Part 2: The monarch
This is the second of two articles covering the visits to the United Kingdom of Maharaja Chandra Shum Shere Rana in 1908 and King Mahendra in 1960. Although he was treated as a state guest, Chandra’s visit was a private one. A government official met him on arrival and he and his suite were accommodated in a large London house hired for the purpose. King Mahendra’s arrival on a four-day state visit on October 17, 1960 was a much more regal affair. Traveling by air from Paris, he was met en route by six Gloster Javelin aircraft from the Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force, and greeted at Gatwick airport by the Duke of Kent on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. On arrival by special train at Victoria Station, he was met by the Queen, escorted by Prince Philip, with other members of the royal family in attendance. The Queen personally requested that the prime minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, should attend. Mr. R. A. Butler, the home secretary was also present. See here for the reception at Victoria Station:
There was a carriage procession to Buckingham Palace where King Mahendra and Queen Ratna with their small suite were accommodated for the duration of the state visit. Later that afternoon they visited Westminster Abbey to place a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Warrior. A clip of King Mahendra inspecting Gurkha soldiers prior to the event can be seen here:
The host nation spared no effort to ensure that King Mahendra and Queen Ratna were lavishly entertained and suitably impressed. A state banquet was held in their honor at Buckingham Palace on the first evening and on the third evening they were the guests of the government at a gala performance of Bellini’s opera, La sonnambula, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Two other highlights can be seen at these links: first, arriving for lunch at the Guildhall in a carriage procession, and being received by the Lord Mayor before inspecting a Guard of Honour:
And secondly, reviewing soldiers of the Brigade of Gurkhas with Queen Elizabeth in the gardens of Buckingham Palace:
Crown Prince Birendra had started his studies at Eton College in September 1959 and was given leave of absence for the state visit and part of the official visit. Prince Dhirendra and Princess Shanti were also in the party. See below for clips of King Mahendra, the Crown Prince, and Prince Dhirendra during a visit to an aircraft factory:
At the conclusion of the state visit, King Mahendra and his party stayed for a further two weeks on an official visit as guests of the government. For the majority of this period, the party had the use of the Royal Train which, when needed, also provided luxurious dining and sleeping accommodation. During this part of the visit, the party visited educational establishments and industrial plants. A number of days were spent in Scotland being hosted by the local aristocracy on their large estates.
Some fifty files in the National Archives give abundant detail on the planning for both parts of the visit. The files, still with some redactions, were opened for public inspection on January 1, 2011, after 50 years of closure. In the files is an 18-page paper written by Major Dudley Spain, a Brigade of Gurkha’s officer then serving in Nepal, which gives his account of each day that the royal party spent in the United Kingdom. He was included in King Mahendra’s official party and was described as “his right hand man.” He was awarded the Order of Gorkha Dakshina Bahu and the Order of Tri Shakti Patta for his services during the visit. In early 1964 he transferred to the Diplomatic Service and was employed for some 14 years in the British Embassy Kathmandu. A Foreign Office file, very recently released after a Freedom of Information request, shows that a job was created for him in the embassy in late 1963 primarily to act as personal advisor to the Chief of Police, S. P. Lama, on countering communist subversion. He was a long-time resident in Nepal and a long-standing confidant of successive kings of Nepal. This article will draw on information in his personal account, as well as from other relevant files in the National Archives and in the Oxford University Archives, to outline points of interest. First, however, it is useful to give some background on the state of Nepal at the time of the visit.
King Mahendra had been a witness to, and participant in, the momentous changes that had taken place in Nepal in the years leading up to the ending of the Rana regime in 1950 and in the decade of rapid change that followed. Indeed, after the coup on January 15, 1961, the US ambassador reported Mahendra as saying to him “that he himself had brought democracy to Nepal.” Mahendra was born on June 11, 1920. (His father, King Tribhuvan, was aged 13 at the time.) Chandra Shum Shere Rana died on November 26, 1929. Mahendra, therefore, would not just have remembered Chandra; he would have had clear and sharp memories of the endlessly humiliating ways in which Chandra and his Rana successors treated his father and his family. He would also have seen at first hand how the Rana regime remained brutally repressive to the end. Gobar Dhan Maskey was a civil servant in the 1930s and 1940s. He recalled the regime in these terms: “The Ranas were so strict they viewed us, the people, as pauko dhulo, the dust of their feet. They viewed themselves as gods, and we respected them as gods,” (People, Politics & Ideology: Democracy and Social Change in Nepal, Hoftun, Raeper, and Whelpton).
In 1940, Mahendra had been active with his father in communicating with and encouraging the leaders of the anti-Rana movement, the Nepal Praja Parishad, and would have had full knowledge of the brutal way in which the ringleaders had been executed in January 1941. After this event, an attempt was made to force Tribhuvan to resign, but Mahendra indicated that he would not take the crown. Erika Leuchtag was a physiotherapist who was invited to Kathmandu in early 1949 by Maharaja Mohan Shumsher to treat one of the two wives of King Tribhuvan. In her book, With a King in the Clouds, she gives some revealing insights into the Kathmandu of the day, including how strictly the daily curfew was imposed, the arrogance of the ruling Rana elite, how pampered their children were, and their humiliating treatment of Tribhuvan and how much he deeply resented it. She also brings out how Mahendra was active in events that eventually led to Tribhuvan and most of his family seeking refuge in the Indian embassy on November 6, 1950. Five days later, as a result of Nehru’s intercession, they were allowed to fly to Delhi. This clip shows footage of Tribhuvan being greeted personally by Nehru on arrival in Delhi:
Despite the Ranas depriving him of a formal education and strictly controlling his social life, Mahendra’s anti-Rana fervor did not last long. Always a driven man, he could see that Ranas would continue to dominate the senior ranks of the army for many years to come, and that army support would be needed to implement any future plans he might have. He could also see that Rana influence through marriage with Indian political leaders from former princely states could be useful to him in relations with New Delhi. In 1940 he had married Indra, the daughter of a senior Rana general, and granddaughter of Maharaja Juddha, when marriages to well-connected Ranas were de rigueur for future Shah kings. After Indra died in 1950, he clearly had wider options but in 1952 he married her sister, Ratna, a marriage that was bitterly opposed by his father who had a deep distrust of Juddha’s family. Tribhuvan refused to attend the marriage ceremony. At the request of Mahendra, B. P. Koirala tried to persuade him to relent, but Tribhuvan upbraided him for taking Mahendra’s side and warned him of his eldest son’s strong authoritarian streak by saying: “[Y]ou don’t know my son. He will make you, he will make all of you weep” (People, Politics & Ideology).
An agreement brokered by India in Delhi on February 8, 1951, effectively ended Rana rule. King Tribhuvan and his family returned in triumph on February 15, 1951. In a historic proclamation three days later, King Tribhuvan, exercising the sovereign power which had been denied to his family for over a hundred years, charged the new interim government with responsibility for conducting a smooth transition to a new political order “based on a democratic constitution framed by elected representatives of the people.” In his proclamation of November 16, 1951, he again expressed his determination to establish “a fully democratic political system functioning in accordance with a constitution prepared by a Constituent Assembly.” No elections were held until February 1959, and then not for a Constituent Assembly as promised since 1950, but for a Parliament established under a constitution granted by Mahendra to the people. (After his father’s death, Mahendra had become king on March 13, 1955.)
Sir Ivor Jennings, a leading constitutional authority from the United Kingdom, was brought in to guide a five-man committee of officials and politicians on how to prepare a constitution that would balance the demands of Mahendra to have a continuing influential role and the demands of the parliamentary government to make the popular will, democratically expressed, decisive. The 1959 Constitution in some crucial areas was not as written or as advised by Sir Ivor Jennings. A note from the British ambassador states that Mahendra rewrote parts of it himself to strengthen the position of the monarchy. It is a safe assumption that this information came from Sir Ivor Jennings. Mahendra reserved for the monarch a wide range of discretionary powers. The Constitution explicitly stated that if ever a question arose over whether any matter was one in which the king could act on his own discretion, his decision was to be regarded as final and the validity of any of his actions was not to be questioned. In essence, “these constitutional provisions brought into being a dyarchical form of government with two loci of power, one in the royal palace, staffed by the Palace Secretariat and based on the King’s personal discretionary, emergency and inherent sovereign powers, and the other in the civil secretariat led by elected representatives of the people but based on only limited authority formally delegated and tolerated by the royal palace” (Joshi and Rose in Democratic Innovations in Nepal). As later events were to prove, the constitution that was “granted” was basically unworkable except under a prime minister who was willing to be a stooge of the monarch. To his eternal credit, B. P. Koirala was not prepared to be anyone’s stooge.
The 1959 elections started on February 18 and were completed by April 3. The last result was declared on May 10. The result of the election was a sweeping victory for the Nepali Congress party, which won 74 of the 109 seats. As its leader, B. P. Koirala was asked to lead, in the first instance, an interim government, and took office as prime minister on May 27, 1959. Finally the new constitution was brought into force on June 17, 1959 and King Mahendra opened Parliament on July 24, 1959.
Constitutional limitations on the power of his office were not the only handicaps facing the new prime minister during his time in office. From the outset, everything he attempted to do was opposed by ultra conservative forces. This was particularly true for policies related to land and forest reform. These forces also sensed that Mahendra’s heart was not in the new constitutional arrangements, and certainly not since the surprising and overwhelming election victory of Nepali Congress. On January 28, 1960, Mahendra made a speech in Nepalgunj exhorting all Nepalis to work together to eradicate evil, “so that I may not be compelled to take some other measures.”
Another problem facing B. P. Koirala stemmed from the fact that many previously dominant political figures failed to win a seat. (Dr. K. I. Singh and Dr. Kesar Raymajhi both forfeited their deposits.) This left the group highly disgruntled and willing to align with anyone to thwart the government’s policies. This quote from the 1959 annual report from the British embassy is worth repeating for its prescience and its reminder of enduring problems: “The new government has not yet shaken off the long established customs of graft and nepotism, the Public Service Commission is still ineffective and the Civil Service is woefully inadequate to translate the administrative measures of Parliament into executive action. Much will depend on the personality of the Prime Minster who in the last eight years has matured from the idealist but volatile revolutionary into a man of able and sound judgement, and upon his relations with the King who still holds powers of dissolution.”
The political brief for Mahendra’s UK visit from the British Foreign Office was also very clear on the weight of expectation and responsibility resting on B. P. Koirala and his government. It stated, “the government have shown a welcome determination to tackle the difficult problems with which they are faced in trying to create a modern system of administration and to bring about social and economic reforms in an extremely backward country. There is little doubt that this Government represents Nepal’s best hope for the future.”
This is the political background to King Mahendra’s visit. Letters in the file show that he was extremely keen to get an invitation for a state visit to the United Kingdom. One letter from a Conservative member of parliament, Lord John Hope, to the prime minister, Mr. Harold Macmillan, dated June 9, 1959, stated, “I have it on good authority that the Nepalis are very hurt that the King of Nepal has not been approached with regard to a visit to England. My informant has been told personally by Field-Marshal Kayser, who is one of the ousted family of Ranas to have any influence, that the King would cherish such an invitation.” The files show that there was no need for the fuss. King Mahendra was slotted in for a state visit in late 1960 but protocol demanded that no invitation could be issued until after the visits of the French and US presidents.
Also in the files is a brief that gives highly personal biographical details of King Mahendra and his suite. The likely British conduit for some of the information is clear from the visit to Oxford University. An Oxford Mail report covering the visit states that King Mahendra and Queen Ratna “both met an old friend, Mr. Thomas Stonor, who after leaving Eton, went to Kathmandu as tutor to the Crown Prince, who is now an Etonian. Mr. Stonor, son of the Hon. Sherman Stonor, has just received a copy of a book of poems written by the King. The King writes under the name of M.B.B Shah.” Thomas Stonor is now the present Lord Camoys. At the time he had just completed his first year at Balliol College but had taken a term out. The files show that he was very active as an advisor and lobbyist before and during the visit. One file records a note by a Foreign Office official saying that, “Mr. Thomas Stonor called in to see me last Friday and gave me some very useful information about the suites.” The level of personal detail in the pen pictures suggests that some may well have come from Crown Prince Birendra himself. Slightly different versions of the pen pictures were issued to various groups who would be hosting the visitors, varying in their frankness.
The king’s interests are described as being mainly chess, hunting, music, and literature. The note goes on to say, “The King speaks good English. He is liable to be taciturn in public and is somewhat difficult to talk to, particularly as he is shy and speaks in a very soft voice. He is said to have a great sense of humour in private.” On his daily routine at home, it stated, “At home he lives a simple life with not too many servants. He normally likes to get up at about 10.30, eat at about 1.30 and have dinner from 11 o’clock to 2 am.” On personal habits, “He smokes fairly heavily. He drinks whisky, and before dinner a gimlet – at meals a little white wine or ginger ale.”
Subarna Shamsher Rana, the deputy prime minister was described as “being inclined to sleep late and miss engagements but appears to take a sane and balanced view of things.” Major General Sher Bahadur Malla, the chief military secretary, was described as “the efficient member of the party who is constantly at the King’s side and always carries a firearm in a hip holster.” Pusparaj Raj Bhandary, the chief personal secretary was described as, “a high caste Brahmin and very devout. He has worked in the Palace Secretariat for more than 40 years. He is an expert on the history of the monarchy. His interests include the study of religion and Sanskrit manuscripts. He tends to be old fashioned and stubborn and is not very reliable.” Rude things were also written about his belching and spitting habits and that “during long meals he nods off to sleep but manages to sit upright.” Madhusudan Raj Bhandary, the private secretary was the son of the chief secretary. He was described as “quiet and intelligent and not so oriental as his father and a less strict Brahmin.” (Note: Pusparaj Raj Bhandary and Madhusudan were not Brahmins; they were high caste Newars.) Nara Pratap Thapa, the foreign secretary, was described as “a man who lived privately having inherited considerable money. He has a good knowledge of Sanskrit, is intelligent, able and cultured and has been helpful to Britain.”
Both the state and official parts of the visits, apart from some minor hitches, generally went smoothly and both sides judged the visits to be a great success. Two subsidiary facets of the visit did, however, give the host country a few headaches. Both concerned gifts for Mahendra. A thin separate file gives details of “an awkward predicament” faced by the host nation over the official gift. The original intention was to present Mahendra with a sporting rifle but it was learned that he had already received such a gift from the Russians and Americans. The British ambassador in Kathmandu, Mr. L. A. Scopes, no doubt seizing on the information that Mahendra loved music, proposed “a stereo-radio-gramophone.” A Foreign Office official relates the follow-up: “The Palace were enchanted by this suggestion which seemed to them both novel and interesting. They asked Mr Antony Armstrong-Jones, who is much interested in sound reproduction, to take charge of the matter and he has caused to be built in the room destined for the King of Nepal at Buckingham Palace a stereophonic machine of such splendour that it excels anything hitherto seen in England. It plays not only records but also tapes and will allow the King to record his own court orchestra and his own compositions and then replay them to himself.”
Antony Armstrong-Jones was a photographer and filmmaker. In February 1960, he became engaged to the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. He married the princess on May 6, 1960 at Westminster Abbey, thus becoming the first commoner in four centuries to marry an English king’s daughter. He was created Earl of Snowdon on October 6, 1961. In the interim, he was given this opportunity to impress his new parents-in-law.
There can be little doubt that the future earl would have done the job well, but that did not solve “the awkward predicament.” Lord Plunkett, Equerry to Queen Elizabeth II and Deputy Master of the Household of the Royal Household, conveyed the nature of the problem to the Foreign Office official who wrote the note quoted above. It concerned getting the money to pay for the gift. A separate note in the file written by a Foreign Office official records that “no doubt the King of Nepal will be delighted but unfortunately it turns out that the cost will be £640. The maximum which the Crown pays on these occasions is £300 and Lord Plunkett was enquiring whether the Foreign Office would produce a further £350.” Other correspondence indicates that there was no point in approaching a hard-nosed Treasury. The money was eventually found “out of funds that had been used in recent years for a project connected with Nepal.” After the Royal Air Force refused to fly the gift to Kathmandu, the Nepali embassy was invited to organize and pay for the delivery using commercial firms.
There is no record of the arrival in Kathmandu of this state-of-the-art “stereo-radio-gramophone,” nor, if it did arrive, how it was installed and how it performed. There is, however, a record of the arrival of a second “gift.” Doing justice to the full saga of this would require a long separate article. In brief, while visiting an agricultural center near Reading, Mahendra expressed a wish to buy a bull. In the end, over many months of argument and debate, this materialized into “a gift” of a bull, two cows, three Shetland ponies and a charger from the Household Cavalry called Killarney, army number 5238, “a good looking black mare rising six years who was bought in Ireland in 1959 for £200 and has had over a year’s training and been on several escorts and guards with the Household Cavalry.”
There is voluminous correspondence between the Treasury, the Foreign Office, and the War Office as to which department would pay for what. There was an agreement that the British would fund transporting the animals to Calcutta by ship and Nepal would be responsible for getting them to Kathmandu. However, the file records that the British paid for the hire of a specially equipped aircraft to fly the animals from Calcutta to Kathmandu. A letter from the Foreign Office dated June 12, 1961 reported their safe arrival in Kathmandu. A corporal from the Household Cavalry accompanied them throughout and by all accounts performed far beyond the call of duty.
The visit to Oxford University was judged to be one of the highlights of the whole trip but it was also tinged with disappointment because, despite raised expectations that King Mahendra would follow Maharaja Chandra Shum Shere Rana in having an honorary degree conferred on him, none was offered. The Foreign Office pushed the idea but their files say little on why the proposal failed. The proposal was discussed within the University and files in the University Archives reveal the full story, including how those very close to Mahendra, and perhaps even the king himself, felt about the way the Rana rulers had deliberately and severely curtailed his education.
King Mahendra arrived with his entourage in Oxford on the morning of October 28, having spent the night on the Royal Train in railway sidings nearby. The previous day, on the journey south from Scotland, he had caused some consternation to those running the rail network when he announced that he would like to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. After some quick planning, his request was accommodated and he was suitably received in Stratford and escorted to the major points of interest. The next morning he was received at Oxford station on behalf of the University by a pro-vice-chancellor, the Master of Pembroke College, Mr. R. B. McCullum.
The official visit to the university started with tours of parts of Christ Church, which the king particularly asked to visit, and Balliol College. At Balliol, the master, Sir David Lindsay Keir, introduced six undergraduate members of the College, including Thomas Stonor, already well known to the royal party; Crown Prince Harald of Norway; and the ninth and last Nawab of Pataudi. The last named, who was studying French and Arabic, was the son of a legendary cricketer who played for both England and India. His son, nicknamed “Tiger,” was also a hugely gifted cricketer who would probably have matched or even surpassed his father’s achievements if he had not suffered severe impairment in the sight of one eye in a car accident on July 1, 1961. Even with the handicap he was named Wisden’s cricketer of the year in 1968. An Oxford Mail group photograph taken in Balliol, shows the master with the king, queen and Princess Shanti and, unsmiling, the crown prince and the Nawab. Lunch was taken at the adjacent college of Trinity hosted by the president of the College and the then vice chancellor, Mr. A. L. T Norrington. Thomas Stonor was included in the lunch party.
The afternoon program started with a visit to the Bodleian Library. The original intention was to display an exhibition of Chinese manuscripts, but, to quote from a letter from the librarian to the registrar, “There is a modification in the nature of the programme we are putting on. We learnt from one Stonor of Balliol who has been a tutor to the Crown Prince that it might be thought tactless to concentrate on Chinese manuscripts and this view has been checked with the F.O. and confirmed by them. We are therefore making it a Sanskrit show.” This change meant exhibiting instead manuscripts from the Chandra Shum Shere Collection. Library staff must have been bemused by the party’s recorded gloomy reactions to the display of such treasures. Dudley Spain’s record of this part of the program states that the king “had seen and no doubt taken note, as had members of his suite, of the articles presented to the University by a Rana Prime Minister of Nepal upon whom was conferred an honorary degree.”
The visitors next walked across the road to the Indian Institute to view a special exhibition of Nepali and Tibetan art, including, The Oxford Times reported, “a number of ritual objects brought back by the Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1903–1904.” The afternoon concluded with a visit to New College with the king and queen taking tea with the warden, Sir William Hayter, and his wife at the Lodgings. (The warden’s residence in College.) In the evening, a dinner was organized for the king at Worcester College and for the queen at Somerville, where there was a Nepali undergraduate. A letter in the files from the principal of Somerville College is full of praise for her: “We have a most remarkable graduate from Nepal, Mrs Joshi. She is completing an excellent B.Litt on the Royal Household [of England]. She chose this subject as she thought it would be so apposite to the problems of Nepal. Professor Beloff, her Supervisor, thinks this thesis should be published it is so good.” There is more in the same vein. Her husband was described as a physicist working in Glasgow. (Somerville was at the time one of five women’s colleges in Oxford. Five all-male colleges—Brasenose, Jesus College, Wadham, Hertford and St. Catherine’s—first admitted women in 1974. St Hilda’s College, which was originally for women only, was the last of Oxford’s single-sex colleges. All colleges have admitted both men and women since 2008.)
The warden of New College consulted the Foreign Office on the question of whether he could invite one of his undergraduates, Pashupati Shumsher Rana, the other Nepali student at Oxford at the time, to join the select party for tea. Part of the Foreign Office reply said, “I am told that Mr. Rana is an excellent young man, a distant connection of the Queen, and a person whose presence would in every way be pleasing to His Majesty.” There is no record of how pleasing or otherwise Pashupati’s presence was at this tea meeting, or indeed whether he was present at it, but Oxford almost certainly would not have been aware of sensitivities that could have led to some coldness. Pashupati was the great grandson of Maharaja Chandra Shum Shere Rana and was a beneficiary of the expensively funded formal education that his grandfather and Rana successors had denied Mahendra. The maharaja had an honorary degree conferred on him during his Oxford visit and he had funded the large Sanskrit collection associated with his name, some of which had been shown to Mahendra and his party earlier in the afternoon with the gloomy reactions described.
Pashupati was Queen Ratna’s cousin, but she was the granddaughter of Maharaja Juddha, who became prime minister three years after Chandra’s death. Grandchildren of Chandra have a reputation for looking down on grandchildren of Juddha. Forty years later, Devyani, the daughter of Pashupati and girlfriend of Crown Prince Dipendra, the grandson of Mahendra, received the last fateful telephone call from the crown prince as he sat in his bedroom a few minutes before he descended the stairs of his house in the Royal Palace grounds to start his murderous spree which killed his father King Birendra and all members of his immediate family, including Princess Shanti, among others. One of the many reasons quoted why Queen Aishwarya, Birendra’s wife and Juddha’s granddaughter, so strongly opposed her son’s wedding to Devyani was that Devyani was of the Chandra lineage. All that lay in the future.
On the subject of the honorary degree, the proposal was pushed hard by the Foreign Office but files in the University Archives indicate that, from the outset, doubts were raised within University circles. A letter dated August 18, 1960, from Lord Lansdowne, a Foreign Office minister, set the ball rolling. In asking the University to accept a visit by the royal party, he said that the king had particularly asked to visit Oxford and that the Nepali ambassador in London had hinted that he thinks that the king wants to make a gift to the University. He said that “the King has a considerable literary reputation in Nepal and he is also something of a poet. It would add greatly to the success of the visit if the University felt able to award him an appropriate honorory degree. The Foreign Secretary has asked me to put this to you.”
In a reply dated August 24, 1960, the vice chancellor pointed out that time was short to get all the mandatory approvals and that “there has of recent times been some reluctance to use degrees in this way, but the fact he has a literary reputation in his own country will no doubt be of assistance.” Lord Lansdowne replied the next day expressing the hope that the Council could be persuaded to give the degree. The last sentence said: “I understand that a Nepalese Prime Minister, Maharaja Chandra Shumsher, was given an Honorary Degree about 1906/7.”
In an internal note, dated September 7, the registrar, Sir Folliot Sandford, wrote that the proposal could only be considered at the next meeting of the Hebdomadal Council, the executive body of the university at the time, on September 19, if 16 or more members were present and agreed to the suspension of Standing Orders. He also said, “bearing in mind, inter alia, that Cambridge did not confer a degree on the King of Thailand in July, I should myself doubt whether Council would, in fact, approve the proposal.” His assessment proved correct. In a letter to the Foreign Office dated September 20, he gave this account of the outcome of the meeting held the day before: “Unfortunately it was not possible to reach a decision yesterday, but it would be possible to bring the matter before Council again on 3 October.
A note in the files indicates that Lord Lansdowne phoned the registrar on receipt of this letter and was told that there was no certainty as to the outcome of the October 3 meeting. At the conclusion of this meeting Lord Lansdowne was informed by telephone that a degree would not be conferred. This information was relayed immediately to the Nepali ambassador in London. Unfortunately he had raced ahead of the decision-making process to inform Kathmandu, including Mahendra, that the conferring of an honorary degree would be part of the program.
Papers in the University Archives give a fuller version of what transpired. One problem for Mahendra was that, unlike Chandra, he did not have a powerful friend such as Curzon as chancellor to fix matters whatever the rules. More crucially, again unlike Chandra, his visit did not coincide with Encaenia, which is the ceremonial high point of the Oxford academic year. It is the ceremony at which the University awards honorary degrees to distinguished men and women and commemorates its benefactors. It is held annually on the Wednesday of the ninth week during Trinity Term, which invariably falls toward the end of June. During his 1908 visit, Chandra Shum Shere Rana had the honorary degree of DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) conferred on him as Prime Minister of Nepal.
Degrees by diploma are conferred on heads of state and royalty. It was appropriate, therefore, to propose Mahendra for a Doctor of Letters (DLitt) degree but Standing Order 43 for the Hebdomadal Council laid down that “proposals to confer Degrees by Diploma shall be subject to the same rules of procedure as proposals to confer Honorary Degrees on occasions other than the Encaenia.” The first paragraph of Standing Order 39 stated that when proposals are made for the conferring of degrees on occasions outside the Encaenia, “the qualifications of the persons proposed shall be stated and may be discussed. Questions may be asked concerning the names proposed. Each name shall then be voted upon in writing, and a two-thirds majority of the votes of the members present shall be required for the conferment of an Honorary Degree.” Standing Order 42 stated, “None of the foregoing Standing Orders respecting Honorary Degrees shall be dispensed with unless sixteen members of Council concur in the suspension.”
The minutes of the Council meeting on September 19 record that “[a]s fourteen members only were present, it was agreed to defer a decision until the 3 October.” A note in the file made clear the decision facing Council members at their next meeting. It stated, “Under Standing Orders 42 and 43 the question of the conferment on the King of a degree of D.Litt by diploma could only be considered if sixteen members of the Council concurred in the suspension of the first paragraph of Standing Order 39.”
Although a quorum of members was not present, it is clear from other papers that there was discussion on the merits of the proposal at the September 19 meeting. Before the meeting, the Master of Balliol had submitted a letter supporting the proposal. In it he said, “What I would like to mention is the King’s interest in letters and learning – which he has cultivated himself and under many difficulties up to the age of thirty and his intention to ensure that a University is established in his Kingdom.” Presumably, the Master of Balliol had assumed the role of championing the proposal through the agency of Thomas Stonor. For his pains, he received a letter from the registrar informing him that the matter would be considered again at the next meeting on October 3, and that, “it would help matters if you could supply a little more information about the King’s interest in literature and his own prowess as a poet.”
For the next meeting, the master produced a letter that presented the case for Mahendra. Given the likely source of the information in it, it is worth quoting in full:
Your second letter of 20th September dealt with the literary and educational interests of the King of Nepal, and my enquiries disclosed the following information.
What he has done must be judged in the context of his earlier years when the Royal Family lived under the heavy restrictions imposed by the Rana regime, whose policy appears to have been to restrict the Royal Family to a life of idleness, removed from all political interests, and particularly to deny them the means of education. His boyhood reading was got through books which had to be smuggled into the Palace. They seem, however, to have had enough influence and to have been of the right kind to inspire him when he succeeded his father after the Ranas were overthrown to recognise how much could be gained by himself and his people from education and the spread of knowledge.
The King’s record since his succession includes the promotion of art and drama, the renovation of the ancient temples of Nepal, the establishment of an academy for the teaching and study of music, folk-lore and dances of the country; and, more lately, the scheme for the establishment of the first Nepalese University.
I ought to add that his interest in education is sufficiently liberal to have induced him to get foreign bodies to extend their activities to Nepal, and that the revenues of the country are, under his influence, being applied to the educational and cultural sides of national life.
As to his personal interest, he has, notwithstanding the restrictions placed upon his education, become well-read, and he now fluently writes and speaks Hindi, Sanskrit Urdu and English, as well as Nepali. He has a gift for poetry, and I have seen an English translation of one of his poems which seems to show something of a lyrical gift.
You will understand that all of this is second-hand but I believe it to be accurate and the general picture it seems to disclose is that of an eastern potentate who realises that there are other means than military ones of exercising authority.
I hope that this information, rather hurriedly put together, will be of some use to Council in coming to its decision.
It was a gallant effort from the Master of Balliol, though possibly his “faint praise” for the king’s talent as a poet could have been omitted, but the proposal failed. The minutes of the Council meeting held on October 3, record that “Mr. Vice-Chancellor having asked whether Council wished to suspend Standing Orders 42 and 43 in order that consideration should be given to the conferment of a degree by diploma on the King of Nepal, thirteen members only voted in favour, and the matter was not further pursued.” It was, in effect, a straightforward vote on whether to confer a degree by diploma on Mahendra, and it failed to muster the votes needed.
One can only speculate why the proposal failed. It is very possible that in the Oxford of the 1960s some academics resented the idea of ministers and senior Whitehall bureaucrats making demands at short notice, as well as making assumptions that what they proposed would automatically be accepted. Oxford had changed since Curzon’s day, and no modern Chancellor could simply drive through what he wanted. Just 25 years later, amid huge publicity and controversy, Oxford voted down a proposal to confer an honorary degree on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, herself an Oxford graduate, mainly because of disagreement over her higher educational policies.
Foreign Office officials and Dudley Spain, in their write-ups of the visit, expressed the hope that there might be another occasion on which Oxford could confer a degree, but it is a reasonable assumption that the coup d’état King Mahendra launched shortly after he returned to Kathmandu scuppered his chances of it ever happening. His actions might even have given some quiet satisfaction to those who refused to support the proposal presented to them at the Hebdomadal Council meeting on October 3.
Despite the disappointment expressed by members of King Mahendra’s party over the failure to confer a degree, it is clear that Oxford pulled out all the stops to make the visit a great success. Lord Home, then foreign secretary, in his letter of thanks to the University, wrote, “The whole Royal visit seems to have been a great success, but I think that in a way the visit to Oxford was what most appealed to the King himself.” There is more evidence of this personal satisfaction in the report written by Dudley Spain. He records, “It was hardly possible to do justice to the many interesting things and places shown to the King. He is not naturally demonstrative, and it may not have been appreciated by those conducting him, just how much he enjoyed this visit to what he called ‘This great seat of learning with so many brilliant men’. The day culminated with dinner at Worcester College which can be considered one of the ‘Highlights’ of the whole tour.”
Photographs from the Oxford Mail show a smiling and relaxed King Mahendra and Queen Ratna. Given the warm reception he received, and his obvious genuine enjoyment of the visit, perhaps Mahendra regretted an action taken just before he left Kathmandu. In a letter dated October 10, 1960, Lord Lansdowne wrote to the University registrar: “Some months ago, there was a rumour that the King wished to present an early Nepalese manuscript to the Bodleian, an admirable intention which I encouraged. I was disappointed to learn from the Nepalese Ambassador last Thursday that recent legislation has now virtually prohibited the export of such treasures.” The date of the “last Thursday” mentioned in this letter was October 6, just three days after the ambassador was given the news that the conferring of an honorary degree would not be part of the program.
In the last week of the visit, King Mahendra and Queen Ratna attended the annual ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament as personal guests of Queen Elizabeth. This is an occasion full of historical and symbolic significance. Above all it is a demonstration of the monarch’s nominal position as head of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of government and the separation of powers. Dudley Spain records that “[t]he King was impressed by the grandeur of the proceedings and conscious also that he was the first foreign monarch invited to attend. He said that the Queen’s speech was the ‘the usual sort of thing’ and was gratified to hear himself mentioned.” On the penultimate day, the king and queen attended a lunch at 10 Downing Street presided over by Prime Minister Macmillan. The guest list consisted mainly of leading figures of the government and opposition. On the last morning of the visit, at the personal request of Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Macmillan called at the Nepali embassy to bid farewell.
There is no hint in the Foreign Office files of Mahendra telling anyone what he intended to do when he returned to Nepal. We know, however, from impeccable sources quoted in People, Politics & Ideology: Democracy and Social Change in Nepal, by Hoftun, Raeper and Whelpton, that before Mahendra left Kathmandu for the United Kingdom he had decided to remove the Koirala government. During his journey to the United Kingdom, he told Subarna Shamsher of his decision. While still in Bombay en route to Europe, he had summoned Rishikesh Shaha, Nepal’s representative at the United Nations, to a meeting in Paris to reveal his intentions to him. In a later conversation, Rishikesh Shaha said that he warned Mahendra that he would get a bad name doing away with the democracy that his father had introduced into the county. “[B]ut,” he said, “I found him hell-bent on assuming power.” On his return to Kathmandu, Subarna did not tell the prime minister. He was convinced that Mahendra would not act until late February so as not to jeopardize a planned state visit of Queen Elizabeth II. Rishikesh Shaha was convinced that Mahendra was in a hurry, and he was right. The actions he was soon precipitously to take would have profound negative consequences for the development of Nepal as a properly functioning democracy, and for the future of the Shah lineage as kings of Nepal.
On December 15, 1960, thirty-six days after leaving the United Kingdom, using the instrument of the Royal Nepal Army, King Mahendra launched his coup, which ultimately gave him absolute authority over the entire machinery of government. All members of the Nepali Congress cabinet who were in Kathmandu at the time were arrested, including the Prime Minister Koirala. Mahendra’s reasons for acting as he did were complex, but Joshi and Rose are correct in asserting that a major motivation was Mahendra’s dissatisfaction with the relegation of the crown to a comparatively minor role after the installation of the Nepali Congress government on May 27, 1959. Joshi and Rose also produce strong evidence for asserting that “it is doubtful that King Mahendra’s deep seated aversion to political parties and party politics would long permit him to play a purely constitutional role, as designated in the 1959 Constitution.” (From personal knowledge, this description perfectly fits King Gyanendra’s attitude in 2002, both toward political parties and the 1990 Constitution.) Within a few weeks it was obvious that Mahendra planned no mere change of government. In typical style, many consultations took place and confusing statements were issued, but there was never any doubt about the end point: the restoration of the monarch’s absolute authority.
The Foreign Office files from the time initially give few details or comments on Mahendra’s seizure of power. A stunned silence would not be too strong a phrase to describe the reactions. There was a general sense of disbelief that he could have done such a thing. Up to this stage the British position was that B. P. Koirala’s government represented Nepal’s best hope for the future. Diplomats did quickly work out that Mahendra had not spoken the truth about his reasons for acting, but in the circumstances one official wrote, “it is probably best to refrain from commenting as much as possible.” Reacting to reports of the forced closure of newspapers in Kathmandu, another Foreign Office official wrote on February 10, 1961, “The King is finding that to maintain power in his own hands more and more repressive measures are necessary. There is seemingly no end to the process. The fact that the liberty of the press is being restricted shows that the King is becoming uncertain of his position, an ominous sign that he may have bitten off more than he can chew.” As events unfolded during 1961 and 1962, this looked to be an accurate assessment, but the official, like everyone else, could not have predicted China’s invasion of India on October 20, 1962, coming to the rescue of an increasingly fearful Mahendra. Evidence from sources very close to him in the Foreign Office files indicates that he had mounting concerns about his personal safety and the survival of his Panchayat system. That is a story for another day.
Despite the doubts expressed by some officials, there is no record of public or private censure from the United Kingdom. One large inhibiting factor was that ten weeks and two days after the date of the coup, on February 26, 1961, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were due to arrive in Nepal for a four day state visit. The files indicate that there was never much doubt that the visit would go ahead. Two Labour Party members of Parliament did write to the prime minister proposing that the visit should be postponed. Their central point was that such a visit at the present time “may be construed among members of the Commonwealth, and Asian countries generally, as implying endorsement of measures which are now in operation and which deny democratic rights and the human values of the Commonwealth.” After advice from the Foreign Office that what the king had done was legal under the constitution and that “public reaction in Nepal to the recent measures seems at present to verge on indifference,” Macmillan’s reply was magisterially dismissive. It pointed out that King Mahendra’s action had not caused any deterioration in the security situation and that “Her Majesty’s visit is to King Mahendra as Head of the Nepalese state and conveys no implied commentary on the political arrangements currently in force in the country.”
It is worth saying at this point that the diplomatic records suggest that the Panchayat system that Mahendra introduced had no stronger supporter than Britain. Reading through the annual embassy reports written during the 1960s, concern about Gurkha recruiting appeared to be all that mattered: there is barely a word for the incarcerated B. P. Koirala, and of sympathy none. So much for the man on whom British diplomats lavished so much praise during his early tenure as prime minister, the man who “led a government which showed a welcome determination to tackle the difficult problems it faced in trying to create a modern system of administration and to bring about social and economic reforms in an extremely backward country; and whose government represented Nepal’s best hope for the future.” Within a few months, all these brave and accurate words were forgotten as Britain quickly adjusted to giving total support to an autocratic monarch who quickly established a political system that give him absolute power.
There was indeed remarkably little public reaction to the overthrow of a government elected by such a large majority just 18 months prior. As C. K. Lal graphically remarked in a recent article in Republica, “Not a dog barked in Kathmandu when Prime Minister BP Koirala, commanding a two-third majority in the parliament, was whisked away by the military from a public program of the youth wing of his party in the center of the city.” The army was also the instrument, and long involved in the planning, of King Gyanendra’s coup on February 1, 2005. To spell this point out bluntly, in both instances, the coup d’état was not carried out by the monarchs; they may have given the order, but those who carried it out, the putschists, were senior army officers who planned it with military precision and deployed their soldiers on the streets and in such places as media outlets to make it effective. Such actions puts into proper perspective the often loudly proclaimed assertion from some senior Nepal Army officers, and particularly vociferously voiced by retired army chief General Rukmangad Katawal, that the army in Nepal has always stood on the side of the people. Even the most cursory examination of Nepal’s history shows this claim to be totally bogus.
During its long period of transition from a tiny and impoverished hill state to an established Himalayan empire, Gorkha was a formidably efficient and ruthless war machine. More revenue from conquered lands sustained a bigger army, which in turn needed more land and more conquests. In his book The Rise of the House of Gorkha, Ludwig F. Stiller brought out in convincing detail that the land-military nexus was fundamental to the successful growth of Gorkha. The nobility made up the bulk of the army leadership, and it was their loyalty to Gorkha and to the throne that ensured the throne of the loyalty of the army. In the most literal sense, Gorkha was a military state; political power rested on the army, and its loyalty had to be constantly cultivated. This was perfectly illustrated after the huge loss of conquered, revenue-producing land in 1816, which followed Gorkha’s defeat in the Anglo-Nepal War. Instead of the army taking an appropriate cut in size, it continued to be indulged and pampered by Bhimsen Thapa to ensure that it supported him staying in power. Indeed, it increased in size, and with the loss of revenue from conquered lands, the ordinary peasant had to be squeezed even more—many to the point of total impoverishment—to produce the money needed. Their unheard, anguished appeal for some relief was “the silent cry” of Ludwig Stiller’s 1976 book.
The 104 years of Rana rule which followed the neutralization of the power of the Shah kings, and the likes of Bhimsen Thapa, was a period of undisguised military despotism. “The Prime Minister’s authority was absolute. It was personal rule, butressed by a strong army whose maintenance and efficiency was the first care of the Prime Minister himself” (Political Relations between India and Nepal 1877–1923, Kanchanmoy Mojumdar). Chandra Shum Shere, ever-paranoid about his personal safety, totally reorganized the Bijuli Garat, a unit of soldiers formed as personal guards by Rannodip Singh. As one of the leading conspirators in Rannodip’s assassination, Chandra had seen how ineffective it was in protecting the prime minister from family members. He transformed the Bijuli Garat into an elite battalion of above-average sized soldiers armed with personal weapons. It remained active for the rest of the Rana period with the exclusive role of protecting the Rana prime minister. It was permanently stationed within Singha Durbar. Up to the 1950s it was the only battalion that had its own barracks; other soldiers were housed in rented rooms on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The name Bijuli (as in lightning) signified that the battalion was required to act at rapid speed in all situations. Without their clearance, the Rana prime minister never visited any place. They took orders directly from the prime minister and had the authority to frisk even his closest relatives.
The Bijuli Garat battalion featured in a seminal moment in the history of control of the army in Nepal when direct command of it passed to Tribhuvan in 1951. B. P. Koirala, who was then the home minister in the Rana–Nepali Congress interim cabinet, reminisced thus toward the end of his life: “Soon Kiran Shamsher brought the entire battalion marching over. The next morning, without my knowledge and informing no one else, the king took the salute of the troops. It was as if the king were telling them; henceforth show me the loyalty you have shown to Mohan Shamsher. Looking out of my window, I saw the king receiving the salute. I was there as a guest [inside Narayanhiti Palace], and at the very least should have been informed, but he didn’t see it fit to do that. From that day onwards, the king had an upper hand, and democracy lost a notch. . . . From that day, the king became powerful” (BP Koirala’s Atmabrittanta: Late Life Recollections, translated by Kanak Mani Dixit). Shortly afterward, Mohan handed over the ceremonial baton of command of the army to the palace along with the keys of the Lal Mohar (the Royal Seal) box.
In 1959, Mahendra enshrined the monarch’s absolute control over the army in his new constitution. He also became his own defence minister for an extended period. Rishikesh Shaha in his book Nepali Politics Retrospect and Prospect, published in 1975, well describes his actions and their consequences: “King Mahendra’s personal interest in the welfare and training of the officers and men of the army, and the bestowal by him of special favours on them in the form of royal grants of land and other concessions, have in recent years created bonds of a personal nature between the King and the army. The Royal Army thus regards the King as the sole personification of the state, with the result that to the army it appears as if there is no such thing as loyalty to the state and the people, as distinct from loyalty to the King as a person.”
Even with a more than two-thirds majority, B. P. Koirala was in no position to challenge Mahendra’s absolute control over the army. His revolutionary fervor had long since been worn down against the rock of Mahendra’s implacable intransigence, but, in any case, whatever the constitutional provision, officers of the army—almost all of them Ranas, Thapas, Basnyats, and Chhetris tracing their ancestry to the Gorkha court—would have never agreed to be directed by the new civilian government. The senior ranks of the army are still dominated by officers of these lineages, and, from personal knowledge, some of this anti-democratic culture lingers still. This was manifest in the zeal with which the army supported King Gyanendra’s coup of February 1, 2005. The 1990 Constitution fudged the issue of command of the army, but this action showed that nothing had changed: the army acted as the monarch’s willing and enthusiastic agent just as it had done for Mahendra 45 years previously. The situation today will be addressed in the concluding section of this article.
United States diplomatic records in the aftermath of Mahendra’s coup show none of the British inhibition and are worth quoting for the insight they provide into the realities behind the coup. As with his British visit, Mahendra had been anxious to pay an official visit to the Untied States. He finally received the official invitation after he announced his intentions to hold elections. Fear of increasing Russian influence in Kathmandu was also a factor. The duration of the four-day official visit was April 26 to 30, 1960. As he was to do later in the United Kingdom, Mahendra stayed on to tour the United States until May 13, 1960 at the expense of the host country. Joshi and Rose record that Mahendra, addressing a joint meeting of Congress on April 28, 1960, “spoke with pride of the shared democratic ideals and appealed for an expansion of Nepal-US economic and political ties on this basis.” During a meeting at the White House, President Eisenhower assured Mahendra that the United States wanted to do all in its power to assist Nepal in preserving and further developing its democratic institutions.
In a dispatch dated December 21, 1960, the ambassador, Henry E. Stebbins, gave an account of his meeting with Mahendra the previous day. There was clearly an awkward edge to the meeting. Stebbins had seen Mahendra on December 9, prior to going on leave, and the king has assured him that nothing would happen in his absence. It was at this meeting on December 20, as previously quoted, that Mahendra, “professed a strong belief in democracy, which he claims he himself has brought to Nepal and will continue to work towards it.” The ambassador further reported that Mahendra said that “he had planned this move for some time and knew of the approximate timing when the Ambassador last saw him on December 9.” The king also told him that “he took the step on his own responsibility with no outside influence whatsoever brought to bear,” and that, “he dismissed the Government and imprisoned its leaders because they were guilty of corruption and of aiding and abetting Communism.”
The ambassador in his comments gave Mahendra’s explanation of why he had acted the short shrift it deserved. He wrote, “In analyzing this coup d’état, for this is what we believe it to be, we feel that the King’s motives in taking the precipitate action he did were guided less by the issues of corruption and Communism than by a growing fear that his own personal position and prestige were dwindling and that if he did not act soon, it might be too late . . . the real motive behind the move was the preservation of the monarchy and the Shah dynasty in its absolute form.” He continued, “Although the King protests that the decision was his alone, we are convinced that it was aided and urged by the group around him, which may also have misled him. This group includes members of his and his wife’s family, remaining Class A Ranas, hereditary Generals and reactionaries and ‘feudal remnants’ generally, who, themselves, are concerned over the survival of their privileged positions. Added to these forces are those land owners and others who stood to suffer financially from the enforcement of the recent tax and land reform laws.”
Two further comments from the ambassador are worth repeating. First: “The King’s method of seizing power is consistent with Nepalese history. Confident of the Army’s complete loyalty (without which he would have failed and which he may not have in the next crisis), he acted with great secrecy and superb organization.” Second: “The King has solved his immediate problem—that of disposing of B. P. Koirala and the Nepali Congress. However, by doing so he has created a new set of problems and it is characteristic that in solving the first one he seems to have failed to anticipate solutions to the consequent ones.”
In reading these comments, I was struck by the stark similarities with the coup that King Gyanendra initiated in 2005, not least the central role of the army and the same crowd of sycophants, with senior army officers in the van, urging him on and acting as cheerleaders. There is also a more important connection. With the clarity of hindsight, one can see that Mahendra’s action in December 1960 started the long process that led to the end of the Shah monarchy in Nepal. His inability to see that preservation of the lineage lay in accommodating the monarchy to a constitutional position, which, for all its inadequacies, was sketched out in the 1959 Constitution, set the monarchy on a precipitous road. His choice of preserving the monarchy and the Shah dynasty in its absolute form was ultimately unsustainable in the modern world, short of Nepal reverting to a despotic military state, as in the Rana era. The 1990 Constitution, again for all its inadequacies and ambiguities, gave the monarchy another chance to move to a purely constitutional basis, but Gyanendra rejected it by his unconstitutional actions that started in October 2002 and ended by his assumption of absolute power on February 1, 2005.
From personal knowledge, King Gyanendra was motivated by a desire to emulate his immediate predecessors by granting his people a constitution that would restore his father’s Panchayat system in a modern form and give him a central role in decision-making. Beyond this aspiration he had no plan worthy of the name, nor had he the people with the talent to implement an appropriate plan even if there had been one. It was a fiasco from the start but this did not prevent the same crowd, who had urged on Mahendra, from repeating the performance. From an early stage, those with eyes to see and a functioning brain understood that, in the circumstances of the time, it was bound to end in disaster for the monarchy.
The circumstances of that end were emblematic of the nexus between king and army that has dominated the history of Nepal since the time of Prithvi Narayan Shah. The day of denouement was April 22, 2006. Up to the day before, the army chief, General Pyar Jung Thapa, like his predecessors, had repeatedly told Gyanendra, as he had for the previous four years and beyond, that he had no need to conduct meaningful negotiations with the Maoists. Those around him regularly assured Gyanendra that the army was on the point of so weakening the Maoist military threat that their leaders would soon come on hands and knees begging for mercy and forgiveness. (From personal knowledge some senior serving and retired Nepal Army officers continue to propagate this myth.) By all accounts, Gyanendra fervently believed what he was told—it was clearly what he wanted to hear—and in doing so increasingly lost contact with reality on the ground.
The supreme example of his detachment was the television address he gave on the morning of February 1, 2006, to mark the anniversary of his first year as absolute ruler. In it he spoke of how terrorism in his country had now been reduced to the level of petty crime. As he spoke, the public buildings in the historic town of Tansen were still in flames as a result of a large Maoist attack the evening before, as this video shows:
In a diplomatic dispatch, dated April 10, 2006, the US ambassador in Kathmandu, James Moriarty, succinctly summed up military reality on the ground. Over the previous two years, the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) had no stronger supporter. In a dispatch headed “Government losing control?” he reported a number of Maoist attacks over the previous two months, and ended it by starkly summarizing the strategic stalemate existing on the ground: “The Maoists have not been able to remain in, or take control of, any of the places they have attacked. The RNA can only defend its own garrisons, and cannot provide security to the rest of the country or prevent Maoist attacks” (Wikileaks 06 Kathmandu 934 dated April 10, 2006).
Reality finally dawned for King Gyanendra on April 22, 2006, at a meeting at the Palace to discuss how to deal with a huge demonstration planned for April 25. Up to two million people were expected to take part. At this meeting, General Pyar Jung Thapa, prompted by a visiting Indian emissary, Shyam Saran, during a visit to Kathmandu on April 19, effectively told Gyanendra that the game was up: the army would not use the firepower that would be necessary to control the crowds expected.
For the record, it is worth setting down what, a few years later, Saran said he told the army chief on April 19, 2006. First, that it would be, “a good idea to convey to His Majesty that the situation was more serious than he thought.” He also warned the army chief that the demonstrations were massive and told him, “if there were orders to shoot and there was a big incident, it would be impossible to control and you should think about the effort required to tackle 250,000 people.” He also emphasized to the chief that there was no military solution to either the Janandolan or the Maoist insurgency. A similar message was passed to the RNA from the chief of the Indian Army. The Indian assessment was that the RNA had understood the gravity of the situation and had played “a positive role” in communicating to the monarch that the status quo was not tenable. “That is why Thapa is not too popular with the royalists anymore. But he took the correct decision which saved the army” (my emphasis; all from Battles of the New Republic, Prashant Jha).
Understanding and agreeing with the message was one thing, but for General Pyar Jung Thapa, the challenge was when and how to pass it on given the highly subordinate position he was in. For example, the convention of the time was that when the army chief offered the monarch a drink at a social function, he did so on bended knee. Much more critically, what he was now being asked to pass on was totally at variance with what he had been saying to Gyanendra over the previous four years. These were years of endlessly unfulfilled army promises about being on the verge of “breaking the back of the Maoists.” (A much favored metaphor at the time by both Gyanendra and senior army people.) Also, if the situation was more serious than Gyanendra thought, one of the main men responsible for his complacency was the army chief for failing to convey to him the reality of what was happening on the ground. At the meeting on April 22, General Pyar Jung Thapa finally conveyed the unpalatable news to Gyanendra that he could no longer rely on army support to enforce his will. Put crudely but accurately, and echoing Saran’s point about saving the army, the army chose to preserve itself at the expense of the monarchy. At that point the Shah lineage as kings of Nepal was effectively on a downhill path to being consigned to history. With both India and the army withdrawing their support, Gyanendra had run out of options. In his historic proclamation of April 24, 2006, he finally conceded the fundamental point that had been in contention since his grandfather returned from Delhi on February 15, 1951: sovereignty rested not with a monarch, but with the people of Nepal.
Another crucial point must be made. However sound the advice from Shyam Saran, which was reinforced by the Indian Army chief, his intervention exemplifies what the historical record shows to be India’s consistent highest priority in Nepal from the downfall of the Ranas to the present day: namely, the maintenance of direct political and military links to the army and the preservation of its institutional integrity. These priorities have effectively made it impossible to develop mechanisms in Kathmandu to achieve what is held to be inviolable in India: namely, the absolute control of the military by the elected government and keeping the military, and particularly its generals, out of all politics. In sum, what India holds to be sacrosanct in Delhi is apparently to be denied to Nepal permanently. The ramifications of this for the development of a properly functioning democracy in Nepal are profound.
Appropriately, it fell to an officer with singularly close links to the monarchy, General Rukmangad Katawal, to deliver the final blow to Palace hopes. His early education and rise through the ranks had benefited hugely from Palace patronage but his ultimate test of loyalty came on May 28, 2008, when the first Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a republic by 560 votes to 4. We know from his recent book that over the previous two years he had worked tirelessly to ensure that the monarchy would continue to exist and that a particular target of his effort was the prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala. On the day, the vote was long delayed because of various disputes, notably the system for electing the president. Given his close contacts with the monarchy, it is certain that, as the moment of final decision loomed, the Palace would have been putting great pressure on the army chief to use all possible means to stop the vote. Despite what he describes as his deep regret, he states that he knew that the army could not stand against the popular will on the issue. On all previous form, it might not have been as simple as that. As in the days before Gyanendra’s proclamation of April 24, 2006, “advice” from Delhi could also have played a decisive part. As with his predecessor, assurances on the inviolability of the sanctity of the army in the new republican order would have been judged by General Katawal to be more important than loyalty to his long standing patrons in the Palace. Whatever the full story, Gyanendra must have regarded it as treachery, as something out of a Shakespearian tragedy, that someone who had benefited so much from the support of his family would turn his back on him at his hour of greatest need to throw his lot in with political leaders they both publicly so utterly despised.
However, ultimate responsibility for the loss of his kingdom must rest on King Gyanendra himself. He gambled his throne on a ludicrous and unachievable aim, and lost. But the seeds of destruction were planted by his father in December 1960, when, against a constitutional option, he chose to preserve the monarchy and the Shah dynasty in its absolute form. To do this he jailed a leader of a democratically elected government that did indeed, “represent Nepal’s best hope for the future.” Nepal continues to suffer the disastrous consequences of this action, which badly stunted the country’s development toward being a mature, efficiently functioning democratic state. One highly significant hallmark of such a state is an effective means of controlling the army and making it accountable to a democratically elected government. No such mechanism exists in Nepal: hence we see the unhealthily dominant position of the army in the affairs of the state. A short historical review of how this came about is an appropriate way to conclude this article.
Learning from their Rana predecessors, the four Shah kings that followed kept the army under extremely tight control by running it directly from the Palace through the agency of the Military Secretariat based there. Army Headquarters was entirely subservient to it. In later years, to fool donors, some civil servants were installed in a few offices, perhaps with a dog, and called the Ministry of Defence. When it suited the army, it was occasionally used as a post box. With the downfall of the monarchy, this rigid Palace control passed to Army Headquarters where it has effectively stayed. Under a strong, highly conservative chief such as Rukmangad Katawal, all inhibitions about being seen to play politics were quickly shed. It is more discreet now, but its influence is just as strong. No one effectively holds it to account on anything, and certainly not for its present bloated size. All political party leaders are terrified of offending its leaders, with many journalists and media outlets in the same subservient state of mind. Nepal seems to have moved back to something akin to the world of Bhimsen Thapa when, “political power rested on the army and its loyalty had to be constantly cultivated.” However active its large and ever-vigilant public relations organization works to deny it, or to silence and intimidate critics who assert it, the reality is that, whatever the Interim Constitution might say, the army is now the ultimate arbiter in Nepali politics. It is not possible to build a properly functioning democracy on such a basis.
A properly functioning democracy would, of course, require a state based on equal rights for all its citizens, whatever their gender, caste, or ethnic origins, not just in the theory of a written constitution but in the reality of everyday life. It would also be one in which all of Nepal’s diverse people were properly and proportionately represented in the machinery of state administration and state security, including in the army. Nepal falls a long way short when measured against such universal standards. Sadly, too many influential people in Kathmandu, inside and outside politics, prefer things to stay as they are, and see the army as the means to ensure that end. And so it goes on, as in the days of Bhimsen Thapa.
I am most grateful to the staff of the Oxford University Archives for giving me access to some of the material I have drawn on in writing this article and for their most helpful guidance in finding it. I am also grateful to Oxford Mail/The Oxford Times (Newsquest Oxfordshire) for providing and giving me permission to use the photographs taken in Balliol College.
To read the first part in this series, “The maharaja,” click here.
Cover photo: Two soldiers stand in front of Narayanhiti Palace, which was built for King Mahendra in 1970 on the site of the original Narayanhiti Palace, once inhabited by Prime Minister Ranoddip Singh Kunwar Rana (who was assassinated in 1885 by his nephews, among them Chandra Shum Shere). Antoine SIPOS/Flickr. Republished under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Correction: April 22, 2015
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the surname of the British constitutional authority who advised in the writing of the 1959 Constitution. His name was Sir Ivor Jennings, not Jenkins.