In the first of a new series of articles, The Human Angle, Babu Gogineni, who inaugurated the Humanist Association of Nepal in 1997 in Khatmandu, looks at the latest developments there.
For long the world’s only Hindu Kingdom, Nepal recently declared itself secular. This is not just a symbolic move, but the culmination of a silent People’s Revolution aiming to restore democracy and the rule of civilised law in the land. Is a People’s Democratic Republic far away? And will the People’s Revolution last?
The current Nepalese monarch King Gyanendra assumed Nepal’s throne on 4 June 2001 as the beneficiary of his brother King Birendra Shah’s suspicious assassination. For almost five years since then it seemed as if the new King’s illegal panchabali – sacrifice of a buffalo, a sheep, a goat, a duck and offerings of fruits – at India’s Kamakhya temple for his, and his royal family’s well being served its purpose. Otherwise, how could the notoriously aggressive Crown prince Paras go unpunished for his wayward behaviour and criminally irresponsible driving? More importantly, how could the businessman-turned-King steadily march his country towards an absolute monarchy without much international opprobrium?
In May 2002 he dissolved Parliament. In October 2002 he dismissed the pliable Prime Minister Deuba and his Council of Ministers for ‘incompetence’. In the same month he postponed indefinitely the general elections that were to be held later that year. He has since appointed three governments on whim, and cynically and illegally sacked them all. On 1 February 2005, he imposed a state of Emergency in the country invoking Article 27(3) of the Nepalese Constitution which enjoins the King to “preserve and protect this Constitution by keeping in view the best interests and welfare of the people of Nepal.”
Gyanendra did not hesitate to destroy Nepal or Nepal’s Constitution in order to ‘protect’ it! The Constitution that Gyanendra left in tatters had come into being in 1990 during the reign of the assassinated King Birendra Shah, and was the basis of the general elections of 1991, 1994 and 1999. Unfortunately, elections brought no political or economic stability and the country saw nine governments in 10 years. This period also witnessed a Maoist insurgency that threw economic life in Nepal into serious disarray, created a sense of fear and insecurity throughout the land, and gained control of nearly 80% of Nepal’s territory, The violent activities of the insurgents, and savage reprisals by the Royal Nepalese Army have caused the death of an estimated 13,000 Nepalese so far.
At the time of his coup in 2005, Gyanendra pretended that he wanted to bring back peace to the kingdom. Nothing of that sort happened, and the situation only got worse since when he usurped executive power. Even though he revoked the illegal Emergency on 29 April 2005, his despotic rule continued. His was a tyrannical regime marked by hopeless governance, incompetent administration and unaccountable actions. Intimidation of Human Rights activists, restrictions on the media, and brutal repression by the Royal Nepalese Army became the ingredients of every day life.
Red Alert in Shangri-La
The developments in Nepal did not go completely unnoticed. In early 2005 the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières posted a red alert on the Human Rights situation in Nepal. In July 2005, 8 UN experts described the situation as “extremely serious” because of secret detentions and widespread use of torture in the country. In October 2005 Human Rights Watch raised the alarm over a new Code of Conduct introduced for the media: under this new Code, FM radio stations were banned from broadcasting either news or any criticism of the royal family. Radio Sagarmatha the first community radio in South Asia was shut down by the government on rumours that it was going to broadcast an interview with Prachanda, the supreme leader of the Maoists. As a result of the Government’s new policy, Kantipur FM, the country’s largest FM radio news network, closed: ironic again since it was Nepal which pioneered Asia’s community radio revolution. In November 2005 the government introduced another Code of Conduct, this time targeting “social organizations.” The Code established a government-appointed Social Welfare Council to ‘oversee’ the work of NGOs and made all employees of NGOs criminally responsible even for activities that they were not directly involved in. The Code also barred NGO staff from having political affiliations. Hina Jalani, a U.N. Special Rapporteur, expressed serious alarm over the future of human rights workers in Nepal, as the Code’s provisions were not in tune with international legal protections for freedom of expression and freedom of association.
That Nepal was a member of the then active UN Human Rights Commission made no difference to her domestic commitment to Human Rights.
If in the first quarter of 2006 it appeared that there was a relaxation in Gyanendra’s relentless assaults on the people of Nepal, it was because – on the advice of astrologers – he had gone on a long diplomatic tour to Burundi and South Africa – two countries Nepal has no real diplomatic links with. At the end of this trip there was also to be a two-month holiday for His Highness, away from the Capital and ‘close to the water’. Gyanendra’s advisors were sure that this would assure the continued happiness of the King.
19 Days that Shook Nepal
But the Janandolan – the people’s movement clamouring for restoration of democracy – forced the superstitious despot to cut short his holiday and rush back to Khatmandu on 12 April 2006. Discontent and tremendous anger that was simmering for many years in the hills and the plains of the kingdom exploded, and several hundreds of thousands of Nepalese defied Gyanendra’s ineffective curfews and shoot-at-sight orders to gather in Khatmandu and in other towns to express their democratic solidarity with each other and to demand a restriction in the powers of the King. The Seven Party Alliance made of political parties demanding restoration of democracy and Parliament, as well as the outlawed Maoists were behind the protests. And in just 19 days, the King was brought to his knees.
Gyanendra was forced to restore Parliament and to invite the Seven Party Alliance of political parties to name a Prime Minister. The King was refused admission to the very Parliament he had restored. As a further blow, the octogenarian royalist Prime Minister B.P. Koirala who was the choice of the Seven Party Alliance refused to join Gyanendra’s Raj Parishad or Royal Privy Council. At its first meeting, the 205-member Parliament unanimously proclaimed that the King would be stripped of his powers and that the military would henceforth be brought under civilian authority – the King would no longer be the Supreme Commander of the Armed forces. The Royal Nepalese Army which in recent times was supplied with 20,000 M-16 rifles from Washington, 20,000 Insas rifles from Delhi, 100 helicopters from London and 30,000 Minimax guns from Belgium was renamed Nepal Army. His Majesty’s Government has been renamed Nepal Government. The National Anthem which comically hails “May glory crown you, courageous Sovereign” and which equates worship of the King to patriotism was scrapped. The King will henceforth be subject to taxation, will no longer enjoy legal immunity and will be unable to name his heir to the throne.
Rejecting the King as the symbol of Nepalese unity, the people and Parliament broke the link between the State and the Religion in whose name the King reigned. Nepal, the world’s only Hindu state, was declared a secular country by Parliamentary proclamation.
In just 19 days, the people of Nepal – one of the poorest peoples on the globe – rose to inspire all the democratic forces on the globe. They demonstrated how a peaceful revolution could be conducted, and how the people could reclaim their sovereignty against all odds.
Shameful and Pathetic Reactions
In this their hour of glory the people of Nepal did not have the governments of the US, the European Union or India cheering by their side, united as these governments were in their anti-Maoist solidarity. Like the cunning King, the foreign powers failed to understand either the aspirations of the people or their demands. They continued to assert that Nepal’s welfare depended on the twin pillars of the monarchy and Parliament. Their hollow analysis did not explain that the monarchy was not a condition of the welfare of the Nepalese people.
Narayanhiti Palace responded to these rapid developments by organising 5 sacrifices at the Dakshinkali temple in Nepal, aimed at increasing the strength of the worshipper and sapping the power of his foes.
Until recently ordinary Nepalese were not allowed to even look at the King’s face. And now this institution is reduced to resorting to black magic to save itself! What a pathetic fall for the King of Nepal who was propped up as the embodiment of Lord Vishnu for the last 238 years when Nepal was in the grip of the Shah and the Rana dynasties!!
Hindu Kingdom in Nepal
The seeds of Nepal’s institutional problems were sown in 1768 when King Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of the Gorkha principality who unified Nepalese territory by conquest, proclaimed Nepal to be the ‘pure land of Hindus’ and ‘a garden of four varnas and thirty-six Jats’. This official patronage of Hinduism and its primitive social structure was even more rigidly enforced during the time of the Ranas who ruled from 1846 to 1951. Jung Bahadur Rana who founded the Rana regime is quoted by Krishna Hachhethu in Nepal: Confronting Hindu Identity as saying “In this age of Kali, this is the only country where Hindus rule”. He proclaimed the Civil Code of 1854 which provided a legal footing for the ancient Vedic organisation of society, and the customary practices of different jats. The dharmasastras – the Hindu texts – were the basis of law for nearly one hundred years.
Rana’s 1854 Civil Code classified people into three broad categories in the following descending order:
(a) Tagadhari (sacred-thread wearing, twice born castes like the Brahmans and Chettris)
(b) Matwali (alcohol drinking castes and ethnic groups) and
(c) Sudra (impure but touchable) and Acchut (impure and untouchable castes).
Developments in the 1950s
In 1950 when King Tribhuvan and his family were in exile for a few months, the Present King Gyanendra – then a three-year old child and Tribhuvan’s youngest grandson – was appointed King – but this was not recognised by any international powers. When Tribhuvan returned to Nepal, the 1951 the Interim Government of Nepal Act was passed. There was no mention here of Nepal being a Hindu state. Nor was Nepal declared a Hindu state in the Constitution of 1959.
However, when King Mahendra seized power from his father King Tribhuvan through a royal coup in 1960, he ended the multi-party democratic system and introduced a party-less panchayat system. The Panchayat Constitution of 1962 declared Nepal as a Hindu state, but thankfully the Civil Code of 1963 formally withdrew the state’s support to the Hindu caste system.
When the 1990 Constitution was adopted, it reaffirmed Nepal’s identity as a Hindu state closely associated with the monarchy. Cow slaughter was banned, and the absolute ban on religious conversion was reconfirmed. Safeguarding the tradition of Hindu supremacy and promotion of the Sanskrit language was considered a duty of the state.
The Nepal-India Hindu Connection
While Nepal is a small kingdom, neighbouring India has 800 million Hindus, whose far right leaders the King wooed: indeed the head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Council of Hindus) which terrorised the minority Muslim communities in India was one of the first guests of the King after he took over Nepal. The 7th World Hindu Conference, held in Gorakhpur (India) in February 2003, passed a resolution to protect the Hindu Emperor in Nepal – and when Nepal was declared a secular state, it seemed as if there was more sadness expressed in India than in Nepal. Jaswant Singh, leader of India’s Hindu right-wing political party BJP and former minister of External Affairs in the Central government, spoke with anguish: and said that he felt diminished by these developments. Those who are not deceived by the BJP’s public profession of ‘positive secularism’ might notice that the BJP claims it wants secularism in India, but that they would not want it in neighbouring Nepal!
Hinduism has done Nepal no good. Nepal is one of the poorest nations in the world, ranked 140th in the 177 nations listed in the Human Development Index with one of the worst social hierarchies existing. The rigid social structure in Nepal is underpinned by Hinduism. The Dalits (untouchables) and the adivasis (hill tribes) live in such atrocious social and economic conditions that their plight is similar to that of the untouchables in India a hundred years ago. Nepal continues to be the world’s largest exporter of (Hindu) women to neighbouring countries for prostitution. In this nation Hindus constitute 80.6% of the population while Buddhists constitute 10.30 %. The rest are the janajatis – minorities like tribes people, Christians and Muslims, all of who are marginalized.
The Hindu state that came into existence in Nepal was an abhorrent one.
The Long Trek Ahead
Half-baked western scholarship explains the problems of South Asia as being a result of fatalism. The people of Nepal gave the lie to this by becoming masters of their destiny. But their job has only just begun. Now the task of nation building needs to be taken up in right earnest.
Abject poverty remains the plight of a majority of Nepalese: over 9 million out of the 26 million Nepalese live on less than the equivalent of one dollar a day. Half the population does not have access to either clean water or to electricity.
The restored Parliament’s resolution to reserve 33% of all Government posts for women should be turned into a law as soon as possible – neighbouring India is still unable to move a similar law through Parliament, demonstrating how progressive the political forces in Nepal are. Some 118 laws have been identified by a Nepalese rights group as violating women’s rights. These must be scrapped or modified as appropriate.
Peace must be re-established, for which the Army must be reigned in, and the Maoists have to be integrated into the mainstream. Unless peace is made with the Maoists, satisfactory elections to a Constituent Assembly and to a new Parliament cannot be guaranteed. The new Cabinet has dropped the charges of terrorism against the Maoists and Interpol has been asked to withdraw arrest warrants and red corner alerts against them. But alarming reports are coming in of the Maoists failing to observe their ceasefire, and making new threatening demands for unofficial taxes from industry. Nepal is a nation heavily dependent on tourism and foreign aid, and has hardly any industrial activity. If the situation prevails that would be disastrous for an economy that is already in a bad shape.
The insurgents wanted a secular republic and their interim goal is a bourgeois democratic system. The secular state has been secured. At a recent Hindu ceremony in which the King participated, there were 1000 Nepalese. On the same day the Maoists held a peaceful rally that attracted over 180,000 people. It is obvious the King is on his way out and the political forces should respect the will of the people.
The Supreme Court
Nepal’s other institutions have to be strengthened too – for example the courts have a progressive role to play in modernising Nepal’s society. Except when in January 2005 the Supreme Court refused to entertain a bid to restore Parliament, the Supreme Court has impressed in many ways:
– On August 10, the Supreme Court stayed the government’s order closing down the private radio station FM 91.8.
– In September 2005 the Court ruled that the practice of keeping women in cow sheds during menstruation be stopped.
– In November 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that women under 35 years of age could apply for passports without permission from parents or husbands.
– In December 2005 the Supreme Court asked the government to scrap a discriminatory rule that required women to seek permission from family members if they intended to sell inherited property. The Supreme Court also asked the government to review the provision under which a daughter has to return any inherited property to her paternal home after getting married.
A number of other features bode well for Nepal in the period ahead: the existing rules prohibit political parties named after religions or castes. This means that it should be possible to encourage secular parties whose agenda would be people’s development rather than exploiting differences in society. The new government should take care that now that Nepal is no longer a Hindu state, the Christian and Muslim evangelical vultures from abroad do not land with their sack loads of money to exploit the people’s ignorance and convert them to their own brand of superstitions. The government should introduce educational programmes for all Nepalese which will impart modern knowledge and cultivate critical intelligence.
Jab Taaj Uchale Jayenge
Above all, the triumphant people of Nepal have demonstrated that they can be creators of their own history. They have shown themselves to be capable of creating a silent and responsible revolution: they will be both the architects and the custodians of the new Nepal they desire. And today, as Kanak Mani Dixit, the respected editor of Himal magazine, wrote from detention, they can sing in Urdu with Faiz Ahmed Faiz (the Pakistani poet who defied the dictator Zia ul Haq of his own country):
Hum dekhenge …
Jab takth giraye jayenge
Sab taaj uchale jayenge*
* We shall (live to) see …
When the thrones will be demolished
When the crowns shall be toppled
We, the rest of the world, shall see how, once the song and dance and jubilation is over, the rejuvenated Nepal will handle the task of nation building. As of now, it appears that Nepal is on the right track.