- Purchase/rental options available:
Manoa 13.2 (2001) 48-50
[Access article in PDF]
A Kingdom Orphaned: Reflecting on June 1, 2001
Like all Nepalis around the world, for the past few days I have been trying to put together a coherent understanding of the incoherent act that took the lives of most of my native country's royal family. As the world now knows, Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly entered the family dining room with guns and massacred his entire family, including King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, brother Nirajan, sister Shruti, and other immediate family members--all in all, ten dead, four injured--in a dispute with his mother over his choice of a bride.
This is the JFK moment for all Nepalis: the nation has lost its innocence. Nothing in the modern chronicles of Nepal compares to the evening of June 1 for its sheer shock value--not even the pro-democracy movement of 1990, which led to the dismantling of the nation's decades-old, one-party Panchayat reign and ushered in multiparty democracy.
But the tragedy spells more than mere loss of innocence. Nepalis have lost their faith in the sanctity of monarchy, which had served as the only bridge from their repressive past to their progressive future. Before Friday, June 1, the royal palace in Kathmandu was a symbol that, by its sheer presence, could embrace the multiethnic, multilingual people of the cities, the plains, and the mountains and bring them together as a nation.
Now, however, the palace tragedy has rattled many Nepalis' faith in their future. Riots have erupted in the capital of Kathmandu, and conspiracy theories are buzzing in every Nepali home: the army is involved; it's the handiwork of King Gyanendra, who succeeded his brother and fortuitously escaped the massacre; the timing is too convenient for the prime minister, whose skin was about to be ripped off in scandal investigations; the Maoist rebels who have been running a "people's war" in the Nepali countryside are definitely behind this.
Whatever explanation emerges, it's clear that a deep gash has torn the Nepali psyche, a wound that will take considerable time to heal. In the long run, the massacre of the royals might not have much political impact: no fundamental institutional change has occurred in the Nepali polity in the past few days. We still have a democracy, although the silence of the state-owned radio and television stations about what transpired in the palace is reminiscent of the Panchayat days. Curfews are being imposed in the streets [End Page 48] of Kathmandu, but we've lived through curfews before and we'll survive them again. For a brief while, the government blacked out some Indian cable-television channels for allegedly feeding the swirl of rumors. More recently, the editor and director of a major newspaper have been arrested for publishing a Maoist leader's letter urging the people to reject the new king. This is, no doubt, a serious attempt at suppressing journalistic freedom, but journalists have been arrested even in the last ten years of democracy.
So it might not be foolhardy to predict that, despite doomsday scenarios, no drastic change in the government will occur. As before, scandals will cause the outraged opposition party to call for the prime minister's resignation; tea-shop political pundits will speak of how khattam--gone--the country has become; ordinary folks will pay bribes to government officials to get their work done quicker, and with less fuss.
To be sure, the newly crowned King Gyanendra is not as popular as his brother Birendra. Gyanendra's son Paras, now in line to succeed him as king, is loathed for his gangster ways. And yes, there have been riots and some people have died, but people always die in poor countries ruled by unruly rulers, whether they be kings or prime ministers.
The royal massacre is significant because it leaves the Nepali people "orphaned," as one Kathmandu resident is quoted as saying. Nepalis have become fatherless children because, despite reforms that reduced the importance of the monarchy in the mechanisms of government, the...