History of Nepal
Although Nepal emerged in history in the first millennium bc, it was
only in the 18th century that Nepal developed as a country of the present
size. Archaeological remains suggest that areas of Nepal have been inhabited
for more than 10,000 years. The Kirant hill tribe people are thought to
be the first rulers of the Kathmandu area. The earliest undisputed Nepali
dynasty is the Licchavi dynasty, which was established in about ad 400.
The Licchavi dynasty, which probably migrated from present-day Vaishāli,
India, was centered in the
Kathmandu Valley. The Licchavi dynasty expanded its influence to the
Kali Gandaki River in the west and Sun Kosi River in the east. The Licchavi
period, as well as the Malla period that followed, was deeply influenced
by Indian culture.
The Licchavi dynasty came to an end in the late 9th century and was
followed by the medieval period. The early medieval era was unstable and
poorly documented. It culminated in the Malla period (1200 to 1769) when
three separate dynasties, divided into three kingdoms in the late 15th
century, were conquered by the Shah dynasty in 1769, led by King Prithvi
Narayan Shah. Nepal’s southward expansion under the Shah dynasty resulted
in a clash with the English East India Company. The Anglo-Nepalese War
(1814-1816) reduced the country to its current size, although Nepal retained
A. Rana Autocracy
In the first half of the 19th century, Nepal entered a short period of
instability that culminated in the Kot Massacre, in which fighting broke
out among military personnel and administrators after the assassination
of a high-powered favorite of the queen. Jung Bahadur, a strong pro-British
leader, prevailed during the massacre and seized control of the country.
He declared himself prime minister and began the Rana line of rulers.
The Rana rulers monopolized power by making the king a nominal figure.
They also made the office of the prime minister hereditary. Nepal gave
valuable assistance to the British during the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-1859)
and during World War I (1914-1918). The British government reaffirmed
the independence of Nepal through a treaty in 1923. A British resident
(colonial official acting as an adviser to the ruler of a protected state),
stationed in Kathmandu, controlled Nepal’s foreign relations. Nepal supported
the Allied cause, with the contribution of Gurkha soldiers, during World
War II (1939-1945). Nepal and the United States established diplomatic
relations in 1948.
The Rana autocracy was increasingly criticized in the late 1940s, particularly
by dissidents residing in India. The political-reform movement, which
was approved by the Indian government and directed by the newly created
Nepali Congress Party, won the support of King Bir Bikram Tribhuvana.
Like his predecessors under the Ranas, he possessed purely nominal powers.
His intervention in domestic politics deepened the crisis, however, and
he was removed from the throne in 1950 by Prime Minister Maharaja Mohan
Shumsher Rana. A few days later the king fled to India and Nepali Congress
insurgents began military operations along the southern frontier. In 1951
Prime Minister Rana allowed a reorganization of the Nepalese government
along democratic lines and the king was reinstalled. Friction between
the Rana and Congress Party factions culminated in November 1951 when
Prime Minister Rana was removed from power and the Nepali Congress Party
(NCP) formed a government headed by Matrika Prasad Koirala.
B. Nonparty System
After the Rana autocracy ended, Nepal embarked on a mission of economic
and social development. However, political parties organizing the government
during the 1950s were not effective. King Mahendra, crowned in 1955, seized
absolute control of the government in 1960 after a decade of political
unrest. King Mahendra dismissed the government and suspended parliament,
calling it corrupt and inefficient. Considering a parliamentary system
unsuited to Nepal, the king proclaimed a new constitution in 1962 that
banned the formation of political parties and allowed for the autocratic
rule of the king through a nonparty system of councils, or panchayats.
The government then instituted social reforms, including land reforms
and modernization of the legal code, which helped alleviate some caste
When the king died in 1972, he was succeeded by his son Birendra Bir
Bikram, who was formally crowned in 1975. The young king initially exercised
strong control over the government, attempting to repress the reform movement
led by former prime minister Bisheswar Prasad Koirala. As antimonarchist
sentiments grew in the late 1970s and serious riots challenged his authority,
the king relaxed his control.
In a 1980 referendum on the form of government, the voters decided to
retain the nonparty panchayat system with certain modifications. Elections
under the new provisions were held in 1981 and 1986. After a wave of pro-democracy
protests in early 1990, a new constitution providing for a multiparty
system was adopted in 1990.
C. Multiparty System
In 1991 the Nepali Congress Party (NCP) won the country’s first democratic
election in 32 years, and the party’s general secretary, Girija Prasad
Koirala, became prime minister. Koirala resigned in July 1994, and the
king subsequently dissolved parliament and set new elections, in which
the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML, won
the majority of seats. Man Mohan Adhikary was sworn in as prime minister.
In 1996 the Communist government was dissolved by the parliament, and
Adhikary resigned his position under allegations of corruption. The king
swore in Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NCP as prime minister.
Also in 1996, a radical leftist party called the Nepal Communist Party
(Maoist), or NCP-M, unhappy with the pace and direction of change, launched
a “people’s war” aimed at overthrowing the government, abolishing the
monarchy, and establishing a people’s republic. Incidents of violence
were at first confined to remote mountain regions but by the late 1990s
had spread to more than half the country.
Political stability remained out of reach, and in March 1997 Deuba unexpectedly
lost a vote of confidence and was forced to resign. King Birendra then
named Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a member of the royalist National Democratic
Party (NDP), as prime minister; Chand was backed by a royalist-Communist
parliamentary coalition in which the CPN-UML had the largest bloc of seats.
Chand was forced to resign in October as the NDP split into two factions,
one headed by Chand and the other by NDP president Surya Bahadur Thapa.
Thapa was named prime minister later that month, heading a coalition government
that excluded the CPN-UML. In March 1998 the CPN-UML split, with the smaller
faction taking the name Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), or
CPN-ML. The split left the NCP with the largest bloc in parliament. In
April 1998 Thapa resigned, and Girija Prasad Koirala of the NCP again
became prime minister in a coalition government, first with the CPN-ML
and then with the CPN-UML. Parliamentary elections held in May 1999 awarded
a majority of seats to the NCP, ending the need for a coalition government.
Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister, was appointed to lead
the government. Bhattarai stepped down in March 2000, and Koirala again
became prime minister.
In early June 2001 King Birendra and eight other members of the royal
family, including Queen Aiswarya, were fatally shot in the royal palace
in Kathmandu, allegedly at the hands of Crown Prince Dipendra, who then
reportedly attempted suicide. Dipendra initially survived his gunshot
wounds in a coma. His subsequent death officially made his uncle Gyanendra
Bir Bikram Shah the new regent of Nepal. An official investigation of
the massacre confirmed earlier reports that Dipendra had killed his family
members in a drunken rage. The Maoist insurgency intensified following
the massacre, fueled in part by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surrounding
the incident. Prime Minister Koirala, meanwhile, was widely criticized
for embarrassing setbacks at the hands of the rebels and for a perceived
failure to provide adequate protection for the royal family. His government
was also mired in a bribery scandal.
Koirala stepped down in July amid demands for his resignation by several
groups, including the CPN-ML, the main opposition party. Sher Bahadur
Deuba, a former prime minister known for his willingness to work with
opposition parties, was chosen by the NCP (the majority party in the parliament)
to head Nepal’s government. Deuba immediately initiated peace talks with
the Maoist rebels, and both sides agreed to a ceasefire. In November the
rebels broke off the negotiations after Deuba rejected their call for
a new constitution that would have abolished the monarchy. King Gyanendra
declared emergency rule, allowing the first large-scale deployment of
the royal army to fight the insurgency.
By June 2002 the government had failed to contain the insurgency, and
rebel forces remained in control of large areas of the western highlands
of Nepal. In response to parliamentary resistance to continuing emergency
rule, Gyanendra dissolved parliament and ordered new elections to be held
in November. The NCP removed Deuba, who supported the king’s action, as
leader of the party, leading him to split the party by forming a new faction,
the Nepali Congress Democratic (NCD).
Gyanendra lifted emergency rule in August, but a new antiterrorism law
allowed the royal army to continue operations against the rebels. Deuba
meanwhile rejected the insurgents’ offers to restart talks, insisting
they must first disarm. In the face of mounting violence, Deuba asked
Gyanendra to postpone elections for a year. Instead, the king dismissed
Deuba, accusing him of incompetence, in October and appointed former prime
minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a staunch royalist, to head an interim
government. In addition, he postponed elections indefinitely. In January
2003 both sides agreed to a ceasefire and renewed negotiations. By that
time it was estimated more than 5,000 people had died since the beginning
of the Maoist insurgency in 1996.
Meanwhile, a bloc of opposition parties launched a campaign calling for
the dismissal of Chand’s government. They refused to recognize the legitimacy
of the interim government because it excluded their parties, which had
been part of the elected parliament the king had dissolved. In response
to their joint campaign, Chand resigned as prime minister in May 2003.
Gyanendra appointed another royalist and former prime minister, Surya
Bahadur Thapa, to replace him.
Pradyumna P. Karan, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Professor of Geography, University of Kentucky, Lexington. Author
of Bhutan, Environment, Culture, and Development
Source-: Encarta Encyclopedia