The Prospects of Democracy in Nepal

Essay, 2008

19 Pages, Grade: good




1. Geographical, Socio- cultural and Historical Background
1.1. Historical Background
1.2. The Socio- cultural Setting

2. Restoration and Failure of Democracy
2.1. Party System, Factionalism and Personal Rivalry
2.2. The Role of the Monarchy
2.3. The Maoist Insurgency

3. The Third Experiment

Conclusion- The Prospects of Democracy in Nepal


South Asia is widely considered to be one of the most volatile regions in the world. In the roughly 60 years since the end of the colonial era the region has witnessed almost all possible types of internal and external conflicts- from wars between states to military takeovers, ethnic insurgencies and social uprisings. While every country was affected, the distinct geographical and cultural features of South Asia contributed to a dangerous interrelatedness of these conflicts. The situation has become even more threatening after both India and Pakistan successfully tested nuclear weapons in 1998.

However, the year 2008 has seen some remarkable developments in South Asia that give reason to look at least cautiously optimistic into the future. In Pakistan, elections marked the return to civilian rule, Bhutan experienced its first elections ever, and in Nepal a Constituent Assembly was elected that shortly afterwards abolished the world’s last Hindu monarchy by declaring the country a federal and secular republic. Furthermore, the caretaker government in Bangladesh has announced its plans to hold elections at the end of the year.

Nonetheless, history indicates that a reversal of these developments cannot be ruled out. It is therefore necessary to evaluate the prospects of democratisation in the light of past events. This paper attempts to assess the chances of a successful democratisation process in Nepal on the basis of an analysis of the factors responsible for the failure of democracy in the past.

1. Geographical, Socio- cultural and Historical Background

In our fast- changing world it is increasingly difficult to keep track of what is currently happening, let alone of linking the present with the past. Although interdisciplinarity has become the new mantra, at least in the social sciences, the extent to which the factors shaping human development are interlinked and interdependent nevertheless remains far too often underestimated.

Few, if any, regions in the world are geographically as distinct as South Asia; a fact that is reflected in the term “subcontinent” that has exclusively been applied to South Asia. Hardly anyone would disagree with the assertion that this geographical uniqueness has greatly contributed to social, cultural and historical distinctiveness as well. The most obvious geographical feature of present- day Nepal is that it is a land- locked country. This has far- reaching consequences since, especially in an era of global commerce and trading, a country without access to the sea somehow has to come to terms with its neighbours. On the surface one could assume this shouldn’t be too difficult for a country that has common borders with only two neighbours if it weren’t for the fact that, in the case of Nepal, both of these neighbours are vastly superior in size, resources, manpower and just about every category one could possibly think of.

Historically, Nepal’s location on the northern fringes of the Indian subcontinent has made it a border region between India and China, a crossroad of Asia’s two great civilisations. The Great Himalayas form the natural boundary of the Indian subcontinent and since most of Nepal lies south of it, Indian culture became dominant. Nepal’s geographical location has resulted in three interrelated processes that shaped its historical and political developments.[1] The first process encompasses the in- migration of two distinct groups of peoples: Indo- Aryans and Tibeto- Burmans. While the former arrived from the South and West the latter migrated from the East and, to a lesser extent, the North. The second process can be described as one of a creeping hinduisation: similarly to India the priestly caste of the Brahmins established their control over the society in Nepal’s western region where the Indo- Aryans had predominantly settled. With the gradual Indo- Aryan expansion towards the East the Hindu caste system became the dominant social order in much of what is now Nepal. The third process is the consolidation of Nepal into a single political entity ruled from the Kathmandu Valley.[2]

The processes of in- migration and hinduisation shall be further discussed in chapter 1.2 dealing with the socio- cultural background. The third process can be seen as the birth of modern- day Nepal and shall be the starting point of a brief discussion of Nepal’s history.

1.1. Historical Background

Territorial and political consolidation in Nepal dates back to the middle of the 18th century when King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha became unhappy with the tiny principality he ruled over and suddenly started expanding the domain of his power. Gorkha had been one of about 70 small kingdoms and chiefdoms that covered the valleys, hills and mountains of what would become Nepal. However, Gorkha possessed the most modern army among these principalities and furthermore had developed the most comprehensive social and legal code in the region. These advantages proved to be decisive and by 1769 the Gorkhas had succeeded in establishing their control over the Kathmandu Valley.[3]

The successful creation of a unified kingdom brought with it two major consequences. The first of these comprised what probably happens to all victorious conquerors: they simply cannot get enough. The second consequence was that the new state had to be secured externally, and Nepal’s geographical position led the Gorkha rulers to conclude that in order to preserve national independence attack would be their best defence. Thus, they declared war on Tibet in 1791 with the intention to turn it into a vassal state, and even challenged the British East India Company in an even more ill- conceived military adventure in 1814.[4]

Both attempts failed as the Tibetans called on China for help and the resources of British India were simply no match for the bravely fighting but hopelessly inferior Gorkhans. However, while the encounter with Tibet and China did not have any serious consequences for Nepal the peace treaty dictated by the British resulted in the loss of Sikkim in the east and other territories in both the west and south reducing the kingdom to approximately its present- day borders.[5] (Nepal regained some territory from the British as a return for its assistance during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.)

Somewhat parallel to these events the ruling dynasty of the Shahs gradually lost its grip on the society of the state they had just created; a process that accelerated after the death of King Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1775. Eventually, the Shah dynasty was displaced by the Rana family in 1846, a development with, as it turned out, rather unfortunate consequences for Nepal and its people. The Ranas established a ruthless and tyrannical regime and ruled Nepal until 1951 when a popular movement succeeded in removing them from power. However, the ability of the Ranas to provide stability in Nepal, albeit with brutal means, can be seen as a reason why Nepal managed to escape British colonialism.[6]

The Ranas did not abolish monarchy, but limited the royal family to a few ceremonial functions. However, in 1951 the then- King Tribhuvan formed an alliance with the popular movement against Rana rule spearheaded by the newly created Nepali Congress and proclaimed a constitutional monarchy. The period of experimentation with democracy that followed already witnessed the same problematic characteristics that would haunt Nepal later on in the century, namely factionalism and personal rivalry among the leaders of the Nepali Congress, political instability and deep ideological and social divisions. Nevertheless, Nepal experienced its first elections in 1959 which were conducted peacefully, with few serious malpractices and saw the Nepali Congress emerge with an overwhelming majority. Thus, the opportunity was there to form a stable government.[7]

However, these elections were held under a new constitution that had been drawn up by King Mahendra who had succeeded to the throne in 1955. This constitution reflected the tradition towards absolute rule inherited from the Rana era as it granted the King substantial authority including the right to dismiss the prime minister, dissolve parliament and acquire executive powers for himself under emergency provisions. Unfortunately, the King took little time to use these powers. Unsatisfied with the government’s handling of public unrest, particularly in the Gorkha district, the homeland of the King’s Shah Family, Mahendra in December 1960 disbanded both government and parliament and had the prime minister as well as his ministers and most political leaders arrested.[8]

What followed was an almost 30- year period of the so- called Panchayat system that had been created under a new constitution promulgated by the King in 1962. This system, called by the King somewhat euphemistically “guided democracy”, consisted of elected assemblies at four different levels. The local communities elected the members of their respective village assemblies, the village assemblies elected their representatives in the district assemblies from where delegates where sent to zonal panchayats which eventually selected the members of the national assembly. However,

“opposition to his system was declared illegal. Political parties were outlawed and dissenting voices were silenced. The media were censored and a conformist press was financially subsidised. Yet the Panchayat System was not repressive in the manner of bloody and violent dictatorships. There were widespread infringements of civil liberties and abuses of human rights were carried out by the army and the police.”[9]

The Panchayat system lasted until 1990 when a popular mass movement succeeded in restoring constitutional monarchy. Nepal’s second democratic experiment between 1990 and 2005 will be discussed in chapter 2.

1.2. The Socio- Cultural Setting

Nepal’s population which, according to a 2001 census totals about 2,3 crore people, is as diverse as its terrain. As has been mentioned before, this fact can largely be attributed to Nepal’s geographical position that invited migrants from almost every direction. Nepal’s population speaks around 100 native languages and practices more than half a dozen religions. According to Mahendra Lawoti, “the cleavages in Nepal are based on ethnicity/ caste, language, racial/ physical differences, religion, region, gender, indigenousness, negative historical memories, norms against inter- group marriages and class”- almost every category humans have ever invented to exclude others finds application in Nepal.[10]

The better accessibility of Nepal from the South and West led to a gradual process of Hinduisation with the result that in 2001 more than 80% of Nepalis considered themselves to be Hindus. Interestingly, this percentage has declined from almost 90% in 1981. It is a peculiar feature of predominantly Hindu societies that even those following another religion can hardly escape the social rigidity of the caste system as upper- caste Hindus tend to categorise people anyway according to their profession or any other of the distinct group aspects mentioned above.

It would go beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the multitude of conflicts arising out of this diversity in detail. Generally it can be said that the descendants of the various groups of Indo- Aryan migrants are in a better position than their Tibeto- Burman neighbours and that the “monopoly of the state and societal resources by the hill Indo- Aryan group” is the root cause of most conflicts.[11]

Due to their importance for contemporary developments in Nepal two conflict categories nevertheless deserve more attention: region and class. The term “Madhesi” refers to the inhabitants of the Terai region in south- western Nepal. The Madhesi are by no means a homogenous group; what they do have in common however is that they feel neglected by the Parbate who live in the hills of the central and eastern regions and dominate the state. Both the Madhesi and the Parbate belong to the Indo- Aryan group- the scope of conflict is indeed enormous in Nepal.[12]

The impact of class as a conflict category is reflected by the Maoist insurgency that swept through Nepal between 1996 and 2006. While in neighbouring India the caste- class relationship has at least partially been rewritten due to excessive reservation policies the same cannot be said of Nepal where those belonging to groups in the lower social ranks are also the ones most affected by poverty. Among the most disadvantaged groups in Nepal are Dalits and Muslims. The overall poor state of Nepal’s economy and the significance of the poverty problem is indicated by Nepal’s 149th rank in the United Nation’s Human Development Index in 1994[13], two years before the Maoists declared their “people’s war”; a position from which the country could only improve slightly to 142nd rank in 2007.[14]


[1] Brown 1996, p.1

[2] Brown 1996, p.2

[3] Rose and Fisher 1970, p. 16

[4] Khadka 1986 p. 429

[5] Rose and Fisher 1970, p. 17

[6] Rose and Fisher 1970, p. 20

[7] Rose and Fisher 1970, p. 31

[8] Rose 1963, p. 16

[9] Brown 1996, p. 43

[10] Lawoti 2005, p. 87

[11] Lawoti 2005, p. 91

[12] Lawoti 2005, p. 92 and 96

[13] Poudyal 1995, p. 163

[14] United Nations 2008

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The Prospects of Democracy in Nepal
University of Kerala  (Department of Political Science)
Politics of South Asia
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Nepal, Democracy, end of monarchy, Maoist insurgency
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Sebastian Erckel (Author), 2008, The Prospects of Democracy in Nepal, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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