This summary of developments in Nepal from 1964 to 2014 was written in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of VSO Nepal. A collection of reminiscences by volunteers who served in the country in that period, illustrated by many of their photographs and edited by Michael Rosenkrantz et al., was published in spring 2014. A large collection of photos taken in various parts of the country by American Peace Corps Volunteers in the early years of this period are available on the Rounds Imaging Services site.
In the fifty years since the first VSOs arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal has remained one of the world’s poorest countries but has seen great changes, including burgeoning population growth, the replacement of its Hindu monarchy with a secular republic, rapid expansion of the education system and vastly increased connections between its people and the outside world, whether through migration or the Internet.
In 1964, King Mahendra appeared in virtually unchallenged control of the country. Since his father Tribhuvan’s co-operation with the young radicals of the Nepali Congress party in 1950-51 to end the Rana family’s power as hereditary prime ministers, there had been an uneasy jostling for power between the monarchy and the party politicians. In a nation where most of the population were still dependent on subsistence agriculture, the king had the advantages of the loyalty of the army and his status in the eyes of many of his subjects, as a god incarnate. On 16 December 1960 he removed the Nepali Congress government elected only eighteen months previously in the country’s first general election. Raids across the border by armed Congress activists, together with pressure from India, which gave covert support to the raids and eventually imposed a partial economic blockade, might have forced him into a compromise with his opponents but the outbreak of war between China and India in 1962 compelled Delhi to accept the royal regime.
Under the 1962 constitution, political parties were banned, though a semblance of representative government was preserved by the `Panchayat’ system under which councils were directly elected at village and town level but district and national assemblies chosen by members of the tier below. Effective power remained, however, in the royal palace, which promoted a national ideology centred on the throne, the Nepali language and the culture of the high-caste Hindu Parbatiyas (`hilllmen’), into which other ethnic groups had been assimilated to varying degrees. Nevertheless, Panchayat ideology, largely failed to win over the intelligentsia and student politics were dominated by the `Democrats’, supporters of the Nepali Congress and followers of the different factions into which the Communist Party of Nepal had splintered after 1960.
When Birendra succeeded to the throne after his father’s early death in January 1972, he was challenged by a wave of student protests and by calls for liberalization by some within the Panchayat system itself. An attempt by B.P. Koirala, ousted as prime minister in 1960, to restart guerrilla action against the regime was quickly suppressed as was the `Jhapeli’ movement in the South-East of the country, where communists had begun assassination of `class enemies’ in imitation of the tactics of India’s `Naxalites.’ Survivors of the `Jhapeli’ group eventually emerged as the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), which was for a time tolerated and even secretly subsidized by the palace in an attempt to undercut the Congress sympathisers who were then seen as a greater threat.
The expansion of the education system was increasing the opposition’s natural support base and in 1979 widespread protests by students and others led Birendra to call a referendum for the electorate to choose between a reformed Panchayat system and multi-party democracy. Backed by the official media and enjoying lavish public funding, the pro-Panchayat camp won by 2.4 to 2 million votes, with all the towns backing the opposition.
During the 1980s political parties remained technically banned but their activities were increasingly visible with some factions successfully putting up nominally independent candidates for the Rastriya Panchayat (National Assembly) which was now directly elected. In spring 1990, partly inspired by events the previous year in Eastern Europe, Congress and an alliance of Leftist parties launched a campaign of protests to call for an end to the non-party system. Discontent had already been increased by the effects of a partial economic blockade imposed by India over a dispute on trade and transit issues and, as the size of crowds on the streets increased, Birendra finally agreed to the reintroduction of parliamentary democracy.
The 1990 constitution left the monarchy with certain important powers, including effective control of the army, but the day-to-day running of the country was entrusted to an elected government. The Nepali Congress won an absolute majority of seats in the 1991 general election, after gaining 37.8% of the vote under the first-past-the-post electoral system .The different communist groups were supported by 35.5% and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) became the main opposition party. In-fighting within Congress led prime minister Girija Koirala to call a mid-term election in 1994, producing a hung-parliament and a short-lived minority UML government. When this lost a vote of confidence in 1995, a series of coalition governments followed, combining either Congress or the UML with a faction of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, a grouping of royalist former Panchayat politicians
Whilst the politicians jockeyed for position at the centre in Kathmandu, the expansion of infrastructure and of basic services continued (see the table below) but there was little sign of the fundamental economic change all parties’ rhetoric had promised and a widespread feeling that the fruits of `development’, including the benefits from the extensive flow of foreign aid into the country, were going only to a small elite. Above all, the problem of youth unemployment remained critical, with only the remittances from those working in India or overseas allowing many families to get by. Against this background a radical leftist group, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) began an insurgency in the mid-western hills and in summer 1999, after a temporary split in the UML had allowed Congress to win a majority in the 1999 general election, police had been largely withdrawn from posts in the affected areas outside district headquarters.
KEY INDICATORS 1964 - 2014
On 1 June 2001, King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and seven other family members were shot dead at a family gathering by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then turned his gun on himself or was shot by a member of the palace guard. Despite the circumstances, Dipendra, who remained in a coma till dying three days later, was proclaimed king and the details of the shootings not officially released till after the accession of Birendra’s brother, Gyanendra. Although the testimony of close relatives who survived leaves little doubt that Dipendra was the perpetrator, the unpopularity of Gyanendra and his son, Paris, together with the failure to release full information, left many Nepalese believing that Gyanendra had been responsible possibly helped by the Indians and/or Americans, supposedly angered by Birendra’s reluctance to deploy the army against the insurgency.
The Maoists tried unsuccessfully to incite a revolt within Kathmandu and then to persuade more moderate communist factions to join them in a republican alliance. In the meantime Girija Koirala resigned over the failure of the army to follow his orders and his Congress successor, Sher Bahadur Deuba announced a ceasefire. Talks broke down in November over the government’s refusal to agree to a constituent assembly and the Maoists then attacked army barracks at Dang in western Nepal, provoking the declaration of a state or emergency and the full deployment of the army against them. The insurgents had a dedicated body of activists and sympathizers, exploited ethnic and other grievances adroitly and could also rely on ruthless but carefully targeted intimidation in contrast to the army which, like the police before them, tended often to lash out blindly. The army was, nevertheless, able to ensure that when the rebels overran a camp or a remote district headquarters, they could not hold it for more than a few hours.
In summer 2002, facing opposition in his own Congress party, Deuba sought a dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. When, however, he sought postponement of the elections on security grounds and continuation of his own government, Gyanendra dismissed him and appointed two successive government led by former Panchayat-era prime ministers. After further unsuccessful talks with the rebels in 2003, the king in 2004 reappointed Deuba only to decide in February 2005 to take direct charge himself. A crackdown on any form of dissent followed, alienating both the political parties and also other foreign governments, which had been supporting the Royal Nepal army against the rebels. India, in particular, was angered by the king’s attempt to move closer to China and in November brokered an agreement between the Maoists and the mainstream parties under which another `People’s Movement’ was launched in April with mass demonstrations finally forcing Gyanendra to reinstate the parliament dissolved in 2002. The civil war, which had cost over 14,000 lives, ended and agreement was reached for the Maoists’ participation in an interim legislature and government, the cantonment of the Maoist `People’s Liberation Army’ under UN supervision, and elections for a constituent assembly. A subsequent upsurge of ethnic protest, and above all, the emergence of a strong regionalist movement in the Tarai plains bordering India forced the strengthening of the proportional representation element (for both parties and ethnic and caste groups) already envisaged for a new electoral system. In the April 2008 elections, the Maoists emerged as the strongest party, with 30% of the vote and 37% of the seats in the Constituent Assembly. The new body ratified the decision already made by the interim parliament for Nepal to become a republic, then choosing Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (`Prachanda’) as prime minister with the UML and the main Tarai-regionalist party as coalition partners and Ram Baran Yadav, a Tarai-born senior figure in the Nepali Congress as president. Dahal resigned in May 2008 after the president had controversially blocked his attempt to change the army chief of staff. Following two UML-led governments, Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, generally believed to be more acceptable to India than Prachanda himself, took over in August 2011 in partnership with a group of Tarai-based parties. The tenure of the constituent assembly, intended originally to produce a constitution by May 2010 had been repeatedly extended but it had still not completed its task, mainly because of disagreement on whether the federal units should be designed to allow Magars, Tamangs, Gurungs and other specific non-Parbatiya ethnic groups to form a plurality within their boundaries. When the final deadline set by the Supreme Court expired in May 2012 without agreement, the Bhattarai government asked the president to call new elections. After a year’s wrangling, the major parties finally agreed on the appointment of an administration under the Chief Justice with senior civil servants as ministers. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which in June 2012 had split from the main party (now known as the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)), led a group of smaller parties opposing these arrangements, but preparations went ahead for elections to be held on 19 November 2013. In a result which surprised analysts as much as their victory in 2008 had done, the Maoists came a poor third with 18% of the vote in the first-past-the-post contests against 30% for Congress and 28% for the UML. In January 2014 Congress leader Sushil Koirala became prime minister at the head of a coalition with the UML and two smaller parties.
The `transitional’ period since 2006 had seen constant disruptions as ethnic and other groups called frequent `bandhas’ (shut-down strikes enforced by the groups activists) and outright violence from small groups of extremists in the Tarai but around 1,400 former Maoists fighters had been integrated into the Nepal army and the remainder accepted lump sum resettlement payments. The Maoists had in theory honoured a pledge to return land seized from some 60,000 owners during the conflict but, while prominent political figures had often recovered and retained their property, many others had been compelled by Maoist threats to sell their property again below the market rate. The Maoists had transformed themselves into something nearer the traditional pattern for a major Nepalese political party with an extended patronage network and extensive links to wealthy businessmen. They retained an advantage over other parties in the scale of the financial resources they had amassed and in the hundreds of thousands of activists organised in their Young Communist League.
Arguably more important than any political changes over the fifty years was mass migration. The 2011 population figure of 26.6 million excluded almost 2 million persons absent from home, the bulk of them working outside the country, whilst there was a smaller inward flow from northern India. A third or more of households were receiving remittance income from abroad, which totalled at least US$3.5 billion (about a quarter of the country’s GDP) in 2011. Internally, large-scale migration from the hills to the Tarai, where, over half the population now lived, and from villages to towns, particularly to the Kathmandu valley, which by 2011 was home to 2.51 million (compared to 1.6 million in 2001).
Even though Kathmanduites had to put up with overcrowded roads, power-cuts and increasing pollution, town-dwellers (17% of the total population) enjoyed much better access to health and education and the better-off could afford television (introduced to Nepal in 1985) and other electronic devices, whilst 60% of Nepalis still lacked any electricity supply. The Kathmandu valley also benefited disproportionately from aid money and the mushrooming NGOs into which this was often channelled provided employment to an increasing numbers of middle-class professionals.
In the country as a whole, economic pressures mounted during the same period as did income inequality. The environmental disaster forecast by some in the 1960s did not occur but the Tarai, where land could most easily be reclaimed for agriculture, lost 25% of its forest cover in just fourteen years from 1964/5 and by 1990 around 50,000 hectares of land directly sheltered by tree branches were being lost each year. A few years earlier, Nepal had turned from a net exporter to a net importer of food grains and the continuing fragmentation of holdings made it more and more difficult for ordinary peasant families to feed themselves even though limited land reform in the 1960s had somewhat improved the position of tenants and income from labour migration reduced the number below the official poverty line after the mid-1990s. Hope for the future lay in the boosting of agricultural productivity and the exploitation of the country’s still largely untapped hydro-electric power potential but progress would depend on achieving the consensus on the political rules of the game which had so far eluded Nepal.