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Nepali monarchs
There is a deep rooted tendency among radical republicans to demonize, and among staunch royalists, to excessively idolize the institution of monarchy. For the last few weeks, Baburam Bhattarai has been the perfect example of the former, while Kamal Thapa and Keshar Bahadur Bista are perhaps the best examples of the latter. 

Bhattarai has been witch-hunting ex-King Gyanendra, lashing out at him in strong words, projecting him as the only threat to the young republic, and monarchy as the cause of all ills. Royalists like Thapa and Bista are pushing for monarchy’s restoration, portraying monarchs as symbol of national unity, Nepali nationalism and trusted guardians of people. 

They have strong reasons to do so. Gyanendra’s reaching out to places and people where political parties rarely show up is helping him salvage his battered image, while Bhattarai’s out of place anti-monarchy tirade has made him one of the most unpopular political leaders. On their part, Thapa and Bista made hay during monarchy’s day in the sun and are now paying back their old masters. 

But neither republicans nor royalists are doing justice to monarchy. Their discourse is fundamentally flawed, prejudiced, and based on generalization. The truth is somewhere in the middle: Some of our kings have done the country proud, while others have shamed it. 

The oft-repeated claim of the republicans is that the Shah Kings who ruled for 240 years are responsible for all the wrongs in Nepal. Yes, Shah Monarchy existed for 240 years in Nepal, but monarchs were not dominant and active all the time. Some of them ruled for very brief periods: Prithvi Narayan (1769-1775), Pratap Singh (1775-1777) and Gyanendra (2001-2008). 

Others who reigned for comparatively longer periods like Rana Bahadur (1777-1799), placed in the throne when he was two-and-a-half and Girban Yuddha (1799-1816), crowned at the tender age of one and half served as underage kings for long and had no say in the country’s administration. The administration was handled either by regent queens and princes or Thapa, Basnyat and Pandey courtiers whose rivalries and internal feuds frequently held the country hostage. They pitted royal families against each other and kept the king under virtual confinement. 

Then British Resident Brian Hodgson’s observation about the status of Nepal’s king in the early nineteenth century is worth citing: “The Raja is hemmed into his palace beyond which he cannot stir unaccompanied by the minister, and then only to the extent of short ride and drive… of power [the Raja] has not a particle, nor seems to wish it” (qtd in Rishikesh Shah’s Modern Nepal, page 213). This holds true of all the kings who served during the Rana rule spanning between 1846 and 1951. During this period, the kings were the Ranas’ rubber stamps.

Prithvi Narayan should be remembered more as a unifier than a ruler. It is true that he paid little attention to administration during his expansion drive, but he bequeathed us the nation we have today.

Some of the longest ruling monarchs are Rana Bahadur, Surendra (1847-1881), Tribhuwan (1911-1955), Mahendra (1955-1972), and Birendra (1972-2001). Surendra and Rana Bahadur earned great notoriety. Rana Bahadur is said to have gone wild upon his wife’s death in 1799, “indulging in mad orgies of mutilating Brahmins and desecrating temples.” Following this, he abdicated and went to Banaras to become an ascetic, but his desire to reclaim the throne was so intense he was ready to make any compromise. 

Again, historian Rishikesh Shah notes: “[He] put an outrageous proposal to [British rulers] that if the Company restored him to his throne he would pay 37.5 percent of land taxes from hills and 50 percent from Tarai areas… he also said that if none of his descendants survived, “the whole of the country of Nepal shall devote to the administration and control of the Company.”

Perhaps no king was as infamous as Surendra Shah whose insanity helped Ranas consolidate power. According to Pudma Jung Bahadur Rana’s Life of Maharaja Sir Jung Bahadur, Surendra Shah used to place his wives in Palanquins, and have them dropped into Bagmati to enjoy their desperate struggle. He sometimes had the clothes of people bathing in a stream burnt, and then watched them walk home almost naked and shivering with cold. He subjected his officers to the humiliation of being led in chains, their faces blackened with soot, round the city for fun. 

King Tribhuvan could have compensated for his predecessors’ misdeeds by being the democrat he had professed to be while he was under virtual incarceration. But soon after he became the sovereign ruler in 1951, he started sidelining his democratic allies and submitting to India. Yet, by default or design, he was the one to lead the country toward democracy for the first time. 

Of all Shah kings, by far the most active were King Mahendra and King Birendra. But they too took some important steps. Mahendra got Nepal UN membership, removed Indian security forces from Nepali soil and Indian secretaries from the palace and ministries. His contribution to highway development and legal reforms laid the foundation for national development. But he squandered the opportunity of leading the country towards democracy and development. He had an accomplished prime minister—who was also a friend in need for the king—in BP Koirala. As many analysts point, the blend of Mahendra’s nationalism and Koirala’s socialist vision could have heralded a new age for the country. Royalists accord him with the title of the second most nationalist king after Prithvi Narayan. 

But he could have done more to save national integrity: He could have stopped India from occupying Kalapani in 1962. Panchayat Minister Khagendra Jung Gurung’s recent revelation to this daily that Mahendra was mulling amalgamation of Nepal into India in return for power over greater domains has put Mahendra’s nationalist credentials under microscope. King Birendra did his best to resurrect the country’s international image. But he could not rectify the wrongs of his predecessors. Those were times when kings could have ushered in reforms through the stroke of a pen, or by a mere royal proclamation. 

Ramesh Khadka’s documentary The Last Monarch (2013) portrays the follies of Gyanendra. In one scene, king Gyanendra is touring the western hills to meet the people. Village folks supplicate before him and narrate their woes. To each request from his ‘subjects’ he responds with a smile and a nod, followed by hunchha and maile bujhen (‘okay!’, ‘I got it’). The audience jeers. Such frivolity eventually cost him his rule. 

The tragedy is that our monarchs were either frivolous when they had to be serious, or unnecessarily skeptic of their courtiers and ministers when they had to work together. Most died without ever understanding a thing about the subtle art of statecraft. 

Of course, as heads of state, Shah Kings have parts of blame to share for what went wrong during 240 years’ monarchy. But not all of them have done the country harm. We cannot put all the monarchs in the same basket and label them anti-nationalists. Unless we examine the vices and virtues of each, we will have very skewed understanding of monarchy in Nepal. This would be an injustice to the dead monarchs, and to history.

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