What is now Nepal was once a collection of feudal principalities sandwiched between Moghul India and Tibet. You can see the palaces of these ancient rulers as you trek through places such as Sinja near Jumla, Besi Sahar (Lamjung) near Dumre, Lo Manthang, Gorkha and, of course, the Kathmandu valley. Many of these small kingdoms had little or no contact with Kathmandu. The early history of the Kathmandu valley, with its Licchavi dynasty from the 3rd to the 13th century and the Malla reign from the 13th to the 18th century, had little effect on the remote hill regions.
In 1768 Prithvi Narayan Shah, the leader of the House of Gorkha, brought together these differing kingdoms and built up the general shape, and the present outskirts, of Nepal. He established the Shah tradition, vanquished the Newar kings of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and established the capital in Kathmandu. The current king, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, is a direct descendant of Prithvi Narayan Shah.
In 1768 Prithvi Narayan Shah, the leader of the House of Gorkha, brought together these assorted kingdoms and built up the general shape, and the present outskirts, of Nepal. He established the Shah tradition, vanquished the Newar lords of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and set up the capital in Kathmandu. In 1814 the British East India Company declared war on Nepal. After a fierce war with imperial India, Nepal surrendered a vast segment of its domain, which now contains the northern zones of the Indian conditions of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Nepal also agreed to allow a British ‘resident’ in the country, but he was not permitted to leave the Kathmandu valley.
In 1846 the prime minister, Jung Bahadur Rana, conspired with the queen regent to gain control of the country. He invited the top political and military leaders to a party in Kathmandu and ambushed them in what is known in Nepali history as the Kot Massacre. Following the massacre, Jung Bahadur announced that the post of executive was to be innate, and avoided potential risk of ensuring that the title passed to a younger brother if the ruler had no qualified son. The Ranas adopted the title ‘maharaja’ and ruled the country for 104 years.
Despite Jung Bahadur’s refusal to adopt European practices that conflicted with his Hindu beliefs, he was fascinated with European architecture. The profusion of white stucco neoclassical palaces in Kathmandu was inspired by a journey to England and France. The largest of these, Singha Durbar, now houses the parliament and secretariat.
In 1950 King Tribhuvan, assisted by the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, fled to India. His three-year-old grandson, Prince Gyanendra, was left behind in Kathmandu and the Ranas enthroned him as king. The rule of the Shah kings was reinstated through an armed people’s revolution led by the Nepal Congress Party and, in 1951, Tribhuvan returned to reclaim the throne. He instituted political reforms and is credited as the father of democracy in Nepal.
During a period of political squabbling, the number of political parties in Nepal grew to more than 60. In 1960 Tribhuvan’s son, King Mahendra, engineered a bloodless palace coup, declared a new constitution, jailed all the leaders of the government and declared a ban on political parties. He established a partyless panchayat (‘five councils’) system that was answerable only to the monarch. This system allowed direct election of local leaders and representatives to the Rastrya Panchayat, the National Assembly. Although the council of ministers was made up of members of the Rastrya Panchayat, the king retained the right to appoint a quota of legislators, effectively retaining control.
King Birendra succeeded to the throne in 1972. After a period of political unrest, he declared that a national referendum would decide whether the country would adopt a multiparty system or retain the panchayat system ‘with suitable reforms’. The 1980 referendum endorsed the panchayat system by a narrow margin and was thereafter cited as the will of the people.
Being a landlocked country, Nepal depends on neighbouring India for most of its manufactured goods and for access to the sea. In March 1989 the Trade & Transit Treaty between Nepal and India expired. Pride and protocol prevented the two countries from reaching any agreement on an extension. The issue was further complicated by Nepal’s recent purchase of hundreds of truckloads of military supplies from China. India reduced the number of entry points into Nepal to the minimum required by international law, raised tariffs on goods from Nepal and severely limited the supply of petroleum products. Nepal’s economy and quality of life declined and there was considerable popular unrest with the inability of the government to resolve the issue.
This unrest reached a crescendo in the spring of 1990 when the political parties began to severely criticise the panchayat system for corruption, human-rights violations and incompetence. The various opposition factions coalesced into a united force, bent on the restoration of democracy. The government responded with a show of force that escalated from arrests to public beatings and shootings. More than 200,000 people took to the streets of Kathmandu on 6 April 1990, chanting pro-democracy slogans. After exercising restraint throughout most of the day, the police attacked the demonstrators, first with bamboo staves and then with guns. Hundreds of people were killed or wounded.
The army took control of the city. During a tense weekend curfew, the king negotiated with opposition leaders, then late on the evening of 8 April proclaimed that the ban on political parties was lifted.
The interim council of ministers appointed in the aftermath of the revolution included leaders of various parties, many of whom had spent time in jail as political prisoners. Imports of Indian goods, especially fuel, and the export of Nepali goods to India resumed. A new constitution was written and promulgated in 1990, and Nepal became a constitutional monarchy with sovereignty vested in the people. The parliament is based on the British system of two houses. The lower house consists of representatives directly elected from Nepal’s 205 constituencies. Of the 60 members of the upper house, 10 are appointed by the king, 35 are elected by the lower house, and 15 are elected from Nepal’s five development zones.
In the elections of 1991 the Nepal Congress Party gained a majority and formed a government. The mood of the public was upbeat I for a while, but the inexperience, sometimes coupled with sheer incompetence, of the elected government demoralized the average Nepali. The next 10 years saw a series of elections, no-confidence motions and realignment of coalitions that resulted in a succession of governments, including several months as a communist democracy. When no party had a majority, coalition partners struggled for power and position. When the Congress party had a majority the party bigwigs, particularly the ageing leaders GP Koirala and KP Bhattarai, squabbled among themselves. The situation in early 2001 was one of instability, corruption and continual strikes and demonstrations with Prime Minister GP Koirala accused of involvement in a bribery scandal involving the leasing of la plane for RNAC. The situation was further destabilized by the Maoist insurgency (see the boxed text ‘Maoists’, p 100) that controls a large portion of Nepal’s countryside.
On 1 June 2001 everything changed. According to the official account, then Crown Prince Dipendra had a drunken argument with his parents over his choice of a bride. He retired to his quarters, then emerged with two automatic weapons and massacred King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and numerous other members of the royal family before turning the gun on himself. Though Dipendra was in a coma, he was declared king in accordance with the 1990 constitution. When he died three days later his uncle, Prince Gyanendra, was enthroned in a hastily arranged ceremony, fulfilling an astrologer’s prophecy that he would be enthroned twice.