Nepal's recorded history began with the Kiratis, who arrived in the 7th or 8th century BC from the east. Little is known about them, other than their deftness as sheep farmers and fondness for carrying long knives. It was during this period that Buddhism first came to the country; indeed it is claimed that Buddha and his disciple Ananda visited the Kathmandu Valley and stayed for a time in Patan. By 200 AD, Buddhism had waned, and was replaced by Hinduism, brought by the Licchavis, who invaded from northern India and overthrew the last Kirati king. The Hindus also introduced the caste system (which still continues today) and ushered in a classical age of Nepalese art and architecture.
By 879, the Licchavi era had petered out and was succeeded by the Thakuri dynasty. A grim period of instability and invasion often referred to as the 'Dark Ages' followed, but Kathmandu Valley's strategic location ensured the kingdom's survival and growth. Several centuries later, the Thakuri king, Arideva, founded the Malla dynasty, kick-starting another renaissance of Nepali culture. Despite earthquakes, the odd invasion and feuding between the independent city-states of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, the dynasty flourished, reaching its zenith in the 15th century under Yaksha Malla.
The rulers of Ghorkha, the most easterly region, had always coveted the Mallas' wealth. Under the inspired leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Ghorkha launched a campaign to conquer the valley. In 1768 - after 27 years of fighting - they triumphed and moved their capital to Kathmandu. From this new base the kingdom's power expanded, borne by a seemingly unstoppable army, until progress was halted in 1792 by a brief and chastening war with Tibet.
Further hostilities followed in 1814, this time with the British over a territorial dispute. The Nepalese were eventually put to heel and compelled to sign the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, which surrendered Sikkim and most of Terai (some of the land was eventually restored in return for Nepalese help in quelling the Indian Mutiny of 1857), established Nepal's present eastern and western boundaries and, worst of all, installed a British 'resident' in the country.
The Shah dynasty continued in power during the first half of the 19th century until the ghastly Kot Massacre of 1846. Taking advantage of the intrigue and assassinations that had plagued the ruling family, Jung Bahadur seized control by butchering several hundred of the most important men while they assembled in the Kot courtyard. He took the more prestigious title Rana, proclaimed himself prime minister for life, and later made the office hereditary. For the next century, the Ranas and their offspring luxuriated in huge Kathmandu palaces, while the remainder of the population eked out a living in medieval conditions.
The Rana's antiquated regime came to an end soon after WW II. In 1948, the British withdrew from India and with them went the Ranas' chief support. Around the same time, a host of insurrectional movements, bent on reshaping the country's polity, emerged. Sporadic fighting spilled onto the streets and the Ranas, at the behest of India, reluctantly agreed to negotiations. King Tribhuvan was anointed ruler in 1951 and struck up a government comprised of Ranas and members of the newly formed Nepali Congress Party.
But the compromise was shortlived. After toying with democratic elections - and feeling none too pleased by the result - King Mahendra (Tribhuvan's son and successor) decided that a 'partyless' panchaayat system would be more appropriate for Nepal. The king selected the prime minister and cabinet and appointed a large proportion of the national assembly, which duly rubber-stamped his policies. Power, of course, remained with only one party - the king's.
Cronyism, corruption and the creaming-off of lucrative foreign aid into royal coffers continued until 1989. The Nepalese, fed up with years of hardship and suffering under a crippling trade embargo imposed by the Indians, rose up in popular protest called the Jana Andolan or 'People's Movement'. In the ensuing months, detention, torture and violent clashes left hundreds of people dead. It all proved too much for King Birendra, in power since 1972. He dissolved his cabinet, legalised political parties and invited the opposition to form an interim government. The panchaayat system was finally laid to rest.
The changeover to democracy proceeded in an orderly, if leisurely, fashion, and in May 1991 the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal shared most of the votes.
Since then, Nepal has discovered that establishing a workable democratic system is an enormously difficult task - especially when it is the country's first such system. The situation has been further exacerbated by a wafer-thin economy, massive unemployment, illiteracy and an ethnically and religiously fragmented population that continues to grow at an alarming rate.
The fractured political landscape in Nepal was torn apart in June 2001 with the massacre of most of the royal family - including King Birendra - by Crown Prince Dipendra. Civil strife erupted again in Kathmandu, with a curfew imposed to quell street violence.
Prince Gyanendra, the brother of King Birendra, ascended to the throne, and although three months on, relative calm has replaced the widespread civil unrest that immediately followed the massacre, there is still much political uncertainty.
King Gyanendra is said to be playing a greater behind-the-scenes role than his brother did, and attempting to make the palace more transparent. However, it will be an uphill battle for the new king, who has to deal not only with suspicion around his role in the royal killings and his move to the throne, but with a range of fiscal and political problems.
Chief of these is the Maoist rebellion against the government, which has claimed 1700 lives over the past six years. The first round of peace talks between the rebels and the government took place at the end of August 2001 and a ceasefire was declared - then abruptly ended. Any talk of dÃ©tente is at risk from the government's proposed land reforms and budget decisions, and major political challenges. In early September 2001 a tentative alliance comprising 10 left-wing political parties emerged, along with calls for a united government of representatives from all political directions, including Mao rebels, and changes to the constitution. Hopes of a settlement were again dashed with coordinated Maoist bombings in November 2001.
The 2001 post-monsoon season, bringing with it a new influx of tourists and an unclear political landscape, will be a difficult time for both King Gyanendra and the Nepalese government.
Everything changed in April 2006, when parlimentary democracy was grudgingly restored by the king, following days of mass demonstrations, curfews and the deaths of 16 protestors. The next month the newly restored parliament reduced the king to a figurehead, ending powers the royal Shah lineage had enjoyed for over 200 years.
The removal of the king was the price required to bring the Maoists to the negotiating table and a peace accord was signed later that year, drawing a close to the bloody decade-long insurgency. The pace of political change in Nepal was remarkable. The Maoists achieved a majority in the elections of 10 April 2008 and a month later parliament abolished the monarchy by a margin of 560 votes to four, ending 240 years of royal rule. Former Maoist ‘terrorists’ became cabinet ministers, members of the People’s Liberation Army joined the national army and an interim constitution was drafted to help bind the former guerrillas into the political mainstream. A renewed optimism in the political process was palpable throughout Nepal.
By 2008 a new government was formed, with former guerrilla leaders Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, which means ‘the Fierce’) as prime minister and Dr Baburam Bhattarai as finance minister. Ironically the ‘People’s’ armed struggle was led by two high-caste intellectuals.
There has still been plenty of potential for political instability. Calls for greater representation by groups such as the Madhesi of the Terai (who make up 35% of the population and live in the most productive and industrialised part of country) have resulted in a familiar pattern of economic blockades and political violence, and are only the beginning of many more possible claims. Political violence has continued to simmer in the Terai. The wounds of the People’s War will take a long time to heal. Over 1000 Nepalis remain unaccounted for, victims of political ‘disappearance’ or simple murder and finding justice for these crimes may prove elusive.
Moreover, after 40 years and over US$4 billion in aid (60% of its development budget) Nepal has remained one of the world’s poorest countries, with seven million Nepalis lacking adequate food or basic health and education. Nepal has one of the lowest health spending levels and the third-highest infant mortality rate in the world. The majority of Nepalis have continued stoically with their rural lives but until the government delivers on real social change and economic development in the countryside, the frustrations that fuelled Nepal’s recent political violence will remain unresolved.
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