By Dr Gyan Basnet (PhD)
Once again Nepalese politics is disturbed – this time by the former king’s statement that the institution of monarchy could be revived. The deposed king, Gyanendra Shah, has indicated for the first time that he might like to return to the throne. His statement attracted news headlines and has immediately become the subject of a hot debate in Nepalese political circles. Speaking on a television channel, he said that he had made an agreement six years ago with the political parties that he was happy to be a constitutional monarch. The Constituent Assembly abolished the monarchy in 2008, but the Assembly itself was recently dissolved after failing to reach agreement on a new Constitution. Fresh elections are now planned for November, but in the meantime the country is mired in a huge political vacuum. Nepalese politics is experiencing what feels like a fight to the death between the Prime Minister and his allies on one hand and the opposition on the other.
Criticising the Constituent Assembly for failing to promulgate a constitution, the deposed king warned that the monarchy might return if the people wished it. There are many questions to be answered, and serious analysis, too. Could the monarchy return? Does a former head of state have the right to express his opinions and feelings about problems besetting the country? Who has created an environment in which the deposed king can dare to regain his position? To what extent is the recent political failure responsible for this? What are the rights and immunities of a former head of state in Nepal’s context?
Making Mountains out of Molehills
The former sovereign on one of his religious trips to the west of the country expressed a willingness to return as king but only in order to play the role of guardian. His statement followed the failure of the political leaders to draft a new constitution by the May 27 deadline and the consequent uncertainty as a result of the political impasse. Critics argue that wrangling between the political parties has become a boon for the former king.
New bubbles have recently been created in the Nepal’s political scenario. Speaking to the press the leader of Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist and Leninist, Madhav Kumar Nepal, stated that the former monarch’s activities should be restricted to those of a religious nature. He further warned the deposed king that he could face imprisonment if he continued with these suggestions in the future. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai followed up with a harsh warning that the state could withdraw all facilities being provided for him as former head of state.
Many serious questions need to be considered regarding these developments. Does the former king’s statement carry any value and meaning in their changed political situation? If not, why do their leaders and the political parties make mountains out of molehills out of it? However, the public demonstrations of the country’s pro-monarchy Rastriya Prajatantra Party a few months ago showed that the monarchy does still have support in the country: its largest attendance at a public meeting called for the return of the monarchy and of the Hindu state. However, did this imply a return of monarchy with full powers restored?
Should their former king not consider himself to be one of the luckiest ex-kings in the world? They granted him a dignified departure from power. They did not confiscate his properties, and they provided him with full security and a place to stay. Their ex-king must not forget that after the successes of their revolutions, the British chopped their king’s head off, the Russians shot the Tsar and all his family, and Chinese Emperor escaped and was later found to be a gardener. In contrast their own deposed king enjoys all the immunities and privileges that are granted to every former head of state in our country.
As a commoner and an individual citizen like each one of them, the ex-king holds the right to freedom of expression and all kinds of liberties as the law permits: he is free also to preach about his beliefs to the public. He can even form his own political party, and he can dream of becoming a king again one day. Why not – if people wish it to happen? The essence of democracy is that everybody has the right to express his or her values and beliefs. As a former king, he remains a public figure; it is natural that he receives public attention whenever he talks and wherever he goes. It does not mean that he is angling for power again. There is no reason to make an issue out of it, and leaders of the political parties have no reason to fear.
I have some counter-questions for the leaders and their political parties who are making mountains out of molehills and attracting headlines in the media simply for the sake of it. If they are indeed worried about a possible return of the king, why are they not more outspoken against those pro-monarchy parties such as Rastriya Prajatantra Party and the many Hindu religion-based organizations in their country who preach openly in favour of a Hindu kingdom? Rather than simply make statements aimed at getting cheap media headlines, why do their leaders not investigate why the former king is doing this? Who are those who are backing him? Is not the failure of the political parties and of the leaders themselves the primary reason why the ex-king is acting as he is? Most importantly, a few months back the Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Jayant Prasad, openly referred to the former king as one of the powers in their country. Why did their leaders and political parties at that point not demand a full explanation from the ambassador?
In Nepalese political circles, everybody now has an important question in their mind: could the monarchy actually return? In 2003 when the so-called Maoist insurgency was at its height, I wrote: ‘If the institution of monarchy does not change its attitude in accordance with the people’s changed sentiments, it will arrive at a fatal end.’ Just five years later the prophecy was fulfilled! Subsequently I declared: ‘Continuation of the traditional form of monarchy and its legitimacy was ended by the heinous Nepalese royal massacre’ that occurred on 1 June 2001. The former king could not today be seen to represent any continuity of the former tradition. Even during the three decades of rule under the one-party Panchayat system, people did not support the monarchy: it ruled the country with force and with a handful of supporters. The institution of monarchy was never popular in their context. In the end the people threw it out, and the people would not now accept its return.
History is witness to many instances where dismissed monarchies have tried to regain power but without success. In the light of the humiliating failure of our political parties to deliver a new constitution and the looming danger of an ethnic crisis in the country, the former monarch may have used the opportunity to offer his services as guardian of the country without becoming an active monarch. It is natural for any dismissed monarch to try to regain some power when the opportunity arises. Indeed, restoration of some monarchies has occurred in the political history of the world, but they should not contemplate any going back in Nepal.
Some argue that there is fear of a ‘third force’ emerging in their country. They argue that if the current political turmoil continues for some time and that if their political parties fail to adapt to the changed political situation and address the current political vacuum, a different form of dictatorship may appear on the political scene. However, I strongly believe that no force (including the Maoists and even the President if they were to hatch a grand design to hold on to power by any unconstitutional means) could stop their people going all-out for a fully-fledged democracy. The chance of reviving the former monarchy or of establishing any other form of dictatorship is not an option for them. The people of Nepal are well aware of their rights and duties now, and the establishment of a fully-fledged democracy is the only option that they will accept.
However, bearing in mind the fundamental principle that ‘nothing is impossible in politics’, then anything could still be possible if their political parties fail to address the urgent needs of today.
I strongly suggest to party leaders that none should make a mountain out of the molehill that is now a thing of the past. Monarchy can no longer be an alternative to a federal republic with full democracy. The challenge now is for them to preserve and build on their achievements since the country entered into the peace process. The institution of monarchy is part of their great country’s history about which they can amuse their next generation in the telling.
Dr Gyan Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights Law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Prominent Columnist, Researcher in International Human Rights Law and a Human Rights and Constitutional Law Lawyer in the Supreme Court and Subordinate Court of Nepal. Email: [email protected]