June 05, 2020
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Long Live The King

A public espousal of democracy makes the world's only Hindu monarch a man of the masses

Long Live The King
King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya surprised many Nepalis when they sneaked out of the Royal Palace—with Crown Prince Dipendra and Princess Shruti in tow—and casually strolled down King's Way, Kathmandu's upmarket business district, on the evening of Saturday, December 16. Security personnel were caught completely off guard with everyone jostling to get a closer look at the royal family. Overwhelmed by the royal intimacy, a couple of young boys standing nearby in blue jeans and leather boots started chanting: "Long live the King!"

For Nepal, 1995 was indeed a special year as the nation celebrated the golden jubilee birthday of His Majesty King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, who turned 51 on December 29. The celebrations began on December 15 with a week-long gala in Kathmandu. The theme: "Monarchy: The Living Heritage of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal." The capital wore a festive look and almost all cultural and other programmes had the "golden jubilee" label.

On the final day of the celebrations, thousands of people—including schoolchildren, police and army personnel and senior bureaucrats—marched to the palace with bouquets and best wishes for the monarch. The procession was led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. The day was observed as a national holiday and 74 prisoners were released from jail to mark the occasion.

The festivities are significant. They indicate the evaporation of the anti-monarchy feelings seen here during the pro-democracy movement of 1990, when thousands of citizens stormed the palace shouting slogans against the king. Though the movement reduced Birendra from an absolute monarch to a constitutional one along the lines of the British system, the king still remains a powerful presence in the Himayalan Kingdom. "Of the three factors keeping the nation-state together, monarchy is one," observes writer Prakash A. Raj, whose ancestors were royal priests. The other two, he says, are the Hindu-Buddhist tradition and the Nepali language.

Compared to the multi-million dollar coronation of Birendra in 1975 and the equally extravagant royal wedding of 1969, the golden jubilee celebrations were very low-key. But the scaled-down birthday bash suited both the king and the Sher Bahadur Deuba government fine, as it allowed the coalition government to avoid allegations of wastage of public money. Palace sources declined to offer an estimate of the cost incurred, saying: "The celebrations are from the people's side." While hordes of foreign dignitaries, including heads of state and royalty attended the coronation, only their emissaries attended the 50th birthday celebrations of the world's only Hindu monarch. Among the prominent Indians who attended were the Shankaracharya of Dwarika, an envoy of the Kanchi-puram seer and the General Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ashok Singhal.

Birendra became monarch in 1972 after the death of his father Mahendra—who had introduced and headed a one-party system. But following the massive pro-democracy movement which began in 1989, the Harvard-educated king restored democracy and became a constitutional monarch.

Whether constitutional or not, monarchy continues to play a vital role in the Himalayan kingdom. The fact that Birendra adhered strictly to the constitution to defuse all major political crises since 1990 has further endeared him to both the masses and the political parties. In fact, even the mainstream Communists have openly praised his role in keeping democracy alive. "An aura of novelty has developed around the royal family, as we don't see them as much as we used to," says Bikash Rauniyar, a 27-year-old photo-journalist, who saw the king and his family being surrounded by the excited crowd on December 16.

Many feel that the king's unprecedented familiarity was a successful attempt to project himself as a "people's king". A remarkable aspect of the 1994 general elections was that parties with a strong anti-monarchy stand, like the United People's Front, were virtually routed.

But despite the efforts by the king and the government to keep the birthday celebrations low key, questions on the monarchy's relevance persist. For instance, at the 113th birth anniversary celebrations of Mao Tse Tung on December 26—usually a routine affair with the Communist parties paying homage to the leader of the Chinese Socialist revolution—leaders of the ultra left group, Masal, were critical of the institution. Bishnu Bahadur Manandhar, general secretary of the Communist Party (United), even claimed the palace was trying to make a political comeback, and that the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) as well as the Nepali Congress were "directly collaborating with the palace in the process". Such sentiments, however, are echoed only by the fringe elements in the far right and the extreme left.

Scholars, however, say the best place for the king is the palace. But, of course, the people would welcome his evening strolls.

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