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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 25

Nepal: Herald of a New Dawn

Sunday 8 June 2008, by G.S. Bhargava


An established democracy like India, even if tainted lately by the holy family, should be happy at the imminent abolition of monarchy in Nepal. We should rejoice at our neighbour to the north joining the comity of republican democracies. It does not matter if the former Himalayan kingdom had been looking askance, for decades, at the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy with adult franchise. Three years after Indian independence, Nehru played host, tentatively and fleetingly, to King Tribhuvan and many of his family members, who flew down to Delhi.

Buoyed by India shedding two centuries of colonial rule, the head of the ailing Nepal dynasty, King Tribhuvan, wanted to shake off the Rana thralldom. The Ranas were usurpers who ruled the kingdom autocratically with antediluvian practices. For instance, young women of Newar descent had to, as bedchamber maids at night, help the Rana masters relieve and wash themselves.

In the aftermath, Nepal opted for parliamentary democracy with periodical elections on the basis of adult franchise, in preference to its traditional panchayat system. . It was nothing short of a revolutionary metamorphosis but not unexpected of King Tribhuvan, a far-sighted monarch who saw Nepal’s stability and durability as an independent kingdom in the company of its neighbour to the south. It would be idle to deny a shade of Professor John Kenneth Galbraith’s description of Canada’s vicissitudinous entente with the US of sleeping with the elephant in the emerging India-Nepal relations.. But then the Ranas had close affinity with the British Government in India and there was much wheeling and dealing between the two.

Further, although India is vast in size and is an established parliamentary democracy, Nepal is no pigmy in area and extent even if just emerging as a democracy. Further, the Tribhuvan Rajpath opening up the hoary kingdom to the outside world through India and the Tribhuvan University, which exchanged scholars with India, the US, Britain and other open societies, were the other landmarks of the Tribhuvan reign.

King Mahendra, who succeeded his venerable father, inherited the upshot of the societal change in the first general election in 1951. The Nepali Congress headed by the charismatic Bisweshwar Prasad Koirala swept the polls. Its government had a Rana scion because the winds of change sweeping the region had sucked in the youth of all communities — Brahmins, Rajputs, Ranas, Gorkhas, Newars et all. The Koirala Government was more socialist than pro-India, contrary to the canard that Nehru had masterminded it.

Koirala and many of his Nepal Congress colleagues were with the Socialist Party of Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia, imbibing their egalitarian philosophy. They had studied at Banaras, Lucknow, Patna and other North Indian universities. The Indian Socialists also were active in the armed struggle waged by the Nepali Congress against the Rana autocracy. But, ironically, the Socialists in India flopped in the first general election held in 1952 after the coming into force of the Constitution.

THE Nepali Congress became a star member of the Asian Socialist movement and participated in the first Asian Socialist Conference in Rangoon in 1955, along with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Burma Socialist Party of U Ba Swe and U Kyan Nyein (pronounced chau nein) and the Israeli Mapai. The Yugoslav League of Communists sent a powerful fraternal delegation under the colourful Milovan Djilas (author of The New Class, which had shaken Communists of all shades to their roots). Jayaprakash Narayan and Dr Lohia headed the large Indian contingent. (Whoever among us could wangle the airfare from Calcutta to Rangoon was there.)

It was doubly worth the effort. Clement Attlee, the British Labour Prime Minister who presided over ‘the liquidation of the British empire’ (in Sir Winston Churchill’s ringing lament), led the Socialist International delegation. When he dismissed Dr Lohia’s Third Force as Third Weakness, Dr Lohia, Jayaprakash, Koirala and Djilas joined issue with him forcefully. One could not have wished for a more delectable feast for thought.

Hardly a year later, however, night descended on the promising scenario. Temperamental U Nu fell out with the Socialists and relinquished office to go into meditation and hand over power to General Ne Win. The celebrated Israeli defence strategist, Moshe Dyan, who came me to Delhi to call on Nehru, had to draw a blank because of the Anglo-French aggression against the Suez Canal with Israel in tow. What could have been a turning point in Middle Eastern history did not come to pass.

Compounding the gloomy ambience, the India-China border conflict of 1962 was a godsend for King Mahendra chafing at the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, and its offspring, the Koirala Government. Taking advantage of Tulsi Giri’s defection from the Nepali Congress, he sacked the Koirala Government and detained Koirala at Sundari Jal detention camp, from where the latter did not emerge alive. He also reverted to the panchayati system in which the legislature is a veritable poodle of the palace.

As an anticlimax in India-Nepal relations came Rajiv Gandhi’s knee-jerk clamping of a trade- and-transit embargo against landlocked Nepal because his Italian spouse would not be allowed into the sanctum sanctorum of Pasupathi Nath temple.

Now, three-and-a-half decades later statesmanship demands that India, and Nepal to a lesser extent, forget and forgive the past and usher in a new chapter to welcome the new dawn in Nepal. Nepal has as much stake in maintaining its independence, as India will have in fortifying its North-Eastern frontier. Among other things, Nepal would welcome access to port facilities at Kolkuta and India, too, would gain from it.

The author, a veteran journalist, is a former Principal Information Officer (PIO) of the Government of India’s Press Information Bureau (PIB).

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