History with Arnout: The Nepalese Civil War (1996-2006)

For my monthly column on history, I interview (international) students from Leiden University on what they consider to be the most important or relatively unknown historical events from their country of origin. Inspired by their stories, I choose one of the suggestions I am given and write a short historical article about it. This month’s edition deals with the Nepalese Civil War (1996-2006).

One of the students I spoke to recently mentioned Nepal’s royal family, and the Maoist revolution that overthrew them. Nepal is a relatively small, landlocked and mountainous country. It is bordered in the south by India, and in the north by China: two large and powerful states whose histories enjoy much attention. We will first take a brief look at Nepali relations with the British, whose support was of vital importance to Nepal and its ruling family, then discuss the revolutions, murders and rebellions that led up to the eventual democratization of the country in 2008.

Nepali Foreign Relations

In the 19th century, India was successfully conquered by the British. This conquest caused major concerns in Nepal, at this point in time led by the Rana family. Fully expecting to be the next victim of British expansionism in the region, Nepal sought to improve diplomatic relations with the British in the hope of being spared the fate of their southern neighbors. The parties managed to come to an agreement that was acceptable to both sides. On the one hand, the British were permitted to recruit soldiers from Nepal for the Gurkha units of the British army in India, a unit that is still famous today, and Nepal was made to accept British guidance in their foreign policy. In return the British allowed Nepal to continue to operate autonomously with regard to domestic affairs, and promised to support the country against domestic as well as foreign enemies. Nepal had successfully managed to remain, at least officially, independent. It also secured the support of the largest empire in the world.

After World War II came the time of decolonization. The British left India in 1947. By doing so, they robbed Nepal, and especially the Rana family, of their main support. The Nepali royal family and the oligarchic Rana family had been at odds for years. A revolution started almost immediately: anti-Rana forces allied with the Nepali King Tribhuvan, who had effectively been exiled by the Rana family and was staying in India. They enjoyed support from the Indian government in New Delhi, and quickly gained the upper hand. An agreement was made: the sovereignty of the royal family was restored, and the revolutionary forces (the Nepali Congress party or NC) who had supported the royal family gained an important position in the administration of Nepal.

The Royal Family in Charge

The goal of the new Nepali government was to introduce a democratic system in Nepal. The country, however, was accustomed to an autocratic system, which did not make the implementation of democracy an easy task. In 1959 Nepal approved its first constitution. The NC won a large majority during the first elections in the country and formed Nepal’s first democratically elected government. This is when problems started. The royal family felt threatened by the NC, and King Mahendra, the successor of King Tribhuvan, dismissed the government in 1960. In 1962, the recently implemented constitution was abolished and a new constitution was created. This new constitution established the royal family as the real source of authority, and forbade political parties. The king managed to gain support from both China and India, and his position seemed safe.

Democratization in Nepal

However, many people in Nepal were unhappy with the new political system. In a referendum held in 1979, it became clear that only 55% of the population supported the system. The royal family, concerned about only enjoying a small majority of the popular support, decided to liberalize the political system in 1980 in an attempt to gain support. King Birendra allowed formerly illegal political parties to function and announced direct elections for the National Assembly, hoping to gain more support by showing his goodwill towards a more democratic system.

However, King Birendra managed to please neither his supporters nor the opposition, and tensions started to rise. By 1990, leftists and centrists had started campaigning for more political reforms. Protests and strikes immobilized the country, and King Birendra appointed an interim government that would lead the country to real democratic elections. These elections were held in May 1991. The NC won a majority of the vote. It is, however, interesting to see that the Communist Party of Nepal also gained a large percentage of the vote. Out of the 205 seats in parliament, 110 went to the NC, and 69 to the CPN.

The Rise of the Maoist Rebels

In the 1990s, Maoist rebels emerged in opposition to the royal family. They gradually grew in strength. In February of 1996, the country entered an official state of civil war, initiated by the leaders of the Maoist United People’s Front. Their goal was to overthrow the royal family, and they claimed to ‘champion the cause of the poor’. The Maoist rebels operated as a guerrilla force and performed raids on security forces, businesses and villages. They started a campaign of terror in which they killed, tortured, kidnapped and extorted those they saw as their enemies. The security forces who were sent to combat the Maoist rebels used harsh measures against the rebels, but also targeted the Nepali population. By doing so, they created a larger pool for the rebels to recruit new troops from. At least 13.000 people died in the violence.

The Massacre of the Royal Family

The massacre of the royal family is one of the most intriguing parts of this period in Nepali history. The student who told me about this subject, mentioned that there are many rumors and conspiracy theories about this episode in the history of Nepal, and understandably so.

On June 1st of 2001, members of the royal family had gathered at the Royal Palace. According to the official report, an incident occurred with Crown Prince Dipendra. He had misbehaved and was told by King Birendra to leave. Shortly after, Dipendra returned to the gathering armed with several weapons. He started shooting at his family members, killing a total of ten of them. Among the victims of the massacre were King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya. Dipendra himself was found in the palace gardens. Supposedly he had shot himself in the back six times.

This official report was criticized heavily both in the country and abroad. Many theories circulated concerning what had really happened in the Royal Palace. Some say the CIA or the Indian intelligence agency, the RAW, were responsible. Others claim that Prince Gyanendra played a part in the massacre. He assumed the throne for himself after both the king and the crown prince had died.

King Gyanendra and the End of the Conflict

In the 2000s, the conflict intensified. In February of 2005, King Gyanendra decided that the government was not capable of restoring order, and assumed complete control of the government. Nationwide protests for democracy erupted and the position of the Nepali royal family could not be maintained. In April of 2006, the Maoist insurgents and the government of Nepal signed a peace accord mediated by the United Nations. Elections followed shortly, and in December of 2007 it was officially decided that the monarchy would be abolished. In May of 2008, Nepal officially became a democratic republic.

Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie