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Nepal - History

The Kathmandu Valley has been Nepal's political, economic, and cultural center. The valley's fertile soil supported thriving village farming communities, and its location along trans-Himalayan trade routes allowed merchants and rulers alike to profit. Since the fourth century, the people of the Kathmandu Valley have developed a unique variant of South Asian civilization based on Buddhism and Hinduism but influenced as well by the cultures of local Newar citizens and neighboring Tibetans. One of the major themes in the history of Nepal has been the transmission of influences from both the north and the south into an original culture. During its entire history, Nepal has been able to continue this process while remaining independent. The long-term trend in Nepal has been the gradual development of multiple centers of power and civilization and their progressive incorporation into a varied but eventually united nation.

The Licchavi (fourth to eighth centuries) and Malla (twelfth to eighteenth centuries) kings may have claimed that they were overlords of the area that is present-day Nepal, but rarely did their effective influence extend far beyond the Kathmandu Valley. By the sixteenth century, there were dozens of kingdoms in the smaller valleys and hills throughout the Himalayan region. It was the destiny of Gorkha, one of these small kingdoms, to conquer its neighbors and finally unite the entire nation in the late eighteenth century. The energy generated from this union drove the armies of Nepal to conquer territories far to the west and to the east, as well as to challenge the Chinese in Tibet and the British in India. Wars with these huge empires checked Nepalese ambitions, however, and fixed the boundaries of the mountain kingdom.

Modern Nepal was created in the latter half of the 18th century when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of the small principality of Gorkha, formed a unified country from a number of independent hill states. The country was frequently called the Gorkha Kingdom, the source of the term "Gurkha" used for Nepali soldiers. After 1800, the heirs of Prithvi Narayan Shah proved unable to maintain firm political control over Nepal. A period of internal turmoil followed, heightened by Nepal's defeat by the British in a war from 1814 to 1816.

Nepal took a fateful turn in the mid-nineteenth century when its prime ministers, theoretically administrators in service to the king, usurped complete control of the government and reduced the kings to puppets. Stability was restored after 1846 when the Rana family gained power, entrenched itself through hereditary prime ministers, and reduced the monarch to a figurehead. By the 1850s, a dynasty of the Rana prime ministers had imposed upon the country a dictatorship that would last about 100 years. The Ranas distrusted both their own people and foreignersin short, anyone who could challenge their own power and change their position. The Rana regime, a highly centralized autocracy, pursued a policy of isolating Nepal from external influences. This policy helped Nepal maintain its national independence during the colonial era, but also impeded the country's economic development.

Nepal remained a medieval nation, based on the exploitation of peasants and some trade revenues and dominated by a tradition-bound aristocracy that had little interest in modern science or technology.

In 1950, King Tribhuvan, a direct descendant of Prithvi Narayan Shah, fled his "palace prison" to newly independent India, touching off an armed revolt against the Rana administration. This allowed the return of the Shah family to power and, eventually, the appointment of a non-Rana prime minister.

After the revolt against the Ranas in 1950, Nepal struggled to overcome its long legacy of underdevelopment and to incorporate its varied population into a single nation. One of the early casualties of this process was party-based democracy. Although political parties were crucial in the revolution that overthrew Rana rule, their constant wrangling conflicted with the monarchy's views of its own dignity and with the interests of the army.

A period of quasi-constitutional rule followed, during which the monarch, assisted by the leaders of fledgling political parties, governed the country. During the 1950s, efforts were made to frame a constitution for Nepal that would establish a representative form of government, based on the British model.

In early 1959, King Mahendra, who had succeeded his father Tribhuvan in 1955, issued a new constitution and the first democratic elections for a national assembly were held. The Nepali Congress Party, a moderate socialist group, gained a substantial victory in the election. Its leader, B.P. Koirala, formed a government and served as Prime Minister. Instead of condoning or encouraging a multiparty democracy, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev launched a coup in late 1960 against Bishweshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala's popularly elected government and set up a system of indirect elections that created a consultative democracy. The system served as a sounding board for public opinion and as a tool for economic development without exercising effective political power.

Declaring parliamentary democracy a failure 18 months later, King Mahendra dismissed the Koirala government and promulgated a new constitution on December 16, 1962. The new constitution established a "partyless" system of panchayats (councils), which King Mahendra claimed was a democratic form of government closer to Nepalese traditions. As a hierarchical structure progressing from village assemblies to a Rastriya Panchayat (National Parliament), the Panchayat system enshrined the absolute power of the monarchy and kept the King as head of state with sole authority over all governmental institutions, including the Cabinet (Council of Ministers) and the Parliament.

King Mahendra was succeeded by his 27-year-old son, King Birendra, in 1972. Amid student demonstrations and anti-regime activities in 1979, King Birendra called for a national referendum to decide the nature of Nepal's government--either the continuation of the Panchayat system with democratic reforms or the establishment of a multiparty system. The referendum was held in May 1980, and the Panchayat system won a narrow victory. The King carried out the promised reforms, including selection of the prime minister by the Rastriya Panchayat.

Nepal remained until 1990 one of the few nations in the world where the king, wielding absolute authority and embodying sacred tradition, attempted to lead his country towards the twenty-first century.

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