Republicanism is behind the rape and murder of Nirmala Pant, a bearded man in sunglasses and a cyan shirt emphatically declares.
The man is referring to 13-year-old Nirmala Pant, raped and murdered in Kailali in 2018. The perpetrators have yet to be caught, but this man, speaking at a pro-monarchy rally in Butwal on November 2, 2020, believes that ganatantra is responsible.
“Ganatantra is why Samjhana BK is dead, it is why tens of thousands of people are forced to leave the country in search of employment, why mothers and fathers have to receive their children’s dead bodies in coffins from abroad. That is why this ganatantra needs to end, the 1990 constitution needs to be reinstated, ” the man says to a cheering crowd.
The pre-2006 national anthem — Shree Maan Gambhir, which wishes glory to the king — plays on loudspeakers as rally attendees wave their Nepali flags and sing along.
The Butwal rally was just one of several that have taken place across the country in the past few months. Demonstrations with a broadly pro-king, anti-federalism, and anti-secularism agenda have been organised in Kathmandu, Hetauda, Butwal, Dhangadhi, Nepalgunj, Mahendranagar, Bardiya, Birgunj, Janakpur, Nawalpur, Pokhara, Rautahat, and Biratnagar since November 2020.
While the rallies have been highly visible on news outlets and social media, the number of attendees at each rally appears to be relatively small. Butwal-based journalist Topraj Sharma says that there were between 1,000 to 1,200 people at the November 2 rally. News reports about the rallies in Kathmandu say that “hundreds” were in attendance. In contrast, a protest rally called by the Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal-led Nepal Communist Party faction against the dissolution of the House of Representatives by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli brought thousands of people to Kathmandu on January 23.
Nevertheless, the scale of the recent spate of pro-monarchical rallies appears to be much larger than in the past. While royalist demonstrations have taken place sporadically in different towns and cities over the years since the end of the monarchy in 2008, the rallies in recent months seem to have introduced many new people to the pro-monarchical agenda.
According to civil rights activist Devendra Raj Panday, the root of these demonstrations lies in the dejection that many Nepalis are currently feeling with the political system.
“Disappointment is fertile ground for reactionary political forces to take hold,” Panday told The Record. “When people feel like the system is failing them, they begin to look backwards, just look at how Trumpism took hold in the United States.”
The increasingly illberal government of Prime Minister Oli has invited numerous demonstrations, both on the liberal and the conservative fronts. While progressives criticise the Oli administration for its stifling of freedom of expression and taking arguably unconstitutional steps like dissolving the Lower House, conservatives see political dysfunction and naked corruption as needing a clarion call for the return of the monarchy.
But pro-monarchical sentiments are not new phenomena in democratic Nepal. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) has had “Hindu State and Monarchy” as its primary political agenda since 2013. The recent rallies, however, have not all been led by the RPP. According to senior RPP politician Rajendra Lingden, young people have been organising these rallies on their own because they have independently come to conclusions about the necessity of monarchical rule in Nepal.
“The youth have had 12-14 years to see if this new political system works or not,” Lingden said. “It has become clear to them that at this point, it isn’t just about politics, the nation’s existence is in danger and the monarchy is the only answer.”
According to Lingden, the RPP is not responsible for coordinating rallies across the country but the “youth leaders” standing up for their royalist beliefs have the party’s full support.
The reciprocal support for the RPP by the “youth leaders”, however, is questionable.
For 27-year-old Saurav Bhandari, a core member of the group Bir Gorkhali, which was partially responsible for the motorcycle rallies in Butwal and Kathmandu, the RPP is no different from any of the other political parties.
“RPP leaders, particularly Kamal Thapa, have betrayed us time and again. After the 2015 Constitution was promulgated, Thapa said that it was the ‘best constitution in the world.’ That is nonsense! What we want is the reinstatement of the 1990 Constitution and the continuation of the glorious legacy of Bhimsen Thapa and Balbhadra Kunwar, because before we are Nepali, we are Bir Gorkhali,” Bhandari told The Record.
Bhandari was involved with the youth wing of the RPP before he became disillusioned with the “duplicitous nature” of party leaders, he says. In August 2018, he started Bir Gorkhali with some of his fellow disenchanted cadres. Bhandari believes that all political parties are fundamentally corrupt, and Bir Gorkhali’s agenda — the restoration of a partyless democracy and the declaration of sanatan dharma, which the group defines as Hinduism, Buddhism, and the “Kirat religion” as the national religion — will put an end to their duplicity.
“Ganatantra has ruined Nepal,” Bhandari said. “It is between 1960 and 1970 that Nepal saw the most development. If Mahendra had lived for 10 more years, being as developed as Switzerland would not be a dream, but a reality.”
Many of Bir Gorkhali’s members are in their 20s and 30s, according to Bhandari, and did not live through Mahendra’s autocratic Panchayat era themselves. Their nostalgia for Mahendra, therefore, appears to be more romantic than realist, as they have little to no experience of living under an absolute monarchy.
“Many people are channeling the anger, hurt, disappointment, and frustration at the current political state of affairs by talking about the monarchy, not recognising that the monarchy is the root cause of many of our current troubles,” Pranika Koyu, feminist writer and activist, told the Record. “Particularly young people who grew up seeing only the good and bad of multiparty democracy, they don’t know how much injustice there was during the Panchayat regime.”
Bir Gorkhali’s Bhandari says that he remembers chanting “Gyane chor desh chod” during the 2006 people’s movement, but he now believes that the movement was a “foreign ploy.” Bir Gorkhali aims to reach out to young people who feel similarly, particularly those involved with the Nepali Congress and Nepal Communist Party (NCP), and help them see the fruitlessness of placing their faith in anyone but Gyanendra Shah and his descendants.
But young people like Bhandari aren’t the only ones invested in a fight to place the Shah dynasty back on the throne. There are older individuals involved and organisations with more insidious histories and international ties.
Shiv Sena Nepal, a Hindu nationalist outfit, claims to have had a sizable presence at the recent rallies, but contrary to public assumption, the organisation says it has no relation with the Indian Shiv Sena, which translates to ‘army of Shivaji’, a 17th century Maratha king. Shiv Sena Nepal, meanwhile, is the “army of Pashupatinath”, according to 43-year-old Basanta Birkam Pandey, spokesperson for the organisation. Bikram Pandey shares Bhandari’s contempt for political parties and politicians.
“Laal Salaam and Jai Nepal are used interchangeably by Nepali Congress and UML [sic] to trick people into believing they have an ideology — they have no ideology. As far as I’m concerned, the 2015 Constitution is a Bible wrapped in blue cloth. Politicians were doing the bidding of foreign forces for their own greed and that is how we have gotten to this point of Hinduism being disrespected,” Bikram Pandey said.
For Bikram Pandey, the monarchy is essential to “Hindu values,” and he rejects the idea of equality under the law.
“Westerners believe that everyone should be treated the same but that isn’t in our culture,” Bikram Pandey said. “A wife is different from a sister, so one doesn’t go around marrying their sister. It is the same thing with raja [the king] and praja [the subjects], different people have different roles in life.”
Political scientist Bhaskar Gautam believes that the surge in public support for conservative religious and political values, such as those exemplified by Shiv Sena Nepal and Bir Gorkhali, is deeply intertwined with the kind of politics Prime Minister Oli embodies.
“There are conservative elements in both Nepali Congress and NCP,” Gautam said. “The ideology of KP Oli — a hatred of minorities, retrograde nationalism — is not that different from what the royalists are talking about. It makes sense for these forces to have gained power during this time.”
The fact that Oli appears to espouse some of the same values as the royalists, an apparent disdain for federalism and democratic rights being one example, is perhaps the reason why the pro-monarchy rallies have not framed themselves as ‘anti-Oli’ per se.
“Honestly, I think Oli is more likely to bring back the king than Kamal Thapa,” Bhandari of Bir Gorkhali joked, adding that the organisation opposes political parties in general but does not oppose the NCP or the incumbent government in particular.
As Oli, an avowed communist, visits Pashupatinath and parades around in garlands, there is rising sentiment that the prime minister is not committed to the principles espoused by the 2015 Constitution — republicanism, federalism, and secularism. Many of Oli’s supporters see him as the final bastion of “nationalism” protecting the Nepali state against the encroachment of outside interests, especially India. This was the characterisation that won Oli the 2017 elections and it is one that he continues to slip back into whenever he is challenged domestically. This is perhaps why the pro-monarchy rallies don’t oppose Oli; rather, they see in him a kindred spirit.
Oli’s statements regarding the birthplace of Ram as being located in Nepal might have earned him the ire of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but it helped cement his reputation as a nationalist with a decidedly Hindu bent. For organisations like the Rastriya Ekata Abhiyan, an organisation based in Province 2 that was, according to Janakpur-based journalist BP Sah, responsible for the high turnout at a December rally in Janakpur, it is the Hindu identity of the state that needs protection. According to Sunita Sah, the organisation’s vice-chair, they are “anti-monarchy, pro-Hindu state” and that it is a misconception that the rally was about restoring Gyanendra Shah as the monarch.
“The people’s movement to end the monarchy involved large sacrifices from many people. We must respect that. But secularism and the end of moral education has clearly led to a decline of society,” Sah said. “Over 90 percent of people in Nepal are Hindu, yet, dharmic leaders are being attacked and our idols are being disrespected. This can only be countered with Hinduism as the national religion in the constitution.”
When asked about Indian Hindutva forces’ contributions to the Rastriya Ekata Abhiyan’s project, Sah said that Hindus from across the world expressing “solidarity” with Nepal as a Hindu state is a good thing, and that the promotion of Hindu culture in Nepal needs to be welcomed.
The role of the BJP and organisations with similar ideologies in the anti-secularism, pro-monarchy rallies is widely speculated upon, but difficult to substantiate. On January 13, a retired Indian army officer named GD Bakshi tweeted a photo of a “Hindu Chetana core team” which he said would “support Hindu Rastra in Nepal.”
But Atul K Thakur, a New Delhi-based policy analyst who writes about Nepal-India relations, dismissed the tweet.
“India’s official line is clearly not favoring any such possibilities [of restoring the monarchy]…this is a self-declared ‘core team,’ just a tweet in bad taste will not help the team members get attention,” Thakur told The Record over email.
“If unity between Christians and Muslims of the world is not criticised, why should Hindu unity be any different?” Bista said.
Rastriya Shakti Nepal boasts that it has donors from over 16 countries, representatives in over 60 districts, a women’s wing, and a student wing. Bista believes that Rastriya Shakti Nepal (“not a political party, but a national campaign”) has the potential to bring different anti-secularism and pro-monarchy groups together for a common cause, but his talking points illustrate the lack of coherence in the movement.
Bista says that Rastriya Shakti Nepal supports a constitutional monarchy with political parties, the end of federalism, and the reinstatement of Hinduism as the national religion. Bir Gorkhali, meanwhile, appears to idolise Nepal’s military history while supporting constitutional monarchy, the reinstatement of the 1990 Constitution, and the abolition of all political parties, a view that Shiv Sena Nepal appears to share. Rastriya Ekata Abhiyan supports the reinstatement of Hinduism as the national religion, but not constitutional monarchy.
It is clear that the groups organising rallies across the country don’t all share common goals. They appear more bound by a shared nostalgia for a mythic past when there was supposed progress and prosperity than by any clear political vision of the future.
The fact that Gyanendra Shah serves more as a symbol than an actual political player in calls to “restore the king to the throne” is another reason why it is difficult to take these organisations seriously as a political force. None of the group representatives that The Record spoke with said that they had any contact with Gyanendra Shah.
“We have not even met king Gyanendra or sought his advice. We are doing this all on our own. The king might have noticed our activities, but that’s another thing,” Saurav Bhandari of Bir Gorkhali told Republica in December.
When asked what it would take for the different royalist groups to come together, Shiv Sena spokesperson Pandey answered in the manner of reciting a religious parable: “One day, very soon I think, we will receive an order from the durbar about the reinstatement of the 1990 constitution. Then we will come together to make sure that his majesty is restored to the throne.”
Despite the visibility these rallies have afforded the pro-monarchy, anti-secularism movement, many political analysts do not believe they have any real staying power.
According to JB Biswakarma, chairperson at Dignity Initiative, a Dalit rights organisation, royalist groups are a worrying development, but they are not a real threat to democracy.
“We can see that Oli does not have any sort of commitment to secularism, equal representation, or even democracy. It is a good time for conservative forces to espouse regressive ideas. But Nepalis have fought too hard and too long for democracy. Some might be trying to see if they can get back to doing daman ko rajniti (politics based on oppression), but I really don’t think different caste and religious groups will accept autocratic rule again,” Biswakarma said.
But political analyst Gautam cautions against wholesale dismissal of these movements. Although there is little chance that royalists can come into power through democratic processes, they share ideological kinship with people who are currently in power, he said.
“Conservative political forces, the royalists as well as the people in power, can try to execute their agenda through illegitimate means,” said Gautam. “It is always good to remain vigilant.”