In his sprawling house at the Himalaya Mahalaxmi Tea Garden in the eastern Nepal town of Damak, 73-year-old Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, the last king of Nepal, spends most of his time reading newspapers and books. But while he is sequestered away from public life, the 239-year-old Hindu monarchy he once represented is again a focus of public protests.
About 400km away, in Nepal‘s capital of Kathmandu, hordes have been rallying for the restoration of the monarchy, which was overthrown by Maoists in 2008 after they joined mainstream politics following a decade of civil war. Last week, nearly 23,000 people marched on the streets, some armed with slogans including “King, please come back and save our country”.
While Nepal is now a secular republic, years of political deadlock, and more recently a political crisis sparked when the prime minister dissolved parliament in December, continue to fuel calls for a return to the past in the Himalayan nation of 30 million people.
Protesters have also called for Nepal, a landlocked country sandwiched between India and China, to be a “Hindu Rashtra” – a Hindu state. About eight in 10 of the populace are Hindu, while the rest are Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and others.
While China sent a top official to Nepal – a recipient of large amounts of Chinese aid and investment – to assess the situation last month, India has not officially shown any interest in involving itself in domestic developments. Still, several Indian Hindu groups and social media influencers, including a former Indian Army general close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been promoting Hindu nationalism in Nepal.
“It‘s our responsibility to support the Nepalese,” said Ramesh Shinde, the national spokesman of the right-wing Hindu group Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS), who has been campaigning online for Hindu Rashtra in Nepal. The HJS, which once demanded that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “scrap” Nepal’s secular constitution, has over 47,000 followers on Twitter and organises an annual convention in India inviting Hindus from neighbouring South Asian nations to attend.
Protesters from the Nepal Student Union, which is affiliated with the opposition Nepal Congress party, chant slogans during a demonstration against the dissolution of the country's parliament, in Kathmandu on January 13
Bharat Basnet, an entrepreneur in Nepal’s tourism industry who led one of the January 11 rallies along with Manisha Koirala, a Bollywood actor of Nepali origin, commemorating the 299th birthday of Nepal‘s first monarch, Prithvi Narayan Shah, said they were “happy” with the support they were getting from pro-BJP forces in their effort to restore a constitutional monarchy in the country and make Nepal a Hindu nation once again.
But the 63-year-old said the drive only intensified “when people were disappointed by the political parties heading successive governments”.
“They have given nothing to the people of Nepal,” Basnet said. “We would like to have one king rather than have … political leaders behave like kings when they take power and create chaos.”
‘Not your playing’
Not everyone shares Basnet’s enthusiasm. After former Indian Army general G.D. Bakshi recently announced the formation of a Hindu consciousness-raising “core team” to save India “from external and internal threats” and “support Hindu Rashtra in Nepal”, Nepali writer Kanak Mani Dixit asked him to “stay out” of Nepal’s politics.
“Nepal is not your plaything,” Dixit said, as other Nepali social media users described Bakshi’s move as “dangerous” because of its implicit threat of blatant interference in Nepal’s politics.
Even Pashupati Rana, the chairman of pro-monarchy and Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which was once the fourth-largest party in Nepal’s parliament but now has just one seat, said there was no need for India to get involved in the push for the restoration of Nepal’s monarchy.
Analysts like Kathmandu-based political scientist Hari Sharma said India’s BJP, which came to power in 2014, was never happy with Nepal‘s secular status.
“Indian Hindu fundamentalists always imagined Nepal – the land of Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred Hindu temples – was there for them,” Sharma said. “But suddenly when the king was gone and Nepal transformed into a secular state, they became worried. The economic blockade by India on landlocked Nepal in 2015 was seen as India‘s ’indirect’ protest against Nepal for its decision to become a secular state.”
India played a role in restoring Gyanendra‘s grandfather, King Tribhuvan, to the throne in Nepal in 1951 after he was forced to flee to New Delhi in 1950 when the Nepal Congress party – the oldest democratic party in the country – led a successful armed uprising against the then ruling Rana government. Owing to the pressure from India and armed resistance in Nepal, the Rana government agreed to restore Tribhuvan‘s powers as king.
Gyanendra, who was suspected of playing a role in a royal family massacre in 2001 that resulted in him becoming king, continues to have a strong connection with India.
In 2005, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Indian Hindu nationalist organisation labelled a religious militant outfit by the CIA, declared Gyanendra as the Vishwa Hindu Samrat, or the global Hindu king. In 2016, Gyanendra invited a leading BJP politician, Yogi Adityanath, who is now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, to attend a religious gathering in Nepal. A year before that, Adityanath had written to Nepal’s then prime minister, Sushil Koirala, urging him to declare Nepal a “Hindu state”.
But New Delhi-based strategic affairs specialist S.D. Muni said that for generations, the Nepalese monarchy had survived by “dividing” people. Others also point to how the monarchy was a symbol of caste, cultural and religious oppression.
Muni said the monarchy had “negotiated” with the armed rebels, the Maoists, and had meddled in politics by urging a section of communist groups to contest the democratic forces.
He added that the group of Hindu nationalist forces that occasionally funded the Hindutva movement in Nepal should remember “how the monarchy encouraged Pakistan’s anti-India activities on Nepalese soil and China’s influence in Nepal,”.
China’s strategic interest in Nepal means its leadership were close to the royals when they held power.
Pyar Jung Thapa, who was the former chief of army staff in Nepal from 2002 to 2006, said Zhou Enlai, the first premier of China, in 1954 was keen to “establish diplomatic relations with [royalist] Kathmandu.” In 1974, the monarchy disarmed Tibetan Khampa tribes leading armed resistance against the Chinese army at the Himalayan border, further strengthening its ties with China.
“China’s faith in political parties is less compared to what it bestowed upon the monarchy,” Thapa said. “Going by the past, there is a possibility that China could be happy with a return of monarchy.”
Indeed, after Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli dissolved parliament on December 20 and called for early elections, citing a lack of unity within his faction of Nepal’s Communist Party, China dispatched Guo Yezhou, vice-minister in the international department of the Communist Party of China, to meet with politicians from Oli’s faction and a rival faction, urging them to prioritise “political stability”.
One Nepali political analyst, who requested anonymity when speaking on the matter, called Guo’s move the “new face” of Chinese diplomacy, as Beijing had never “interfered” in Nepal’s internal politics “so blatantly”.
But others were more concerned about the actions of India’s Hindu nationalists in Nepal and the impact of their lobbying, given that the country continues to be mired in political instability while battling the coronavirus pandemic.
Said Sharma: “At a time when people have lost faith in politicians, a large number of people are falling into the trap of nationalism laid out by the pro-monarch people and what is worrying is, a section of people find an icon in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
Nepali Buddhist monks during a religious procession in Kathmandu on Sunday. Buddhists comprise about 10 per cent of Nepal’s population
Political observers do not expect that the calls for a return to the monarchy will prevail, and Oli’s foreign affairs adviser, Rajan Bhattarai, asserted that fresh elections will be held in April and May, with no chance that the monarchy would be restored.
Meanwhile, Gyanendra, who lives a private life dividing his time between Kathmandu and Damak, seems happy to wait out the political struggle.
Phanindra Raj Pathak, the former the chief of the palace press secretariat, says Gyanendra is willing to take charge, but only if “people want him”.