The 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.

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.

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. 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 (see Constitutional Development , ch. 4). 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 Tarai, resulting in a large increase in the area devoted to agriculture (see Population , ch. 2; Agriculture , ch. 3).

The death of Mahendra in January 1972 and the accession of Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev allowed the possibility of turmoil. The new king was associated with young, educated, administrative experts who were dedicated to economic development, but not to sharing power with political parties. Students at Tribhuvan University went on an indefinite strike in August to support a ten-point charter of demands. That month, 100 armed men attacked an eastern Tarai village and killed a constable in a revolutionary action supposedly linked to the policies of B.P. Koirala. In June 1973, terrorists hijacked a Royal Nepal Airlines airplane to India and escaped with 30 million Indian rupees (approximately US$4.6 million). Other armed attacks and assassination attempts occurred into 1974. These isolated incidents had relatively little impact on a government that the army and the bureaucracy supported and that monopolized the allocation of all resources to local development projects.

In 1975 the king appointed a seven-member Reform Commission to investigate making changes in the panchayat system, but during that year Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in her country, jailing members of the opposition and curtailing democracy there. In this climate, the recommendations of the Reform Commission in Nepal led to a 1975 constitutional amendment that made cosmetic changes in the panchayat system but only increased its rigidity. The changes included the establishment of five development regions to promote planning and the increase in membership of the National Panchayat from 90 to 134 persons. The king was to nominate 20 percent of its members.

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