Nepal: The Issues and the Way Forward

Nischal N. Pandey | 12 Mar 2020

Nepal has been in the throes of an overwhelming political, economic and social upheaval for the last couple of years. The country famously known for being the birthplace of Gautam Buddha and Mt. Everest is today grappling merely to survive. Brave and honest Gorkha soldiers that form an integral part of the British and the Indian Armies serving in troubled hotspots around the world, have begun to fight among themselves. Never has it been in such a state of chaos since it was unified as a nation state in 1768 by a warrior King of Gorkha - Prithvi Narayan Shah the Great.

Land-locked and positioned in a strategic locale in between two Asian giants - India and China, Nepal never lost its independence even during the British Raj in the sub-continent and somehow managed to resolve its problems in the last 300 odd years of its existence. A Westminster style of parliamentary democracy was established in the country in 1990 with the King as a constitutional head and a parliament directly elected by the people. Cases of nepotism, corruption, riots and instability marked much of the multi-party era from 1990-2005.

Unfortunately for the country, the nascent, but a little too vibrant, democracy was dogged by corruption and political skulduggery. As government quickly changed – 15 governments in 15 years, development was badly affected and growing pauperisation and violence only gave rise to more misery. Ironically, the wilful indifference of the political class to economic priorities only strengthened the Maoists who had begun to spread their early 20th century Marxist dogmas of eliminating class-enemies and encircling the cities from the villages. The Maoist insurgency that was launched in 1996 took a heavy toll of thirteen thousand lives in the erstwhile peaceful kingdom, destroying critical infrastructure worth a total of US$ 250 million dollars.

A state of emergency was declared in 2001 after the Maoists began attacking army barracks and key government installations. But a difficult terrain, an open border with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (India), unstable politics, a motivated guerrilla force and a never-ending supply of unemployed youths joining the rebellion, thwarted counter-insurgency operations. The Nepalese Army, numbering seventy thousand was too stretched to counter the insurgency, and as such, was raised to ninety thousand, causing a hike in defence expenditure. Tourist arrivals dipped as strikes and blockades increased and business activities slowed down due to abduction and extortion spree of the Maoists.

King Gyanendra took over executive control of the state after the elected Prime Minister dissolved parliament in 2002, simultaneously dissolving all locally elected bodies. He promised his countrymen that he would re-energise the political system by conducting fresh polls and also stymie the Maoist insurgency, which by that time had affected 65 out of the 75 districts in the country. But his action was viewed largely as a power grab by India and the United States. Both quickly stopped military aid leaving Kathmandu in the clutches of its northern neighbour China, which obliged by sending several consignments of ammunition. Likewise, Nepal reciprocated the gesture by proposing China assume observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at the 12th Summit held in Dhaka.

By April 2006 the situation was beginning to turn against the royal government even as the political parties and the Maoist leadership in hiding in India, met clandestinely in New Delhi to forge a united struggle against absolute monarchy. India facilitated the understanding because it hoped that after the Nepali Maoists join competitive multi-party politics and abandon violence, the process would have an inspirational affect on the Naxalite movement in India stretching from Bihar and Jharkhand all the way down to Andra Pradesh. Altogether, 21 people died in police crackdown during the April protests against the royal regime ultimately culminating in the King agreeing to re-instate the dissolved Lower House of parliament.

The re-instated parliament sought to appease the Maoists by acquiescing to their demands of transforming the "world's only Hindu Kingdom" to a secular state, abrogating the 1990 constitution, announcing an interim constitution and an interim parliament, and massively curbing the privileges of the monarchy. In the meantime, the new government, under 84 year-old Girija Prasad Koirala requested the UN oversee the management of arms and armies from both sides of the conflict.

It is anticipated that Constituent Assembly polls to draft a new Constitution for the country that will also decide the fate of the monarchy, will be held in July this year. Just last month, the UN mission in Nepal registered 30,852 Maoist combatants and about 3428 weapons in seven main cantonments around the country. Serious differences among the current government's allies have arisen on the issue of the incongruous number of arms compared to the huge number of Maoist guerrillas. But everyone is in the mood to support the peace process and take the country out of its decade long civil war that has torn the nation apart and practically destroyed its economy.

Unfortunately, at this very time, the Madhesi people (people of the plains in southern Nepal) have launched a separate campaign from January 2007 demanding greater autonomy for the plains, which are evidently the most prosperous agricultural and industrial locale in the country. More than 30 people have already died since the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM) and the Terai Janadhikar Forum (TJF) launched their violent armed movement. Looting, arson, vandalism, blockades and strikes have since reawakened Nepalis to an era of violence and intimidation they imagined was finally over. Fundamentally, this also presented a new challenge to the leadership of the country (the political parties and the Maoists together). In a country consisting of 52 different ethnic groups, carving out autonomous regions based on ethnicity is likely to have long-term consequences not only to Nepal, but also to its immediate neighbours as some of these groups have cultural and blood relations across the border with the people of Tibet and Bihar.

In any case, a chaotic Nepal unable to manage its own affairs will certainly be a headache both for India and China as both these countries have their most backward areas neighbouring Nepal. Tibet, despite its said economic development and the connection of a railway from Golmud to Lhasa, continues to remain the soft underbelly of China. A large number of refugees annually flee Tibet in their quest to go to Dharmashala in India, or to the United States via Nepalese territory. An extended UN presence and a greater role played by extra-regional powers in the internal affairs of Nepal will certainly not be well received by China.

For India too, an unstable Nepal is susceptible to manoeuvring from those who desire to use the open border for anti-Indian activities. Besides, the Maoists are members of the CCOMPOSA, an umbrella organization of all extreme left parties of South Asia that believe in transforming the state structure through protracted armed struggle. They are all set to join the interim government in spite of possessing a large cache of illegal weapons. Contrary to what New Delhi expects, it is the Indian Naxalites that have now been motivated by the swift manner in which their Nepali compatriots have been able to turn the situation in their favour through hounding and mass pressure. 2007 is likely to be an anxious year for Nepal, but perhaps also for Nepal-watchers in New Delhi and Beijing.

Nischal Pandey was Executive Director of the Kathmandu based Institute of Foreign Affairs, and until recently, Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

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Submitted by K Yhome on 7 April, 2007 - 11:48.

Nepal is undergoing a difficult time and the country requires urgent solutions to many socio-political problems before the country falls on its own weight. Timely though, Pandey’s article has left many questions unanswered and unfortunately no suggestion has been provided for “the Way Forward”, which is what the country needed most.  Pandey’s interpretation of Nepal’s history is also hazy. Some factual history needs to be put straight. Nepal’s political history between 1950 till 1990 was a period of intense political struggle between the monarchical forces and the democratic forces. This has been conveniently brushed aside. The article also gives an impression that “parliamentary democracy was established [only] in 1990”, whereas Nepal had its first democratically elected government in 1959 only to be cut short by King Mahendra’s coup in 1962.   Again, the author’s formulation suggests that the policy of India was framed by its perception of the King Gyanendra’s action in 2002. Contrary to this, the king’s “action” was viewed “as power grab” by the people of Nepal. Clearly demonstrated on the streets last year. India’s  policy to stop military assistance to Nepal was a response to the aspirations of the Nepali people.