The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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King baiters grow bolder
- Criticism no longer hush-hush, all manner of people speak out

Kathmandu, April 12: A student leader evading arrest suddenly emerges at a street corner in a crowded Kathmandu locality and addresses an impromptu public meeting using a portable loudspeaker. He criticises King Gyanendra and demands the restoration of democracy. Both he and the crowd disperse before police reach the spot.

In the Nepalese capital, where people are believed to be apathetic, more than a hundred offered public arrest in Kathmandu on April 8, celebrated as Democracy Day ' it was on this day that the late King Birendra agreed to the need for multi-party democracy in Nepal.

Nearly 1,000 people were arrested all over. They did not have to be pulled out of their homes by the police ' they came out shouting pro-democracy slogans and challenged the security forces to arrest them.

A 70-year-old retired Gorkha soldier of the British army has voluntarily gone to jail thrice protesting against the king's actions since October 4, 2002. Each time he offers his arrest, police officials urge him not to do so at his age. He replies: 'But I like it here. All my friends are here in jail, what will I do outside'

When an octogenarian communist leader, suffering from high blood pressure offered his arrest, the deputy superintendent of police apologised to him, distancing himself from the distress that might be caused.

Nepalese newspapers are also getting bolder. There are editorials against the Supreme Court Chief Justice who went to Australia for an international conference and blamed the political parties for the present crisis.

Intellectuals, academics and politicians are challenging government orders restricting their movement. People sitting in restaurants and coffee shops criticise the king's actions without fear of being overheard. The Bar Association of Nepal is filing habeas corpus petitions free for those believed to be in illegal custody.

The struggle between the old feudal elite, reasserting itself through Gyanendra's regressive actions, and the emerging elite whose interests lie in free competition in public life is clearly intensifying.

A range of parliamentary political parties ' from the Nepali Congress to the Nepal Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist) ' represents this emerging elite. Their main source of support is the hinterland ' among the people who were ruled ' and not the rulers. Rarely are the leaders of the student unions in Kathmandu, for example, from the valley itself.

Given the unrelenting process of globalisation and its political concomitants of democracy and talent-based competition, this war ' whose indications are in the wind in Nepal ' is not going in favour of the monarchy.

'The king's actions are already helping open up the space for dissidence because of inherent structural contradictions,' says Hari Sharma, a young political scientist and director of social science, Baha.

'The king's rhetoric is about constitutionalism but his actions speak otherwise. His attempt at creating a parallel administration of nominated zonal and district commissioners, and security committees does not sit well with the established constitutional order. The bureaucracy is not only afraid, it is also offended.

'The Supreme Court also feels miffed because the newly-appointed Royal Commission on Corruption Control is outside the judicial system. The commission itself has thrown up a case of corruption involving a member of royal family,' he says.

Sharma points out that the army tried to monitor banking transactions after February 1 but the privatisation of banking and the confidentiality requirements of modern banking meant that the banks refused any such direct intervention. They pointed out this was the job not of the army but the Central Bank.

'Everyday, the Supreme Court judges are issuing notices to the government to explain its actions ranging from banning mobile phone services, prohibiting intellectuals from travelling abroad to unlawfully restricting the movement of prominent people outside the Kathmandu Valley, etc.'

C.K. Lal, a brave and prominent Nepali political commentator, offers one more layer of explanation. 'In the last 15 years or so, a parallel aspiring class has emerged in the five traditional monarchical support groups ' the military, the mandarins, the merchants, the mediators (comprising the professional classes and the media), and, what I call, the 'meddlers' from the international and domestic NGOs.'

The interests of this 'parallel aspiring class' do not lie with those steeped in promoting feudal patronage. They, Lal points out, comprise junior officers in the army, entry-level officers in the bureaucracy who have got in through open competition, independent and new entrepreneurs, newer professionals who have not yet found accommodation in the power structure and the grassroots-based community organisations.

This class was educated and politically acculturised in the period of relative openness following the 1980 referendum. Many of them have experienced only democracy. They yearn for the freedom they enjoyed during the democratic era.

'They want careers open to talent which is only possible in a democracy or else elite domination will never end. So, they are personally committed to democracy,' claims Lal.

That there is new political mobilisation taking place even in Kathmandu is evident.

'Three things are happening simultaneously ' the political parties are meeting together to decide on a united struggle; the press is creating national and international pressure on the monarchy despite censorship; and the civil society is uniting against the king,' says Shyam Shreshtha, the editor of Mulyankan, currently evading arrest.


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