The royal proclamation earlier this week adds yet another twist to the trials which have dogged the people of Nepal over the past years. The imposition of emergency and the suspension of political activity have been coupled with the ancillary suspension of constitutional provisions, which grant civic rights and liberties. As of now, communication links with the outside world also remain severed. There has been a uniform expression of dismay in India at the royal take-over, with concern about what impact the events will have on Indo-Nepal relations.
The almost exponential spread of the Maoist insurgency over the past few years was gradually squeezing the economy of Nepal and the Royal Nepal Army, despite considerable international assistance, has not been able to check its growth. The Maoists seem to be able to operate at will and have a substantial presence in a majority of Nepal's districts. Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, there has been a game of musical chairs in the appointment of prime ministers since the dismissal of the elected government and dissolution of the elected lower house. Even before these exercises of the royal prerogative, the political parties of Nepal had not distinguished themselves in any worthy manner. Within a short period of the restoration of democracy in 1991, Nepali politics was characterized by inter- and intra-party feuding arising largely from personality conflicts and the desire for power.
In the context of this recent history of Nepali politics, some sympathetic chords could echo the dismissive tenor of the royal proclamation towards politics and politicians. There is, however, more to it, as the king also seems to have actively contributed to the disunity among politicians almost since his accession to the throne, instead of acting to bring them together to face a common challenge. He cannot, therefore, avoid his share of the responsibility for the sorry state which in which Nepali politics finds itself.
It also needs to be recalled that unlike the rest of south Asia which had suffered a colonial yoke, Nepal has been independent for the past two hundred years. This is a matter of understandable pride for the Nepali. At the same time, while British India could, and did, imbibe contemporary values, Nepal retained an essentially feudal structure where the concept of democracy was not defined, and certainly not encouraged. Nepal's first tryst with democracy was summarily terminated by the late King Mahendra and could only resurface after thirty years in 1990 after a protracted struggle. What happened on February 1, 2005, is thus seen as not so much of a step compelled by the exigencies of the situation and the inability of the political parties to cope, but as a body blow to the nascent and struggling Nepali democracy.
But 2005 is not 1960, and it is unlikely that this step back into time would pass without let or hindrance, either nationally or internationally. Any attempt to return to the romantic Shangrila of yesterday with a placid people accepting the laws laid down by the palace would only create a stifling prison, as seems to be the case now with a Nepal bereft of communication with the outside world. What was unacceptable to the people of Nepal in the Fifties of the 20th century and what they successfully struggled against after 1960, is unlikely to be sustainable today. Unlike 1960 also, Nepal has tasted freedom, has enjoyed a vibrant and free press and has seen the emergence of a forward-looking, nationalist and educated middle class.
The calculation would seem to be that 'terrorism' being the most reprehensible word in the international vocabulary today, and the Maobadis being termed terrorists (first by India), the world at large, including India, would fall in line with the regime's avowed determination to resolve the Maobadi problem. Internationally, the idea could perhaps be persuasively promoted, as we have seen repeatedly, including in south Asia, where democracy takes a poor second place to firm action against terrorists. Where King Gyanendra may have been poorly advised is that his own standing in Nepal is not as strong as his forebears, particularly after the palace massacre of 2001. And even King Birendra, still enjoying the traditional religious halo, had been compelled to compromise fifteen years ago with the will of the people.
In a nation accustomed to revering the monarchy, talk of republicanism, even outside the confines of the Maobadis, is no longer taboo. Above all, the king has placed the prestige, if not the future, of the monarchy on the line by removing the protective wall which the political parties provided. The monarchy as an institution has been an important binding force for Nepal as a state. Clearly, it can continue to be respected only if it is seen as a glue and not as a shroud, a guide and not a partisan. As for dealing with the Maobadi threat, even if one were to believe that the palace once had links with them to settle scores with the mainstream political parties, much water has since flown down the Bagmati and they are now a force in their own right.
India would have to exercise her choices with caution. The founder of modern Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah, had pithily surmised the position of Nepal as a yam between two stones. Nepal has always displayed considerable diplomatic skill in dealing with her two giant neighbours. As times change, it is inevitable that there would be an increasingly assertive Nepal. But the facts of geography, history and custom (including the much maligned treaty of 1950) need to be seen. The relations of Nepal and India are indeed unique. A Nepali citizen may rise to the highest ranks in the Indian armed forces, where over thirty thousand Nepalis serve in the army with more than one hundred thousand pensioners in the hills of Nepal. They are free to join the civil services in India. There is an open border permitting free movement of people with duty-free access to goods of Nepali origin. Millions of Nepali citizens earn their livelihood in India and there are innumerable family links at all levels of society. Any serious unrest in Nepal affects India, as we have recently seen with large-scale migration following Maobadi activities and army operations. It is important that India's actions do not hurt a people already beleaguered.
One question that may need early assessment is the assistance to the Royal Nepal Army. This has been most substantial over the past three years in an effort to raise the efficacy of the RNA against the Maobadi insurgency. But should the army be used to suppress the legitimate democratic aspirations of the people, then a reappraisal may be necessary.
The course of events in the coming days would be determined by the people of Nepal. The exercise of options by India would depend on how this develops. In the days of the raj, a senior official is said to have remarked, 'We have no policy towards Nepal, only friendship.' This would be valid even today, and friendship has to be for the people at large.