It was a hazy winter afternoon when without warning at exactly 1PM, soldiers appeared on the streets of Kathmandu. Singha Darbar was cordoned off. Politicians, including Prime Minister B P Koirala who had been elected a year-and-half previously, were picked up simultaneously from their homes or offices, and hauled off to prison.
On Tuesday, 15 December it will be exactly 60 years since that fateful day which would determine the course of Nepal’s history for decades.
King Mahendra and Prime Minister BP Koirala met at the palace for dinner a few days before the putsch. The King had just returned from a four-month trip to Japan, the United States and UK, and top secret plans were already in place for the coup d'état.
Years later, Koirala related how towards the end of that meal, Mahendra (wearing trademark shades even though it was dark inside the room) gestured to Queen Ratna to leave and told him: “There cannot be two lions in a cage.”
BP writes in his memoir that he had a ‘love hate’ relationship with Mahendra, who appreciated his work ethic, but was increasingly jealous of his popularity.
The King’s aversion to political parties was well known, zamindars hated BP’s new land reform bill, and Mahendra sensed that Nehru’s India and Mao’s China, for different reasons, could live with a coup, as long as it did not make Nepal unstable.
So, on पुस १, २०१७ (first day of the month of Pous 2017) the King made his move. In a speech he accused the Nepali Congress government of “failure to maintain law and order, being anti-national, corrupt and unaccountable”. The Swiss Ambassador was visiting Kathmandu from New Delhi on 15 December, and wrote a long cable to Berne about how BP Koirala had earlier talked about the difficulty of maintaining Nepal’s neutrality amidst Cold War tensions.
US Ambassador Henry E Stebbins had met King Mahendra on 9 December in which he was given no hints of what he was planning, even though preparations must have been at an advanced stage.
After the coup, Stebbins wrote to President Eisenhower: ‘…we feel that the King’s motives in taking the precipitate action he did were guided less by the issues of corruption and Communism than by a growing fear that his own personal position and prestige were dwindling and that if he did not act soon, it might be too late . . . the real motive behind the move was the preservation of the monarchy and the Shah dynasty in its absolute form.’
However, just as Mahendra reckoned, Nepal’s two giant neighbours went along. China’s annexation of Tibet had spooked the Indians and Americans, and the British were focused on continued Gurkha recruitment. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was in Kathmandu on a royal visit within two months of the coup, and even went tiger hunting in Chitwan.
History repeats itself repeatedly in Nepal. In 2005, King Gyanendra staged a carbon copy royal-military coup. Like his father and Stebbins, Gyanendra hoodwinked British Ambassador Keith Bloomfield into thinking that a coup was the last thing on his mind. Gyanendra’s speech on 1 February 2005 was identical to Mahendra’s in 1960. The son followed his father’s footsteps.
On the 60th anniversary of पुस १ Nepal comes another full circle as supporters of a return to a Hindu monarchy exploit the political disarray, infighting, governance failure and corruption, to march on the streets demanding the secular republican constitution be scrapped.
Some of the geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War in 1960 are also playing out again as Washington and New Delhi align against Beijing. Hindutva politics in India may also be pushing the pendulum back to the right in Nepal.
Tune in to Tom Robertson's article on Nepali Times Weekend Longreads on Saturday 12 December with declassified papers with new revelations about the US response to King Mahendra's coup.