About Nepal

 Short Form: Nepal.
Population27.8 million (2013) World Bank
Term for Citizen(s): Nepalese.
Capital: Kathmandu. 

Independence: In 1768 Prithvi Narayan Shah unified a number of states in the Kathmandu Valley under the Kingdom of Gorkha. Nepal recognizes National Unity Day (January 11) to commemorate this achievement.


Early History: Available evidence of Nepal’s distant past is scant, but the earliest inhabitants were likely of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity and lived in small settlements with little political centralization. Small kingdoms and tribal confederations controlled various areas of the Tarai Region in the south. Among these groups was the Sakya clan, whose most renowned member was Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, born in Lumbini in 563 B.C. Many historians believe the Kathmandu Valley’s first rulers were the Gopals or Abhiras, followed by the Kiratas, who reigned until around A.D. 400, and then the Licchavis, who ruled from the late fifth century to approximately A.D. 750. Kings (“maharajas”) of the Licchavi Dynasty ostensibly were both absolute political and moral authorities but had little influence on their subjects’ lives. Their control over their territory and citizens relied on nobles who controlled private armies and large landholdings, and who in turn often influenced the royal court. In addition, village and caste councils often managed local administrative issues and had far greater ideological influence over subjects than Licchavi kings.

Medieval Nepal, 750–1750: After the Licchavi Dynasty, cultural and political changes occurred that would have enduring influences on Nepal. There was a shift from Sanskrit to Newari, the language of the Newar people in the Kathmandu Valley, and kings gradually shifted from Buddhism to Hinduism. Politically, leading notables with names ending in malla (“wrestler” in Sanskrit) became prominent in the early twelfth century. The most renowned Malla ruler was Yakshamalla, who ruled from 1428 to 1482. He both ended elite power struggles in the Kathmandu Valley and extended his influence outside the region.

After Yakshamalla’s death, the Malla kingdom became divided among his descendents into three competing kingdoms based in Bhadgaon, Kathmandu, and Patan. The three-kingdoms period lasted until the mid-eighteenth century and was characterized by repeated warfare among the kingdoms over ritual slights and miniscule territorial gains. States outside the Kathmandu Valley fought each other and engaged in various, shifting alliances with Malla kingdoms. Malla rulers continued to legitimize their rule as protectors of dharma, and the Kathmandu Valley’s unique culture blossomed as temples and palace complexes were constructed, many of which still exist. As the Mughal Dynasty (1526–1858) expanded throughout South Asia, dispossessed Indian princes found shelter in Nepal’s hilly regions and brought the Khasa language, which evolved into the present Nepali language. They also brought Mughal military goods, such as firearms and artillery, and administrative techniques, such as providing land in return for military service.

The Making of Modern Nepal: Founded in 1559, Gorkha was among the hill states that struggled for power during the later Malla period, sometimes allying with one or more of the three kingdoms in their battles against each other. Gorkha achieved no notable territorial expansion until the rule of Prithvi Narayan Shah (1743–75), when the Nepalese state was established. An astute military strategist, Shah obtained financial assistance and armaments from India and then created alliances with neighboring states or purchased their neutrality. In fact, his forces even managed to repel British troops. On September 29, 1768, Gorkha troops entered Kathmandu during religious celebrations and took it without a fight. Shah defeated all three Malla kingdoms by 1769 and continued his conquests, conquering eastern Nepal by 1773.

2 Library of Congress – Federal Research Division Country Profile: Nepal, November 2005

Shah died in 1775. In the following decades, his heirs neglected issues of national administration and engaged in factional power struggles. Internal administration and foreign affairs were under the charge of the mukhtiyar, or prime minister, and the earliest mukhtiyars attempted to increase their own power by creating rifts among royal family members or by collaborating with some royal family members to liquidate enemies. As powerful families fought for power, Nepal’s political and economic development suffered tremendously. To avoid military interference in court affairs, the military was granted the autonomy to pursue ever-larger conquests, and in turn the military became a powerful influence in domestic affairs.

Rana Rule: Intrigue and infighting among royal competitors continued until 1846, when Jang Bahadur Kunwar, a military commander, established a dynasty of prime ministers that would rule until 1951. The Rana dynasty essentially became a parallel monarchy in which the preeminent authority was the prime minister, a hereditary position with unclear rules of succession. The de jure monarchy was reduced to a ceremonial position that legitimized Rana rule with occasional decrees of support, and monarchs were either exiled or kept under house arrest. Rampant nepotism and inefficient administration handicapped political development, and rural development suffered from the delegation of authority to local kings and landlords who acted as autonomous dictators. The Ranas provided some positive development, such as eliminating slavery, establishing schools and factories, and consolidating independence through pragmatic foreign relations, particularly with China and Britain. Yet, Nepal also had archaic health, transportation, and economic infrastructures and rampant poverty.

Although most Nepalis had little reason to support Rana rule, the dynasty’s end was largely precipitated by developments outside the country. Since the 1920s, Nepalis in India had published newspapers, formed political parties, and engaged in other activities challenging Rana rule. In the late 1940s, the British began their withdrawal from India and reduced their suppression of Nepali political groups, which took advantage of this opportunity to increase the scope and intensity of their activities, as well as their level of organization, particularly when the Nepali Congress party was formed in January 1947. The end of British rule in India in 1947 and the communist revolution in China in 1949 ended crucial foreign support for the Ranas, and India’s new government wanted democratic government in Nepal. By November 1950, Nepalese rebels operating from India engaged Rana troops in the Tarai Region, and such activities were often supported by protests in Nepal. These mounting challenges eventually rendered the maintenance of power overly costly for the Ranas. On January 8, 1951, the last Rana oligarch, Mohan Shamsher, agreed to restore the king to power and hold elections. In February 1951, King Tribhuvan (r. 1911–55) returned to power.

The Democratic Experiment: From February 1951 to February 1959, numerous short-lived governments ruled either under an interim constitution or under the command of King Tribhuvan and his successor, Mahendra (r. 1955–72). The kings regularly dismissed uncooperative or poorly functioning ministries and continually postponed elections. However, after substantial popular protests, the king allowed the first national elections on February 18, 1959. The Nepali Congress won. But the king dismissed this government on December 15, 1960, and instituted a panchayat (village council) government, a four-tiered system of representative government with traditional village-level councils at the local level and the National Panchayat at the national level. The system ostensibly was responsive to local needs and input, but local councils had little

effective power and often served as sources of patronage for the king, who continued to retain both absolute authority and support from the military.

King Mahendra died in January 1972, and his successor, Birendra (r. 1972–2001), adopted a more liberal approach to government. In May 1980, for example, King Birendra held a national referendum on the panchayat system, and he interpreted the narrow margin of support (54.7 percent voted in favor) as a need for political change. His government soon allowed direct elections to the National Panchayat, and in May 1981 Surya Bahadar Thapa was elected prime minister. In 1983 Thapa’s government fell as a result of corruption charges and a food crisis, and Lokendra Bahadur Chand became prime minister. However, factional tensions between supporters of Thapa and Chand nearly paralyzed the National Panchayat, and in the second general election in 1986, Marich Man Singh Shrestha was elected prime minister. The Nepali Congress boycotted the election, but it and other parties were widely regarded as having substantially declined in effectiveness.

In the 1980s, Nepal once again underwent tumultuous change. Nepal’s improving relations with China placed stress on its relations with India, and for this and other reasons India terminated trade and transit treaties in March 1989. The loss of trade routes and exports essentially devastated Nepal’s economy, which was already straining under falling agricultural production, increasing factory layoffs, and growing inflation. Political parties campaigned for the end of the panchayat system, and after a period of strikes and violent demonstrations, foreign nations pressured King Birendra to allow democratic reforms.

On April 18, 1990, King Birendra invited K.P. Bhattarai, president of the Nepali Congress, to form a government, and Bhattarai subsequently headed a cabinet composed of representatives of political parties and human rights groups as well as two royal appointees. After months of contentious negotiations between the king and the new cabinet, a new constitution was promulgated on November 9, 1990, with provisions for basic human rights, adult franchise, and a multiparty democracy with the king as a constitutional monarch. The cabinet and political parties reportedly feared that the king could misuse some provisions in the constitution, but they accepted it as the best document possible under the tense circumstances in which it was drafted. Elections were held in May 1991, and K.P. Bhattarai and the Nepali Congress came to power.

The restoration of democracy initially brought tremendous optimism that Nepal would experience improvements in various spheres of life, but by the end of the 1990s various developments culminated to make the era one of the most difficult in the country’s history, threatening its very existence. The earlier trade and transit impasse with India was quickly settled, but other economic problems worsened, sometimes to near-crisis levels. High inflation and substantial foreign debt limited the government’s capacity to address economic development and poverty alleviation. Furthermore, the open political climate enabled various social groups to express long-held ethnic and linguistic grievances and to demand policy changes. Perhaps most importantly, a civil conflict began in February 1996 in which the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) killed, expelled, and threatened government officials, landlords, and others it charged with economic and political oppression of Nepalis. Initially, the government largely ignored the conflict, but by 2000 the conflict had expanded to nearly two-thirds of the country.

Furthermore, unstable political institutions and worsening civil conflict weakened the government’s capacity to address economic, social, and other problems. Factional fighting within and among political parties led to rapid changes in government and prompted parties to spend precious time and resources on maintaining or acquiring power. In 1994 the Nepali Congress was defeated in midterm elections, and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) formed a minority government that lasted nine months. A coalition government led by the Nepali Congress came into power in September 1995 with Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister. This coalition remained in power until 2002, but contentious relations with opposition parties and within the coalition often undermined the coalition’s stability and diverted attention from worsening social and economic problems.

Events since 2000 suggest that Nepal may once again experience drastic change. In one of the most remarkable events in Nepal’s history, Crown Prince Dipendra killed the king, queen, and other royal family members on June 1, 2001, reportedly over his choice of a bride. The crown passed to Gyanendra (r. 2001– ), Dipendra’s uncle, who adopted a relatively firmer approach to political issues. When cease-fire talks with the Maoists ended in November 2001, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and sent the army into the conflict. This action had the unintended effect of intensifying the conflict. When most political parties were unwilling to extend the state of emergency, Prime Minister Deuba requested and received the dissolution of parliament by the king in May 2002. In October 2002, the king unconstitutionally released Deuba’s government and assumed executive powers. After two successive prime ministers resigned, the king reinstated Deuba as prime minister but then dismissed Deuba’s government and suspended the constitution in February 2005, citing the worsening civil conflict. 



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