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King, no longer sacred in Nepal

The palace tragedy of 2001 thrust the politically shrewd Gyanendra to the forefront of Nepalese politics.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2006 17:27 IST
Agencies
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For centuries, the Shah kings of Nepal have swung from being absolute monarchs to titular figureheads and back again, usually after horrific violence.

As present King Gyanendra, the 12th of the dynasty, battles pro-democracy protesters who want him to cede power to a representative government, many are wondering if he can remain on the throne at all.

Gyanendra has been at the center of a political maelstrom since 2001 when he was thrust onto the throne after the crown prince killed nearly every member of this Himalayan nation's royal family.

"Gyanendra, thief, leave the country" is the warcry of the tens of thousands campaigning against his rule, a slogan that would have been heretical just a few years ago when the Shahs were worshipped by the Himalayan nation as reincarnations of the Hindu Lord Vishnu.

"That kind of traditional respect is over," says Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of the local weekly Samay. "A kind of momentum is building up."

To be fair to the king, the mystique surrounding the dynasty was torn apart by a 2001 palace massacre in which then Crown Prince Dipendra killed nine royals including his parents and then turned the gun on himself in a drink and drug fueled rage.

"That incident sent a strong message that people we worship like gods are using drugs and killing their parents," says Ghimire. "How are they different from any common criminals? That was a flashpoint."

King Gyanendra was out of the city at that time, and succeeded his much-respected brother King Birendra, the last Shah to transition from being a ruler to a titular monarch.

Despite a somewhat unsavory reputation as a hard-nosed businessman with interests in tobacco and gambling -- he owned part of what was the country's biggest hotel and casino at the time -- King Gyanendra's countrymen appeared ready to give him a chance to restore the prestige of the monarchy

Instead, within four years, he sacked the government and assumed full power, saying it had failed to put down a raging Maoist rebellion. The move reversed his brother's decision to allow multiparty democracy and a constitutional monarchy in 1990 after a campaign in which up to 300 people were killed.

The resulting public anger against King Gyanendra was fueled by nagging suspicions many harbored about why he was away from Kathmandu when Dipendra killed most of the royal family, and how his son, now Crown Prince Paras, survived the shooting.

"It was a missed opportunity," says Ghimire of King Gyanendra. "He was a royal but he didn't expect to be king, so he was also a commoner. He could have given a new thrust to the monarchy."

Not a democrat

The prime minister he sacked, Sher Bahadur Deuba, doesn't have much good to say about him.

"By nature, he is not a democrat," Deuba said of the king and his promises to hold elections by April next year. "He says one thing and does something else. I tried very hard but his plan was not to be just a constitutional monarch."

Deuba said he saw chaos, riots and violence continuing perhaps for years. At least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the current uprising, and hundreds of others have been arrested.

He said the only way to end King Gyanendra's rule would involve the support of the army, which currently gives him full backing.

"I don't want the army to be used as a political weapon against the king," Deuba said. "But after all they are accountable to the people."

Instead, within four years, he sacked the government and assumed full power, saying it had failed to put down a raging Maoist rebellion. The move reversed his brother's decision to allow multiparty democracy and a constitutional monarchy in 1990 after a campaign in which up to 300 people were killed.

The resulting public anger against King Gyanendra was fueled by nagging suspicions many harbored about why he was away from Kathmandu when Dipendra killed most of the royal family, and how his son, now Crown Prince Paras, survived the shooting.

"It was a missed opportunity," says Ghimire of King Gyanendra. "He was a royal but he didn't expect to be king, so he was also a commoner. He could have given a new thrust to the monarchy."

First Published: Apr 17, 2006 15:51 IST