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The Long, Winding, Tumultuous History of Nepal

Why you should care

Because this tiny rectangle of a nation, sandwiched between India and China, has seen more trouble in the past few decades than most nations ever will, and that’s one hell of a geopolitical place to be.

The contemporary history of Nepal is more chaotic, thrilling and colorful than your average television show. Since 1951, when it (half-heartedly) embraced the idea of a “constitutional monarchy,” the country has, on average, had a new prime minister every nine months, been through mass uprisings backed by ultra left-wing outfits between 1996 and 2006, and witnessed the massacre of its royal family in 2001.

So far, that history hasn’t been well-assembled or told. But journalist Prashant Jha set out to do just that — to write, if not the definitive, then definitely the clearest, account of this geopolitically significant yet oft-forgotten nation of 27 million.

His Battles of the New Republic (now available in print in India and Nepal; forthcoming, Jha says, in the U.S. and U.K. – published by Aleph) is a gripping and exhaustive account of that history. Jha spoke to politicians, diplomats, writers, journalists and Maoist fighters to make sense of the country’s political chaos.

Click on the Why You Should Care box for a helpful timeline on the history of Nepal.

Jha’s book releases at a time when Nepal is waging another battle to give itself a constitution. The country’s Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has split, its politicians are making a second attempt at writing a constitution and the Nepali Congress (NC), one of the country’s oldest political parties, is in power — albeit in a coalition with the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist).

Today, in the absence of a royal family and with two — albeit chaotic and less-than-declarative — general elections under its belt, democracy is now a permanent resident in Nepal. Jha spoke to OZY about why India should stay out of Nepal, and about parsing the complex history of this conflict.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Prashant in striped shirt looking at camera

Source: Rajeev Bhatt

OZY:

What’s the state of democracy in Nepal today? Are people optimistic about the future of the nation?

Prashant Jha:

There was a lot of hope in 2006, when the People’s Movement [the rise of the Maoist party] happened. Many, many young people invested hope in the Maoists, participated in the Maoist war — the Nepalese Civil War. That hope has slowly turned into apathy and cynicism because the political class has not been able to deliver on things that could affect and transform the livelihoods of people.

So what we’re seeing is that thousands of people are leaving Nepal every day to work outside the country. It is a remittance-driven economy, and all the people need, hope and expect from the state is a passport. We have 4 million Nepali workers in Qatar, another 4 million in Saudi Arabia, millions in Malaysia and anywhere between 3 and 6 million workers in India. So that [migration] is a very sorry reflection of what the Nepali citizens think of their state and their political class.

The basic tension in Nepal was: Does sovereignty lie with the people or does it lie with the palace?

OZY:

Tell us about some of the key Nepali political players whom any outsider should know about.

PJ:

The Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” has arguably been the most important political actor in Nepal in the past two decades. He, along with senior leader and ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, led the party during the war, and then [during] the peace process. Both also served as prime ministers. The current PM is Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala, but he is unwell and often faces a challenge from another leader and former PM in the party, Sher Bahadur Deuba. The Communist Party of Nepal (unified Marxist-Leninist) is led by three leaders — and currently, parliamentary party leader K.P. Oli is the most powerful of them.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal

Source: Getty

Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, aka Prachanda

OZY:

So to an outsider, these lines are hard to parse — there are Marxists and Communists and Leninists, all battling one another, yet also coming together to collaborate. One example is Prachanda and Bhattarai, whom you’ve just mentioned: They come from very different strands of Marxism and are very different personalities. How are they working together?

PJ:

Well, had the relationship been just a year or two years old, I would’ve said it’s one of convenience. But we have to remember that they’ve been in the same party for the last 22 years and, for the last 40 years, in the same broad tradition of left politics in Nepal. So there’s a definite ideological glue to the relationship. Both also recognized that they needed each other, both brought different skill sets to the table, and if they split, they both lose out. So in that sense, it is convenient for the both of them to be together. But in the broader sense, there was a definite ideological glue that brought them together.

Excerpt: How did two men — one who had been underground for all of his political life, and had risen up the ranks from a district unit with no family connections or social capital; the other an obscure Marxist academic whose political socialization owed a lot to the country Nepali communists often declare an ‘enemy,’ whose academic training was urban planning; and who had little mass base — wage an almost successful revolution in the twenty-first century?

OZY:

Tell us about the former monarchy. How much control did it — and the royal rulers — have over politics? Much of the sentiment during the conflict was that the king didn’t have enough political acumen, and that’s certainly something your book seems to illustrate.

PJ:

King Gyanendra [the former ruler of Nepal] grew up between 1960 and 1990, when there was royal autocracy. The palace was the final word, and within that, Birendra, his brother, was the king. The people who were influencing and advising him were Birendra’s wife Aishwarya and Gyanendra himself. And they were always seen as hardliners within the palace. They were the ones who wanted to push for greater control and greater autocracy.

The basic tension in Nepal was: Does sovereignty lie with the people or does it lie with the palace? Gyanendra came from the school of thought that it lies with the palace. So what he did — pushing for more control — was very logical from his point of view.

But he was a remarkably stupid man, in retrospect, who opened up multiple fronts [of opposition] at the same time. If you have to exercise power, you have to ensure that you don’t create an opportunity where all your antagonists come together. And that is what he did. Until Feb. 1, 2005, [when Gyanendra assumed all power in a coup], the Maoists and the political parties who were fighting each other came together. The media and civil society, who had earlier been critical of the Maoists, realized that the greater problem had been the king.

OZY:

And what about India? How has the largest democracy in the world involved itself in Nepal’s democratic process? Has it been helpful?

PJ:

India has been tremendously constructive and supportive at times, and destructive at other times. When I say constructive, I refer to the period between 2005 and 2006, when it was in New Delhi that the Maoists and [political] parties came together, and it was with Indian facilitation that the peace process became possible.

But within a few years of enabling political change, India starts having second thoughts and doesn’t stay the course. For example, they thought the Maoists could be the junior partner in the peace process, But they got nothing after the 2008 elections because the Maoists emerged as the single-largest party, and India wasn’t comfortable with that. There are many elements within the Indian establishment who feel uncomfortable with the Maoists because they represent a security threat and want to establish a communist dictatorship.

So for various reasons, India began playing favorites. Maoists became over-adventurous when they fought with the army. When it comes to universal values like freedom of democracy, [India] has played a constructive role, but when India tries to influence government formation and split political parties … those are things that a regional power shouldn’t be doing.

This OZY encore was originally published June 28, 2014.

Cover Image by Marcus Bleasdale/VII

Aayush Soni is a journalist and glutton living in New Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @AayushSoni.

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