Soon after King Birendra took over in 1972, there was an effort to bridge the gap between the palace and BP Koirala, then in exile in India. This was, in their separate ways, initiated by two of BP’s friends—the Indian socialist leader, Jay Prakash Narayan, and member of the Yugoslavia Communist Party, Alex Bebler. The letters between the principal protagonists are a part of JP’s private papers, and are available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi.
The Post just got access to certain documents that shed light on key periods of Nepal’s modern history. On Feb 5, 1972, five days after King Mahendra’s death and Birendra’s elevation, JP Narayan wrote a letter to the new monarch. A month later, King Birendra thanked JP and recalled their meeting at Harvard University. While JP’s letter could not be accessed, from the subsequent response, it can be presumed that besides passing on his best wishes, the Indian socialist hoped for changes in the political system.
The king put up a spirited defense of the Panchayat, writing, “The system of Panchayat Democracy as evolved in Nepal has great potential for doing good and it has come to stay for a complex of reasons. It gets its warrant in the social structure of Nepal and our social behavior which unlike the West has always been hierarchical. Equally has this system been molded by the geographic need which puts every Nepali on a quest for a national identity. Conditioned by the Nepalese style of life, their world views and culture, the Panchayat needs reforms rather than replacement.”
The monarch added that ‘many’ foreign observers fail to notice that ‘Nepal never came under colonial rule’. This, he held, was responsible for many of the innovations one comes across in the evolution of Nepal’s ‘attitudes and postures at various times of her existence as an independent and sovereign country’. It was perhaps these attributes that led Nepalis everywhere to consider ‘my father as a source of national strength’. King Birendra concluded by saying he was not ‘against the evolution of the existing system in Nepal to improve it in due course of time’.
JP forwarded the letter to BP Koirala, who replied to his friend on April 4 , 1972, conveying his ‘great disappointment’ at the king’s letter. BP dismissed the king’s ‘justification for the continuation of a system that has absolutely no popular support and has proved a failure—justification on specious grounds like Nepal’s national identity, hierarchical impulse of society, Nepal’s style of life, etc, as if they have a bearing on whether Nepal should have a monarchical dictatorship or absolutism or constitutional monarchy, democracy or dictatorship.”
He added unequivocally, “The problems of Nepal demand, primarily, establishment of free political institutions that would encourage popular initiatives and leadership at all levels.” BP reported to JP that the king had met five former PM’s in Kathmandu—MP Koirala, Tanka Prasad Acharya, KI Singh, Tulsi Giri and Surya Bahadur Thapa—and solicited their suggestions.
He was scheduled to meet Subarna Shumsher Rana soon. BP, however, was not hopeful of a breakthrough and wrote, “If this letter to you is an indication of his mind, then there is no, now, hopeful expectancy in me for a fruitful outcome of the meeting between him and Subarna, if and when it comes off. That the King has started interviewing people is by itself no indication of his serious intention—his father was a past master in such political gamesmanship.”
Interestingly, however, BP Koirala urged JP Narayan to keep in touch with the palace. “Despite what I have said above, you should be on speaking terms with the King, i.e., you should be in correspondence with him. A channel of communication between you two must be established and kept open. But you must not expect any hopeful results tangibly and soon as a result of the correspondence.”
The advice of the Yugoslav friend
A Yugoslav friend of BP Koirala, Alex Bebler, visited Nepal in early 1972, and subsequently asked BP to issue a ‘conciliatory’ statement and return home at the earliest from his exile in India. This was as per the advice of ‘Surya Bahadur Thapa and the Indians’. While BP dismissed the suggestion then, he did something similar, in different circumstances, four years later as a part of the national reconciliation policy. Documents related to the affair are available as a part of the private papers of Jay Prakash Narayan, at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi.
After spending a week in Nepal, Bebler, who was also a member of his country’s communist party, wrote a letter to BP from Calcutta on March 20, 1972 to ‘give a full report of his conversations’. Bebler mentioned he had met a range of personalities, including former PMs, NC leaders, pro-Soviet Communist leaders, Panchayat officials, and Indian diplomats. He wrote to BP that this was a moment of great decisions, and ‘everyone, without exception, left or right, considers this cannot last’.
Bebler noted that everyone in Kathmandu considers that the king ‘has been advised by everybody to modify boldly the present set-up’. His key conversation in Nepal was with Surya Bahadur Thapa, who insisted he see Bebler in private, and came alone to his hotel. ‘To say it quite frankly, what Thapa had to say to me sounded like the king’s message to you…He performed a real speech, as if he were in parliament,” wrote Bebler.
Thapa’s main points to Bebler were the following. ‘The king seeks sincerely a democratic way out of the situation but naturally he is not inclined to lose face…the Panchayat system can indeed be developed… the system can be for the time being the framework for a democratic political life, acceptable also to the Congress.”
Thapa told Bebler that the ‘alternative, an armed insurrection, would be extremely dangerous; it might provoke a Chinese intervention and, in any event, it would stiffen the opposition of the palace which would see proclaim the insurrections the work of India’.
As per Bebler’s letter to BP, Thapa’s final message was, “The way to normalization, which is the king’s objective, goes through a declaration of BP that he renounces the method of subversion and armed fight and he accepts the Panchayat system as the framework of political life.” After his talks with Thapa, Bebler met the Indian ‘minister counselor, Mr Singh’, who was ‘enthusiastic’ about Thapa’s ideas. Singh told Bebler it was probable that the king’s proclamation on April 12, the Nepalese New Year, would be ‘moderate and conciliatory’.
One should hope for nothing better, said Singh, than that ‘BP responds to the proclamation by an equally moderate and conciliatory statement’, which could be the beginning of the dialogue BP wishes to have. Bebler wrote to BP that halfway through this conversation, ‘the Indian ambassador joined them and fully agreed with his counselor’.
Bebler then noted to BP that he was quite impressed by the ‘way of thinking of Thapa and the Indians’. “The main reason for this ‘opportunistic’ position of a Yugoslav revolutionary is the fact that it seems to me important that you be in the country… All your people, Congress people, feel your absence as a great obstacle to the fight.
There is no one in Kathmandu who could replace you.” Bebler added, “The Indian Ambassador was categorical that there would be no danger for you if you return after a conciliatory statement as envisaged above. So was Thapa.” More specifically, Bebler suggested to BP that if he was ‘at least inclined to seriously consider the Thapa-India plan’, he should use (S P) Upadhaya who was scheduled to come to see BP very soon as an intermediary with the king.
BP enclosed Bebler’s letter in correspondence with his Indian socialist friend, Jay Prakash Narayan, and was not impressed with Bebler’s advice and observations. In his note to JP, BP wrote, “A foreigner is easily taken in by the superficial indication of a serious situation. Bebler, with all his revolutionary experience, too seems to have been duped by rumors and superficialities.”