Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A peek into Nepalese history

This idea of seeing my own country's history sprouts out from an examination paper. In one paper of my first semester final examinations (MSS in Journalism, Media and Communication, Dhaka University), there was a question how I saw the development patterns in South Asia. I had no option but to write and I did. But, later when I came back, I realized that it was too surfacial. Nevertheless, I got the highest in that examination, I didn't know much about the development patterns around me. I happened to question whether I knew anything about the history of my own country.

Then I began to take a peek into the history. I checked the dates (because I had to convert them from Bikram Sambat to AD) and tried to put things in larger framework. At the end, with the former rebels in government in Nepal, I was forced to analyze the current situation of the country as well, though the indexes are not happy either. Hence, here comes a little comprehensive but paced up peek into my history. I am pretty sure, other people have their own perspectives to see it. I will love reading those comments and being part of the discourse.

Unification and Shah dynasty rule: The history of conspiracy, bloody massacres and disgrace
As a united nation, Nepal doesn’t have a very long history. The unification campaign by the King Prithvi Narayan Shah is the cornerstone towards the formation of a new nation. The efforts yielded solid achievements in 1769 when Gurkhali army invaded Kathmandu. Lured by the scenic beauty and the extremely fertile land, Prithvi Narayan Shah soon transferred his capital from ancestral Gorkha to Kathmandu. This culminated in renaming of the country from Gorkha to Nepal. This renaming would eventually include larger territory which the Gorkha army had invaded by then and also that it showed relationship with the capital which was mostly inhabited by indigenous ‘Nepal’ caste people. Still, Majority of Indigenous residents of Kathmandu prefer ‘Nepal’ language against the lingua Franca, Nepali. They also have their unique culture and follow Hinduism and Buddhism.

Since the unification, the Shah clan dominated the politics of the country while expanding national boundaries. In the next fifty years, Nepal’s national boundary stretched up to as far as Tista River in the east and Kangara Fort in the West and also a significant part of plain lands in the South. By then, it became the biggest nation after India in the South Asia. However, the family feud about whom to make the successor among the sons of the polygamous Kings and whom to assign the regency, was ensued and apparently people had to undergo the extremities of some of the insane and highly autocratic Monarchs. Especially, these treacheries reached an unprecedented height during and after the rule of seemingly insane King Rana Bahadur Shah, the grandson of the King Prithvi Narayan Shah, who abdicated in favor of his 18 month old son but returned later to reclaim his throne. For the next fifty years, the political history of Nepal is the history of family feuds and conspiracies among the Shah King, his wives and the Palace coteries supporting either the King or this or that Queen.

Meanwhile, the British rulers in India were already eyeing the southern plains and the scenic hilly areas in the Easter and Western Nepal. A powerful nation at the neighborhood was also a threat to the expanding British Empire in the South Asia. Especially the unification process that was advanced in the pace during Prithvi Narayan Shah and three of his successors’ rule gave pretty doubt to the British that Nepal may be a threat to them. So they thought to bring Nepal in size and invaded it from almost all sides. Nepal could not sustain the invasion and it had to give up almost one third of its land including fertile southern plains and the scenic hilly regions in Darjeeling, Sikkim in the east and Deharadun in the west. With the forceful enforcement of Sugauli treaty in 4 March, 1816, Nepal’s border was confined within Mechi River in the East and Mahakali River in the west.

Rana Family Rule: The inheritance of all sins
The disgrace of the defeat and the Shah family feuds culminated into the beginning of the autocratic family rule of the Ranas in 1846 through Bloody Kot Massacre where more than 200 high ranking courtiers were killed in a spot. The Ranas ruled the country for the next 103 years and that they mostly benefited themselves from the good relationship with British, selling the forests in the southern plains to them and also sending hundreds of thousands of Nepali youths in the first and the Second World War. The relationships were strengthened by the first Rana Prime Minister Janga Bahadur Rana’s visit to England in 1850-51 and Nepal’s military assistance to quell the first sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857. After this visit, the western influence could be perceived in Nepal; Janga Bahadur establishing English school in Kathmandu and erecting buildings in British and French style. This was paced up in the following years, though only Ranas and the close coteries would have access to such facilities.

The exit of British from India brought about new kind of consciousness among the youths in Nepal. By 1940s, people were too oppressed by the authoritarian family rule and left with no option but to resist it. The first uprising was witnessed in 1941 which was quelled by the Ranas through executing the four youth leaders of the movement and imprisoning dozens others. However, the movement left a ray of hope among the Nepalese. Encouraged by the Independence movement in India, Nepalese youths in exile prepared for mass uprising in Nepal under the leadership of a far-sighted and socialist BP Koirala. The formation of Nepali Congress (NC) in 1947 is the important milestone towards launching a powerful movement in Nepal. The NC led armed struggle succeeded into overthrowing the autocratic family rule of the Ranas, ushering the country into the new experiments with democracy in 1951.

Experiment with Democracy: too short-lived
As everywhere in new democracies, the experience didn’t go well with the democratic experiments in Nepal as well. The legacy of the feuds and bloody massacres crippled the post movement period. No sooner King Trivuwan regained his power from Ranas through the people’s movement; he turned to be an autocrat. Actually the agreement which was mediated by the Indian government and is termed tripartite between Ranas, King and the Congress party headed by BP Koirala, mentioned about holding an election for the constituent assembly within a year and holding elections to establish a ‘Republic’. Following the agreement, an interim cabinet under the leadership of erstwhile Rana Prime Minister Mohan Shumsher was formed. Though short-lived and detached by the differing agenda among the coalition partners, the post-movement government introduced some development agenda and reforms. Major achievements were the enactment of the Interim Constitution in 1951, establishment of the Supreme Court and independent Public Service Commission and most importantly the steps towards abolishing Birta (tax free land used by Ranas to reward their coteries) system.

However, the coalition government failed on its own owing to the feuds between Ranas and Nepali Congress just in nine months and the King, instead of abiding by the essence of the agreement, took his own coteries while being involved in choosing and removing Prime Ministers. This hide-and-seek continued for the next 8 years before the successor of Trivuwan, King Mahendra agreed to promulgate a constitution and hold election for the national parliament. Finally, the democratically elected government was formed for the first time ever in Nepalese history in May, 1959.

Though very short in the office, Prime Minister BP Koirala tried to implement the revolutionary and socialist agendas. In its attempt to act against the traditional feudal system, the government nationalized the forests, implemented land reforms with the certain limit of land ownership and regained the land arbitrarily given by Ranas or the Kings to the village feudal lords. As it hit hard in the roots of the feudal system, the antagonists stood united and the elected government was finally overthrown in a military-backed coup orchestrated by King Mahendra in December, 1960, ushering the country into 30 years of autocratic monarchical system.

Experiment with Autocratic Monarchy
The King had already arrested the top leaders of ruling Nepali Congress including Prime Minister BP Koirala and most of his cabinet members. As soon as the King assumed power, he tried to root out Nepali Congress which had swept the previous election with overwhelming two third majority from the soil. The Monarchy deliberately portrayed the elected government as anti-national and tried to devise new notion of nationality with the motto- one country, one language and single attire. This process denied the great demographic and cultural diversity which his ancestor Prithvi Narayan Shah had acknowledged while portraying Nepal as the common garden for the people of all castes and creeds. This process strengthened the unitary and centralized state mechanism, with ultimate power bestowed upon the Monarch.

Despite occasional setbacks due to the protest by Nepali Congress and divided Communist factions, the Monarchy well sustained this system over 30 years before it was overthrown by popular movement in April, 1990. It is not necessary to mention here that the period between 1960s and 1980s was the golden age for many of the despots in the newly independent countries and the new democracies across Asia and Africa. To sustain its position, Nepal’s Monarch also played roles in Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and later in the formation of SAARC which would provide them international forums to justify their cause and interactions with the companions alike. However, basically, this system did nothing but provide an opportunity to the handful of rulers to amass wealth and effectively siphon it off to the international banks while people in the countryside didn’t feel the presence of government unless the police were sent to hunt for the pro-democracy activists.

Post 1950s is the era of Modernization across the world. This wave didn’t leave Nepal unaffected. A few big development projects like east-west highway, road link to Kathmandu which are still the main artery of transportation in Nepal and a few hydro-projects were launched. Nepal was also cautiously opened to the world as tourist destination in 1970s, effectively beginning the Golden Hippy era. However, whatever the Monarchy did in those years was too little to justify its cause and at the end left the country at the quandary of too many social and political problems. The country is still paying dearly for the remnants of the 30 years of Monarchical rule which I shall elaborate in the following paragraphs.

The unyielding parliamentary Democracy and decade-long Maoist insurgency
The 1990 popular movement culminated the country into the era of democracy, the West Minister model of democracy where majority (and sometimes majority may be in the minority) can do anything and the minorities are nowhere to be heard. The 1990 constitution of Nepal is supposed to be one of the best in democratic system of governance. However, the democracy could not yield the desired fruits. This era is mostly dominated by now opposition Nepali Congress party. It swept the first parliamentary election with comfortable majority but owing to the intra-party feud the government could not stay in the office for full term. And, the hide and seek between the Nepali Congress and the biggest Communist faction UML began. The UML claims to be the ‘reformed’ version of communists for the 21st century which is a little bit more socialist than NC. However, the negative aspects of parliamentary system spilled over on the streets and the people soon reached the conclusion that West Minister model of democracy is not suitable for the country like ours.

While the world was seeing the way out from the Modernization concept, we fully embraced it. With democracy, the global capitalism and the liberal market economy expanded its long arms to Nepal. A few big projects were launched and country was rapidly and randomly opened to the West and Westernization or the Modernization. This system gave ample opportunities to the middle class people to flourish and amass huge wealth, while effectively under privileging the low-class people and further widening the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Though the Maoist movement didn’t begin with the huge popular support, it gained significant support of the rural and the impoverished people. Though, it was never a deciding political force in Nepalese soil, Communism has become dominant ideology to shape people’s thinking. Fringe communist factions have their influence in this or that area and also that a strong left-aligned intelligentsia exists. As their aspirations by the alternatively ruling UML were not fulfilled, their support also turned towards the Maoists who were waging all-out war to establish the ‘Authoritarianism of the proletariats’.

Meanwhile, the Monarchy also tried to benefit itself from the degrading performance of the parliamentary system and regain the good old days. The ambitious King Gyanendra who ascended to throne following June 1, 2001 bloody Palace Massacre where all but his family members were mysteriously killed, tried to cash the benefit of doubt. He began the experiment by ousting the elected Prime Minister in August, 2002. He tried to justify his unconstitutional move in the name of having traditional ‘Divine Power’ and that it is the responsibility of the Monarchy to save the nation during crises.

Though King Gyanendra tried to justify his move through a few steps like anti-corruption drive through extra-judicial body to harass the political leaders, curbing press freedom and raising the issue of nationality, it backfired. He mistook on undermining people’s aspirations for political freedom which they had significantly experienced after 1990 and also that the military solution was not possible and sufficient to quell the Maoist movement.

Meanwhile, the Maoist insurgency was moving from the countryside to the urban area and to Kathmandu. The King’s move just added fuel to the fire. Cornored mainstream parliamentary parties were forced to side with the Maoists and work together against the autocratic Monarchy. They devised consensus to launch a joint movement in an agreement initiated by India and signed by eight major political parties of Nepal in Delhi on November, 2005. This was one of the deciding moments in the recent political history of Nepal when rebelling Maoists significantly set aside their Communist ideology and agreed in principle to come within the frameworks of parliamentary democracy, respect individual rights and press freedom. This gave people the rays of hopes for simultaneously freedom from three excesses; of the corruption and malgovernance of already disgraced parliamentary parties, of the atrocities of the rebelling Maoists and of the arbitrary and oppressive royal regime.

Thus came one of the biggest political showdowns in the dawn of the 21st century. Millions of people turned up on the streets against the King’s rule in the movement jointly called by the parliamentary parties and the Maoists in April, 2006. In less than three weeks, the King was forced to concede and the autocratic monarchy was almost left in hibernation.

Constituent Assembly election and transition to Republic
Nepalese people saw the dream of having the law of the land written by their own representatives as back as in 1950. The political bickering among the parties and the representative of the feudal system, the Monarchy effectively left the issue in the quandary for more than half a century. However, the situation had already turned worse to the status quiost and feudal forces when the parties revitalized the issue of having an elected constituent assembly (CA) as one of the most important goals of the 2006 popular uprising.

Even after the success of the people’s movement, the path towards the CA was still hedgy and thorny. The status quoist forces tried their best not to let happen the election of the constituent assembly which could eliminate the centuries old Monarchy. So, it took nearly two years and the third attempt for the election.

The election results were awe-striking and beyond anybody’s imagination. Former rebels led the erstwhile largest political parties with twice as many seats in the 601 member constituent assembly. This event culminated the country into the era of new political powers, struggles and balances with the communists effectively dominating the political spectrum. The constituent assembly abolished Monarchy; putting an end to the long-lived institution which is as old as the country and making Nepal as one of the youngest republic in the world. As the earlier efforts had already cut traditional ties of the Monarchy with the army and the religion, the transition was bloodless and the helpless King easily vacated the palace. The gigantic and calligraphic former Royal Palace now houses country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a National Museum.

Towards failure?
Following the victory in the constituent assembly elections, the former rebels came to the power. In just two years, they held two different fronts; in the rebellion and in the power through a democratic election. However, most of the indexes in the last three years have become nothing but negative. Nepal has been fighting with a number of grave problems and the enormity of them could even lead the country towards disintegration.
The most important and daring challenge is to root out the feudalism from the country. As they were threatened from the country, the remnants of the feudal system have tried to play in various fronts, most importantly and gravely in southern plains. Terai plains were already under the control of the feudal lords and land mafias who descended there from northern hills or southern India. Their ownership of large chunk of plain and fertile land has been time and again threatened by ‘land reforms’ in the country, first time initiated during BP Koirala’s Premiership in 1960. They are most dreaded by the rise of the revolutionary communists in the country which, by ideology, stand against the private ownership. To effectively bring the Maoist into size, they have used terai. The regional politics has begun and the parties which advocate for the mainstreaming of the terai plain minority people against hilly origin majorities are nothing but coteries of the high-caste feudal lords.

This conflict also provides safe heaven to the Hindu fundamentalists who think to be disgraced after the only Hindu Kingdom sank. In fact, Nepal’s King was believed to be the living incarnation of Lord Bishnu. There were protests against the parliament declaring Nepal a secular nation and also in support of the dethroned King. It could not stop the tide but they will try their best to regain their safe harbor. So, the involvement of the saints or priests of India in the criminal activities and secessionist activities in the southern terai plains have proven. They want to destabilize the southern plains so that the government in Kathmandu will also be shaking and any day they could regain their safe harbor. Though, it looks like a far cry, it is never out of possibility; the King continues his pilgrimage to various deities in Nepal.

Another gravest problem in the row is the ethnic tension in the plains and hills. The feudalist movement is given ethnic camouflage of the movement for emancipation of nearly a third of the Indian origin people in terai plains. It is no good debating their nationality; of course, they are the citizens of Nepal and have proved themselves as patriotic as the hilly origin people. It is also clear that the state discriminated them for centuries; placating this huge population with a few ministerial or high ranking administrative posts. Though there is no excuse, it always happens with the migrants across the globe. And of course, feudal system can never be an alternative to revert the discrimination.

However, the demagoguery of the leaders has portrayed each other communities which total almost as equal in the plains as enemies and the knot is getting tighter. The emotions of the youths are filled with hatred to each other communities. Besides, owing to open border with India, tackling crime and terrorist activities in these plains is so complicated, especially when this land borders with India’s poorest and highly volatile states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, it is beyond capacity of poorly equipped Nepal Police. Should the army be deployed, the situation will wholly change; leading to the stronger secessionist demands. Criminal groups are using this as an excuse to expand their network and pace up their activities.

The problem is no less grave in the eastern hills. The eastern hills first saw the light of education with Bhojpur establishing Sanskrit medium school even before the government had one. Yet, the so called high-caste people continue to dominate the public and the social sphere. This Cumulated discriminatory feeling in the ethnic communities in the hills east from Kathmandu is bursting out with the demand for autonomous states. Some radicalists have also threatened for secession. Though it also seems to be a far cry for now, the case is similar as in terai region- never out of possibility.

It is unfair to portray the CPN Maoist for sowing the seeds, but of course they helped it grow. Against the Communist orthodox ideology of unitary governance system and the authoritarianism of the proletariats, in the greed of attracting more cadres, they highlighted the demand for ethnic and regional autonomy. Now, it is being more and more difficult for the Maoist government to handle such demands with the latest blow from one of their popular leaders claiming to have split the party in favor of terai people and their demand for autonomy.

The ideological dilemma of the Maoists
Despite the former rebels reining the helm now, Nepal has grossly failed to address the public grievances. The public aspiration for peace and prosperity are in horizon and the government’s presence can hardly be felt. The routined and prolonged strikes, deteriorating law and order situation and up to 16 hours of power cut every day are a few grave problems Nepalese people face now. This has further provided ample ground for the trouble makers and anti-revolutionaries.

The fading public support and confidence on the Maoist government is the result of its own ideological dilemma. The Maoists formulated Prachandapath (meaning Prachanda, their all powerful chairperson’s ideological path) as the Nepali variant of Communism. However, the very path has now thrown them in the quandary; neither can they totally grasp the realities of capitalism nor stick to the Communist ideology or the authoritarianism of the proletariats as their ultimate goal. This dilemma has given intra party feud, effectively setting back the implementation of government’s programs. Its popular promises to the people largely remain undelivered.
Besides, as they ascended to the power, they have developed strong ties with the neo-rich or the middle class, the largest beneficiary of the capitalist system. Instead of working in favor of the workers, the Maoists have allied with this class which could eventually save their political ground; at least the Maoists think so. This brings rather worse prospect; whether the Maoists are also turning to be no better alternative to the other parliamentary parties.

As the confidence and hope on the government fades, the more difficult the situation turns. Nepal is in such a volatile situation where it had never been since the 1814-1816 Anglo-Nepal war; the achievements of one of the biggest public uprising snatched away and the revolutionary government being pulled down or disgraced. More frightening is the politically motivated and promoted division among the people. Little hopes and alternatives are left with the other political parties. If the Maoist government fails, so will the nation.


  1. interesting.....new way to peek into history

  2. great write up... your analysis, research and the updates are well appreciated. a new perspective is created. great effort indra dai.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Yah, informative and analytical....it helps me to see the political journey in brief...thanx a lot for that....One thing...you mentioned Tista River of East side...is that Tista River of Bangladesh???

    Bidhan Rebeiro

  5. Yeah. This is the same Teesta River which now passes through India and Bangladesh. It used to be the Indo-Nepal border before Anglo-Nepal war in 1815-6.

  6. A comprehensive write up. The coherence with which the bleak story of our nation through the tumultous times is told is praiseworthy.

    It is truly said that any attempt to recall the days long past our birth is bound to be imperfect. but with the attempts like this one we try to explore particular aspect of the socio-politico-economic dynamics through which our predecessors passed. and that can be expected to help us in our effort to giving the present-day events a particular direction so that a foundation for a better future can be laid.
    in this piece about the history of Nepal i had expected a greater amount of optimism and the attention to the positive developments through the times too. after all we all have been habituated to loathing the bad things before praising the good ones, even though this attitude is the gift of the times through which we have endured and the circumstances we have faced. indeed it is in our best interests to try to deplore and forsake the bad attitudes of the past than to keep praising the good ones. And i'll never hesitate to praise your attempt in this regard.

    Finally, hoping to read more thought provoking articles.