Nepal makes a brutal return to the feudal past
For Nepal, a brutal return to a feudal past
Randeep Ramesh in Pokhara
Saturday February 5, 2005
When his captors threatened to throw Dhruv Karki into
the flashing white swirls of the river Seti, the
student activist thought his life was over.
Blindfolded and having been beaten with a rifle butt
over the past four hours in an army camp in western
Nepal, Dhruv was mentally and physically exhausted.
His tormentors demanded to know the whereabouts of
Maoists in the university campus, accusing him of
lying when he said he did not know.
Eventually Dhruv was marched down some stairs and
thrown into a room half-filled with dust.
There he found 60 other protesters who had dared
challenge the king of Nepal's state of emergency.
It is four days since King Gyanendra used sweeping
dictatorial powers to close down newspapers and censor
broadcasts in the mountain state. The new royalist
government has also cut telephone lines and shut down
internet links, cutting off the Himalayan kingdom from
the outside world.
Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the freedom
to assemble peacefully and the right to privacy have
all been suspended.
Yesterday paramilitary forces rounded up political
leaders in the country's capital, Kathmandu, in what
appears a concerted effort to silence critics of the
The crackdown against former members of the government
and opposition groups confirms what many observers
fear: a quick and brutal snuffing out of dissent.
Sitting in his family's house, Dhruv, 27, said that
after King Gyanendra announced that he had sacked the
government and introduced martial law, hundreds of
students gathered outside Prithwi Narayan campus in
the picturesque tourist town of Pokhara and shouted
anti-royal slogans and "long live democracy".
In a matter of minutes stones were hurled and a
motorbike set alight along with pictures of the royal
The army responded with overwhelming force, spraying
the air with tear gas and bullets. At least one
student was taken to hospital after being shot.
Soldiers rounded up suspected student leaders within
hours of taking control of the university's grounds.
"We were not given food or water or even allowed to go
to the toilet," Dhruv recalled. "It must have been
night but I did not sleep. They said that if we made
noise we would be beaten more."
Poked repeatedly with the barrel of a gun, Dhruv's
right eye remains bruised and half-opened. He was
released from the army's barracks a day after he was
incarcerated and told to walk home.
"The soldiers told me that if I am taken again they
would not spare me. But I will not give up because we
The attempted justification for the return of absolute
monarchy is that the country was sliding into chaos
because ceaseless in-fighting between political
parties had allowed an eight-year-old Maoist
insurgency to spread to virtually every corner of the
In squaring up to the rebels, the king has also
invited a devastating response. The Maoist call for a
three day general strike has been ignored in
Kathmandu, where the government holds power.
But in Pokhara, where the writ of the government
barely runs, almost all schools, shops and offices
have closed down. The only vehicles on the road are
army trucks and taxis with their numbers blacked out
for fear of Maoist reprisals.
Once part of Nepal's political mainstream, the Maoists
took their movement underground in 1996 and launched
what they call a "people's war" against the state. The
conflict between government troops and the leftwing
guerrillas, who want to set up a communist republic in
place of Nepal's Hindu monarchy, has claimed more than
One such death happened three months ago on a bright,
clear morning in Pokhara. On his way to work, Indra
Bahadur Acharaya, a political lecturer, was shot in
the back of the head three times by a passenger on a
motorbike. A Maoist spokesman claimed responsibility
for the murder but said Mr Acharaya, 51, had been
mistaken for someone else.
His son, Narendra, who witnessed the shooting, said
that the king could not defeat the Maoists on his own.
"Since we do not have peace, a lot of innocent lives
are wasted," he said. "The king needs political
parties to be there. He cannot bring peace and
prosperity on his own."
Seen as "clever and intellectual," King Gyanendra has
never hidden his disdain for political parties and has
assumed an increasingly autocratic role since he
dissolved Nepal's parliament in 2002.
Although the king's most recent grab for power had
long been the talk of Kathmandu, many were surprised
by the swiftness and scope of the monarch's actions.
The British ambassador to Nepal, Keith Bloomfield,
said he had asked the king only a week ago whether he
was going to take power.
"We were aware that this was in the back of his mind
and asked him. The king said 'No, no there has been a
misunderstanding'. I made it clear that such a move
would not be viewed favourably. He appears to have
Analysts said the monarch appeared to be trying to
return to the days when his family ran the country as
feudal autocrats and living Hindu gods, before
democracy's arrival in 1990. The threat is that Nepal
will simply end up with a monarchy propped up by an
The civil war has already seen defence spending in the
country spiral. To defeat the Maoists, Britain,
America and India have all armed the security forces.
In 2002 Britain provided the Nepalese government with
two Russian built Mi-17 support helicopters and
equipment for bomb disposal, logistics, communications
and military intelligence.
At �150m, the country's defence budget is as large as
Nepal spends on social services, remarkable in a
country where adult literacy is less than 50%.
"The king does not understand that political parties
are necessarily messy institutions," said Kanak Mani
Dixit, publisher of Himal magazine. "Instead we may
now get an expensive and coercive army which will
stymie the development of the people.
"It will be a mistake to think we can win the war this
way. Nepal is a combination of Afghanistan's ravines
and Vietnam's foliage and you cannot defeat a
guerrilla army in such conditions."
(Dhruv Karki is a pseudonym.)