It was the proverbial quiet before the storm. Pedestrians were hurrying home, motorcyclists driving down dark streets. The hush of twilight in Kathmandu was pierced by the sound of distant thunder. Filaments of pink lightning illuminated the western sky as a pre-monsoon storm approached on that evening of Friday, 1 June 2001.
Kathmandu had been seeing a series of shutdowns organised by ever-bickering political parties, and in the countryside the Maoist conflict was intensifying.
A cartoon filled page 1 of that morning’s edition of Nepali Times — Subhas Rai’s tragi-comic take on the chronic closures that had brought life in the capital to a halt. The editorial titled ‘Long live the King’ looked at why the Maoists were trying to ban the royal national anthem from being recited in schools. On page 15, a translation of an article in Naya Sadak titled ‘A Suitable Prince’ boldly reported on the discord within the royal family about Crown Prince Dipendra’s choice of bride.
The cover story in our sister magazine, Himal Khabarpatrika, in late May had looked at the Royal Nepal Army’s evaluation of the German-made assault rifle, the G-36. The story revealed that given his interest in guns, Crown Prince Dipendra had been asked to test the weapon, and he was reported to love the assault rifle.
Little did we know then that the editorial, the discussion about Dipendra’s marital plans, and his fetish for guns were harbingers of the tempest and tragedy that were to engulf the country.
At 9:30 pm, we received reports from Lajimpat of shots having been fired in the direction of the royal palace. Cars were seen rushing out of the palace gates towards Chhauni hospital. The first thought in everyone’s mind was that the royal palace was being attacked by the Maoists.
In reality, no one could have seen this coming. King Birendra had been shot, Queen Aishwarya had been shot dead. Other members of the royal family had been rushed to Chhauni Hospital. We cross-checked, tried to verify what we were hearing, but decided that the story was too important to risk getting it wrong.
A helicopter was trying unsuccessfully to find a gap in the storm to take off to the west. Later, we learnt it had been the royal Super Puma attempting to fly out to Pokhara to bring back Prince Gyanendra.
At 1:30 am on 2 June we finally put up the first item of news on our website: we quoted a source as saying that at least six royal family members had been killed and others wounded; the crown prince had shot everyone and then himself.
That morning, many in Kathmandu were still unaware of what had happened, and gathered on street corners tuned to radios that were broadcasting mournful music. Most newspapers did not have the news. State media, instead of trying to quell rumours, went silent.
At Chhauni, seven royal family members were dead. Dipendra was in a coma, Prince Dhirendra was struggling for his life. The helicopter finally fetched Gyanendra, and Dipendra was made king.
The government immediately clamped down on news on the state media; radio and tv were allowed to broadcast only mourning music. The government was in disarray, no one knew who was in charge.
In the afternoon, an official announcement finally stated King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya were dead, but kept mute on how they had died. It proclaimed Dipendra king, and Gyanendra regent. A senior palace official told CNN that the royal family had been killed by the “accidental discharge of an automatic weapon”.
At Nepali Times, we came out with an exceptional mid-week edition on Wednesday, 6 June with a picture of Gyanendra’s coronation.
After Dipendra’s funeral, Gyanendra was named king and he promised the people a “thorough investigation”. Nepal had had three kings in four days.
The probe team released its preliminary findings two weeks later, saying Dipendra had been responsible. But the people, who had been lied to and denied accurate information, did not believe the government when it finally told the truth.
At Nepali Times, we printed the result of our own investigations based on interviews with eyewitnesses and doctors, including a piece by Upendra Devkota, the surgeon who had tried to save the lives of those in Chhauni.
Piecing together eyewitness accounts and interviews with royal family members, it was clear that by the end of May 2001, things had been coming to a head in the secretive royal family. Dipendra knew he had to get agreement on his marriage, and had invited all clan members to the palace on Friday, 1 June. He was said to have phoned his uncle Gyanendra several times to invite him. Royal family members usually met for drinks and dinner at the palace on Friday evenings, so this was not unusual.
There is no evidence that Dipendra invited everyone in order to assassinate them. Family members later said he probably wanted to be king just so he could do what he wanted, but appeared to have run amok after shooting his father and uncle.
Gyanendra’s enthronement happened as protests raged throughout the capital. At least six people were killed in police firing, and hundreds of suspected Maoists — said to have infiltrated the demonstrators — were rounded up. The city was under curfew and Nepali Times was edited from home.
To this day, most Nepalis do not believe the official account of what happened: that Dipendra killed everyone and then killed himself. As with the Kennedy assassination and the death of Princess Diana, conspiracy theories are a-plenty, and will never go away.
Digital package by Smriti Basnet, Sahina Shrestha and Ayesha Shakya