Nepal basically had to start from scratch to make a modern nation-state in the 1950s. Instability has arguably been the most constant theme of Nepal’s history since. After the ruling Ranas were ousted in 1951 Nepal has been ruled in succession by: a parliamentary democracy, an absolute monarchy, a neutered democracy with no political parties, a Westminster parliament system, beginning in 1990, and an absolute monarchy again. After the monarchy was abolished in 2008 it has been ruled under a federal parliamentary republic with a president and prime minister.

Following the end of World War II and the end of British rule in India and the South Asian subcontinent in 1947 had great repercussions and generated change in Nepal. Hostility grew against the autocratic despotism of the Ranas, who — as regents — had kept successive monarchs virtual prisoners. A political reform movement began in 1947 with the founding of the Nepali Congress (NC) party.

With Indian support, rebels began taking actions against the Rana government. Ultimately, with the guidance of Indian Prime Minister Nehru, a political compromise was reached that ended a century of hereditary Rana family rule and restored the monarchy. By late 1951 a new government took office, headed by Matrika Prasad Koirala, a founder of the NC.

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia: “The successful Indian movement for independence (1947) stimulated democratic sentiment in Nepal. The newly formed Congress party of Nepal precipitated a revolt in 1950 that forced the autocratic Ranas to share power in a new cabinet. King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram, who sympathized with the democratic movement, took temporary refuge in India and returned (1951) as a constitutional monarch. In 1959 a democratic constitution was promulgated, and parliamentary elections gave the Congress party a clear majority.” [Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Timeline of Major Events After World War II:
1950: Anti-Rana forces based in India form alliance with monarch.
1951: End of Rana rule. Sovereignty of crown restored and anti-Rana rebels in Nepalese Congress Party form government.
1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepal's Sherpa Tenzing Norgay become the first climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
1955: Nepal joins the United Nations.
1955: King Tribhuwan dies, King Mahendra ascends throne.
1959: Multi-party constitution adopted.
1960: King Mahendra seizes control and suspends parliament, constitution and party politics after Nepali Congress Party (NCP) wins elections with B. P. Koirala as premier.
1962: New constitution provides for non-party system of councils known as "panchayat" under which king exercises sole power. First elections to Rastrya Panchayat held in 1963.
1972: King Mahendra dies, succeeded by Birendra. [Source: BBC]

King Tribhuvan

King Tribhuwan Bir Bikram Shah (1906 – 1955) was King of Nepal from 1911 until his death. Born in Kathmandu, he ascended to the throne at the age of five, upon the death of his father, King Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah, and was crowned in 1913, with his mother acting as regent. At the time, however, the position of monarch was mainly titular, with real power in the country residing in the powerful, conservative Rana family, which supplied the country with its hereditary prime minister. [Source: Wikipedia]

In November 1950, as King Tribhuvan and his family left the palace for an outing they were arrested by the Rana government. King Tribhuvan was allowed to go to India and the three-year-old Prince Gyanendra installed for a brief period as a puppet king.

King Tribhuvan joined a people's revolution against the Rana clan while the NNC seized Birgunj. By January 1951 they held all of Terai. In February 1951, Nepal became a constitutional monarchy. An interim government with Rana and NNC members war created. King Tribhuvan returned to Nepal ostensibly to oversee the transition to democracy, which had difficulty developing in Nepal.

King Tribhuvan ruled until his death in 1955 when he was succeeded by his son Mahendra. To celebrate Independence Day a cardboard cutout of King Tribhuvan is paraded through the streets. The airport and main university are named after him.

Growth of Political Parties

The earliest opposition to the Rana regime that departed from the conspiratorial politics of the palace began during the rule of Chandra Shamsher, a conservative who was not interested in modern political participation, even though large numbers of Nepalese soldiers had been exposed to new ideas during and after World War I. Just after the war, Thakur Chandan Singh, a retired army officer, started two weekly newspapers in Kumaon, Tarun Gorkha (Young Gorkha) and Gorkha Samsar (Gorkha World). At the same time, Devi Prasad Sapkota, a former officer in the Foreign Department, founded the weekly Gorkhali in Banaras. These journals were forums where Nepalese exiles could criticize the backwardness and repression of the Rana regime. During the 1930s, a debating society called Nagrik Adhikar Samiti (Citizen's Rights Committee) was founded in Kathmandu to discuss religious issues, but its discussions veered into politics. When one of its meetings featured a political speech denouncing the Rana regime, the government banned the debating society. By 1935 the first Nepalese political party, the Praja Parishad (People's Council), began among Nepalese exiles and set up cells within the country. In Bihar it published a periodical, Janata (The People), advocating a multicaste, democratic government and the overthrow of the Ranas. The Rana police managed to infiltrate the organization and arrested 500 persons in Kathmandu. Four leaders were executed (they were still were commemorated as martyrs in 1991), and others received long prison terms, but the survivors escaped to India to carry on their political agitation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In India the British were having their own problems with an independence movement headed by the Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Under Gandhi's leadership, the Indian National Congress pursued nonviolent campaigns of civil disobedience that mobilized millions, including members of all castes and women, into agitations for reform and the end of foreign rule. Simultaneously, there was a growth in terrorism and police repression that seriously destabilized all of South Asia. Lacking a British promise of independence, the Indian National Congress opposed participation in World War II (1939-45), but even with many of its leaders in jail during the war there was continuing public disorder and police violence. After the war ended, the British realized that their position in South Asia had become untenable, and they prepared to leave. With China in the middle of a communist revolution, their old allies the British preparing to leave India, and thousands of soldiers returning from abroad, the Rana government could no longer avoid making radical changes in Nepal. *

Many of the Nepalese exiles in India had worked closely with the Indian National Congress during its struggles with the British, realizing that only after the elimination of its colonial support would the Rana regime fall. In Banaras in October 1946, a group of middle-class Nepalese exiles formed the All-India Nepali National Congress (Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Rashtriya Congress). Many of its members were students who had agitated and subsequently had been jailed during movements in India. During its council in Calcutta in January 1947, the new organization dropped its "All-India" prefix and merged with two other groups, the Nepali Sangh (Nepalese Society) of Banaras and the Gorkha Congress of Calcutta, which had closer connections with lower-class Ranas. The Nepali National Congress (Nepali Rashtriya Congress) was officially dedicated to the ouster of the Rana dictatorship by peaceful means and to the establishment of democratic socialism. One of its first mass actions was participation in a labor strike in the jute mills of Biratnagar in the Terai, which disrupted traffic at the Indian railhead in Jogbani, and required army intervention. Although this action garnered much publicity for the party and brought thousands of protesters into the streets even in Kathmandu, the strike was suppressed, and its leaders, including Bishweshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala, were imprisoned. *

B.P. Koirala (1914-82) became the leader most closely identified with the Nepali National Congress. His father, a Brahman businessman, spent a good deal of time in Bihar and Bengal. He had become involved with political activists and progressive ideas, especially those of Gandhi, and participated in anti-Rana agitations including the publication of Gorkhali at Banaras. B.P. Koirala thus grew up in an atmosphere oriented toward radical Gandhian action. By 1937 he was studying law in Calcutta and had started working for the Congress Socialist Party. He was arrested in India a number of times and spent 1942 to 1945 in jail after instigating Nepalese soldiers to rebel against the government. His views during his early years, influenced by Gandhi, tended toward radical democratic decentralization and included cottage industries instead of large factories as models for economic development. His wing of the Nepali National Congress stressed nonviolent confrontation and general strikes, but he was not opposed to force should all other paths prove ineffective. He advocated a constitutional monarchy as a transitional political form for Nepal. *

Political Reforms in Nepal After World War II

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “A political reform movement, begun in 1946 with the founding of the Nepali Congress Party on the model of the Indian Congress Party, won the support of King Tribhuvana Bir Bikram Shah, but in a power struggle in 1950, the king was forced to flee from the Ranas to India. With Indian support, insurgents began operations against the Rana government until, with the mediation of Indian Prime Minister Nehru, a political compromise was reached that returned the king to Kathmandu and ended a century of hereditary Rana family rule. By late 1951 a new government took office, headed by Matrika Prasad Koirala, with his brother, a co-founder of the Nepali Congress Party (NC). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The strong-willed, conservative Juddha Shamsher resigned as prime minister in November 1945, passing on his job to Padma Shamsher, who announced that he was a servant of the nation who would liberalize the Rana regime. Padma Shamsher's repression of the Biratnagar strike, however, showed that he was not interested in the kind of political and labor reforms advocated by the Congress. In the aftermath of the repression, on May 16, 1947, he delivered a speech outlining important reforms, including the establishment of an independent judiciary, elections for municipality and district boards, expansion of education, publication of the national budget, and the formation of a special committee to consider plans for further liberalization. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The Nepali National Congress called off its continuing agitations, and B.P. Koirala and other top leaders were released from detention in August. In January 1948, the prime minister announced the first constitution of Nepal, which set up a bicameral Parliament, a separate High Court, and an executive power vested in the prime minister who was to be assisted by a five-member Council of Ministers. Although this constitution reserved almost all powers for the executive branch and kept the same rules of succession as before for both king and prime minister, the Nepali National Congress agreed to function within its framework. Beset by conflicting forces from all sides, however, Padma Shamsher resigned his position in early 1948.*

Struggle to Oust the Ranas

The first significant protests against the Rana clan was a strike at a jute mill on Biratnagar in March 1947 organized by B,P. Koriala, the charismatic leader of the Nepali National Congress (NNC), founded in India in 1946. When India became independent the British stopped their patronage of the Rana clan, who made an stab at reform by opening the country in 1950, establishing a constitution and signing a treaty with India. The NNC scoffed at the efforts and became increasingly stronger.

When the arch-conservative Mohan Shamsher took over as prime minister in 1948, he quickly outlawed the Nepali National Congress and showed no interest in implementing the new constitution that was scheduled to take effect in April. He rejected the more progressive wing among the Rana aristocracy, leading several well-known opponents to found the Nepal Democratic Congress (Nepal Prajatantrik Congress) in Calcutta in August 1948. This group was well funded and publicly advocated the overthrow of the Ranas by any means, including armed insurrection. It tried to foment army coups in January 1949 and January 1950 but failed. When the Rana government arrested B.P. Koirala and other organizers in October 1948 and subjected regime opponents to harsh conditions and even torture in jail, its democratic opponents turned against it again. Even the release of B.P. Koirala in June at the insistence of Indian political leaders did little to help the negative political climate. When Mohan Shamsher convened Parliament in September 1950, supposedly in keeping with the constitution, it was so full of Rana appointees that no one in the opposition took the legislature seriously. The Nepali National Congress absorbed the Nepal Democratic Congress in March 1950 and became the Nepali Congress Party, and it formally decided to wage an armed struggle against the Rana regime. On November 6, King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah, who had long been making anti-Rana statements, escaped from the palace and sought asylum in the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. Armed attacks by 300 members of the Nepali Congress Party's Liberation Army (Mukti Sena) began in the Terai on November 11, initiating revolution in Nepal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Mohan Shamsher found himself in a very unfavorable international climate. The British had left India in 1947, and in their place was a democratic government dominated by the Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru. The government of India had no interest in preserving the autocratic rule of native princes and had forcibly taken over the lands of the few princes who had opposed union with the new India. Furthermore, members of the underground Nepalese opposition had helped their Indian colleagues during the struggle against the British. B.P. Koirala had met with Nehru and with Gandhi as well. Changes to the north added an element of power politics to the situation. The Chinese revolution had ended in 1949 with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, ending 100 years of weakness. Tibet again came under China's control in 1950. India, faced with an expansive military power operating under a radically different political philosophy on its long northern borders, could not afford a destabilized Nepal. Thus, the king was assured of asylum in the Indian embassy, and the Liberation Army of the Nepali Congress Party was able to operate freely from bases along the Indian border with Nepal. *

The revolution consisted of scattered fighting, mostly in the Terai, and growing demonstrations in the towns of the hills. The initial strategy of the insurgents was to capture the rich Terai area, which produced much of the country's grain. Rebels were able to capture several towns there but never were able to hold them against counterattacks by the army. Armed struggles did not develop in the Kathmandu Valley, but demonstrations of up to 50,000 people demanding the return of the king occurred in late November. Meanwhile, insurgents were infiltrating hill areas in the west and the east, where army operations were more difficult. After several weeks of growing demonstrations and dissension in the ranks of local commanders, Palpa fell from government control on January 6, 1951. Rebels took over in Pokhara for a day on January 9-10 and occupied Gorkha for part of January 10. Sporadic fighting in western Nepal led to the fall of many towns in mid-January. By this time, some "C" class Rana officers had resigned their commissions in protest, and troops were beginning to surrender to the rebels. *

Return of the Nepalese Monarchy

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 administrattion. This allowed the return of the Shah family to power and, eventually, the appointment of a non-Rana prime minister. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]

Negotiations between the Indian government and the Ranas had begun on December 24, 1950 in Delhi, finally leading to a proclamation on January 8, 1951 by Mohan Shamsher, who promised restoration of the king, amnesty for all political prisoners, and elections based on adult suffrage no later than 1952. The king formally agreed two days later, and a cease-fire went into effect on January 16. Further negotiations among the Ranas, the king, and the Nepali Congress Party produced an interim ministry headed by Mohan Shamsher with five Ranas and five Nepali Congress Party members. The king returned to Kathmandu, and the new ministry was sworn in during February 1951. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The coalition ministry was a mixture of ultra-conservatives who believed that they were born to rule and radical reformers who had almost no administrative experience. It was able to enact a new interim constitution in March 1951, set up a separate judicial branch, transfer all executive powers back to the king (including supreme command of the armed forces and power to appoint government officials and manage finances), call for a welfare state, set forth a Bill of Rights, and start procedures for the formation of local-level assemblies, or panchayat. The ministry started plans to abolish birta lands used by Ranas to reward their own family members, eliminated bonded labor, and established a women's college and a radio station. The ministry was beset by law and order problems caused by loose bands of Liberation Army fighters who had refused to stop fighting, bands of robbers who were victimizing the Tarai, and ultra-conservative conspiracies that instigated a mob attack on the house of B.P. Koirala, who had become the minister of home affairs in April. The final embarrassment occurred when police fired on a student demonstration and killed a student. The entire bloc of Nepali Congress Party ministers resigned in November, which allowed the king to appoint a new government for the first time since the nineteenth century. The king used the opportunity to exclude for good the conservative Rana power bloc. A royal proclamation on November 16, 1951, established a new government led by Matrika Prasad (M.P.) Koirala, the half-brother of B.P. Koirala, who had run the Nepali Congress Party during the revolutionary struggle. *

“Political life in Nepal in the years since the restoration of the monarchy in 1951 has been dominated by the struggle between the monarchy and the country's political elements to define the terms under which they will co-exist and bring the country into the modern world. Six different cabinets, each lacking popular support and riddled with dissension, held office in rapid succession between 1951 and 1957, and in 1957–58, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, who had succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1955, ruled directly for a period of months. In April 1959, he promulgated a democratic constitution, providing for a constitutional monarchy, two houses of parliament, and a cabinet and prime minister responsible to the lower house, in the Westminster model. Bisweswar Prasad (B. P.) Koirala of the Nepali Congress (NC) assumed office on 24 July 1959 as first prime minister under this constitution.

Poor State of Nepal in the 1950s

Nepal basically had to start from scratch to make a modern nation-state in the 1950s. Nepal faced an enormous task then. When the Ranas fell, only 2 percent of the adult population was literate, the infant mortality rate was more than 60 percent, and average life expectancy was thirty-five years. Less than 1 percent of the population was engaged in modern industrial occupations, and 85 percent of employment and income came from agriculture, mostly performed by tenants using archaic methods and working under uncertain contracts. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

There were only approximately 100 kilometers of railroad tracks and a few kilometers of paved roads in the entire nation. Telephones, electricity, and postal services combined served only 1 percent of the population and only in certain pockets. Nepalese currency circulated only in and around the Kathmandu Valley. Government expenditures went almost entirely for salaries and benefits for army, police, and civil servants, with any savings going to the prime minister. Health and education received less than 1 percent of the government's expenditures. *

The nation still contained autonomous principalities (rajya) based on deals with former local kings, and landlords acted as small dictators on their own lands. Caste, ethnic, and linguistic differences abounded, but only three groups — Chhetris, Brahmans, and some Newars — had any say in the national government. The Terai, the richest area in the nation, had been systematically ignored by the government and exploited for 200 years, and many of its people felt more at home in India than Nepal. National integration was a major problem. *

Political Situation in Nepal After the Ramas

The political situation in Nepal in the 1950s can be seen as a face off between the constitutional monarchy and emerging political parties. On one side stood the king, who controlled the most powerful force in the nation — the army — and found it an increasingly useful tool with which to wield his prestige and constitutional authority. On the other side stood the political parties. First there was the Nepali Congress Party, which claimed to stand for the democratic will of the people. Then there were a multitude of breakaway factions or other small parties representing a wide range of interests. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The Communist Party of Nepal, for example, was established in Calcutta in 1949 but had refused to take part in the armed struggle and condemned it as a "bourgeois" revolution; despite its own difficulties with factional disputes, this party was destined to grow in a country riddled with problems. In the Kathmandu Valley, other leaders who had been locked out of high positions in the first coalition government formed a revitalized Praja Parishad. Opponents of the "antidemocratic" character of the Nepali Congress leadership and their pro-India stance, which they claimed went against the interests of Nepal, broke away to form a revitalized Nepali National Congress. *

In 1951 a united front of the communists and the Praja Parishad formed to oppose the Nepali Congress ministers. The themes of politics in the early 1950 — class, opposition to authoritarian trends within party leadership, and nationalistic propaganda, combined with agitational united front tactics — have remained standard features of party politics in Nepal. As the various political parties slashed at each other and the king maneuvered for greater power, the country began experimenting with a limping democracy. *

King Mahendra

King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (1920-1972) succeeded his father King Tribhuvan in 1955 and ruled Nepal as an absolute monarch from 1960 to 1972. Elections were finally held in February and March 1959. The National Congress Party (NCP), a morphing of the NNC, won with a strong majority and Koirala became prime minister. Nepal’s first attempt at parliamentary government was short lived. Politicians feuded among themselves; there were charges of corruption.

In December 1960, King Mahendra orchestrated a successful coup with the support of the military and dismissed government . He blamed Nepal’s problem on the chaos created by democracy and had the entire cabinet arrested, B.P. Koirala spent the next 20 years either in prison or in exile.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: King Mahendra cited alleged inefficiency and corruption in government as evidence that Nepal was not ready for Western-style democracy. He dissolved parliament, detained many political leaders, and in 1962 inaugurated a system of "basic democracy," based on the elected village council (panchayat) and working up to district and zonal panchayats and an indirectly elected national panchayat (See Below). Political parties were banned, and the king was advised by a council of appointed ministers. King Mahendra carried out a land reform that distributed large holdings to landless families, and he instituted a law removing the legal sanctions for caste discrimination. [Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

King Mahendra gave himself absolute power. He curbed freedoms of speech, assembly and press, and established a rubber-stamp government and parliament, made criticism of the monarchy a criminal offense. King Mahendra is given some credit for opening up Nepal to the outside world. He died in 1972.

Quasi-Constitutional Governments in Nepal in the 1950s

A period of quasi-constitutional rule followed the restoration of the monarchy in 1951 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. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]

From February 1951 to February 1959, there was a succession of short-lived governments ruling under terms of the interim constitution or under the direct command under the command of King Tribhuvan and his successor, Mahendra (r. 1955–72). The kings regularly dismissed uncooperative or poorly functioning ministries and continually postponed elections. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]

The king attempted to fashion an environment favorable for the calling of a constituent assembly that would frame a permanent constitution. As soon as the king found a ministry uncooperative or so beset by contradictions that it could not function, he replaced it with members who had smaller bases of support. At no time during this period did the faction of the Nepali Congress Party headed by B.P. Koirala, which commanded the widest allegiance, have any chance of forming a government because the king continued to postpone elections for an assembly. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Democratic Experiment in Nepal in the 1960s

After substantial popular protests, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, who had succeeded his father Tribhuvan in 1955, proclaimed a democratic constitution providing for a constitutional monarchy, allowing the first national elections on February 1959. The Nepali Congress, a moderate socialist group, won a substantial victory. Its leader, B.P. Koirala, formed a government and served as Prime Minister. But the king dismissed this government 18 months later in December 1960. In April 1962 the king instituted an indirect, nonparty “panchayat” (village council) government — a four-tiered system of representative government with traditional village-level councils at the local level and the National Panchayat at the national level. The system ostensibly was responsive to local needs and input, but local councils had little effective power and often served as sources of patronage for the king, who continued to retain both absolute authority and support from the military. In 1967, the king, under Indian pressure, began gradually liberalizing his government. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook, Gale, 2009]

When King Tribhuvan died, his son Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (reigned 1955-72) carried on as before, experimenting with types of councils or ministries that would do his will behind a democratic façade. Under pressure from large-scale civil disobedience campaigns, the king announced that elections for a representative assembly would take place on February 18, 1959. As political parties of all persuasions were busily preparing for the elections, the king had his own commission draw up a new constitution. He presented it as a gift to the nation on February 12, 1959, with the elections only one week away. In the first national elections in the history of the nation, the Nepali Congress won a clear victory, taking 74 out of 109 seats. B.P. Koirala at last became prime minister. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Under the terms of the new constitution, there were two legislative houses: an Upper House (Maha Sabha) of 36 members, half elected by the lower house and half nominated by the king; and a Lower House (Pratinidhi Sabha) of 109 members, all elected by universal adult suffrage. The leader of the majority party in the Lower House became prime minister and governed with a cabinet of ministers. The king could act without consulting the prime minister, and even could dismiss him. The king also had control over the army and foreign affairs and could invoke emergency powers suspending all or part of the constitution. *

Against this background of formidable royal rights, the Koirala government was able to accomplish some major tasks. It finally abolished birta tenure in October 1959 and the autonomy of principalities (rajya) in the western hills. In 1960 the government revised a crucial Trade and Transit Treaty with India. It also negotiated another agreement with India on the Gandak River Project, guaranteeing territorial jurisdiction and free provision of water to Nepal. Diplomatic relations were established with the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and Pakistan. Koirala himself addressed the United Nations, visited China, and presided over the signing of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China in 1960. In the economic sphere, the First Five-Year Plan (1956-61) had been poorly conceived and executed, but the Koirala government took steps to plan effectively for the Second Plan (1962-65). *

The king initially was on good terms with the Koirala government, even taking the unprecedented step of playing soccer with his brothers at the National Stadium against a team that included the prime minister and his associates. At the same time, he was publicly opposed to democracy in principle and would not tolerate any official interference in the divine powers believed to be conferred on him as king. The army, the former aristocracy, conservative landowning groups, and the king all were uneasy about the reforms of the Koirala government and the negative propaganda of opposition groups inside Parliament, including the Gorkha Parishad and the Communist Party of Nepal. When destabilizing the Nepali Congress ministry proved difficult, the king used the nation's chronic violence — widely believed to be orchestrated by the monarch himself — as a reason to act directly. On December 15, 1960, with the army's support and with little warning, the king used his emergency powers to dismiss the cabinet and arrest its leaders on the charge that they had failed to provide national leadership or maintain law and order. B.P. Koirala spent the next eight years in prison and another eight years in exile. The experiments in liberal socialism and democracy, at least as defined by the Nepali Congress, were at an end. *

Panchayat System under King Mahendra

On December 26, 1961, King Mahendra appointed a council of five ministers to help run the administration. Several weeks later, political parties were declared illegal. At first the Nepali Congress leadership propounded a nonviolent struggle against the new order and formed alliances with several political parties, including the Gorkha Parishad and the United Democratic Party, which had been strong critics of the Nepali Congress when it ran the government. Early in 1961, however, the king had set up a committee of four officials from the Central Secretariat to recommend changes in the constitution that would abolish political parties and substitute a "National Guidance" system based on local panchayat led directly by the king. By late 1961, violent actions organized by the Nepali Congress in exile began along the Indian border, increasing in size and number during early 1962. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The political situation changed completely when war broke out between India and China on October 20, 1962. In a series of rapid movements, Chinese troops occupied mountain areas east and west of Nepal in an attempt to resolve border disputes with India by simply occupying disputed territories. The reversal suffered by Indian forces took the leadership in India by surprise and forced it to reevaluate the strategic situation in the Himalayas. Because India needed strong friends rather than insurrections in the region, it withdrew support from insurgents along the border with Nepal and established closer relations with the king's government. In Nepal, King Mahendra extended the state of emergency indefinitely. The army trained by India during the 1950s proved itself capable of handling guerrilla warfare. In the midst of increasing desertions from his cause, the leader of the Nepali Congress, Subarna Shamsher, called off the armed struggle. *

Adopted on the second anniversary of the royal coup, the new constitution of December 16, 1962, created a four-tier panchayat system. At the local level, there were 4,000 village assemblies (gaun sabha) electing nine members of the village panchayat, who in turn elected a mayor (sabhapati). Each village panchayat sent a member to sit on one of seventy-five district (zilla) panchayat, representing from forty to seventy villages; one-third of the members of these assemblies were chosen by the town panchayat. Members of the district panchayat elected representatives to fourteen zone assemblies (anchal sabha) functioning as electoral colleges for the National Panchayat, or Rashtriya Panchayat, in Kathmandu. In addition, there were class organizations at village, district, and zonal levels for peasants, youth, women, elders, laborers, and ex-soldiers, who elected their own representatives to assemblies. The National Panchayat of about ninety members could not criticize the royal government, debate the principles of partyless democracy, introduce budgetary bills without royal approval, or enact bills without approval of the king. Mahendra was supreme commander of the armed forces, appointed (and had the power to remove) members of the Supreme Court, appointed the Public Service Commission to oversee the civil service, and could change any judicial decision or amend the constitution at any time. To many of the unlettered citizens of the country, the king was a spiritual force as well, representing the god Vishnu upholding dharma on earth. Within a span of ten years, the king had, in effect, reclaimed the unlimited power exercised by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the eighteenth century. *

Elections and Reforms under King Mahendra

The first elections to the National Panchayat took place in March and April 1963. Although political parties officially were banned and the major opposition parties publicly refused to participate, about one-third of the members of the legislative were associated with the Nepali Congress. Support of the king by the army and the government bureaucracy prevented opposition to his rule from developing within the panchayat system. Real power came from the king's secretariat, and in the countryside influence rested in the offices of zonal commissioners and their official staffs or the parallel system of development officers. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The Nepali Congress leadership made increasingly conciliatory statements and began to announce its faith in democratic ideals under the leadership of the king. In 1968 the king began to release political prisoners, including B.P. Koirala, who was freed on October 30. At this point, a three-way split developed in the Nepali Congress. B.P. Koirala went to India, where he headed a wing committed to democratic revolution and violent overthrow of the panchayat system. He was a symbol for youth but powerless politically. Subarna Shamsher's wing continued to advocate local cooperation with the king outside the panchayat system. A third wing tried to work within the panchayat system in the expectation that it would evolve into a democratic system. The disunity of the political opposition left King Mahendra to do as he wished. *

Under the direct leadership of the king, the government implemented some of the major projects that were initiated under the previous democratic regime and oversaw further steps toward the development of the country. Land reforms led to the confiscation of large Rana estates. Rajya reform abolished special privileges of some aristocratic elites in western Nepal. A new legal code promulgated in 1963 replaced the Muluki Ain of 1854. A major land reform program launched in 1964 essentially was a failure. The new panchayat system managed to bring 50,000 to 60,000 people into a single system of representative government in a way that had been rendered impossible for the elite-based political parties. Nepal was able to carry out its second plan (1962-65) and third plan (1965-70), and to begin the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1970-75). Eradication of malaria, construction of the Mahendra Highway, or East-West Highway, along the southern foot of the hills, and land settlement programs contributed to a massive movement of population from the hills into the Terai, resulting in a large increase in the area devoted to agriculture. *

Modern World Come to Nepal

Outsiders were banned from Nepal until 1950. At that time it was estimated that only 10 percent of the population could read. Tourists were banned until 1955. Even then they needed a letter of invitation from the Prime Minister to visit Nepal. The first automobile arrived in Nepal in 1951. At that time there were no roads in the entire country and the vehicle was carried into the country on a litter for the elite — and later carried back again for a trade in.

The first road between Nepal and the outside world (India) was completed in 1952. In 1956 the first road linked Kathmandu to India. Road service to Pakhar was not competed until 1974. The East-West Highway across the Terai was finally complete in the 1990s. The first plane service started in the mid 1950s. At that time bullock carts were sometimes used to unload the baggage for the planes.

The Hillary expedition on Mt. Everest in 1953 was the first time many people had heard of Nepal. Although there are many parts of Nepal that are still untouched by the modern world and the country as whole remains very poor and underdeveloped, Nepal modernized very quickly, going from a place with no roads, modern hospitals, doctors, airplanes, and television — where feudalism was still dominant — to a place with Western-educated doctors and engineers, airports and large infrastructure projects in a few decades. The process unfolded over centuries in other places. Tourism has been a major force behind Nepal’s changing.

In the 1960s, disease like goiter, small pox, malaria and leprosy were endemic. As they were brought under control people lived longer an the population began growing very quickly, in many cases outstripping available resources. The situation led to overuse of arable land and migrations of people to the middle hills and mountains. After the eradication of malaria in the Terai, many people also moved there. These migrations have caused friction between the ethnic groups that were the traditional residents of these areas, who in many cases were cheated out their land, and new settlers.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (, Nepal Government National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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