Once upon a time in Kathmandu


By Nalini Singh

On November 6, in a Kathmandu palace, King Tribhuvan and his three princes told their retinue to load four cars with picnic hampers. Curiously, the king and his sons had packed the hampers themselves. It was 9.45 am, 64 years ago to the day, and an icy wind lashed the tall trees in the Narayanhiti palace.

The king’s two wives, the princes and their families, and crown prince Mahendra and two of his three sons settled in the cars for a picnic-hunt in Shivpuri forest. Mahendra’s wife had died two months earlier. His other son, three-year-old Gyanendra, was left behind in the palace.

Tribhuvan led the convoy, driving along the route that swept past the Indian ambassador’s residence-cum-office. His sons were at the wheels of the other three cars. As Tribhuvan’s Shah dynasty was a mere prop to power-wielding, autocratic, hereditary Rana prime ministers and army generals, a Rana army officer sat in each car. This was established practice to ensure that the king did not act autonomously. The king was trotted out and exhibited on ceremonial occasions. The Ranas controlled his budget, interaction with the world and, most importantly, his reputation.

At 10 am, as the convoy neared Shital Niwas, the 100-room residence-cum-office of the Indian ambassador, Tribhuvan suddenly swerved his car left, through the open gates of the building, followed by the other three cars. A Sikh guard opened the car door for the king. The Indian ambassador hurried down the stairs, and the king told him formally that he and his family were at the embassy to seek asylum, and asked that the accompanying Rana officers be taken into detention.

The king’s wives and family were dazed and subdued as they left the cars to be rushed to the ambassador’s private living quarters. The picnic hampers were unloaded, as also “the accompanying rifles, guns, ammunition”, and delivered to the royals. That was the family’s only baggage.

Some official records claim that the ambassador was caught unawares, but the backstory is fascinating. The king, who was the Ranas’ prisoner, had started making contact with an incipient people’s rebellion against the repressive Rana rule. He used ruses to slip away for a few stolen moments to meet the leaders. But, in time, he realised that these short meetings were futile.

Then, a young German physiotherapist, Erika Leuchtag, was introduced by the Rana rulers to the king’s household. Erika won the king’s confidence and has claimed that she arranged a hazardous first meeting between the king and the then ambassador, Sardar Surjit Singh Majithia, in her book, King In the Clouds.

For this meeting, the king drove with the mandatory Rana guard officer to his married son’s residence for a private family dinner. Here, while the guard retired to an anteroom, the king rushed to an inner room, changed into soiled peasant’s clothes, scaled two boundary walls and then dashed into Majithia’s waiting car. Crouching on the car floor, he told the ambassador to convey to Prime Minister Nehru that he was a prisoner in the palace, that he was committed to constitutional monarchy within the framework of democracy, and that he wanted India’s help. But the king’s plans were hit by the long arm of coincidence with a fist at the end of it. Majithia was relocated to Delhi and C.P.N. Singh, a Bihar-born zamindar and Nehru-appointee, took over as the new Indian ambassador.

Singh placed his trust in a Bengali medic, Dr Das Gupta, who had arrived in Kathmandu years earlier and gained access to both the ruling Rana gentry and the captive king’s household. He urged the king, via the emissary, to write to Nehru with the facts. The king hesitated, afraid to commit himself in writing and risk annihilation. But one morning, the ambassador found the king’s letter for Nehru on his desk, which he delivered to him by hand.

Nehru’s reply to the king was sealed, but it took Singh three to four months to deliver it personally to the king, due to relentless surveillance by the Ranas. As I recall, he finally he delivered it when the Ranas yielded to Singh’s request to visit the king’s lush gardens and, when Singh shook hands with the king, he placed Nehru’s letter in the king’s palm. This letter fired the king’s resolve.

Let me circle back to that morning, when the king asked for asylum on Indian soil. Since Nehru was “in the know” and the ministry of external affairs in Delhi could not be consulted in the seething tension, the king and his family were granted asylum. The world would soon learn that the king was on Indian soil in Kathmandu. Would this lead to war, would the outraged Ranas sack the embassy?

It was noon now, and Singh telephoned the prime minister’s son and confidant and informed him that Tribhuvan and family had sought and been granted asylum, and to inform Nepal’s PM. General Vijay arrived fully armed at Shital Niwas within minutes, with a clutch of generals also armed with lethal weapons, and started bounding up the stairs. Singh met Vijay on the first floor and told him that the king had declined to “give audience”. This humiliation stabbed Vijay since for the first time in 104 years, somebody from the Shah dynasty had defied a Rana. He told the ambassador to arm himself before he drew his weapon on him, and declared that he would drag the king away. With a zamindar’s hauteur, Singh told him that if the ambassador was harmed on Indian soil, Kathmandu would be smashed to “smithereens” in a few hours. At this, the Rana generals retreated.

The Ranas’ council of leaders went into emergency sessions at Kathmandu’s imposing Singha Darbar, then the PM’s residence. At the night-long session, some insisted that the king be dragged back, and that military action be mounted on the Indian embassy. Significantly, all night long the British ambassador’s car was seen entering and exiting Singha Darbar, assuring the Rana rulers of Britain’s support for the regime.

The world was watching Nepal. Since India did not yield Tribhuvan or the crown prince, the Ranas took his three-year-old son, Gyanendra, who had been left behind, and anointed him king. At the same time, they deposed his grandfather and stripped him of all authority. Back in Shital Niwas, anxiety mounted in Tribhuvan’s family about whether they would go to India and if they would ever return to Nepal.

Four days later, Nehru dispatched two airplanes. Tribhuvan and his family left for Gauchar airport. The planes were ready for take-off. The hampers, which were stuffed with royal jewels, were placed on board. But, according to a conversation the ambassador’s daughter, Pratibha, had with me, Tribhuvan delayed boarding. In those tense, fraught moments, Tribhuvan’s old fears simmered to the surface, and although he had burnt all bridges with the prevailing power structure in Nepal, he was probably assailed by doubts about India’s intentions. Singh sensed Tribhuvan’s disquiet, and signaled to Pratibha to board. Then the royal party followed. Official records are silent on this last-minute passenger, but it provides an insight into the psychological scaffolding of the turning points in history.

In Delhi, Nehru awaited Tribhuvan and declined to recognise any other claimant as king of Nepal. Detailed discussions ensued between the king, the political parties and the Ranas. Finally, a tripartite government was sculpted, with a role for all three interest groups.

The king returned to Nepal in February 1951, to a rapturous welcome. But the same public delivered a fatal knock to Tribhuvan’s successors in 2008. Today, the Shah dynasty is gone, the Rana regime is decimated. But the distilled essence of democracy survives.

The writer, a journalist, is the late C.P.N. Singh’s daughter-in-law. 

Based on conversations with Prabhakar Rana in Kathmandu, Nepali contacts and an interview by C.P.N. Singh to Nehru Memorial Library’s H.D. Sharma in 1974.