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Nepal: Royal Blood Vs. Geopolitics

How did a royal love affair result in regional instability involving two major Asian nations?

July 9, 2001

How did a royal love affair result in regional instability involving two major Asian nations?

To this day, few Nepalis believe the story that it was all just a family spat about a son’s choice of bride that got out of hand. Neither do many folks in South Asia. Nepal’s Communist party, which at this point is likely to form the next elected government, charged that it was all “a political conspiracy, not a family row.”

To understand how Nepal is an important crossroads in Sino-Indian relations, one needs to look back at least to the early 1960s and some 600 miles further east. At the time, both India and China began to vie for strategic control of the region.

In October 1962, some 20,000 Chinese troops poured into an area called North Eastern Frontier Agency after previous minor border skirmishes. Today this area forms the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh located in the country’s top north-eastern corner right at the Chinese-Indian border.

The Chinese invasion was a heavy blow or India’s then-Prime Minister and independence fighter Jawaharlal Nehru. It wrecked the reputation of Indian military’s high command, which as if to make matters worse, was led by one of Nehru’s cousins.

Given that this were also the heights of the Cold War, he was also under a lot of pressure from Moscow and Washington to align his country on one side of the global political fence — or the other. In response, Nehru had sought a third way: pursuing closer relations with the powers in Beijing — and supporting China over Tibet in the international arena.

The sudden Chinese invasion, however, threatened India’s own territory. Under those circumstances, Nehru saw no other choice than to request for military assistance from the United States and western powers to fend off the Chinese threat.

In one fell swoop, that request made a mockery of his policy of nonalignment — and represented his worst political setback as prime minister. No wonder that, from then on, Sino-Indian relations were marked by periods of military brinkmanship and a desire for exerting strong regional influence.

Now, Nepal’s new King Gyanendra (himself the brother of the murdered king) has ascended the throne. He comes to his post with a reputation of being pro-Chinese, and strongly opposed to the liberal reforms of 1990 that turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy.

Indians, for their part, are quite sure that the new king hates them, since back in 1951 the Indian government pressured him to step down from the throne when his father returned from exile.

Moreover, the new King’s son, Crown Prince Paras Shah, is even more unpopular than his father. Paras is known for his desire for women, fast cars and guns. Indian press reports claim he has killed three people in the past four years — two with his rash driving and at least one with a gun.

He was never prosecuted, however, because Nepal’s laws say that the King’s consent is needed to prosecute a member of the royal family. Paras is, of course, next in line to be king.

Still, at the heart of the royal crisis is a woman. And this is again where India, due to the turn of events in the royal palace, feels it comes up short. The beautiful young aristocrat whom the original crown prince Deependra had wanted to marry despite his mother’s veto, hails from India.

Her name is Devyani, a daughter of the Scindia family, the hereditary rulers of Gwalior, one of India’s former 500 princely states. Apparently, she is still alive and well and is thought to have fled to Europe shortly after the massacre.

Adding further spice to the story is the fact that Devyani is also the great-granddaughter of the last Rana prime minister of Nepal. The first Rana, Jung Bahadur Rana, had become Nepal’s first prime minister during the mid-19th century.

He wielded absolute power which he passed on to his family members while leaving the Nepal royalty to act as mere figureheads. The Ranas were overthrown in a Nepali democracy movement of the early 1950s.

Devyani’s Indian ancestry was one reason why the government in New Delhi had been strongly in favor of the emerging royal match. Indeed, some Indian officials insist that the two young lovers had been secretly married, creating a dynastic alliance to consolidate India’s influence in Nepal at least for a generation to come. All that has now come to naught.

China, meanwhile, stands to gain handsomely from those shootings in the royal palace. Due to its regional proximity, more influence in Nepal translates into further isolation of China’s troubled Tibet region.

On top of that, the bizarre but not unlikely prospect of a combination of a China-friendly monarch with a Communist-led government could result in a second spearhead into India. After all, China’s power is already on the rise as a result of its growing political influence over Burma, India’s eastern neighbor.

With China’s influence in Nepal and Burma growing, the recent relaunch of Sino-Indian border talks, now appear in a different light. Why, one must wonder, should the Chinese bother about old border disputes in areas such as Arunachal Pradesh when they can go around it — eastwards or westwards?