Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal

Anuj Mishra
23 April 2006

Nepal is witnessing an epic civilian revolution, which has galvanised the nation against the feudal relic of a predatory monarchy. For nearly three weeks, people in Nepal have been protesting despite the brutal tactics used by King Gyanendra's government to suppress the movement. The capital city, Kathmandu, has been under curfew for more than two weeks. There has been a shoot-on-sight order for the last several days. Yet no amounts of curfew, baton-charges, tear-gas canisters and live bullets have prevented people from streaming into the streets in numbers that have taken everybody by surprise.

Anuj Mishra is a Nepali journalist and scholar whose work has been published in the Kathmandu Post and other publications. He is the moderator of the online discussion forum, Plus Medium

Also by Anuj Mishra in openDemocracy:

"Nepal's war without end" (April 2005)

There have been (at the time of writing) fourteen fatalities, half a dozen in Kathmandu itself; hundreds have been injured. But, every day, people defy the curfew orders to try to reach the royal palace at the centre of the city.

Having called the protests to force the king to concede its demand for a return to democracy, the seven-party alliance (SPA) � along with civil society, trade unions, student organisations and various professional organisations � would not be able to sustain this unabated streaming of the people into the streets of almost every city and town and in rural areas across the country. The Maoists, who expressed their solidarity with the protests, are equally taken aback by the unprecedented degree of public sacrifice and commitment.

Porters, street-vendors, taxi-drivers, factory-workers and small farmers have put their work aside to take part � this in a country where just making a living is a constant struggle. They are joined by middle-class suburbanites, students and young professionals. Even the civil servants at the home ministry, charged with the control of the same police forces which have been used so ruthlessly to control the protests, were seen demonstrating in front of the office of the hardline home minister, Kamal Thapa. The employees of the cabinet secretariat demonstrated during working hours. The entire nation, except for the armed forces, is agitating against the king.

Nepal is in a fever of change. Analysts, experts, the "international community" and the political party leaders have misjudged the political maturity of Nepali people. The brief experiment with democracy in the 1990s, although marred by the incessant bickering of the mainstream political parties, nevertheless instilled in the people a determination to defend their rights. The economy picked up, the news media's reach widened and an environment of openness and freedom fostered popular confidence.

The independent media and civic organisations that proliferated in even the remotest regions have raised the level of direct participation in the national discourse. The Maoist rebellion, although violent and brutal, has dismantled the centuries-old feudal social practices of rural Nepal, initiating social awareness among the dispossessed.

A sign of this is that when the beleaguered King Gyanendra addressed the nation briefly on Friday 21 April to announce the "return of executive authority" to the people and called on the SPA to recommend a prime minister, people in the street denounced his offer as a ploy even before the political parties and the Maoists did. They would have nothing short of total democracy and a republic. The SPA leaders meeting the next morning to react to the king's move were besieged by protestors warning them of the consequences of accepting it.

This is a grassroots civilian revolution against the machinations of not only the king but of all the political forces in Nepal. It is the people's demand to live a dignified life, in the ethos of the 21st century, with complete freedom and full democracy.

The monarchy as obstacle

The monarchy has always frustrated democratic development in Nepal. The political parties forced out the regime of the hereditary Rana prime ministers in 1950, enabling King Tribhuvan, Gyanendra's grandfather, to return from exile in India. But he immediately reneged on the promise to hold elections to a constituent assembly to draft a democratic constitution. More than fifty years later, this is still the demand of the people. Tribhuvan tried to marginalise the political parties by repeatedly appointing and sacking governments, thus projecting an impression that rule by the parties was unstable. King Gyanendra has adopted the same tactic.

The technique of inhibiting and dividing the political parties continued until 1959, when King Mahendra, Gyanendra's father, allowed multiparty parliamentary elections under a constitution that he himself had promulgated and which gave him wide authority to intervene. Within eighteen months, in 1960, he declared the end of the multiparty system and assumed direct control.

It took another thirty years for the people of Nepal to get democracy back. In 1990, King Birendra was forced to agree to the return of the multiparty system after a demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people marching towards the royal palace resulted in a bloodbath. However, the king again sought to avert democratic development by seeking to amend a draft constitution, then delaying its promulgation. Only after another set of popular protests did he finally agree to the new document. Still, the king was able to insert loopholes, including the direct control of the armed forces, which ensured that the monarchy retained power.

King Birendra did let politics take its course, however. He assumed a largely non-interventionist posture � except for unilaterally appointing ambassadors and transferring ownership of several royal-family business stakes into his own name to take advantage of his tax-exempt status. Indeed, some analysts are critical of the fact that the king sought to become a mere spectator while politics degenerated.

The product of that degeneration was the Maoist rebellion. Having assumed the throne after the death of his brother, Birendra, and his nephew, crown prince Dipendra, in the palace massacre of June 2001, Gyanendra quickly announced that � unlike his brother � he would be more than an onlooker. Many took this as a veiled threat against the political parties. When the army (still under the direct command of the king) refused to help the government-commanded police force in operations against the Maoists, the government was seen as powerless to control the rebellion.

The king and the army engineered the dismissal of then-prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala (now the octogenarian head of the SPA) and replaced him with more amenable Sher Bahadur Deuba. Deuba soon recommended the dissolution of the house of representatives and was himself ousted by the king on 4 October 2002 for failing to contain the Maoist insurgency. He was reappointed prime minister in June 2004; but on 2 February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed Deuba for a second time, declared a state of emergency and named himself the chairman of the government.

The brutality of Gyanendra's regime since then has prompted a popular uprising against him, an uprising that the political parties struggled to organise for the last three years, and the Maoists for the last ten. At last, the people have sided with the SPA in a non-violent uprising which could yet become an inspiring example of non-violent democratic change.

openDemocracy writers analyse the crisis of democracy in Nepal in

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's war without end"
(April 2005)

Chandra D Bhatta "Nepal's civil war: from security to politics"
(May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Democracy in Nepal and the 'international community'"
(May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's political rainy season" (July 2005)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude"
(January 2006)

Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the rising"
(April 2006)

Maya G. Kumar, "Nepal on the brink"
(April 2006)

The days ahead

The eventual outcome of this uprising depends, however, upon either the king's relenting or his disintegrating. Neither possibility is yet in evidence. The political parties have announced their intention to set up a parallel interim government which would pursue peace talks with the Maoists and elections to a constituent assembly. Civil-society leaders and the general public are prodding the leaders of the SPA to move along this course. But the latest indication is that the political parties, while rebuffing the attempts of the international power-brokers in Nepal � India, the United States, Britain and the European Union � to make them accept the king's overture, are still treading a cautious path.

The parties have not yet announced a parallel government, though this was proposed on 22 April if the king did not reinstate the dissolved parliament and call elections to the constituent assembly within twenty-four hours. Instead, they have announced a massive protest for 25 April, to be headed by the SPA. At the same time, the political parties are concerned to avoid a bloodbath. And fear that the formation of a parallel government might give Gyanendra the excuse to unleash his army on the protestors who have besieged Kathmandu for nearly three weeks and have paralysed the state. The nationwide movement has crippled all government activities beyond the deployment of the army and police to control the protests.

The protests have been mushrooming. On 21 April, the day of Gyanendra's broadcast, an estimated 200,000 people were on the streets. The next day, an estimated one million people broke through several security cordons to advance on the royal palace, breaking into the restricted part of the city for the first time.

The growth in numbers is accompanied by a radicalisation of demands: calls for the outright abolition of the monarchy are getting louder. When the protests began, the demand was for a constituent assembly; now it is for a republic. The brutality of recent weeks has emboldened and radicalised the people.

The SPA, still hoping to force the king to concede through its non-violent protests, predicts that two million people will demonstrate on 25 April. But there is a risk of demonstration fatigue as people tire of the destruction of daily life and of police brutality. The mass mobilisation may descend into mob violence and give Gyanendra the excuse for bloodshed. If that happens, the Maoists' violent campaign against the monarchy will be vindicated in the popular view and the country will descend into a long, bloody war between the two armies.

Strong signals from the United States and India could persuade Gyanendra to step back. If this fails, then the international community's interest lies in legitimising a new regime in Nepal on the strength of this grassroots revolution, with United Nations support to facilitate the transition. Nepal's democratisation from below in may yet be consolidated in the days to come.

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