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Royal cradle then, Maoist haven now

A small palace sits on the outcrop of a ridge in Gausahar village, barely a two-hour hike from Besisahar, the administrative capital of Lamjung province. This is the “Lamjung Darbar of His Majesty the King”, proclaims a government signboard.

It was from this palace that Drabya Shah ventured out in the 16th century to establish Shah rule, and his descendant, Prithvinarayan Shah, conquered the many principalities sprinkled around the Nepali mountainscape two centuries later to create today’s Nepal. King Gyanendra is a direct descendant of these two adventurers.

Today, the palace stands forlorn on the middle hills of Nepal. A lone woman caretaker is the only representative of the state at this historic monument.

A police post guarding the palace had moved out when outlying police stations across the district were consolidated at Besisahar during the reorganisation of police defences. For a long time, security forces have been seen here only during the heavily armed patrols in a show of strength.

The cradle of the Shah kingdom now falls in the middle of Maoist country. Although no one has died in Gausahar, the Maoist presence is strongly felt despite the ceasefire announced in January this year. Photocopied notices of an upcoming mass meeting are stuck to the neat walls of the houses in the tiny village square and no one dares to remove them.

Soon after an emergency was imposed in November 2001, the local school headmaster was beaten up by Maoists for refusing to cough up the mandatory “donation”.

Left for dead, he is still recuperating in Kathmandu. The rebels destroyed the village administration building one night. Gausahar men serving in the Nepali army or the police have not dared to return home.

A six-hour journey west of Kathmandu, Lamjung is listed as a ‘Category C’ district among Maoist-affected areas. But the designation is deceptive. Between November 2001 and January 2003, the Maoists killed 52 security personnel and 7 civilians. They lost 62 comrades.

In November 2002, security was put on high alert because intelligence reports said the rebels were massing forces to overrun Besisahar. Only precipitate action by the army prevented it. On November 23, 2001, the Maoists triggered an explosion in the Lamjung district administration office to herald the outbreak of fresh fighting. Some time later, the district forest office was razed as was the communication repeater tower that connected the district with the outside world.

A 6 pm to 4 am curfew was imposed in Besisahar on November 25, a day before the emergency was announced. Even after the ceasefire, the curfew is still in place. Only, now it begins from 7.30. The barrier on the road that joins the highway to Kathmandu still comes down in the evening.

The security forces have not been able to secure areas outside the district headquarters. Government officials admit that the level of insecurity is still strong in villages just minutes away from the district capital.

A major casualty of the conflict in the region has been the Middle Marsyangdi Hydroelectricity Project, the country’s second-largest hydropower undertaking.

The project has a storage bunker for explosives near the construction site and the army provides security. During the days of intense fighting, the army refused to transport the gelatine (to be used for blasting), except during daytime and under heavy security. As a result, the three-shift cycle was seriously hampered and progress has fallen far short of the targeted 90 per cent completion.

Besisahar is the starting point of the famous Annapurna circuit and used to be a bustling town. Trekking had almost died out, but is picking up slowly amid the tenuous peace that holds now.

People feel more secure, but as the former president of the district development committee, Jamindra Man Ghale, put it: “That is because of the ceasefire and has nothing to do with the security forces.”

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