Although Nepal emerged in history in the first millennium bc, it was only in the 18th century that Nepal developed as a country of the present size. Archaeological remains suggest that areas of Nepal have been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. The Kirant hill tribe people are thought to be the first rulers of the Kathmandu area. The earliest undisputed Nepali dynasty is the Licchavi dynasty, which was established in about ad 400. The Licchavi dynasty, which probably migrated from present-day Vaishali, India, was centered in the Kathmandu Valley. The Licchavi dynasty expanded its influence to the Kali Gandaki River in the west and Sun Kosi River in the east. The Licchavi period, as well as the Malla period that followed, was deeply influenced by Indian culture.
The Licchavi dynasty came to an end in the late 9th century and was followed by the medieval period. The early medieval era was unstable and poorly documented. It culminated in the Malla period (1200 to 1769) when three separate dynasties, divided into three kingdoms in the late 15th century, were conquered by the Shah dynasty in 1769, led by King Prithvi Narayan Shah. Nepal’s southward expansion under the Shah dynasty resulted in a clash with the English East India Company. The Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816) reduced the country to its current size, although Nepal retained its independence.
In the first half of the 19th century, Nepal entered a short period of instability that culminated in the Kot Massacre, in which fighting broke out among military personnel and administrators after the assassination of a high-powered favorite of the queen. Jung Bahadur, a strong pro-British leader, prevailed during the massacre and seized control of the country. He declared himself prime minister and began the Rana line of rulers. The Rana rulers monopolized power by making the king a nominal figure. They also made the office of the prime minister hereditary. Nepal gave valuable assistance to the British during the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-1859) and during World War I (1914-1918). The British government reaffirmed the independence of Nepal through a treaty in 1923. A British resident (colonial official acting as an adviser to the ruler of a protected state), stationed in Kathmandu, controlled Nepal’s foreign relations. Nepal supported the Allied cause, with the contribution of Gurkha soldiers, during World War II (1939-1945). Nepal and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1948.
The Rana autocracy was increasingly criticized in the late 1940s, particularly by dissidents residing in India. The political-reform movement, which was approved by the Indian government and directed by the newly created Nepali Congress Party, won the support of King Bir Bikram Tribhuvana. Like his predecessors under the Ranas, he possessed purely nominal powers. His intervention in domestic politics deepened the crisis, however, and he was removed from the throne in 1950 by Prime Minister Maharaja Mohan Shumsher Rana. A few days later the king fled to India and Nepali Congress insurgents began military operations along the southern frontier. In 1951 Prime Minister Rana allowed a reorganization of the Nepalese government along democratic lines and the king was reinstalled. Friction between the Rana and Congress Party factions culminated in November 1951 when Prime Minister Rana was removed from power and the Congress Party formed a government headed by Matrika Prasad Koirala.
After the Rana autocracy ended, Nepal embarked on a mission of economic and social development. However, political parties organizing the government during the 1950s were not effective. King Mahendra, crowned in 1955, seized absolute control of the government in 1960 after a decade of political unrest. King Mahendra dismissed the government and suspended parliament, calling it corrupt and inefficient. Considering a parliamentary system unsuited to Nepal, the king proclaimed a new constitution in 1962 that banned the formation of political parties and allowed for the autocratic rule of the king through a nonparty system of councils, or panchayats. The government then instituted social reforms, including land reforms and modernization of the legal code, which helped alleviate some caste discrimination.
When the king died in 1972, he was succeeded by his son Birendra Bir Bikram, who was formally crowned in 1975. The young king initially exercised strong control over the government, attempting to repress the reform movement led by former prime minister Bisheswar Prasad Koirala. As antimonarchist sentiments grew in the late 1970s and serious riots challenged his authority, the king relaxed his control.
In a 1980 referendum on the form of government, the voters decided to retain the nonparty panchayat system with certain modifications. Elections under the new provisions were held in 1981 and 1986. After a wave of pro-democracy protests in early 1990, a new constitution providing for a multiparty system was adopted in 1990.
In 1991 the Nepali Congress Party (NCP) won the country’s first democratic election in 32 years, and the party’s general secretary, Girija Prasad Koirala, became prime minister. Koirala resigned in July 1994, and the king subsequently dissolved parliament and set new elections, in which the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML, won the majority of seats. Man Mohan Adhikary was sworn in as prime minister. In 1996 the Communist government was dissolved by the parliament and Adhikary resigned his position under allegations of corruption. The king swore in Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NCP as prime minister. That same year, a radical leftist party called the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), or NCP-M, unhappy with the pace and direction of change, launched a “people’s war” aimed at overthrowing the government, abolishing the monarchy, and establishing a people’s republic. Incidents of violence were at first confined to remote mountain regions but by the late 1990s had spread to more than half of the country.
Political stability remained out of reach, and in March 1997 Deuba unexpectedly lost a vote of confidence and was forced to resign. King Birendra then named Lakendra Bahadur Chand, a member of the pro-royal National Democratic Party (NDP), as prime minister; Chand was backed by a royalist-Communist parliamentary coalition in which the CPN-UML had the largest bloc of seats. Chand was forced to resign in October as the NDP split into two factions, one headed by Chand and the other by NDP president Surya Bahadur Thapa. Thapa was named prime minister later that month, heading a coalition government that excluded the CPN-UML. In March 1998 the CPN-UML split, with the smaller faction taking the name Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-ML. The split left the NCP with the largest bloc in parliament. In April 1998 Thapa resigned, and Girija Prasad Koirala of the NCP again became prime minister. Koirala briefly won the support of the CPN-ML in a majority coalition, but when the party withdrew from the coalition in December, he was forced to resign. Koirala immediately was reappointed prime minister at the head of a center-left coalition that incorporated the CPN-UML. Parliamentary elections held in May 1999 ended the need for a coalition government by awarding a majority of seats to the NCP. The legislature elected Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister, to lead the government. Bhattarai stepped down in March 2000 and was replaced by former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
In early June 2001 King Birendra and eight other members of the royal family, including Queen Aiswarya, were fatally shot in the royal palace in Kathmandu, allegedly at the hands of Crown Prince Dipendra, who then reportedly attempted suicide. Dipendra initially survived his gunshot wounds in a coma. His subsequent death officially made his uncle Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah the new regent of Nepal. An official investigation of the massacre confirmed earlier reports that Dipendra had killed his family members in a drunken rage. The Maoist insurgency intensified following the massacre, fueled in part by unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surrounding the incident. Koirala, meanwhile, was widely criticized for embarrassing setbacks at the hands of the rebels and for a perceived failure to provide adequate protection for the royal family. His government was also mired in a bribery scandal involving the national airline.
Koirala stepped down in July amid demands for his resignation by several groups, including the CPN-ML, the main opposition party. Sher Bahadur Deuba, a former prime minister known for his willingness to work with opposition parties, was chosen by the ruling NCP to head Nepal’s ninth government since 1990. Deuba announced his first priority would be to seek peace talks with the Maoist rebels.