NEPAL: The struggle to establish democracy

Nepal President Bidya Devi Bhandari on December 20 sent shockwaves across the country as she approved the Cabinet’s recommendation for the dissolution of the Lower House of Parliament. The president’s move has pushed the Himalayan country deeper into the quagmire of instability even as it had been attempting to find its footing in democratic politics. Having suffered a decade-long insurgency and an autocratic monarchy around the turn of the century, the people of Nepal had fought hard in the past couple of decades had finally begun to dream of a stable and peaceful political future. Their dreams had been fuelled by the success of the 2006 popular movement against King Gyanendra’s direct rule, the Madhes uprising against a centralized political structure, the elections to a constituent assembly, and the drafting of a constitution that, despite various shortcomings, recognized the rights of the citizens to life, liberty, happiness and justice.

The dissolution of the parliament has not only pushed the country decades back to the 1990s that saw Nepal’s nascent at democratizing itself being sabotaged by the monarchy and political parties but has also left them wondering if they can expect political stability in the foreseeable future. After all, the Nepali people had in 2017 ushered the Nepal Communist Party, a coming together of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), led by KP Sharma Oli, and the Maoist Centre, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, the former insurgent leader, to power by electing it with a nearly two-thirds majority. Having failed to distance herself from the power tussle between the Oli and Dahal, the twin co-chairs of the party, the president, took no time to approve the Cabinet’s recommendation even if that meant pushing the developing country to yet another political crisis.

Nepal’s encounter with a political crisis, though, is not new. To understand how the country that made some significant strides towards political stability and democratic politics in the past decade-and-a-half went backward to with the stroke of a pen, it is pertinent to see how the latent and manifest forms of authoritarianism, militarism and impunity inform its political culture in the past as well as present.

Militarization of the political sphere

The history of modern Nepal is around 250 years old. It was King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the first king of modern Nepal, who laid the foundation of a military organization loyal to the monarchy. In 1762, when Prithvi Narayan Shah attacked Kirtipur a third time and claimed victory over it, he ordered that the noses of the locals be chopped off. As many as 865 locals were said to have been the victims of such extreme punitive measures. In a place called Lachyang in the present Nuwakot District, the indigenous Tamang people organized an uprising against the state during the reign of King Rana Bahadur Shah. And in response, the state organized a huge massacre on two occasions, around 1794, when an estimated 1000 Tamangs were said to have been killed during the uprising.

After Junga Bahadur Rana became the prime minister of the country through a military coup in 1844, he formed the Bhairavnath Battalion by admitting the Rai and Limbu community people from the eastern part of the country. Not only was a particular community preferred in the military, but the chief of army staff was also from the same Rana family for 119 years. The tradition of Ranas becoming the chief of army staff continued until 1965, which shows how the foundation of Nepal’s military was feudal in structure.

Nepal’s military has not had to face external challenges after the fight with British Indian forces in 1816 and the subsequent Sugauli treaty except in 1976 when two of its battalions had been deployed to control the Khampa rebellion. But the military has had an unrelenting presence in Nepalese politics since the very foundation of the state of Nepal. Although its image is projected to be that of a professional institution that looks after the integrity of the Nepalese territory, the fact is that, throughout the history of Modern Nepal, it has been involved in the suppression of all kinds of movements and uprisings for social, economic, and political changes, and the protection of the ruling class. So much so that it was used against the first democratically elected prime minister of Nepal, BP Koirala.

The struggle to establish democracy

Nepal had had a brief tryst with democracy in the early 1950s when the political climate in the aftermath of the Second World War and the decolonization of the country’s southern neighbor, India, made it impossible for the Rana oligarchs to continue holding on to power. But the initial euphoria gave way to three decades of the autocratic monarchy when King Mahendra orchestrated a royal coup against Koirala. This was a time when the South Asian subcontinent had become a battleground for all variants of political regimes and ideologies, ranging from democracy to dictatorship. In Pakistan, the people’s anger against Zia Ul Haq’s dictatorship was rising after his government executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; in India, Indira Gandhi had come back to power after losing elections once on the heels of the emergency; Bangladesh had been reeling under dictatorship, with several high profile assassinations within a decade of its founding; and in Sri Lanka, an armed insurgency was gaining ground and would, in another three years, escalate exponentially.

In Nepal, the movement against autocratic monarchy had entered its third and decisive decade in the 1980s, the time when people across various parts of Asia were trying to get rid of their dictatorial governments. For Nepali politicians, writers and intellectuals who had fought against the country’s autocratic monarchy from the 1960s through the 1980s the May-18 Uprising came as a part of global solidarity against authoritarianism and dictatorship. It became a reference point for the Nepalese, who had been struggling to democratize the country’s politics and the public sphere. More importantly, the May-18 Uprising and its aftermath have important lessons for Nepal, as well as the world, of course, on what must be done to prevent militarism and authoritarianism and to build a formidable democratic polity. It took a sustained struggle, both armed and peaceful, to finally bring the monarch, under the fold of parliamentary politics in 1990.

The struggle to sustain democracy

The early 1990s saw unprecedented freedom of the press, political activities and the opening of organizations and unions, as citizens were allowed to publish freely and form unions and parties. Soon after, however, voices of disenchantment started popping up, with people belonging to different identity groups complaining that their voices were not represented in the constitution. However, hardly had the parliamentary politics begun to get its foothold when the Maoist insurgency, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, began in 1996. It escalated exponentially after 2001 when the Sher Bahadur Deuba government declared an emergency and mobilized the army. After two failed dialogues with the Deuba government and the Lokendra Bahadur Chand government in 2002 and 2003 respectively, the Maoists finally decided to come to mainstream politics after an understanding with a political alliance of seven parliamentary parties in late 2005 to remove the autocratic monarchy led by King Gyanendra. From the 1990s onwards, the military made some attempts at maintaining some proximity to political parties even as it remained loyal to the monarchy. But some attempts at demilitarization, strengthening of the Nepal Police, and establishment of the Armed Police Force dealt a blow to the relationship between the military and political parties. That led the king and the military to come closer to one another. The military’s oppressive character became especially more evident when the government imposed an emergency in 2002 to tackle the Maoist insurgency.

This led to increased casualties not only among the insurgents but among the common people as well as it began indiscriminate killing, kidnapping and other forms of human rights abuses in the name of counter-insurgency. From partaking in oppressive schemes of rulers to turning into an ambitious entrepreneur institution, the military in Nepal is a major case study of what it should not be. And by taking advantage of the country turning into a militarized state, king Gyanendra organized a royal coup with the backing of the military, taking the country to yet another level of regression. King Gyanendra used the military for a political coup and put major political leaders under house arrest and deployed the military in all major media houses in the country. The king’s direct rule was removed by the second people’s movement in 2006. If there is any lesson to be learned from Nepal’s political history, it is that the military should in no way be brought between the rulers and the people. The 19-day movement did not only reinstate the democracy that had been suppressed by the king but also brought the Maoists to the mainstream politics. It also brought the country under the fold of the constitution again and helped remove the 240-year-old monarchy once and for all.

After the successful movement for the restoration of democracy in 2006, which culminated in the transformation of a Hindu monarchical state to a secular republican state, Nepal has undergone a complex process of restructuring of its social and political foundations. In the last three decades, different factors like the rise of identity politics, Maoist insurgency, and the global context have brought about a change in the social and political dynamics of Nepal. But the country has also been facing a crisis of stability as political parties have not been fully successful in their attempts to turn it into a democratic, inclusive state. As Nepal runs into political turbulence yet again, it is important more than ever before, to look back at history and realize that the use of authoritarian techniques for political power-grabbing as well as suppressing a dissenting people is detrimental to the democratic foundations of the country. If anything, the only contribution of militarism and authoritarianism is to aggravate the situation and create a condition in which the ideas of peace, justice, and human rights take a backseat.

About the Author:

Dinesh Kafle is a columnist and opinion editor at The Kathmandu Post. He obtained a PhD in English Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has worked for Routledge Books and The Wire.