SINCE NOVEMBER LAST YEAR, protests have erupted throughout Nepal, including in the cities of Butwal, Biratnagar, Dhangadhi, Pokhara, Janakpur and Kathmandu. While civil and political protests are a strong and regular feature of Nepali politics, these recent developments assume significance because of the coming together of various fringe groups on two broad demands: the restoration of the monarchy and the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra. These demands are not novel—the country has seen sporadic protests of this kind over the past decade, but they have been few and far between. This time, however, the protests have drawn larger numbers than before and not been limited only to the usual suspects. Journalists have noted the presence of not just traditional royalist parties, such as the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, but also supporters of the Nepal Communist Party—the unified ruling party until its recent split into the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist–Leninist) and the CPN (Maoist Centre)—and the opposition Nepali Congress. The daily Naya Patrika has reported that the protests have received financial support from Hindu organisations in Nepal such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh Nepal and the Hindu Jagaran Samaj.
“Dhamilo pani ma maachha marne prayas ho”—these protests are akin to fishing in troubled waters— Keshab Lamichhane, a Nepali journalist, told me. Lamichhane was referring to a dramatic event that recently stunned Nepal’s political class. On 20 December 2020, the prime minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of what was then the unified NCP, dissolved parliament and recommended fresh elections, throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. Although Nepal’s supreme court later reinstated the parliament, complex constitutional provisions have allowed Oli to remain in power. Oli’s act was referred to as pratigaman—regression. Many saw a parallel with the former king Mahendra, who dismissed an elected government in 1960 and later imposed a partyless panchayat system. “He wants to leave behind a legacy like King Mahendra,” Sarojraj Adhikari, a senior journalist and writer, told me.
At first glance, the comparison might seem overblown, but the fears surrounding a change in a system of government are real. Nepal is a nascent democracy and promulgated its constitution in its latest democratic avatar as recently as 2015. This came seven years after the country abolished the monarchy, following a decade-long civil war against Maoist insurgents that ended with the signing of a comprehensive peace accord in 2006. The constitution-writing process took many years and the final version was rammed through following the 2015 earthquake. The document was considered deeply controversial and came against the backdrop of deep unrest in the Terai, the country’s southern plains, in which more than fifty people were killed. The main source of tension was the question of federalism—how the country would be divided up in terms of states. Madhesis, who form a significant percentage of the country’s population, felt betrayed by the constitution and the drawing of state lines to dilute their power even in places where their numbers are strongest.