Nepal: A rude reminder
Shekhar Gupta, KATHMANDU: Even in the serene, sedate town of Kathmandu, residents are not unfamiliar with loud bangs. At noon every day, a cannon is fired in the town to tell everyone it’s the lunch-hour. On the afternoon of June 20, too, many in Singh Durbar, the kingdom’s stately capital complex, thought of the gun as a loud bang rattled the windowpanes.
But this one was much louder than the usual noon-time signal. Two more explosions followed in quick succession and everyone quickly sat up. “When the first bang came I said to myself, didn’t I hear the gun boom some time earlier? Then more explosions came and I decided to rush out and see what was happening,” says S. Limbu, a clerk.
Many, like him, were suddenly beginning to realise what had happened. A bunch of officials who ran to the Rashtriya Panchayat building found four men screaming in agony and Dumber Bahadur Gurung, a Rashtriya Panchayat member, very visibly dead. The wounded included three more panchayat members and an accountant who died on his way to the hospital.
Similar explosions were taking their toll elsewhere too. In the lobby of the Hotel Annapurna, barely 200 yards from the palace gate and partly owned by King Birendra’s aunt Princess Helen, receptionists Sarita Poudyal, Neerja Shreshtha and Bhoomi Narayan Shreshtha were receiving a large complement of guests from an incoming flight. In a moment they were all a mangled mass of bone and flesh.
“Normally I would have stayed in the lobby all through but that day I somehow decided to go home for lunch rather than eat in the hotel,” says Kishore Raj Pande, the manager. “I had barely got out when I heard the bang. Imagine I survived by just two minutes.” The lobby is now in a shambles and the reception is a mass of crumbled concrete.
Ironically, however, the most significant bangs did not claim many lives. The explosions that took place in front of the western and southern gates of the royal palace were the ones to make the international headlines.
After more than two decades, when the legendary Nepali Congress leader B.P. Koirala gave up the path of violence in his effort to remove Nepal’s monarchy, this was the first direct armed challenge to the palace.
And as similar explosions rocked at least six other towns spread all over Nepal, the terrorists had made their point: that they are no ragtag bunch of blood-thirsty criminals but a nation-wide group with political motives. The key to the motives lies in the timing of the blasts.
On June 19, King Birendra had delivered the ceremonial address from the throne to the Rashtriya Panchayat. The following day, Gurung and other MP’s had gone to the panchayat to register their names as speakers in the discussion on the address. Says a Nepal Police officer: “Their motive was obviously not killing MPs or the monarch. If they had wanted to do that the bomb should have gone off a day earlier. Theirs was a symbolic bid to let the people and the Government of Nepal know and fear their strength and thus submit to political blackmail which is bound to follow.”
Meanwhile, though a nondescript group calling itself the Nepali Mukti Bahini claimed responsibility for the blasts through a few cyclostyled pamphlets distributed in Kathmandu, officials were still not able to identify either the persons or their political persuasion.
Late last fortnight, however, the official Nepali approach was becoming clearer. Aided by a Calcutta newspaper report that Ram Rajya Prasad Singh, a well-known Nepali militant now exiled in India, had claimed responsibility for the explosion, they were pointing the finger southwards.
“This threat, like many others in the past, has come from the south. We have already despatched more officials and policemen to man the borders more effectively,” an official said. Even among the media there was a visible effort to blame India or people based in India and to orchestrate anti-Indian feelings.
Said an editorial in Rising Nepal, which, with a circulation of 15,000, is the largest-selling English daily in Nepal: “Without casting aspersions on anyone or any country it is strongly recommended that, in keeping with international norms, we not only maintain an accurate record of foreign nationals in our country but also see to it that the entry of foreigners into the country is tightened up considerably.”
The editor-in-chief of the paper, Mana Ranjan Josse, who is being tipped for a senior diplomatic post, came in for a fair bit of flak at the Rashtriya Panchayat from opposition members. But he sticks to his guns, saying: “I wasn’t necessarily referring to India but I do not exclude it either.” Officials also claimed that many of the unexploded explosives had Indian markings. Indian spokesmen obviously deny the charge.
Lok Bahadur ChandThey explain that at any given time there could be thousands of Indian made gelatine sticks and plenty of dynamite with the road contractors in Nepal and the Government surveillance over these stocks is almost non-existent.
Meanwhile, several members of the cabinet and ruling hierarchy admit that there is widespread panic in the establishment, and a serious terrorist threat is the last thing the palace wants when the Nepali Congress and the other supporters of the multi-party system, such as the communists, have just proved that they do have plenty of support among the Nepali masses.
Diplomats and officials in Kathmandu say the bombings cannot be viewed in isolation from the developments in the past three months or so. About two years after the present Lok Bahadur Chand Ministry took over the Nepali Congress launched a civil disobedience movement in May, demanding democratic rights and a multiparty political system.
This was preceded by a protracted campaign which saw the Nepali Congress present to the king a memorandum signed by four lakh people seeking economic and political reforms. “In fact all along as we sent delegations to the palace and pleaded for change our impression was that His Majesty himself was in favour of changing the system,” says Sagar Jung Shumshere Rana, a member of the Nepali Congress Central Committee and the only party leader still out of jail.
The explosions, Nepali Congress spokesmen feel, will only set back this “climate for change”. Said Birendra Sharma, one of the younger Nepali Congress ideologues: “Tell me if there is more violence like this how will India react? They will have nothing to do with any movement for change which is backed by terrorism and that is how this violence works against our cause and aspirations.”
That sounds plausible enough, for the only perceptible change the explosions have brought in Nepal is the suspension of the Nepali Congress satyagraha. “As long as there is violence we will have to keep quiet,” says Rana, adding, “moreover this was an attack on the monarchy which we don’t agree with. We are anti-panchayat system but not anti-monarchy.”
As a matter of fact the Nepali Congress spokesmen blame the squabbling among the panchayat members for the violence. Says Rana: “The palace is guarded by troops of the royal army. How could someone have done all this without complicity?”
King Birendra: New challengeIrrespective of whether that charge has substance or not, there is plenty of evidence of the fact that the rival groups in the panchayat are trying to make political capital out of the tragedy.
“The fact that the Government had no information about such grave acts of terrorism perpetrated at such centres of power as the Royal Palace, Singh Durbar and Rashtriya Panchayat building only points to the inefficiency and incompetence of the Chand Ministry,” said former prime Minister Tulsi Giri.
Similar attacks also came from former prime ministers Kirti Nidhi Bista and, more significantly, Surya Bahadur Thapa whose ouster had led to Chand’s installation in the first place.
According to sources in the panchayat, Thapa had seized the opportunity to renew his campaign to dislodge the Chand Government. On two occasions in the current ministry’s tenure he has tried to bring a censure motion unsuccessfully but now that he finds the Government in disarray, he is trying to drum up support within the panchayat.
His strategy is to malign Chand as being too benign and naive to tackle such a challenge. The pro-Chand elements, however, dismiss the threat as no more than a minor nuisance. “The no-confidence motion is no threat at all.
They are even having difficulty finding the 36 members (in the 140-member Rashtriya Panchayat) to sign the motion so that it could be admitted,” says Water Resources Minister Pashupati Shumshere Rana.
He adds,”What matters is not how Mr Thapa and Mr Giri have reacted to these explosions. The reaction of the common man is very different. This has only brought him closer to the Government. Look at India’s example where Mrs Gandhi’s murder, which was an abysmal security failure, only led to people giving her party the kind of support they had not given even to her father.”
While political bickering continues, policemen are doing some work on their own. According to informed sources, many of their findings fail to provide any justification for the current anti-India campaign. Police and intelligence officials are following trails leading to some of the dozen-odd Maoist groups that have sprouted in Nepal in the past decade.
Troops checking the Rashtriya Panchayat building: Explosive situationThese groups became politically relevant only in May, when they announced their support for a day’s bandh called by school teachers in Nepal. The success of the bandh surprised the administration and was immediately credited to the leftist support.
What worried the Government even more was the subsequent decision by these left groups to back the Nepali Congress satyagraha as well, officials feel that this gave the communist groups the confidence they had been lacking so far and made them that much more confident.
But irrespective of who put the bombs around the palace and the panchayat, there is no dispute on the conclusion that the motive of the bombers was to drum up support for change. In the last two decades, politics in Nepal has been a strange mix of a strong yearning for a multi-party, democratic parliamentary system with the desire for the retention of the monarchy.
And even the more optimistic in Nepal’s ruling elite, who find it impossible to believe that any Nepali group could aim at dethroning the monarch, concede that the bombings were aimed at the partyless panchayat system and to remind the monarch that some people have been demanding change. It is only ironic that the panchayat system, an unconventional brainchild of the late King Mahendra, should face its stiffest challenge in its silver jubilee year.