On Sunday evening, the Nepal Electricity Authority cut off power supply to Mahendra Manzil, a bungalow within the Narayanhity Palace complex in Kathmandu, which is the residence of Ratna Rajya Lakshmi Shah, the former Queen Mother of Nepal.
The Authority cited Rs 3.7 million in outstanding bills as reason for its action. But the fact that it chose to act precisely on the day that Ratna Rajya Lakshmi Shah turned 88 brought suspicions of vindictiveness on the part of the government.
There was outrage on social media, where the government was accused of targetting the former Queen Mother, who leads a low-key life, and has been ailing for some time and has been under medication.
Protesters gathered at Ratna Park, named after her, and burnt an effigy of the Energy Minister, Janardan Sharma ‘Prabhakar’, who belongs to the Maoist Party. The Minister was grilled by the media, who asked him pointedly why others were given a week’s time to settle their dues, while the same courtesy had been denied to the former Queen Mother. Why, the media asked, was a hospital that the Minister was associated with, left alone despite the fact that it owed over Rs 10 million to the NEA? Clearly, it was an act of vendetta, it was suggested.
Sensing the public mood, the government backtracked swiftly — and 20 hours later, power supply had been restored to Mahendra Manzil. Minister Sharma said he had issued no orders to cut the supply to Mahendra Manzil. Through her hours of darkness, the former royal did nothing herself — except asking her secretary Shambhu Adhikari to inform former King Gyanendra Shah about the power cut, and to ask him to come along in the morning with some diesel for the generators. The government appears to have acted solely under spontaneous public pressure.
What is it that continues to endear Ratna Rajya Lakshmi Shah to her former subjects eight years after the world’s only Hindu monarchy turned into a secular republic?
The 88-year-old former royal, second wife of Nepal’s former king and Gyanendra’s father, Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, was allowed to stay on in the Narayanhity palace complex, the office-cum-residence of the erstwhile kings, after the monarchy became a republic in May 2008. Mahendra Manzil was built for her by King Mahendra nearly five decades ago. It is from here that she has been witness to, and experienced, the rise and fall of the royal family and the extreme adversity it has faced. Most of her time is spent in meditation at home. Former king Gyanendra and his family visit her at least once a week, but Ratna avoids meeting other relatives and well-wishers. She rarely speaks — but once she does, her words carry the weight of an edict.
Ratna married Crown Prince Mahendra in 1953, two years after his wife — and Ratna’s older sister — Indra Rajya Lakshmi Devi Shah died because of complications during the birth of her sixth child. Ratna agreed to be mother to her sister’s six children, the eldest of whom was 10 at the time, without bearing any children herself.
Ratna became a widow in 1972 — when she was 43. In June 2001, she witnessed the palace massacre, when at least 10 members of her family and close relatives were shot dead. Seven years later, she saw the end of the 240-year-old monarchy.
Her quiet demeanour and sacrifices have earned Ratna a lot of respect among the people — a sentiment that has survived the end of the monarchy. The only time that people close to her saw signs of outrage in her was when she visited the Military Hospital on June 2, 2001, where most victims of the palace massacre were admitted. She refused to look at the injured Crown Prince Dipendra who had opened fire at a family gathering, lying in one of the beds.
Indeed, she’s a stubborn character, say those close to her. She has consistently refused to spend a night outside her home, or to eat outside. About six weeks ago, Gyanendra drove her to Norvic Hospital for a medical check-up after she complained of feeling unwell — but she rejected doctors’ advice to be admitted after her tests, and went back home.
Nepal’s civil society and politics are bitterly divided along party lines, but not a single pro-republic organisation working for the rights of the women or the elderly, or political parties, denounced the power cut at Mahendra Manzil. In fact, such is the Establishment’s antipathy that Ratna has been denied even her right to property — a couple of bungalows that Mahendra had built on his personal property and gifted to her, were confiscated by the government.