June 12, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Professor S D Muni

'The monarchy is passing through a crisis of survival'

S D Muni, professor of international studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, has researched foreign and strategic policies in South and Southeast Asia, Third World security, ethnic conflicts and regional co-operation.

At present in Singapore as a visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Muni was India's ambassador to Laos in the late nineties.

Author of 14 books, Muni told Ramesh Menon in an email interview that the crisis in Nepal would deepen if the new king did not move fast to establish his credentials as being committed to democracy:

Any minor reason now seems enough to trigger anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal. What is the reason?

There are three important background factors that shape reactions to India in Nepal: First, it is Nepal's excessive dependence on India, not only geographically (Nepal being India-locked) but in almost every other aspect of life, including culture and economy.

Secondly, India's active and effective presence at every landmark event in Nepal's contemporary history; particularly the end of Rana rule in 1950-51, the dismissal of parliamentary democracy and imposition of direct rule by King Mahendra in 1960, and the return to a constitutional monarchy in 1990-91.

During the last 50 years, powerful vested interests have injected an anti-Indian ethos into Nepalese nationalism to serve their narrow political and economic interests. Even the kingdom's socio-economic and ethnic divide between the hills and the Terai have been linked to anti-Indian icons of the so-called Nepalese nationalism.

Thirdly, external forces, particularly of the West, China and Pakistan, have from time to time played upon anti-Indian sentiments in pursuance of their respective interests to reinforce Nepal's feelings of discomfort and unease concerning India.

The last visit of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala was supposed to have smoothened a lot of rough edges in relations between India and Nepal. But much seems to be the same.

State visits play a marginal role in the social psyche and correlation of political forces. Impressions of good relations were created many times in the past. But they were washed out.

The Girija Prasad Koirala government has failed to efficiently implement the decisions taken in New Delhi and its standing within Nepal has suffered serious erosion in recent months. Critics of the present government in Nepal, including within the ruling party, openly blame India for the continuation of this corrupt and inefficient government.

A large section of the Nepalese suspect that India's ultimate motive is to annex the Himalayan kingdom. From where does this idea come?

'In the early fifties, King Tribhuvan had offered to merge with India. But Jawaharlal Nehru stoutly rejected it'
A large section of the Nepalese do not feel so. But surely a powerful section of the Nepalese political elite and urban population nurse and articulate this suspicion. Besides, Nepalese twist events like India's role in Sikkim and the defence and foreign policy co-operation that existed between India and Nepal during the fifties, to buttress their political views.

It is pertinent to keep in mind here that Nepal's King Tribhuvan had in fact, in the early fifties, offered to merge with India. But, Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister, stoutly rejected it.

India also went out of its way in lobbying at the United Nations to convince world opinion that Nepal's relations with India in no way compromised the smaller neighbour's sovereignty. As a result of India's efforts, Nepal got its membership of the United Nations.

What does the latest tragedy in Nepal mean for India?

This is a crisis which, if not handled properly, has the potential of posing a survival challenge to the institution of monarchy. This can seriously erode the efficacy of parliamentary democracy and encourage such political forces that may completely transform the nature of Indo-Nepal relations to the considerable disadvantage of India's security and Nepal's developmental interests.

Pakistan and a few Nepalese papers are alleging Indian involvement...

Such allegations have also been mouthed by Nepal's Maoist leaders. This underlines the political purpose behind them. The allegation of India's involvement is so absurd that it does not even need refutation.

Could there be any other motive for the massacre other than the one about the crown prince mowing down the royal family?

Theoretically motives can be many; such as to change the complexion of monarchy, to create instability so as to eliminate the monarchy and the parliamentary political system. But the circumstances of the happening, as widely known, were such that no other motive sounds credible.

Popular disbelief about the massacre by the drunken crown prince also arises from reservations on accepting Prince Gyanendra as the king, and from the resentment against the present government. Let us hope that the findings of the enquiry commission set up for the purpose will answer many of the ill-found suspicions.

There are reports that the new king nurtures anti-India sentiments.

King Gyanendra, as a prince, had extensive business and commercial interests in the pursuance of which his expectations of India could not always be fully satisfied. He is also known to have nursed several political links in Nepal and abroad, in pursuance of his interests, and, not all these links were compatible with the growth of close and healthy Indo-Nepal relations.

However, as a king, he should be aware, more than anyone else, that India is a positive factor not only for the growth and prosperity of his kingdom but also in the stability and strength of the constitutional monarchy.

What do you think of the arrest of Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Kantipur, for publishing an anti-palace signed piece written by a Maoist ideologue?

The government is making a fine legal argument in justifying the arrest. But even earlier, writings of Maoist leaders have been published in Nepalese papers and no action was taken. Surely, the said article aims at making political capital out of the unpopularity of the new king and pro-Birendra sentiments aroused in the wake of his assassination. It also hits at India and drags it into the present controversy.

'The democratic leadership and parties are caught in ego conflicts, nepotism, organizational disarray and ideological erosion'
The government must have taken this extreme stand to thwart publication of such material in future and also to respond to the sensitivity of the palace, local politics and interest of friendly neighbours. It was a drastic step involving complex factors. It would have been better if the matter was handled carefully without arresting the editor. Ghimire is a very competent and sensible editor and Kantipur is a very popular paper.

Is the crackdown on the press a natural fallout or is there a sinister side to it?

I don't see any sinister design behind Yubaraj Ghimire's arrest. But I cannot rule out the possibility of the palace and the government becoming more intolerant of direct criticism under the new king. More so when both the king and the government have a feeling of being alienated from the common people.

How has democracy fared in Nepal in the last ten years?

Highly disappointingly. The democratic leadership and parties are caught in ego conflicts, nepotism, organizational disarray and ideological erosion. They have failed in providing even the minimum required governance and have no clue about meeting the severe challenges of development and growing extremism.

Has the institution of monarchy in Nepal not become stronger as politicians have failed the country?

Monarchy has got back some of its respectability. There have been rumours, before the palace massacre, that the king may use the growing unpopularity of the democratic system to concentrate more powers into his hands.

The new king may not be disinclined to do so, but he himself is very unpopular. The real advantage of democratic failure has been harnessed by the Maoists. They have gained considerable strength during the last decade, particularly since 1995. They are a challenge both to the democratic polity and the institution of monarchy.

What can be done to improve Indo-Nepal ties?

Urgent steps needs to be taken to insulate these ties from Nepal's domestic politics. This is easier said than done. For this, Indian diplomacy in Nepal needs a serious overhaul and a much sophisticated orientation than has been evident during the past decade.

Unless the fruits of India-Nepal cooperation spread widely in Nepal, popular opinion will always be vulnerable to anti-India vested interests. This requires committed and efficient governance in Kathmandu.

Both the Indian and the Nepalese media should also play a constructive role in projecting several positive aspects of a close bilateral relationship.

What should be India's concerns in the changed situation?

The stability of a constitutional monarchy in a harmonious relationship with an efficient and functional parliamentary democracy is in India's long-term as well as immediate interests.

India has critical security interests in Nepal, but they are linked to overall Indian security interests in the region. If India is seen to be incapable of managing its security relationship with Pakistan and China, it will not be respected in Nepal.

The healthy economic development of Nepal under a stable and responsive political order is directly conducive to India's enlightened interests in the Himalayan Kingdom.

With a monarch that people loved no more and with a monarch today that many do not trust, are there tough days ahead for the survival of the monarchy in Nepal?

Of course. The monarchy is passing through a crisis of survival. If the new king does not move fast to establish his credentials as being committed to democracy, this crisis will further deepen.

Do you think the Maoists will seize the opportunity and the changed political climate to push their agenda?

They are already doing so. The remarkable manner in which they have suddenly praised the murdered king points in that direction. They are also supporting the conspiracy theory to whip up popular passions to further erode the image of the new king.

The drift of the current Nepalese situation towards uncertainty and instability would be the ideal development from the Maoist point of view. They are also exploiting Nepal's ethnic cleavages and alienation caused by years of social humiliation and economic deprivation of minority communities.

Death of a Monarch: The complete coverage

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