For them, it wasn't just because of the death of a charismatic Hindu preacher who had mesmerised them with his oratory and erudition. It was also because the assassination brought to fore the simmering tension between different Hindu groups; the attempts of the RSS and its affiliates to curry favour with the palace; and the clash of varying worldviews symbolised by the Maoists and political Hindu groups.
Unknown in India, Pokhrel boasted a veritable cult following here. Utilising his enviable oratorical skills, and his knowledge of the Puranas and the Upanishads, the 48-year-old preacher mobilised massive resources to build schools, hospitals, orphanages and roads in rural Nepal. Such was his charisma that his mesmerised audience would rise in unison and dance to bhajans and kirtans. Out of trance, they would compete with each other to donate money to the project Pokhrel had announced at a religious gathering.
His ability to raise money, and the clout he exercised over the Hindu masses, incurred him the wrath of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the Nepal chapter of the RSS, and its innumerable affiliates, particularly the VHP. Their anger stemmed from Pokhrel's resolute opposition to their attempts to widen their base in Nepal and influence key power centres, including the palace.
But first, the details of the grisly killing. On May 6, Pokhrel's mission was cut short by youths riding on three motorcycles who riddled him with bullets, killing him on the spot. As news of the killing reached Kathmandu, intense speculations began on the identity of the assailants and their possible motives. Just about no one, other than the government here, was willing to give credence to the claims of the local Dalit unit of the Maoists that it was responsible for Pokhrel's assassination. Not even his eldest son, Dinbandhu, who openly said, "I can't believe that the Maoists did it simply because their local unit's Dalit wing owned up." Many concur with him. Dr Surendra K.C, of Tribhuwan University, says "Pokhrel was a nationalist and a democrat who believed in the constitutional system of governance." He goes on to add, "The government should not delay in appointing a high-level probe into the killing."
But then the government had shown remarkable alacrity in accepting the claims of a leader of the local Dalit unit of Maoists. The claim is regarded spurious because the Maoists in the area have often freed high-profile civilians after abducting them. In January, for instance, they captured Chet Bahadur Kunwar, a former secretary to the king, but let him off following a few days of detention. No doubt, the Maoist ideology is emphatically anti-religion, and they have occasionally targeted Hindu temples and scriptures, but they have, till now, refrained from killing a priest. And though two years back, some Maoist students leaders were arrested in Kathmandu after they had demanded money from Pokhrel to fund political activities, they subsequently absolved him of any role in their arrest following an inquiry. Thereafter, Pokhrel conducted his discourses countrywide, Maoist strongholds included.
Surprisingly, the top-rung Maoist leadership, too, hasn't yet confirmed or denied the claims of its Dalit wing, as is its wont normally. Dinbandhu, however, says, "I strongly feel that the local Maoist leader who owned responsibility could have been used by other powerful groups who wanted to get rid of my father." He, however, refrains from naming these groups; nobody wants to be on record.
But the killing of Pokhrel has raised the pitch of debate on the role of the RSS and its affiliates in Nepal. And this is largely because of Pokhrel's erstwhile connection with them.A few years ago, he came into contact with VHP supremo Ashok Singhal who wanted him to head the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh (VHM), a local apex body of the VHP. Initially, Pokhrel agreed; but soon differences arose between him and Singhal on the money the charismatic Hindu preacher raised and also on the communal agenda of the VHP.
Two years ago, Pokhrel pulled out of the VHM, and floated an independent organisation called the VHM Rashtriya Samiti. But he was constantly hounded by the VHM headed by Maj Gen Bharat Keshari Simha, the ADC for life to King Gyanendra. Unable to capture Pokhrel's support base, Singhal turned his attention to building bridges to the palace.
Early 2003, for instance, Singhal was a key presence at an official occasion organised by the VHM to declare the king the world Hindu samrat. Singhal had then declared that Gyanendra was not only the king of 24 million Nepalese but over 2 billion Hindus worldwide. After the February 1 royal coup, Singhal came to Nepal to rally support of the Hindus worldwide for the king's move. Back home, at the RSS's All India Karyakari Sabha meeting last month, Singhal placed a resolution seeking endorsement of the king's takeover. The resolution had to be withdrawn as RSS chief Sudarshan declared that the "institution of monarchy cannot survive without democracy in Nepal".
Despite the disgraceful retreat, Singhal remains influential in Nepal, and innumerable RSS outfits have been able to grow and propagate their rabidly communal agenda because of full official backing and patronage. These Hindu groups saw Pokhrel as the last, and most formidable, obstacle to their rapid expansion in the country. The presence of the BJP-led NDA government also saw the Indian embassy here provide support to the saffron brigade to strike deep roots in Nepal.
Just how deep their tentacles had reached here became obvious during the communal rioting of September 1 in retaliation to the killing of 12 Nepali labourers by Islamic militants in Iraq. Kathmandu saw frenzied groups attack mosques and private and institutional property of Muslims worth millions. The then Nepal home minister, Purna Bahadur Khadka, even instructed security and intelligence officers to keep tabs on these saffron outfits, as well as their press where they would print inflammatory and communal pamphlets/journals inciting Hindus not to tolerate Christians and Muslims in the world's only Hindu kingdom. Incidentally, the RSS Nepal chapter is active in the ngo sector, opening nearly 50 schools that most likely violate the law of the land as the funds come from abroad.
Pokhrel stood against these activities of the Sangh parivar, and even asked his followers to defeat the ugly design of the RSS which, he claimed, had an expansionist design and "believed Nepal, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan to be part of Akhanda Bharat." He also attacked their Brahminical ideology. So infuriated was the VHM with Pokhrel that the government media were directed not to address him with the title of 'Preacher Laureate' that his devotees had bestowed upon him.
Even the modus operandi of the two groups was different. Pokhrel depended on his popular support for his mission; the Sangh parivar relied on its clout with the government. While Pokhrel raised more than three billion Nepali rupees during his nearly 1,100 religious discourses over the last seven years, the saffron brigade raised its finances from large-scale donations from its bania base; these sources of funding not as transparent as Pokhrel's.
Whether the Maoist leadership denies or confirms its role in the killing of Pokhrel, his death has underlined, as never before, the inimical impact of the saffron brigade on Nepal.