Modern Nepal dates back to the late eighteenth century, when the expansionist Shah dynasty of the Kingdom of Gorkha established control in the foothills of the Himalayas. The establishment of Nepal coincided with establishment of the British East India Company's control in India. An 1816 treaty marking the conclusion of the 1814–1816 Anglo-Gorkha War established a British Resident ruling in Kathmandu. In general, the British refrained from interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal while also guaranteeing protection for the kingdom. While Shah rulers remained on the throne, the hereditary prime ministers of the Rana family exercised real political power during 1846–1951. In 1951, disaffected elements of Nepalese society joined with King Tribhuvan (ruled 1906–1955) to overthrow the Rana autocracy.
In the two world wars, Nepal supported the British by sending recruits for the Gurkha (distortion of Gorkha) Brigade. Since the nineteenth century, the British had employed Gorkhali fighters for their military needs. A 1947 agreement divided the existing Gurkha battalions between India and the United Kingdom, and a small number of Gurkha soldiers remain in the British Army today.
Nepalese cooperation in World War I partly prompted the 1923 treaty by which Britain recognized Nepal's independence. Hence, when the British withdrew from the Indian subcontinent after World War II, Nepal remained an independent kingdom.
Nepalese foreign policy after 1945 continued a long historical trend of nonalignment and the practice of balancing itself among the great powers. Nepal maintained a formally equidistant relationship with both the PRC and India but made overtures toward one or the other when its interests so warranted. Thus, while Nepal espoused neutrality in the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War and the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, the government nonetheless bought arms only from India. Although wary of Chinese expansion, Nepal nonetheless established relations with the PRC in 1955, recognized its sovereignty in neighboring Tibet, and concluded an aid agreement the following year that provided Nepal with Chinese economic and technical assistance.
Nepal dealt with the two Cold War superpowers in a similar fashion. Cordial diplomatic relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union ensured the flow of U.S. and Soviet aid to Nepal. In 1973 at the summit of nonaligned nations in Algiers, King Birendra (ruled 1972–2001) proposed the concept of Nepal as a zone of peace. Some 110 nations have since endorsed this proposal.
Since World War II, Nepal's shift away from its traditional isolationist posture is also reflected in its membership in a variety of international organizations, including the United Nations (UN), the Non-Aligned Movement, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
From 1951 until the launching of the 1990 prodemocracy movement, Nepal adopted three different constitutions (1951, 1959, and 1962). Although the 1959 constitution created a bicameral legislature, with a popularly elected lower house, disproportionate political power still rested with the reigning monarch. The 1962 constitution, also known as the Panchayat (Council of Elders) Constitution, introduced a form of guided democracy that abolished political parties, created a legislature indirectly elected by members of the local panchayat and other functional groups, and further concentrated royal power.
In 1990 a prodemocracy movement ended the Panchayat system, and a new constitution not only created a multiparty parliamentary system and an independent judiciary but also codified basic individual rights. As subsequent events have shown, this did not stop King Gyanendra (ruled 2001–present) from stepping in and dissolving the government as he saw fit.
From 1996 onward, a guerrilla-style People's War led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), a faction that broke off from the United People's Front, has been a major threat to internal stability. In 2001 Crown Prince Dipendra murdered his father King Birendra, mother, and seven other family members before killing himself. Gyanendra, the new king and Birendra's brother, chose to deal with the Maoist insurgency by dismissing his government in February 2005 and assuming absolute power to rule, a suspension of democracy that he justified in the name of national security. Soo Chun Lu
Savada, Andrea Maties. Nepal and Bhutan: Country Studies. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993.; Whelpton, John. A History of Nepal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Soo Chun Lu