Revolution on the Roof the World

After a brief fourteen-minute speech on June 12, Nepal’s last King of the 239 year Shah dynasty, Gyanendra, departed from the side entrance of the Narayanhiti Palace to live out his days in the former summer home of his ancestors. "I have done all I can to cooperate with the government’s directives," he said as the reporters and onlookers scuffled with each other to get a good shot of his momentous occasion. "The monarchy in Nepal has always been with the people of Nepal in good times and bad times." At least in his departure the universally despised Gyanendra offered some humility, although the monarchy was generally the architect of the bad times while its members and their A-Class Rana bureaucrats enjoyed the good times.

Not often do a people get the opportunity to elect to be a republic, to vote out their King. The tremor runs down the Himalayas. On March 24, in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, the monarchy hastily conducted what these days passes for an election (two virtually identical parties campaigned on King Jigme’s slogan, to increase the "Gross National Happiness").

The Nepali monarchy entered the 20th century embarrassed by the poverty and illiteracy of its subjects. Ruled since 1743, the Nepali people had been largely protected from the advances of modernity by a state geared toward the King’s family and his coterie of Ranas, the governing class. In the 1930s, one of the Ranas held that the State should promote "a gradual rise in the prosperity of the people with the help of the government grants and subsidies," but that such advances should not be "subversive of our autocratic authority." They didn’t do much, but nonetheless started a process. When the first multiparty democracy, still under the monarchy, governed Nepal from 1951 to 1960, there were only 2000 students in primary school and the literacy rate hovered around an embarrassing 5%. By 1990, when the next bout of democracy movements, the Jan Andolan or People’s Revolt, took off, there were half a million children in primary school with the literacy rate at 40%. A general history of Nepal points out, "The greatest problem of the Nepalese education system was the fact that it was breeding aspirations which Nepalese society could not match." The Jan Andolan was, therefore, as much a demand by a burgeoning middle class for bourgeois freedoms as it was a cry from the countryside for reduced burdens from the monarch’s accumulation machine.

The Jan Andolan succeeded in re-creating the multiparty democracy on a relatively firm foundation. The Congress and the Communists each took turns to govern the country, still under the formal control of the King (who ran the army and controlled much wealth). The Congress government went ahead with IMF-type reforms against the very state institutions that created its own base. In 1991, between 7 and 9 million of the 19 million Nepalis could not cover their minimum daily caloric requirement. The austerity established by the Congress, and the lack of attention to this cataclysm by the main political parties (including the Communists) opened the door for the Maoist insurgency from 1996 onwards. Gyanendra, who became king in 2001 after a suspicious palace massacre of the royal family, tried to put history in reverse. His attempt was doomed to failure. The United States Congress delivered $12 million to the Royal Nepal Army in 2002, and sent US troops to train with the monarchists the following year. India as well provided aid and weapons to Gyanendra’s increasingly unmotivated legions. The Maoists, meanwhile, marshaled their forces to whittle away at the morale of the Royal Nepal Army (almost 13,000 people died in the decade long civil war).

By the time Gyanendra declared martial law in 2005, the Maoists had come to control the countryside outside Kathmandu. The "war" itself was at a stalemate. The Maoists began a process to de-escalate from their people’s war, make an alliance with the seven now banned parties and seek a political solution. It was in this new struggle, in the context of Gyanendra foolishly removing the velvet glove around the monarchy’s iron fist, that the people rallied behind the Maoists and the seven parties against the monarchy. Gyanendra’s end came by his own hand on February 1, 2005 when he tried a military solution against the Maoists. The stalemate could not be shifted and the monarchy tumbled.

One crucial piece of this conflict is that the Indian government could not act on the monarch’s behalf. With the US distracted in Iraq, it was up to the Indian government of Manmohan Singh to lead the forces of Order. But Singh’s government is reliant upon India’s communist parties for its parliamentary majority. The Communists pressured Singh not to act on behalf of the King, to freeze military aid and to stop allowing the Indian Army to cross the border and involve itself in the conflict (as it did on 28 February 2005). Imagine if the Colombian regime of Uribe no longer had the United States funding and supplying its army, as well as offering Special Forces assistance to combat the FARC, and imagine if the FARC could make an alliance with the progressive parties in Colombia and imagine if the FARC would be willing to go through the Patriotic Union days (1986-1990) once more, but this time with strength – that would be a close approximation of what happened in Nepal. The Indian Communists provided some oxygen for the people’s movement against the monarchy and helped from outside to isolate the monarch so that he would have to face his angry people without protection.

The process from April 2006 to May 2008 has been rapid. An agreement led to election that provided the Maoists with a considerable majority. They pressured the other parties to abolish the monarchy as the prerequisite to Nepal’s next stage of history. The Maoists have pledged to remove the "remnants of feudalism" and to create some kind of mechanism to discuss the massive loss of life in the people’s war (a truth commission perhaps). They wish to build a republican, democratic state with an industrial economy – socialism is not to be built in a hurry or by force, but it is to be fought for within the democratic framework agreed upon with the other parties.

The King has left his palace, but some conflicts remain. A tussle is now on between the Congress’ leader, who is the current Prime Minister and head of state, and the Maoists. The latter have resigned from the government and are asking for a new cabinet to be created. With their majority, the Maoists are sure to form the next government, but the old Congress warhorse will not step aside. The 20,000 former People’s Liberation Army twiddle their thumbs as they seek demobilization. Housed in 28 United Nations’ monitored cantonments, these troops will now be retrained into the civilian job market with aid from New Delhi.

The Nepali people have vast aspirations. The Maoists and the seven parties have to chart a way forward for the population, to address these aspirations. If they fail, the King is in his summer house, the US Congress is ready with its money and the Indian Right is available to pressure the Singh government – counter-revolutions are always around the corner.

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