The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 19, 2001
Time Off

A glimpse of Nepal’s past
Manohar Malgonkar

Prince Dipendra: Victim or criminal?
Prince Dipendra: Victim or criminal?

JUNE 3, 2001. After waking up at dawn, I switched on the bedside radio to catch BBC’s early morning news bulletin. Like everyone else, I wanted to know as much as possible of the slaughter of the royals in Kathmandu but discovered that a news blackout had been imposed. Even BBC’s man on the spot had little to add to what we already knew. That it was the Heir Apparent, Prince Dipendra, who had gunned down his parents and sister and other members of his family.

It is of course well-known that BBC’s reporters are specialists of their subjects and that what they say on air is checked and double-checked in the broadcasting studio itself to make sure that no errors of fact slip in. As such, I thought it was a little strange that the correspondent they had especially rushed to Kathmandu to report on the events of the night of June 1, should have particularly stressed the fact that the common man in Nepal had been absolutely bowled over by the tragedy because nothing quite like this had happened in Nepal before — or words to that effect.

Maybe not in living memory and again, not to the family of Nepal’s kings. But then it is just as true that Nepal’s ruling elite have settled private grudges by resorting to gunplay. Because, for much of its past, Nepal had managed to seal itself off from the rest of the world, as it were, the dark deeds in the palaces of its ruling elite who were either Kings or their Prime Ministers, (as often as not, aided and abetted by their favourite queens) remained hidden from the outside world. But even what little is known gives ample proof that court life in Nepal had become a snake pit of intrigue erupting into bouts of sudden violence. There were coups, assassinations, clan feuds and even — as in its most recent manifestation — fits of insanity.

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Indeed deportations, imprisonments, assassinations were so regular a feature of the inner sanctums of power in Nepal that it is not easy to pick a point for a start. Anyhow, the sudden dismissal of a Prime Minister who had been in office for some thirty years on a charge that he had poisoned the infant heir to the throne in the year 1833, is as good a starting point as any.

Was the end of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya predestined?
Was the end of King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya predestined? 

His name was Bhim Sen. He was cast into a foul dungeon where, as it were, he was assisted to end his life. This was done by describing to him how his wife had been paraded naked through the streets of Kathmandu. Obligingly, Bhim Sen plunged a dagger into his own throat and bled to death.

Nepal is a land of fierce tribal rivalries, and Bhim Sen’s dismissal and humiliation was the end result of a burning feud between his clan, the Thapas, and the clan of his arch rival at court, Ran Jang, who was a Panre.

Ran Jang had managed to enlist the help of the ‘senior Queen’ of Nepal who too, was a Panre and also the real ruler of Nepal because the king himself, Rajendra, was "a semi-imbecile" and incapable of ruling.

Bhim Sen’s estates were confiscated and his dependents exiled to India. Among these members of Bhim Sen’s family, it is important to keep note of two who were his nephews; Matbar Singh and Jang Bahadur. Ran Jang became the new Prime Minister. As though to set the seal on the triumph of the Panre clan, he managed to get the King to sign a decree proclaiming that all members of the Thapa clan were banned from holding public office for seven generations.

In the event this prohibition was short-lived, because the Senior Queen fell ill and died, and her mantle as Nepal’s real ruler fell on the ‘Second Queen’ who belonged to the Thapa clan.

The Second Queen was a capable and crafty lady. She quickly got her husband to annul the decree that banned her clansmen from holding public office, but kept on Ran Jang as Prime Minister even though he was a Panre. But she kept him in his palace, as it were, by pinpricks and insults, as for instance, having his palace ransacked by some soldiers who had gone berserk.

But this Second Queen, too, did not last long. She ruled for barely three years and died of fever, thus clearing the stage for ‘The Junior Queen’, who, surely must have been an avatar of the goddess Durga in a frenzy of anger. Her name was Kancha, and she, too belonged to the Thapa clan.

She dismissed the Prime Minister, Ran Jang, whom her predecessor had suffered to remain. Then she sent round an order to all the leading members of the Panre clan to present themselves at her court to be tried for their part in the conspiracy that had brought about Bhim Sen’s ouster.

King Gyanendra: Uneasy head?
King Gyanendra: Uneasy head?

The Panre leaders had no illusions as to the fate that awaited them. To make sure that the process would not be too painful, they’re supposed to have had their own kukhris sharpened to the point of perfection, so that their heads should be severed in a single stroke. It is said that the custom still survives. Be that as it may, what is true is that a score or so of them where slain that day.

Kancha wanted to make sure that it was her progeny that would form Nepal’s royal line: This she wanted to achieve by having her own infant son installed as the Yuvaraj, or heir-apparent, in the place of the existing Yuvaraj who was a son of the late Senior queen. Fearing that this would be a difficult manoeuvre, she wanted to make someone else responsible to put it through, such as a new Prime Minister who would unquestioningly do her bidding.

Kancha picked on young Matbar Singh, a nephew of the late Bhim Sen, who had been living in exile in Varanasi along with other members of Bhim Sen’s family.

Matbar accepted the summons with alacrity. He was duly stalled as the Prime Minister. Then the Queen told him that he would have to put through the measures to have her son made the heir apparent.

This, Matbar declined to do, and thus sealed his own fate. Kancha easily convinced her husband, the King that Matbar was plotting to dethrone him and himself assume the crown of Nepal. Kancha also had a readymade plan to deal with the problem: all that King Rajendra had to do was to send for Matbar to report at the palace.

"As Matbar entered," Ikbal Ali reports. "A shot rang out, and Matbar, mortally wounded, lay in a pool of blood."

Now the plot thickens — or grows bizarre, as we learn that the man who had assisted the queen in killing Matbar, was her long-time lover, Gagan Singh, who, we’re told, was "of low birth".

And Gagan Singh was now to be rewarded by being made the Prime Minister . That proposal sent shock waves through the ranks of what might be called ‘the establishment’ of Nepal. According to their way of thinking, Gagan Singh cuckolding their king was, well, deplorable, but it was none of their business. But a low-born man being made the country’s Prime Minister was something they could not tolerate. One of them must have revealed to the king that Gagan Singh was the queen’s paramour and it is said that the king himself had given his assent to the remedy they proposed; murder.

On September 15, 1846, Gagan Singh was assassinated. On hearing the news, Queen Kancha ran through the streets, wailing and ranting, to see her lover’s corpse. "Her rage, Ikbal Ali tells us, "was terrible to behold" and that she kept breaking out into "paroxysms of fury." She ordered the bugles to be blown for a muster of Nepal’s troops in Kathmandu’s central square known as "the Kot’, and herself took a position in a building overlooking the square, at a window and in full view of the crowd below.

"Who did it? she kept yelling. "Give me the name., who?—-who?"

That was when shots rang out in the square. Soldiers were firing at people indiscriminately, while their Queen exhorted them; "Kill"!

It did not last for more than a few minutes. By then at least sixty of Nepal’s chiefs’ had died.

That was when the king, in a desperate bid to stop the carnage, surrendered all power into the hands of a man he though he cold trust to restore sanity in the capital. His name was Jung Bahadur, Nepal’s man of Destiny. True to his behest, he brought the situation under control, but he never relinquished the power he had been given to rule Nepal. From then on, for more than a hundred years, the Kings of Nepal were like temple gods, to be treated with awe and reverence, ceremonial figures, segregated from the affairs of man.

And also, as the BBC’s man said, saved from the violence that the obligations of rulership imposed.


This feature was published on 12 August 2001