Nepal: Brief Honeymoon

Royal wedding in Nepal
Nepal's King Gyanendra (in military uniform on the left) and his son Crown Prince Paras (in military uniform on the right) carry Gyanendra's daughter Princess Prearana during her wedding (Photo: Devendran M. Singh/AFP).

The bride, in local tradition, wore red—a silken sari and an elaborate, gauzy veil, webbed with golden thread. The groom’s trousers and tunic were hand-woven colorful cotton. Lavish garlands of flowers and money almost concealed his youthful face. He stared into space as the queen of Nepal washed his feet. 

Decimated by the brutal events of June 1, 2001, when a drug-crazed Crown Prince Dipendra machine-gunned most of his close family, the surviving members of Kathmandu’s Shah dynasty finally have something to celebrate. The wedding of Princess Prearana Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah to Kumar Raj Bahadur Singh was a festive and upbeat affair, as the family tried to put devastation behind it. 

The usually somber King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev was visibly happy as he presided over two days of rituals. A smile was on his lips as he greeted the bridegroom and his family at the gates of the Narayanhiti Palace and helped the queen pour holy water on their new son-in-law’s feet. As horse-drawn carriages full of wedding guests moved through the streets, people cheered and clapped.

This was in stark contrast to the jeering and riots that had greeted the new king in the dark days after the massacre. There were rumors that he, not Dipendra, was behind the murders. Now, 18 months later, the city was celebrating, mildly perhaps, but having fun. “He’s our king, whether we like it or not,” said laborer Bahadur Rai, “and today we salute his family.”

Despite the festivities, the country remains in a state of shock. The royal massacre was only the first convulsion to hit Nepal in the new millennium. A violent uprising by Maoist militants has intensified, claiming 5,000 lives in the past year. Human-rights activists say the response of the security forces has been brutal yet ineffective. And a dangerous rift between the king and political parties is deepening. A government of technocrats appointed by Gyanendra after he sacked an elected administration last year has just completed 100 days in office, accomplishing, says The Kathmandu Post, “nothing.” 

Not all Nepalis are prepared to admit to despair. Information Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey is relentlessly upbeat. “No significant Maoist attacks in the past 100 days,” he says, “an active anti-corruption campaign and a king committed to the restoration of democracy.” It’s Pandey’s job to talk that way. “We’ll even have the Maoists at the bargaining table soon,” he adds. “All these people who attack us, they’re responsible for the current mess, they’re discredited politicians and they must admit their culpability.” 

The politicians beg to differ. Those “discredited” leaders have forged an alliance to go on the warpath. A few hours before the royal wedding, the two main political parties of Nepal agreed to campaign jointly against King Gyanendra. In the same room in Kathmandu sat former bitter enemies Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party and United Marxist Leninist (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal. With democracy under threat, said the UML leader, there was no choice but to come together.

But buried in the rhetoric of unity is the grim fact that the UML and Nepali Congress have never agreed on anything. In the hills of war-torn western Nepal, the Maoist insurgents can only be pleased. Their opponents—the government, the political parties, and Kathmandu’s squabbling intelligentsia—have only empty nostrums about nationalism. “The honeymoon is over,” warns an editorial in the Nepali Times newspaper. “We can’t afford another lost decade.” 

It’s hard to discern what the beleaguered Nepali on the street feels, beyond gloom. Some faint hope may linger, though. In February, tens of thousands came to hear the king give a rare public speech in the border town of Biratnagar. They cheered as the monarch called for Nepalis “to work for unity, democracy, and prosperity.”

“Everyone who opposes political extremism and violence needs to come together,” said one foreign diplomat. “If ordinary people see this happening, they’ll take heart. If they don’t, it’s a grim scenario.” Now that the royal wedding is over, along with the corresponding respite from political impasse, violence, and economic woes, the crisis in Nepal looks likely to deepen.