June 5, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Professor Tulsi Ram Vaidya, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu

'The crown is a symbol of unity in Nepal'

One of Nepalís leading historians, Professor Tulsi Ram Vaidya heads the department of history at the Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. The author of several books and chairman of the History Association of Nepal, Vaidya is also the vice-chairman of the International Association of Historians of Asia.

Among the few academics who has often interacted with the late King Birendra and the newly crowned King Gyanendra, he has been a close observer of the institution of monarchy in Nepal.

He spoke to Special Correspondent Josy Joseph about the royal massacre and other aspects of Nepalís ill-fated monarchy. Excerpts:

What was your personal assessment of King Birendra from your experiences?

I have met King Birendra on many occasions. I found him very liberal, democratic and social. So much so that King Birendra was never autocratic.

There are two or three experiences that I particularly remember: Over two decades back, I was employed to write profiles of some districts. In connection with that work if there was any meeting about history or archaeology in the palace, I was asked to attend it. At that time there were student protests in Tribhuvan University because students were asked to sign a document saying that they will not participate in any political activities.

During our meeting, he (the king) was informed about the unrest. I raised my hand, because I was not used to the mannerisms before royals, got up and said: "Sir, the order is very un-academic." King Birendra asked me in English: "What do you want to say?" I said, "The university is universal. You are its chancellor. Some day the world will come to know of the order, and what would they say?"

He was convinced, and asked me, what was proper. I said the order should be withdrawn. I told him I was teaching in the university since 1960. He accepted the suggestion then and there itself.

What has been your impression of the new King Gyanendra?

He is also an intellectual, very sharp and polite. King Gyanendra was a student of Tribhuvan University, he did his BA from there. He was very respectful to his teachers, in fact he continues to be so. Though I never taught him, I have interacted with him a few times.

The king is considered the avtaar (reincarnation) of Vishnu here. With suspicions in the minds of the people, do you think the people will accept the new king?

I think people will accept him. He will be accepted. Once, he gave me the task of editing some books. He readily accepted the suggestions I offered. He is understanding and respectful.

The new king is believed to be very assertive. Will it have an impact on Nepalís fragile democracy?

I donít think so. People can make so many comments without knowing reality.

On Monday, the kingís announcement was a very practical one. His first decision has been very pragmatic.

Have you ever had any contacts with the late crown prince Dipendra?

I used to have indirect dealings with Dipendra through other people. He too was very respectful towards teachers. He was doing his PhD from Tribhuvan University. He was very polite, respectful and very sharp. He secured a first-class-first (first rank) in BA. I was the controller of examinations then. When I was to flash the results, I had to be careful because people could have said I was partial. I had then suggested to the registrar of university that his answer papers should be put as a model one. His answers were so excellent.

Going back to history, have there been any similar macabre incidents in the Shah dynasty?

Yes, once in 1806. It was when Rana Bahadur Shah was regent, after he abdicated the throne in favour of his son King Girwan. Rana Bahadur had a clash with his half-brother Sher Bahadur Shah. Sher Bahadur Shah is said to have assassinated the regent. The assassination did not take place in the palace, but at the house of a noble. This is the version quoted by most historians, though I have personally challenged it.

Except one noble, nobody else who was there, has recorded the murder. And the particular noble was close to the then de facto ruler, a Thapa.

Prince Paras (son of newly crowned King Gyanendra) is accused in a hit and run case in the past. He is now being accused by a large section of the people of playing a role in the developments.

I cannot say anything now. All sorts of rumours are being said.

Does he stand a chance of becoming the crown prince? Can the king appoint someone else in his place?

It would all depend upon how Paras will behave. Even our children sometimes behave notoriously.

But can the king appoint someone else as crown prince? Does tradition allow that? Can King Gyanendraís daughter be the next monarch?

The king is bound by tradition. We have a hereditary monarchy. The first son of the king should be the next king. Under our tradition, the daughter cannot be the next monarch. We have a patriarchal society.

Why is there such an outpouring of grief over the death of King Birendra? Was he such an exceptionally good ruler? Or is it merely because he was believed to be the reincarnation of God Vishnu?

Because of his own doings too. King Birendra, even during the panchayat system, was very popular, though the panchayat system had its own flaws. After the restoration of democracy, the king continued to be very popular. He discharged his duties in a style that impressed people.

You havenít told me what exactly was his style that made him so popular. Could you specify some actions that endeared him to the people?

I will tell you a personal experience of mine. We used to have the national development service scheme. It was King Birendraís plan. He wanted PG (post graduate) students to be sent to villages for national development. He wanted them to work for the improvement of the villages, to live among the illiterates and underdeveloped.

Sometime in the 70s, I was the director of the programme. I used to have an audience with the king every two-three months over the scheme. He would tell me often: 'Take care of the girls.' He was so conscious of various aspects of the scheme, so conscious of the safety of the girls. I used to go to places where the scheme was taking place with my wife, and ensure that the girls were safe and secure.

The scheme took place during 1973-79. After the referendum it could not be continued. Even Indira Gandhi was impressed by it. She had sent teachers from Agra university to study the scheme. She wanted to implement it in Himachal Pradesh. Bangladesh was also impressed, they too sent people to study the scheme.

And was he so committed to democracy? There is a belief that he was reluctant in giving democracy to Nepal, and was not very happy with his diluted status since 1990?

Let me tell you this. During the panchayat system, the bureaucrats used to be very strict. A student who had gone to a remote far western district for the national development service scheme wrote about the poverty of the region. He said during the reign of King Birendra people of this district got only one meal a day. This would go down in history in black letters.

The district commissioner arrested the student, charging him with some sort of treason, for defying and defaming the king. The moment I was informed about his arrest, I went to the king. The king immediately ordered the release of the student and said he wanted to meet him. He passed the order on to the home ministry, which in turn passed it on to the commissioner. It was sometime in 1977-78. The commissioner called me up in a couple of hours to tell me that the student had been released.

There is a palpable movement within the society against the new monarch. Will this lead to Nepal becoming a republic? The dethroning of the monarch?

I donít think that sort of a thing will take place. It is very surprising why such demands are coming up now. Still the crown is very respected, and it is considered a symbol of unity in this country.

The death of a monarch

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