might have swayed me to being an anti-monarchist, BUT I have tried to look at the role of monarchy and whether it has brought/ is likely to bring any benefits to an ordinary Nepalese from economic, political and cultural aspects as best I can (considering my lack of knowledge in the politics of my own country!). From all three aspects of monarchy – economic, political and cultural – I have come to the conclusion that we Nepalese are better off getting rid of this white elephant than keeping it. At this point I remember a story that I used to hear from my elders when I was a kid. It was about a Baba (saint) who predicted way back in King Prithvi Narayan’s time that the Shah dynasty will come to an end after the 10th monarch (or was it 11th?). Anyway, King Birendra was the 10th Shah King so may be that Baba had a divine vision and saw the palace massacre happening nearly 250 years earlier! And may be we should follow that Baba’s divine words and put an end to the monarchy now before it is too late.