July 14, 2021 Sujeev Shakya

Twenty years after the royal massacre

Nepal’s trajectory drastically changed after the events of June 1, 2001.

On the night of June 1, 2001, exactly twenty years ago, an event at the Narayanhiti palace saw an end to an entire family of the then ruling Shah dynasty. Helicopters were hovering and rumour mills were active. In the pre-smartphone days, when mobile phones were still uncommon, the SMSs didn’t stop coming, and home phones rang non-stop. I was then working at the Soaltee Hotel, where the requisition of a large amount of ice from the hospitals triggered lots of questions.

Nepalis had to depend on the BBC and CNN or Indian television channels to tell us the story of our own country, as Nepali television and radio channels played sombre music. Then prince Gyanendra Shah, who went on to become the king, was in Pokhara waiting for board meetings of a company and a conservation trust to happen the next day. Nepal received global attention as it was a piece of news that shook everyone; people still ask me what happened that night. The Gorkha earthquakes, the royal massacre and the current Covid-19 crisis are the only events from Nepal that have caught global attention in the past two decades. That speaks volumes about the country. A lot of introspection, therefore, is needed. Three things come to mind.

Shun isolationism and conservatism

The Shahs ruled as the custodians of a Hindu kingdom and used religion as a tool of keeping power. They had to demonstrate they believed in old age traditions, religious dogmas and relied on interpreters of religion. Therefore, the brother of the king and the next in line to the throne decided to keep the traditions going. In the twentieth century, when the internet had already penetrated our homes, he decided to keep the sombre music going on television channels rather than appearing on television to tell the world what had happened; after all, he had lost many members of his family and his wife was still battling for her life in the hospital.

He was advised to hire some good global public relations companies to put the story straight, but perhaps that would have been seen as risking his image of being a good Hindu monarch. If he had chosen to tell the world what happened, he would not have to live with the rumours and the theories that circulate till now. Perhaps, for centuries to come, the rumours will live along with the facts. Therefore, the big lesson is, shun isolationism and conservatism, embrace contemporary practices of communication. There are many platforms. Engage with your audience—people need to hear from the horse’s mouth.

Leadership is about perceptions

Twenty years after the massacre, people still talk about king Birendra fondly, despite his tenure being a tumultuous one. His reign began with straining relations with India, when he invited the ruler of Sikkim for his coronation. His direct rule ended when India intervened with a blockade in 1989, paving the way for multi-party democracy. I talk about the hotchpotch, inward-looking education policy he brought in the mid-seventies in Unleashing Nepal, the results of which we are seeing in the leadership of all different fields in Nepal.

After the 1990s, he remained somewhat ceremonial, leaving others in the family to intervene. Little was publicly known about challenges in his personal life. However, people had a good feeling about him. He earned the respect of the people, as he was seen as an icon of hope when the country started to see intra-party feuds become Nepal’s definition of multi-party democracy. Leadership is about the way people perceive you—a lot of wrongs can be overlooked if you press the right buttons or just stay disengaged. After all, people have very short memories.

Big events result in big changes

When we study history, we are always told that big events result in big changes. We have witnessed this in our lifetime. The way the then government handled the royal massacre, it was clear that some major events were on the way. When Gyanendra was crowned king, many speculated that he would not be the same as his elder brother but a shrewd ruler—owing to his reputation as a good businessperson. Insiders who knew how he conducted his businesses also started to wonder about the results if he replicated the same model as the head of state.

The prognosis was clear. He intervened in October 2002 by taking over the reins of government; by February 2005 he was directly ruling. The writing was clear, if he continued on that path, the end of the Shah dynasty would be accelerated. But megalomania makes people blind. In Unleashing the Vajra, I talk about how king Gyanendra had the greatest opportunity as a ruler to transform the nation like President Paul Kagame started doing in Rwanda around the same time. A big event had to have big consequences. This one ended a 240-year-old dynasty, with the last king having no one else to blame apart from himself.

The 2015 earthquakes brought about an acceleration of the pace of adopting a new constitution. At the same time, Nepal’s geopolitical relations with its neighbours changed, with China becoming closer. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in major changes in politics around the world and surely we will see one in Nepal. I hope it will be for the better and not for the worse

All events make one reflect and connect. Each year, when June 1 comes, there is rarely a Nepali of my generation who would not pause and think about the changes.