“”Look here, at first it was the Ranas who lived off the people, then it was the monarchy; later it was Congress, then the Communists. Political change may mean something to the leaders, but it hasn’t made a difference for us common people.
|—Hari Ballav Pant, Nepalese shopkeep, interviewed by The Diplomat in 2019.|
The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal is a country north of India best known for its Himalayas mountains. Nepal has at least partial control of eight of the world's ten tallest peaks, including Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, and Lhotse. Most of Nepal's population is Hindu, but there are significant minorities of Buddhists and Muslims. Nepal's religious traditions go back a long way, and there are a variety of notable temples scattered across the country that attract tourism. The country's capital and largest city is Kathmandu.
But Nepal isn't all backpackers and monasteries. Nepal recently transitioned into a republic in 2008 after the abolition of the monarchy, and it still struggles with political disputes between Maoists and conservatives. Nepal's economy suffers from widespread poverty and other significant problems like poor infrastructure, a major obstacle to industrialization. Most of the people are employed in the agricultural sector. Unfortunately, human trafficking, sex slavery, and child prostitution are also commonplace. Some girls are abducted by slaving gangs or tricked by promises of paid jobs, while others are sold into slavery by their poverty-stricken families. Many are sold across the border by human traffickers, ending up in red light districts of Indian cities.
Nepal has an ancient history. In the middle of the 1 millennium BCE, Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Lumbini in southern Nepal. Over these early centuries, Nepal was influenced by Tibetan culture from the north and Indo-Aryan culture from closer to home. Nepal became a hub for trade along the Silk Road, turning it into a diverse and cosmopolitan area in the old world. In 1768, the Gorkha Kingdom, ruled by the Shah dynasty (no relation to Iran), unified Nepal by conquest. It entered a close relationship with the British Empire, which used it as a buffer state between British India and Imperial China. However, the Shahs had a rival family called the Rana dynasty, and the Romeo and Juliet conflict between them threw Nepal into turmoil and caused much bloodshed.
By 1991, things had come to a head with the Shah kings trapped between their Rana rivals and growing popular discontent and support for Maoist communism. Nepal blew up into civil war in 1996, which lasted ten years and eventually led to Nepal's reestablishment as a secular republic in 2008 with representation for the Maoists. Nepal still struggles with the legacy of that war and the damage it caused.
People have lived in Nepal since at least the Stone Age, although their cultures are too unknown for us to say much about. Things started to heat up around 2000 BCE when northern India came under the rule of a group called the Arya, or the Aryans. The Indo-Aryans formed many little kingdoms that then constantly battled and formed alliances for protection. Despite all of that violence, the Silk Road trade route brought goods and gold from nearby China, allowing many of the kingdoms in the region to develop cities and urban living.
Rise of Buddhism
One of these warring states in southern Nepal was ruled by the Shakya clan, and sometime around the 5th to 4th century BCE, the clan produced its most famous member: Siddhārtha Gautama. Gautama would become known as Buddha after abandoning his aristocratic lifestyle in favor of asceticism and teaching spirituality. He was the founder of the Buddhist religion, which remains influential in Nepal today.
Warfare in northern India eventually produced the Mauryan Empire in 322 BCE, whose rulers had adopted a remarkably aggressive policy of imperialism to conquer almost the entire Indian subcontinent. At its height, the empire was inherited by Ashoka Maurya, or Ashoka the Great, who started off as a great warmonger before unexpectedly and suddenly converting to Buddhism and renouncing war and conquest. Ashoka's conversion greatly magnified the influence of Buddhism, and Ashoka commissioned a bunch of monuments across Nepal to commemorate Buddha and his message.
Even after the downfall of the Mauryans and the resumption of warfare in northern India, Nepal was known as a refuge where Buddhist ways and writings could be preserved. It also served as a base from which Buddhist teachings entered Tibet and spread from there.
Disunity and warfare
Nepal remained disunited throughout ancient times and the Middle Ages, likely due to its mountainous landscape making conquest and consolidation difficult. Medieval times brought about seismic changes to Nepal's religious landscape because let's face it, even eastern religions didn't always get along. Hinduism, which had controlled most of India before Buddhism threatened its power, struck back with a vengeance, and the era where Nepal served as a Buddhist home base ended abruptly. Buddhists also started fighting amongst themselves (it wasn't all zen and meditating) over the increasing class divides between elaborate monasteries and everyday monks. Monasteries became more rich and powerful, evolving to the point where they often became small towns.
This collapse into infighting came at just the wrong time. Muslim Turks conquered their way into northern India, establishing the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 and moving on to conquer most of the subcontinent. The various Nepalese kingdoms militarized rapidly for their own survival, but many of them became vassals to Delhi despite never being annexed. This time, the Hindus came to Nepal's rescue by rising against the Delhi Sultanate and bringing about its downfall.
Nepal went back to being split up between various kingdoms, but its culture and traditions still evolved. Nepalese kings usually walked a delicate balance between the two major religions in Nepal, making ostentatious shows of monetary support to both Hindu and Buddhist monasteries and temples. By appealing to the peoples' faith, the kings could easily keep them compliant. Nepal's kingdoms remained isolated even as the outside world underwent massive change. Nepal's Buddhist friends to the north, Tibet, were conquered by the decidedly less friendly Qing dynasty. Meanwhile, most of the rest of India came under the rule of the Muslim-ruled Mughal Empire.
Perhaps most important was the growth of British power in India, which occurred as the Mughal Empire began fading away. By 1764 the British East India Company, officially a private trading corporation but fielding its own army, had forced the Mughals to turn over big chunks of northern India at gunpoint. That put them right within striking distance of Nepal.
The Gorkha state, which had begun as a modest holding in the mountains, used its army skills and weapons bought from the British to militarily unify Nepal in 1768 under the rule of Prithvi Narayan Shah. The Gorkha state's expansionism brought it into conflict with Tibet over their mountain border, leading them into war with the Qing dynasty. Although vastly outnumbered, the Nepalis punched far above their weight class, and they ended the war with a stalemate and a minor diplomatic victory.
This ended Nepal's period of military expansion northward, so they turned southward for new conquests. This brought them into conflict with a power that had proven just a little bit better at imperialism than the Gorkha: the British Empire. At the war's outbreak in 1814, the Gorkha was again pitted against an enemy they had no business surviving, let alone winning against. But for a second time, Nepal outperformed expectations and kicked ass until the British were forced to redeploy imperial forces to the front and take the war seriously. Even in defeat, Nepal maintained its political and diplomatic independence, only being forced to give up on its imperialist ambitions and host a British ambassador.
That war left a lasting impression on the British, who had come away with the accurate image that Nepal was filled with crazy badass mountain men. The British called these men the "Gurkhas" and were keen to hire Gurkha troops in many of their wars. Beginning with the 1857 uprising against British rule in India, the Gurkhas fought alongside the British and developed strong ties with them.
As a country, though, the newly-formed Nepali kingdom started out as more of a distant military dictatorship than a centralized state. To keep people placated, the Shah kings appointed military commanders to act as regional administrators, and they otherwise left people to their own devices. Nepal also put great energy into keeping the army happy, mostly by paying them well and handing out agricultural land grants. Emphasis on land grants and the rising power of local landlords rather than the central government meant that Nepal soon evolved into an aristocratic government where different landholder families would duke it out for government influence. Welcome to feudalism.
The Shah kings kept their close friends, the Thapa family, in charge of the government, but the Thapas soon proved insufficiently friendly to British economic interests. The British stepped in during the 1830s to help empower the Kunwar family, who then used a string of assassinations and imprisonments to sweep the Thapas out of power and sweep themselves into it. The Kunwars soon proved to be exceptionally ruthless in pursuing power. In 1846, they organized the Kot Massacre in the royal court, killing hundreds of people, wiping out many rival families, and killing off a big chunk of the Shah dynasty itself. Goddamn.
Rule of the Ranas
Family head Jung Bahadur changed the Kunwar family's name to the more prestigious-sounding Rana and then centralized power around himself as prime minister. The Shah kings became less than figureheads, requiring written permission from the Ranas to so much as leave their palaces. Jung Bahadur became a close ally of the British, having decided that adopting British ways and British friendship would be the best way to maintain Nepal's political independence. Using European legal principles, Jung Bahadur had Nepal's legal codes standardized around the country for the first time ever. He also provided military aid to the British and allowed them to recruit Gurkha troops. As a reward, the British handed Nepal big chunks of territory and made it their official policy to keep the Rana dynasty in charge.
After Jang Bahadur's death, the Ranas had to fight off a bunch of assassination and coup plots. They were keenly aware that their family power was legally unfounded, so they became masters at aristocratic knife-fighting and rooting out dissent. They also came to rely heavily on goodwill from the military, which soon became the primary means of social mobility in Nepal.
During World War I, the Ranas sent about 200,000 Gurkha warriors to fight for the British. Many of them became feared and decorated soldiers for their brave actions. About 20,000 of them died. Gurkhas served throughout the war, most notably on the Western Front, Iraq, and the Gallipolli Campaign.
The British showed their gratitude in 1923, signing a "Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship" to confirm Nepal's status as an independent state and valued ally of the British Empire. All of this benefited the Ranas, who got to send restless young men to die for the British. Using British conflicts as a pressure valve ensured that troublesome people would have something else to focus on and somewhere else to go.
Rising political tensions
The Ranas had been strict about preventing political activity, but many Nepali citizens had been exposed to foreign ideas while serving overseas in the Great War. Political parties began forming, such as the pro-democratic Praja Parishad, but the Ranas infiltrated them and had leaders arrested. Nepalis were also influenced by the Indian National Congress, which had become an increasingly powerful political force calling for Indian self-determination and an end to British colonial rule.
The Ranas once again helped out the British in World War II, sending 250,280 Gurkha warriors to serve in just about every theatre of the war. After the war, though, the Rana family's political position became even more precarious. Close neighbor China went up in a full-on communist revolution led by Mao Zedong. At the same time, their British sponsors were pulling out of India. With the Rana family's hold on power loosening, pro-democracy forces put together a new political party: Nepali National Congress. The party was dedicated to ending the Rana dictatorship and establishing social democracy to benefit impoverished Nepalis.
Return of the kings
In 1950, a ripe time for a change, Nepali King Tribhuvan Shah pretended to go on a hunting expedition before suddenly changing course and seeking asylum in the Indian embassy like a boss. In 1951, he came back and teamed up with the Nepali National Congress to force the ouster of the Ranas and establish a constitutional monarchy.
Unfortunately, there wasn't to be a happy ending. Tribhuvan died and was succeeded by his son Mahendra. In 1961, Mahendra scrapped any semblance of democracy and declared all political parties illegal, and had their leaders arrested. Instead, Nepal would be ruled by administrators personally chosen by the king, in a system he called the Panchayat, or "National Guidance." With India at war with Pakistan and thus preoccupied, the Nepali National Congress had no real international allies.
Nepal remained a royal dictatorship for decades without any hope of successful opposition. While the monarchy did modernize Nepal somewhat, it also curtailed civil liberties and imposed heavy censorship to ensure its hold on power. Amid growing unrest, King Birendra, who took the throne in 1972, finally agreed in 1991 to institute a parliament and hold elections. However, these reforms were mostly superficial, and the king's power remained largely unchecked. Once the people realized that they had been conned, things started to go bad again.
“”Torture and murders committed by the army, police and Maoist rebels left 17,000 people dead or missing... Deaths and disappearances of civilians, as well as rape, torture and abductions, became commonplace.
|—Lucas Font and Julia Fernández Cadenas, Lacuna Magazine.|
While the monarchy was stomping out dissent, a quiet opposition movement arose in Nepal. Many Nepalese who were unhappy with the monarchy's authoritarianism turned to a new direction that they viewed as the best way to overthrow the monarchy: Maoism. Forming in 1994, the Communist Party of Nepal largely managed to slide under the government's notice until it felt that it was ready to launch a full-on assault against the monarchy. In 1996, the Maoists began their insurgency in the mountains. At first, the government sent out Nepali police to deal with the crisis, but it soon became clear that cops weren't gonna cut it.
The government also banned any anti-monarchy statements and created an effective police state to crush any dissent, no matter how small. Rather than seeking total societal transformation, the Maoists only demanded that the government hold elections and end the monarchy. The monarchy, naturally, refused to consider this.
While the government maintained tight control of most of Nepal's cities, the Maoists were able to operate with impunity in the rural countryside. Much of that was due to significant rural support for the Maoist rebels, as the Maoists could provide government services to parts of the country that had long been neglected by the monarchy.
Romeo and Juliet destroy the monarchy
So, that was the status going into the year 2001. The war was in deadlock, and both sides were unwilling to talk. Luckily for those who wanted peace, but unluckily for the royal family, something huge would get events moving again.
In 2001, the heir apparent to the throne was Crown Prince Dipendra "Dippy" Shah, who had been educated in the West and had apparently developed a taste for alcohol. While studying in England, Dippy fell madly in love with a young hottie named Devyani Rana. Notice her last name? Yes, the family that had feuded with and even murdered many of the Shahs now had its prized daughter hook up with the heir of the Shah dynasty. Naturally, the Shah family wasn't down with this since Dippy was banging the old enemy, but he was also supposed to be engaged to a rich heiress with political connections. And, since he wasn't content with even that level of assholery, on top of all that, he was ridiculously abusive towards Devyani. King Birendra threatened to disown Dippy's ass and cut him out of the inheritance if he didn't dump poor Devyani. Yeah, Shakespeare has nothing on real life.
Long story short, Dippy Shah got (or pretended to get) super drunk one night, gathered up his favorite guns, and busted into the royal palace to go Scarface on his whole family. Dippy then shot himself and died in a hospital three days later, having briefly been declared king. Among those killed included Dippy's father, King Birendra, his mother, Queen Aishwarya, his younger brother Prince Nirajan, his younger sister Princess Shruti, and his aunts and uncles. His otherwise even more apeshit crazy cousin Paras, in one of the only good acts of his life, kept it from being even worse by pulling a couch over himself and three others.
End of the war
Dippy's uncle Gyanendra then took the throne, and people promptly rioted in the streets due to a popular conspiracy theory stating that he had orchestrated the Shah massacre. Apart from being a suspected killer, Gyanendra also proved to be exactly the wrong man at the wrong time. While Dipendra had been convinced of the need for a constitutional monarchy and genuine elections, Gyanendra used his power to scuttle peace talks and assume total control over Nepal to crush the Maoists. The new king had countless people jailed and tortured, which thoroughly alienated whatever international support the Nepali monarchy had.
Amid constant protests and escalating violence, Gyanendra finally caved and reinstated Nepal's parliament in 2006, which began the peace process and opened the way for a cease-fire. The parliament promptly voted unanimously to strip the king of his authority.
With the Maoists becoming a legal mainstream party and gaining the largest portion of seats in 2008, parliament voted to abolish the monarchy amid much celebration.
Nepal is now a federal republic. Promulgated in 2015, Nepal's new constitution completed the country's transition to a republican parliamentary system and theoretically protected basic rights.
Sadly, like most post-war societies, Nepal still struggles with the task of re-establishing political stability. Although the Maoists are now a legitimate political party, they still have a vast weapons stockpile. They often use terrorist tactics to show their power and punish individuals or corporations that fail to comply with the Nepali government.
Nepal's parliament has also been notoriously unstable. Nepal shuffles through governments at roughly one per year, as the legacies of war make political infighting both inevitable and unstoppable. The peace commission, tasked with investigating war crimes, murders, and rapes committed during the war, suffers from a lack of funding or direction.
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