During the last week of June, tens of thousands of Nepalese participated in a national strike to protest the government's alleged murder of a prodemocracy cab driver. Word on the street was that he had been stabbed several times to give the appearance of a robbery attempt. But before anyone could conduct a conclusive investigation, authorities seized the body and, they claimed, disposed of it properly. The government's peremptory interment precluded any possibility of the corpse being paraded through the streets, where it doubtless would be held up as yet another example of martyrdom in Nepal's ongoing struggle for political emancipation.
In Katmandu, the capital of the world's only Hindu kingdom, colleagues of the victim erected roadblocks throughout the city, intending to disrupt what little motor traffic the mostly unpaved roads normally accommodate. "It is almost impossible to get from the airport to my hotel," a driver from the Hotel Mandap told me. He said the only way to get from Tribuhavan International Airport to my lodgings was by a circuitous path that might take four times the normal trip. Sympathetic to the cabbies' complaint, the drivers of rickshaws, public buses, and privately owned cars also refused to carry passengers—mass transit was effectively halted.
Later that afternoon thousands of people clamored outside the royal palace, brandishing signs and banners that championed secularism and political freedom. Though the demonstration was completely peaceful—and not particularly loud—the congregation drew the scrutiny of the authorities, who sent a truckload of armored police, carrying clublike lengths of supple bamboo called lathis, into the crowd. Momentarily caught between hundreds of nervous demonstrators, I braced myself for the inevitable stampede of panic-stricken Nepalese accustomed to hastily crushed assemblies. It never came.
The throng became silent and still as the truck, inching along at barely more than an idle, passed through the sea of citizens like a thresher through a cornfield. Randomly administered beatings would not have been particularly surprising. But seeing the people were armed only with hopeful slogans, the police departed without incident.
That the police allowed the demonstration to continue was an enormous symbolic victory. Less than three months earlier, at the very same place, soldiers and police had massacred hundreds of protesters calling for the end of Nepal's stifling autocracy.
On that bloody day—April 6, 1990—the largest crowd in modern Nepalese history, estimated at 400,000, had gathered at Ratna Park, an expansive plaza near Katmandu's business district. Since February, police and demonstrators (mostly students) had clashed repeatedly on a relatively small scale. But on April 6, virtually all of Katmandu, including the city's lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, joined the students in their call for freedom.
The object of their protest was King Birendra, who has ruled Nepal since 1972. The king's father and predecessor on the throne, Mahendra, abolished Nepal's constitution in 1959 and, after a brief flirtation with multiparty elections, banned political parties in 1960. Birendra has institutionalized his father's repressive principles with a single-party national assembly called Panchayat, which in theory is supposed to function like England's Parliament but in practice serves as a feudal court. The king hand-picks 20 percent of Panchayat's members. Local elections determine the rest, but all candidates must meet the king's approval to run.
As the demonstrators surged toward the royal palace—shouting "We want democracy!" and "Birendra is a thief! Lawmakers leave the country!"—a royal army unit abetted by local police assembled at the palace gate. A protester later told me the massive crowd threw stones and tried to topple a statue of King Mahendra. According to the government, the protesters set fire to a federal building. No one, however, disputes what happened next: The soldiers opened fire on the crowd with automatic and semi-automatic rifles.
Government reports originally estimated nine dead and several dozen wounded. Later they revised this to 50 dead and several hundred wounded. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post, basing their estimates largely on information supplied by Nepalese diplomats, reported 50 to 150 killed, including several foreigners caught in the melee. But virtually every Nepalese I spoke to said that in and around Katmandu Valley on April 6, government authorities murdered 3,000 people, many of whom had not participated directly in the palace protest but were known democracy-movement supporters.
While the exact number of casualties suffered during that calamitous day may never be known, the byproducts of the people's uprising are gratifyingly clear. Since April, King Birendra has dismissed his rubber-stamp Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand, released the imprisoned Ganesh Man Singh, supreme leader of the Nepali Congress Party (Nepal's previously banned dominant opposition party, modeled on India's Congress Party), and opened talks with leaders from the seven-party leftist alliance known as the United Left Front.
Demonstrations such as the one conducted in late June are now common occurrences; banners bearing messages previously deemed "inflammatory" now hang throughout Katmandu's squalid streets; and political debate—passionate, sincere, and sometimes misinformed—fills Nepal's newspapers and government buildings, where the tenets of the people's new constitution are currently being formed by the Constitution Recommendation Commission, consisting of representatives of Nepal's disparate political parties (including Congress, United Left Front, and United National People's Movement) and religious groups (Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and Christians).
"Fundamental rights are the essence of any constitution," Prof. Yadu Nath Khanal, a member of the CRC, recently told a conference of Nepalese lawyers. He said the commission was debating several theories of sovereignty: divine rights, popular rights, and contract theory, with the majority in favor of finding a compromise between divine and popular. The British and Japanese constitutions, according to Khanal, are effective models for Nepal's, which "should also include all universally accepted values. We must study international laws and incorporate our own experiences and circumstances."
Wedged between India and China on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, Nepal is a mountainous, geographically isolated country whose lack of roads and trying terrain make it one of the least developed places on earth. The government claims that 18 percent of Nepalese citizens are literate—the actual figure may be even lower. Fundamental shortages in sewage systems, electricity, and health care make Nepal one of the least livable countries in a region that, as a whole, lags far behind the rest of the world.
It is a place where, understandably, the people believe anything would be better than current conditions. Perhaps the monumental changes in Eastern Europe (many students I spoke to applauded the revolution in Romania) have finally given the Nepalese people the courage and, more important, the inspiration, they have so long lacked.
Among the most pressing tasks facing the disparate coalition responsible for transforming Nepal from an absolute autocracy into a constitutional monarchy are the dissolution of Panchayat, the release of all political prisoners, the removal of governmental restrictions on press reports, and compensation for those killed or wounded in the prodemocracy clashes. While nearly all involved seem to support these initiatives, how the people intend to implement their solutions is not clear.
Frequent pleas for "unity" fill Katmandu's newspapers, implying that solidarity alone will bring satisfaction. Though the average Nepalese does not fully understand the complex political wranglings inherent in fashioning a new constitution, everyone I spoke to was chiefly concerned with diminishing the king's authority and empowering the citizenry.
"We were taught the king should not sit down to eat before every person in Nepal had a full meal," a Katmandu resident named Suni Pardram, who has participated in many prodemocracy rallies, told me. "But he takes everything while we starve."
Even those who call themselves "socialists" or "Marxists" yearn for voting privileges and all the trappings of democracy. A group of students at Tribuhavan University waving a Nepalese flag emblazoned with a hammer and sickle told me they believe in "liberty, voting, and multiple parties," and that they did not recognize an international communist headquarters or "Maoist ideology." Man Mohan Adhikari, general secretary of the Nepal Communist Party, quoted in Nepal's English-language newspaper, The Rising Nepal, said: "It is easy to produce radical slogans, but difficult to craft solutions acceptable to all. Thus, democracy is the demand of the day."
With increasing tensions between Nepal's dominant Hindu majority (about 90 percent of the population) and the minority Buddhists, Christians, and Taoists—I witnessed several heated, but nonviolent, shouting matches between Hindus and Buddhists—the immediate gains earned through the tenacious will of an oppressed people seem in jeopardy.
The draft of the new constitution proclaims Nepal a "Hindu Kingdom." But non-Hindus demand separation of church and state. Such discord, though potentially damaging to the CRC's goal of returning power to the people, is to be expected. The country's dissident leadership and intelligentsia are currently like an immense cannon plugged by a meager cork: Their desire for participation in the political process has been forcibly repressed, but it can no longer be contained. If the people can harness the fervent power of their ideals—and if King Birendra continues to act in good faith—in March 1991 the Kingdom of Nepal will have its first legitimate multiparty election of the 20th century.
Journalist and playwright Michael Konik has written about Nepal for the New York Times.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Nepal: Comes a Revolution".
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.