State and People: Background Information on Post-1990 Nepal

Brief Look at Pre-1990 Nepal

Nepal has not seen a fully democratic system throughout its history; most of the time the monarchy has usurped the legislative, executive and judicial powers. In 1951, and amidst an armed rebellion led by Nepali Congress (NC) and backed by India, a treaty was signed in New Delhi between Tribhuvan (hereditary king), Ranas (hereditary premiers, generals and courtiers) and the rebels (who wanted to establish democracy). Through this treaty, the century-old system of rule by hereditary premiers was ended. A cabinet system of government inducted the rebel leaders in the government. However, sovereignty remained in the king who expelled and appointed these commoner prime ministers at will. After being inducted in the government, the rebels and the other power brokers called the system a “democracy” although they were never elected but only appointed by the king.

An actual popular election was held in 1959, when King Mahendra announced a provision of elected parliament in a new constitution. The king had granted himself the authority to nullify the parliamentary system as and when he wanted. Nepali Congress (NC) was victorious with two-third majority and BP Koirala became the first elected Prime Minister of Nepal. But in 1960, the king staged a military coup and arrested the Prime Minister and some 700 NC members and leaders of other parties, dissolved parliament, declared all political parties illegal. Political parties regrouped and fomented movement against the regime but could not deliver a momentous blow until 1990.

Early 1990s

The closest Nepal came to being a democracy was in 1990 when the regime came on the verge of collapse due to people’s movement. This time a parliamentary monarchy was created with king as the head of state and prime minister as the head of the government. The king promulgated a new quasi-democratic constitution [click here to read] with some reforms but retained considerable and ill-defined powers, kept unchecked control over the military and excluded anti-royalist parties outside the constitutional framework.

Nevertheless, the popular movement of 1990 brought a tremendous change in Nepal. Monarchy no longer remained the sole power centre of Nepalese state affairs. The movement brought new political players such as Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), and a whole set of political parties in the equation. Royalist forces split in two camps; one camp formed a new political party called Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), and the other joined NC with a small spillover to CPN-UML. However, old elites remained important political and military forces in Nepal.

Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPNM), which emerged as a major political force in Nepal in recent times, was a much smaller player in Nepalese politics in and around 1990. United People’s Front (UPF), a precursor to CPNM, had participated in the parliamentary election of 1991 and become the third largest party in the parliament. With only 9 seats they could not bring any change through parliament except for emerging as the only party that openly challenged the shortcomings of the 1990 constitution. By defending 1990 constitution as the most pro-people in the world in the parliament, NC and CPN-UML relinquished their political advantage to the CPNM, whose message came closer to the new breed of educated youth that was fed up with corruption, mismanagement and economic discrimination.

To make the facts straight, CPN-UML also was a critique of the constitution at the time of the promulgation of the constitution. However, as it became the largest organized political party in Nepal in the aftermath of post-1990 politics, it abandoned it old past that was built on anti-monarchy struggle. Like NC, CPN-UML also stood against the reforms in the constitution.

Also in the equation was a vast Nepalese population unaffiliated to any of the mentioned political players. Even after 10 years of conflict and numerous political realignments, this group represents the largest population in the country. Because this group is not politically organized, lesser attention is paid to it in Nepalese politics. However, no political solution can have a lasting life if this group’s views are not accommodated. Further, even if unaffiliated with organized political players, this group carries enormous political and social consciousness.

Given the aid-dependent nature of Nepal’s economy, primary political bloodline for the governing elites of Nepal comes from the foreign powers and governments are unable to make any policies independent of the world powers. Part of the reasons for the ruling political parties to drift away from their stated policies of the past can be found in this geo-political situation. While analysing political scenario inNepal, it should not be forgotten that the much of Nepalese politics is played from the capitals of the world powers.

Unfortunately, the political parties that took power in the post-1990 political set-up continued in the path of mismanagement and political exclusion. Instead of strengthening democracy with further reforms and integrating anti-monarchy political forces within the democratic fold, the ruling parties chose a path of exclusion in a hope to consolidate their grip in power.

Maoist Movement Begins

Unable to make the two larger parties in the parliament to listen to their demands, the UPF gave an ultimatum to the Government of Nepal in 1996 to meet their 40 point demands [click here to read] for reform, which the then Prime Minister flatly dismissed labeling them as frivolous.

Having said that, the ideas and ideals of the urban, educated and upper class people were not in the priorities of the Maoists and the views of this population was better represented by the larger political parties like Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. Since Nepal’s military, police, bureaucracy, connections with foreign donors and major economic engine was in the hand of this group, the ruling elites saw an easy sail and political longevity if they were to adhere to this group than to listen to small and “ragtag” political groups.

Instead of adhering to core principles of democracy and strengthening them, these parties, which were originally formed with a promise of representing oppressed and disadvantaged Nepalese, chose to stick with specific groups and singular ideology. A democracy that protects rights and freedom of people while permitting different models of governments to rise and fall, and addresses changed needs of the society, could not become the priority of the ruling elites.

Ironically, UPF demands resembled election platforms of the ruling parties, which the government rejected because they were raised by a small opponent. On the other hand, UPF had declared that they will stage an armed rebellion if their demands for constitutional and other social reforms were rejected. They kept up with their promise by staging a small armed rebellion, said to be started with 3 shot guns and a small unit of rebels in the remote district of Rolpa. This rebellion grew so rapidly that it took everyone by a surprise. The rebels were able to capture the sentiments of the people left dissolute and disenchanted after centuries of oppression. As the conflict escalated, government chose brutal tactics to oppress the rebel movement and the rebels drove away their key political opponents from the villages to create their base areas. Nepal entered into an era of violence and tumbled into a downward spiral in all other fronts.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy has succinctly summarized this context in saying “Many of the Maoist’s grievances mirror those of the majority of Nepal’s people who for centuries have suffered from discrimination, poverty, and abuse by one corrupt government after another”. The present situation has been the testimony that the political parties in power during the 1990s made a mistake in not searching for a conciliatory approach.

Pragmatic Opponent and Rigid Rulers

Maoists proved themselves to be less ideological and more pragmatic when doing politics in Nepal. They appear to be more intently focused on finding their salvation in establishing a republic rather than in traditional communist ideology as their name would suggest. Their 40-point demands [click here to read] are the testimony of it. Even after 10 years, those demands do not appear to be that of a communist ideologue but that of a pragmatic political party. It turned out that what they demanded were not frivolous and undemocratic but essential elements found in all democratic societies. On 19 May 2006, all the political parties, including the royalists, unanimously passed a resolution in the parliament to hail the demands for constitutional assembly, curtailment of royal power, and supremacy of people. Please note that these politicians – except a few – consistently dismissed demands as frivolous as late as 2005.

In Nepal, the monarchy has always resisted against any democratic transformation. Still, many ordinary and illiterate Nepalese viewed this institution as harmless and treated with respect until late King Birendra’s brother Gyanendra ascended to the throne after the palace massacre of 1 June 2001. Immediately after assuming the throne, King Gyanendra took an active political and military role in the name of controlling the Maoist insurgency that had been spreading like a wildfire since 1996. In doing so, King Gyanendra fired an elected prime minister, in October 2002 and started appointing prime ministers on his own. After dismissing three handpicked prime ministers, he seized absolute power in February 1, 2005. He showed the same level of inflexibility as his father had shown in 1960, when he dismissed the elected government and parliament.

This royal coup, aggravated the conflict sharply as the king unleashed the army to fight a two-pronged war — suppressing parliamentary political parties in the cities, and hunting the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) guerrillas everywhere. The death toll of the last past five years of conflict has surpassed 13,000 lives. More ominous aspect of this is that the majority of the killed were innocent civilians. Nepal was ranked, by the UN, as one of the worst countries in the world in number of disappearances under state custody. Close to 1000 people arrested by the military are unaccounted for. It is believed that they were tortured and murdered in the military custody (and reciprocated by the rebels with equally gruesome tactics). With this staggering number of death tolls, continuous persecution and intimidation of ordinary people, terror of vigilante groups, torture and disappearances in military custody, the social cost of this conflict was immeasurable. Most of this happened under King Gyanendra’s watch.

Throughout this period Nepal went through a lot of political upheveal. Average life of a government was just about one year. Only one thing that the political parties had in common was bitterness towards each other and only constant Nepal saw was disunity among plitical parties.

Beginning of a New Era?

The military and political persecutions of the royal regime were so widespread that the longtime political antagonists, the seven parliamentary parties and the Maoists, were forced to overcome their political differences. The move for coalition started with the formation of Seven Party Alliance (SPA) as a counter-force to the royal takeover of 2005. The SPA is believed to have strong base in urban Nepal, whereas the Maoists have control over most of the rural area of the country. Both SPA and the Maoists realized – what Nepalese people were saying all along – that until they create a united front, they would not be able to defeat the autocratic monarchy backed by the military. Finally, SPA and Maoists signed on a historic and unprecedented 12-point memorandum of understanding (MOU) for peace and democracy in Nepal in 22 November 2005. The agreed upon 12-points of the MOU [click here to read] was a ground breaking work in Nepal’s political history.

The MOU was regarded as an appropriate political response to the crisis and was widely welcomed by Nepalese people, human rights groups, other political parties, and international organizations including the UN and EU, with the exception of USA. The MOU, which proposed a peaceful transition of Nepal through an elected constitutional assembly, emerged as a ray of hope. Consequently, people of all walks of lives rallied behind this MOU giving rise to a massive popular uprising. The movement grew leaps and bounds in April 2006 when the peaceful protests called by the SPA and supported by the Maoists met with military brutality and deaths. Peaceful demonstrators defied curfew orders; the whole country became filled with slogans like, “We want Constituent Assembly” and “Long live Republic Nepal”. The people’s participation was so broad, momentous and pervasive that King Gyanendra feared of being overrun anytime. Failed to diffuse the movement by his first announcement of 21 April 2006, King Gyanendra, announced for the reinstatement of the parliament [click here to read] at midnight of 24 April 2006.

The SPA quickly welcomed the reinstatement of parliament. The Maoists, however, saw this as a betrayal, saying that the goal of the popular uprising had not been the reinstatement of the parliament but the total uprooting of the feudal monarchy. However, the Maoist leaders agreed to give a chance when the SPA leaders promised to hold an election to the constituent assembly, invited Maoists to the negotiating table, and expressed commitment to the MOU. The Maoists reciprocated by declaring a three-month cease-fire to expedite negotiations.

In the meantime, the reinstated parliament unanimously passed a resolution [click here to read] to strip the monarch of his previously unlimited powers that he and his ancestors had held since 1768. The resolution also included declaration of secular state, an agreement to hold the election of a constituent assembly and bringing the military under parliamentary control (thereby addressing four of the Maoist 40-point demands).

Aware of past palace betrayal and close tie between the palace and the military, Nepalese who hope for democracy, however, fear that the country is at risk of coup attempt by generals. In this context, restructuring and democratization of the armed forces, which inducts Maoist guerillas in it, has been widely sought in Nepal. This is what is sought by the Maoists for them to surrender their arms and enter into peaceful politics.

The bold steps taken by the parliament in articulating people’s aspirations in the spirit of the 12-point memorandum of understanding were welcomed by Nepalese and international community as important steps for lasting peace in Nepal. The real test, however, is to develop an inclusive political environment where all political forces including the Maoists can pursue their political objectives in a peaceful and democratic environment.

The people spoke loudly in Nepal not only against the autocratic monarchy but also for a durable peace and democracy. They have demonstrated their desire for a credible peace process that resolves the armed conflict through negotiation and not by force. There has been a positive development in this direction as a 25-point code of conduct [click here to read] between the government and the Maoists have been signed and the negotiations have started.

There was a time of harmony among the political forces and that brought an 8-point agreement [click here to read] in June 16, 2006. And, there was a time of euphoria all over Nepal. However, in recent times political gamesmanship has taken front seat and the national issues are beginning to take a bit of a back seat and there is a growing suspicion about future of Nepal. The contradictory letters sent to UN by the Government and Maoists [click here to read] and subsequent stance by the PM regarding the monarchy have strained the previously cordial relationships. At the time of this writing, the political realignment in taking shape at a rapid rate. Still progress is also apparent here and there. The five-point agreement [click here to read] reached on August 9, 2006 is an example of it.

For this endeavor to succeed, however, there lay immense challenges: navigating a three-way peace process, providing sufficient security for free and fair constituent assembly elections, and managing an inclusive, sweeping and entirely new process for rewriting the constitution. This would not be an easy feat in the best managed of countries, much less so in Nepal, a country mired in underdevelopment and exclusion.

Given Nepal’s legacy of exclusion and discrimination based upon caste, class, gender, ethnicity and region, a more inclusive constitution should be the foundation upon which a stable polity is built. However, tremendous work needs to be done to carry off a constituent assembly effectively. Deciding what type of government and electoral system would best-serve Nepal is a complicated question, and experts can provide a great service by helping Nepalese educate themselves about the different models of governance.

A multi-polar politics

Nepalese political landscape consists of more than two dozen political parties. Based on the parliamentary seats occupied by various parties since 1991, Nepali Congress Party (NCP), Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (CPN-UML), National Democratic Party(NDP), Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NGP), People’s Front Nepal (PFN) and Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) are significant ones. United People’s Front of Nepal (UPFN), which had won third largest number of seats in 1991 parliamentary election, began to splinter in 1993. Its one faction later merged with Nepal Communist Party (Masal) to form PFN. However, the other faction established Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in 1995, which staged an armed rebellion in 1996 and gradually emerged as a major political force – holding a balance of power in Nepal. All these political realignments have made the political scene of Nepal one of the most confusing in the world. Breakup of the parties had become a norm rather than an exception in Nepal. Parties never agreed on most issues of National significance. However, the situation began to change after King Gyanendra took an absolute power in 2005.

Despite having large number of political parties, today, there are four internal poles in Nepal’s political scene. The first pole is the palace pole that constitutes the royal palace, elites that benefit from palace connection and the Hindu fundamentalists; this pole also has the traditional control of the army. The second pole is made up of SPA and other parliamentary parties whose political base is urban, educated and higher cast populace, and also holds significant support in rural Nepal. The third pole is that of politically conscious civic society that is not affiliated with any organized political party. It is more open to positive ideas from any corner. The fourth pole is that of the Maoists whose political base is the formerly marginalized ethnic communities, “untouchables”, poor and rural population; they also garner significant support in urban Nepal – especially among youth. Given Nepal’s legacy of exclusion and discrimination based upon caste, class, gender, ethnicity and region, they command a large swath of the population, especially youth. It is, therefore, neither possible nor desirable to develop a political solution in Nepal that does not include the Maoists in the equation.

This fact has been especially highlighted because some international players have unsuccessfully attempted to find a solution without the Maoists but, apparently, they have still not given up their intent in marginalizing them. Countries like USA, Britain and India even provided lethal weapons and training to the Royal Nepal Army to eliminate the Maoists at a time King Gyanendra had dismissed all elected institutions and was ruling through his own appointed prime ministers. Not only that, the military aid was delivered at a time when human rights groups had ranked Nepal as a country with most number of disappearances and deaths of people in state custody. This only gave rise to a dictator king, whom they eventually had to help bring down but was not possible without the Maoists – a scar on the face of a bad diplomacy.

Constitutional Issues

An inclusive constitution should be the foundation upon which a stable polity could be built in Nepal. It is to be noted that Nepal does not enjoy an ethnically and religiously homogeneous population like those enjoyed by some other countries. Deciding a type of government and electoral system that can best-serve Nepal is a complicated matter but to be solved by Nepalese themselves. However, some international players view these matters in black-and-white terms – on the basis that one that is not my friend must be my enemy and with much historic baggage. This only complicates matter rather than simplifying. No help at all is better than a help given with undesirable intents. Being hell bent against Maoists and meddling with Nepalese politics in an unhelpful way have only helped prolong the war and increase the suffering of the Nepalese people. Instead, what Nepal needs is a new era of politics of inclusion and justice.

Finding a political outlet where all the players find room to play and develop a political system that can best serve their country should be the highest priority for Nepal. What the international body should do is to give the aid of knowledge and experience that they have gained elsewhere. Let the political players and people of Nepal draw upon that knowledge, learn from it and find a solution that works in their own context. Helping Nepalese educate themselves about the different models of governance would be the best service the world can do than imposing their own model onto others.

About Canada Forum for Nepal

Canada Forum for Nepal (cffn.ca), an Ottawa based not-for-profit organization which came into effect from the efforts of Nepalese Diaspora and friends of Nepal that were rallying behind the 12-point MOU signed between SPA and Maoists. CFFN is working with a vision of just, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Nepal with a principal focus in advancing knowledge and research in contemporary issues of Nepal. We believe that the present situation in Nepal can be fostered towards a lasting peace if the vulnerable and marginalized majority of Nepalese are endowed to be part of the political power sharing and economic development. To carry its cherished goal, CFFN needs support from people who are committed for global peace, justice and democracy.

About the Author

Pramod Dhakal is member of Canada Forum for Nepal (www.cffn.ca). He holds a Ph. D. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. He can be reached at pdhakal@gmail.com

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