A TIT-FOR-TAT ASSASSINATION, END OF GAGAN SINGH

We have learnt from our history lessons that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serb nationalist led to the First World War. What was a similar cataclysmic event in Nepal? It was the assassination of Commander-in-Chief Gagan Singh Bhandari, a favourite of Nepalese Queen Rajya Luxmi Devi, that led to the Kot Massacre on the very night of this event. No historian delving in this infamous event has been able to convincingly prove ‘whodunit’.

Gagan Singh was from the Khawas tribe, a Chettry from the mid-hills of Nepal. The tribe regularly joined the army as soldiers and graduated up the ranks. The Tharu community also have Khawas tribes but Gagan Singh was a Chettry. He was taken on royal palace duty and seems to have subsequently taken responsibility of the treasury upon which his surname changed to Bhandari, the person who is the custodian of the “Bhandar”, treasury. It was during this period that he must have pleased the Junior Queen Rajya Luxmi Devi very much. He must have been the man standing fast behind her during her many struggles against the Senior Queen Samrajya Luxmi Devi and her son the Crown Prince Surendra, by all accounts a wayward child.

General Gagan Singh Bhandari

Senior Queen Samrajya looked on with alarm at how the Junior Queen was gaining favours with King Rajendra Bikram Shah and undermining her writ and relegating her sons Surendra and Upendra to positions that were below their standing. Surendra was after all the Crown Prince though he was a wayward prince, and Samrajya was not going to stand idly by and allow the Junior Queen to try and have her own sons Ranendra and Birendra supercede them in the roll call. This was the time she publicly accused Rajya Luxmi of having an illicit affair with Gagan Singh. Gagan Singh was a married man with a grown-up son so whether this was true or just court rumours one could not tell. What is sure is that there was no love lost between the two queens. She was successful in getting the king to banish Rajya Luxmi and her sons from the Royal Palace at Hanuman Dhoka.

A period of calm followed before the storm. Senior Queen Samrajya Luxmi Devi died of smallpox at Pashupatinath in the year 1841 at a relatively young age of 27. Since then the pendulum would swing and favour the Junior Queen in her quest for power. The King would step down and make her Regent in 1843.This was the time when three power centres, the ineffectual King Rajendra, Junior Queen and Crown Prince Surendra tried to outmanoeuvre one another with the suppport of thier own coterie of Bharadars (nobility) and Army Commanders. I have recounted in my preceding blog the recall of General Mathabar Singh Thapa from Lahore to lead the government and his assassination in 1845 that paved the way for Gagan Singh to become the Commander-in-Chief of Nepalese Army under the Regency of Queen Rajya Luxmi Devi.

Gagan Singh Bhandari was now the supremo, outranking the Chautaria royal collaterals, Thapas, Basnets and Kunwars. He had risen in the ranks from a lowly position swiftly and the rest were unhappy with the Queen Regent for having Gagan lead her charge. She was furious with the about-turn of Prime Minister Mathabar Singh Thapa in securing her wishes and he was taken care of and now she was confident Gagan would do her bidding. There was no stopping her. King Rajendra the weak man he was, even he was planning to censure the queen. It is said that he had called his sons and told them about the dalliance of the queen with the despised Gagan. Crown Prince Surendra was also seething with anger. In the midst of all the disquiet sudden news came that Gagan Singh had been shot and killed and the furious Queen sounded the Nagara drums alarm that night and summoned all nobility to congregate at the Royal Palace. She wanted vengeance for the death of her favourite courtier. This led to the infamous Kot Massacre that very night culminating in General Jung Bahadur Kunwar’s rise to power!

The account of the time has it that Gagan Singh was at his evening prayer at his residence when a shot rang out and he dropped dead. The unknown perpetrator of this crime had shot him from the roof of his building overlooking the prayer room. The date was 14 September 1846 A.D. It is anyone’s guess who was the power behind this dastardly act as everyone, to varying degrees, wanted him gone. They arrested a professional assassin by the name of Lal Jha and quickly executed him. Was the King behind it, or the Crown Prince, or the various factions of the nobility and the military? There was no Hercule Poirot present to work out his denouement! This assassination remains a mystery till today.

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