Roughly one year ago, Nepal’s then prime minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, dissolved the lower house of parliament and announced early elections for December 2020. This decision followed a bitter imbroglio over power sharing with Oli’s party rivals in the then-unified Nepal Communist Party, a merger between two long-standing rival communist parties that eventually splintered again. An intraparty divide meant Oli no longer had numbers on his side, and he chose to shutter the House of Representatives rather than face a vote of no confidence, even though Nepal’s 2015 constitution does not grant prime ministers this power.

The backlash was swift but divisive. Party workers took to the streets, and cases were filed against Oli’s move in the Supreme Court. As the country waited for a ruling, a unified response was missing, with parties choosing to protest individually rather than collectively. The primary opposition party, the Nepali Congress, and its leader Sher Bahadur Deuba were plagued by internal discord. Although its leaders protested Oli’s decision, they also appeared (to some observers) to be opportunistically hedging their bets to capitalize on Oli’s misstep and gain power themselves. Nepali politics reached a dead end.

Amid this crisis, a new citizen-led political movement was born. In January 2021, a group of Nepali citizens calling themselves the Brihat Nagarik Andolan (BNA), which translates as the Greater Citizens’ Movement, arose to highlight the country’s deteriorating political climate. Following in the footsteps of past popular movements in Nepal that brought democracy to the country in 1990 and 2006, the BNA sought not just to resolve the immediate crisis but also to demand greater accountability from the political class. It called for structural changes to address the historical inequities in Nepali society and establish more inclusive, transparent, and representative governing institutions.

Amish Raj Mulmi
Amish Raj Mulmi is the author of All Roads Lead North: China, Nepal, and the Contest for the Himalayas (Oxford University Press, 2022). He is also a contributor to Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)stories (Westland India, 2021), The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-East (HarperCollins India, 2018), and Best Asian Speculative Fiction (Kitaab, 2018).

The Supreme Court eventually reinstated the legislature in February 2021. But the drama was not over. In May 2021, both Deuba and Oli claimed to have enough support to form a new government. Although Oli did not have sufficient representatives on his side to stake a claim, President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolved the House of Representatives once more on Oli’s recommendation and announced fresh elections in November. The Supreme Court then stepped in again, reinstating the house in July 2021 and issuing orders that Deuba be appointed prime minister.

While Deuba’s appointment, in a narrow sense, addressed Nepal’s immediate governing crisis, many of the enduring problems that gave rise to the BNA in the first place—including unaccountable leaders, political brinksmanship, and the marginalization of some ethnic groups—remain largely unresolved. Examining the origins, demands, and limitations of the BNA is an important exercise for understanding the ongoing issues that Nepali politicians and citizens continue to grapple with.

Nepal’s Legacy of Civic Opposition

Nepal has a long history of dissent against the state involving ordinary people. In various cases, citizens have organized themselves under the banner of professional organizations––such as the Nepal Bar Association––or as part of collective movements like the BNA. Citizen-led movements generally have supplemented a larger political campaign, but they emerged as a legitimate opposition force during the country’s April 2006 movement, when groups of ordinary people coordinated their protests with those of political parties, as the late Nepali anthropologist Saubhagya Shah noted.

The April 2006 movement followed a decade-long civil war declared by the Maoists in February 1996 when they submitted a lengthy list of political demands. They called for “a new constitution” establishing a secular “people’s democratic system” to rescind the royal family’s special privileges. Additionally, they demanded that ethnic communities be allowed to “form their own autonomous governments” wherever they formed a majority of the population and that long-standing “regional discrimination” be eliminated between the upper castes that traditionally have lived in the hills and marginalized communities like the Madhesi and Tharu population groups in the Terai plains. The Nepali monarch at the time, Gyanendra, declared a state of emergency in February 2005 and dissolved the House of Representatives, outlawing political parties and suspending all civil rights.

As the war escalated, seven political parties negotiated a twelve-point agreement with the Maoist guerrillas in November 2005 “to establish full democracy by bringing the autocratic monarchy to an end” and forming a constituent assembly. Notably, the Maoists had “refused to recognize the legitimacy of the [1990] constitution” and demanded a constituent assembly even during the 1990 revolution. The parties then launched the April 2006 movement, forcing the king to reinstate the House of Representatives, which stripped the monarchy of most of its powers in May 2006 and turned the country into a secular state.

The Maoists entered the Nepali political mainstream and joined the interim government after the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which emphasized Maoist demands to create an “inclusive, democratic and progressive” restructuring of the state. The January 2007 interim constitution incorporated many of the Maoists’ progressive demands, especially those related to federalism and representation of marginalized groups.

A key element of these reforms was abolishing the Hindu nature of the Nepali state under the monarchy. The kings of Nepal had been regarded as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, and the office of the monarchy was closely associated with several public rituals. The interim government under Nepali Congress leader Girija Prasad Koirala systematically disconnected these social practices from the monarchy, which had been founded on “explicitly religious (Hindu) ideologies.”1

Elections for the Constituent Assembly were held twice in subsequent years, first in 2008 and again in 2013, the second time coming after the first assembly failed to promulgate a constitution in time. Madhesi population groups from the Terai plains held protests in 2007 and 2008 demanding greater political representation and a commitment to federalism. Nepal’s post-2008 assemblies to design a constitution were thus a raucous mix of the old and the new, with the former represented by the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), while the Maoists and Madhesi parties sought a firm commitment to a decentralized federal state.

The 2007 interim constitution, in several respects, created a blueprint for a more inclusive Nepal, which its 2015 replacement later rolled back. The 2007 document allowed for both proportional representation based on population counts, thus allowing for greater representation from the more populous Terai plains, and a simple first-past-the-post electoral system. In both of the Constituent Assembly elections, nearly 56 percent of the members were elected through proportional representation; this provision was subsequently reduced to 40 percent by the 2015 constitution. Similarly, the interim constitution was the first Nepali governing document to create provisions for reservations for marginalized groups such as Dalits, women, and Indigenous ethnic groups in the civil service and political parties based on the “principle of inclusiveness.” This provision was watered down to the “principle of proportional inclusion” by a 2016 amendment to the 2015 constitution, which introduced reserved seats for the majority Khas-Arya ethnic group, which “is overwhelmingly represented in all state structures.” The 2015 constitution also watered down secularism by defining it as “religious, cultural freedoms, including protection of religion, [and] culture handed down from the time immemorial.” Put another way, this way of thinking could be described as upholding the dominance of Hinduism, or “sanatana dharma,” in the public sphere.

Despite these significant political shifts, these changes did not honestly redress the issues that had led to the civil war, mass protests, and the abolition of the Hindu monarchy. The issue of representation has long dominated progressive politics in Nepal, but little has changed. For example, a 2016 study found that although members of Khas-Arya communities made up 28 percent of Nepal’s population at the time, they made up 63 percent of all civil servants. By contrast, while Dalits made up 13 percent of Nepal’s population, only 2 percent of civil servants came from this community at the time. Similarly, although the representation of Madhesi caste groups among the ranks of civil servants was closer to their population share (roughly 20 percent of the population versus 15 percent of civil servants), Madhesi Dalits were virtually absent from the civil service. Khas-Arya communities continue to dominate in terms of the recruitment numbers for new civil servants. In 2019–2020, 57.8 percent of all new civil servants came from Khas-Arya communities; the corresponding figure was 54.5 percent in 2018–2019.

Such lack of representation carries over into elected bodies and political parties. Representatives from Khas-Arya communities form a majority in the lower house and occupy almost all leadership positions in the three major parties. Although women make up 33 percent of the lower house per the 2015 constitution, only 3.6 percent were directly elected, while the rest were nominated via proportional representation, which is regarded as less effective since nominations to such posts are dependent on the political party’s leadership. Dalits make up 7.3 percent of the House of Representatives, while the representation of Madhesis has increased to 18.2 percent, primarily due to new federal boundaries.

The demand for greater representation by citizen-led opposition groups after the 2015 constitution took effect must be understood in light of this history. Civilian groups often made demands that pushed beyond the goals of their establishment political allies. Eventually, the media began criticizing groups like the Citizens’ Movement for Democracy and Peace, one of the primary civil society groups in the 2006 movement, for supposedly restructuring the state in a partisan manner; these criticisms ended up discrediting these movements in the eyes of many Nepalis. Civilian-led protests were thus weakened in the years leading up to the country’s 2015 constitution and thereafter.

Meanwhile, trust in political leaders has remained weak. Surveys demonstrate that most Nepali people largely do not trust political parties and state institutions. Public trust in politicians, according to a 2017–2018 World Economic Forum survey, ranked the country number 121 out of 137 countries, making it the lowest-ranked country in South Asia. Only 11 percent of respondents in a 2021 survey trusted the prime minister (Oli at the time of the survey), and only 6 percent trusted a political party. The same survey reported similar figures for other elected representatives and ministers.

This pervasive sense of distrust and discontent tends to prompt Nepali citizens to turn to street protests, hunger strikes, social media campaigns, and the written word to oppose controversial government decisions. Most of these protests are self-proclaimed apolitical movements, focusing instead on sociocultural issues and general government unresponsiveness. This history sheds light on the BNA’s announcement of a people’s movement as an alternative to the country’s major political parties for demanding a trustworthy, responsive government and correcting the insular, unaccountable governing culture perpetuated by the 2015 constitution.

The Origins of BNA’s Demands

The year 2015 has come to define contemporary Nepali politics. After a pair of severe earthquakes in April and May 2015, the country’s major political parties finally moved to fast-track a constitution. This move was meant to fulfill an obligation to replace the country’s 2007 interim constitution following the post-Maoist conflict and help make post-earthquake reconstruction efforts run more smoothly, especially after the failure of the first Constituent Assembly to promulgate a new constitution.

But the constitution that emerged was written by a handful of senior leaders behind closed doors. As an April 2016 report by the International Crisis Group observed, “[Constituent Assembly] members complained they were not given enough time to read the draft, which ran close to 150 pages.” Even worse, discussions of the constitution were significantly curtailed, to the point that “there was barely any plenary discussion before the draft was voted on.” Nepal’s political class delivered a document that was fundamentally divisive even before it was promulgated.

The primary elements of discord involving the new document related to provincial boundaries (especially those related to the Terai plains), electoral representation, and citizenship rules that discriminated between men and women. In passing the 2015 constitution, Nepal’s political class reversed the representational gains made in the post-conflict transition periods. As one newspaper editorial commented at the time: “The new draft marks a major step backwards in ensuring that Nepal becomes a more just society. . . . There is a systematic attempt to remove all provisions on inclusion that were established after 2006.”

Subsequently, violent protests broke out in the Terai plains as demonstrators demanded increased political representation and federal autonomy. Nationalistic passions ran high, and the country was again divided between the people of the hills and those of the plains. What stood out was the unwillingness of the Nepali political establishment to negotiate with the protesters, cementing the exclusionary nature of the Nepali state under the 2015 constitution.

Although the Terai protests were emblematic of this struggle, a group of civilians from Kathmandu mobilized popular discontent with the constitution. While the Nepali government repressed (and at times co-opted) the original movement in the plains, some of these civilians later resurfaced in the BNA, which continues to demand improved political representation and inclusion today by way of constitutional amendments.

The BNA’s Goals and Limitations

In February 2021, the BNA released a white paper to outline its goals. The document accused Nepali political parties of focusing only on capturing power and sowing discord. It then identified several demands on behalf of ordinary citizens: the creation of accountable institutions, the promotion of more equitable political representation of the marginalized, the safeguarding of private rights, protections against discrimination, the preservation of freedoms of Indigenous peoples, and sustainable economic development policies.1 The white paper further advocates a more participatory form of democracy, putting the onus on Nepali citizens “not just to support, advise, or pressure political parties” but to “ensure the autonomy of the people.”

The BNA views itself as both a sociopolitical movement and a tool of political opposition. In addition to its broader political pronouncements, it has weighed in on a diverse range of contemporary issues. These include reservations provided to the dominant Khas-Arya community by the 2015 constitution, calls for the impeachment of the sitting chief justice for his controversial verdicts and allegations of nepotism, and international democratic crises such as the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar.

Many grievances against Nepal’s political system are now becoming more evident, leading citizens to express dissent in a variety of ways. For example, one group seeking answers on the disappearance of two women and accusations that police may have mishandled the case have prompted protesters to launch an ongoing series of sit-ins. Such discontent crosses over into the sociocultural sphere, revealing the fault lines in contemporary Nepali society that the BNA identified in its white paper.

While emphasizing such a wide range of issues may seem to risk having one’s fingers in too many pies, the existing discontent among Nepalis could work in the BNA’s favor. The BNA’s malleability allows it to align itself with a range of groups, as seen from its support for the women activists protesting the aforementioned disappearances. This flexibility also allowed the BNA to capitalize on discontent with the judiciary, enabling it to join forces with the Nepal Bar Association and five other organizations to demand the resignation of the chief justice. Further, the BNA leverages the experience of its members––some of whom are former editors, writers, and columnists––to highlight issues that have traditionally escaped the media’s attention, such as protests by a group of Kathmandu residents who were displaced in the name of road expansion.

However, despite popular discontent over a range of issues, the BNA faces many challenges that it must tackle to have a societal impact. The first challenge is the apparent concentration of the movement in Kathmandu, which limits its reach outside of Nepal’s capital city. Thus, the BNA’s connection to historically marginalized populations outside Kathmandu is weaker, a shortcoming that the movement will need to correct if it wants to grow in the days to come. Furthermore, the BNA has not been immune to the charges of partisanship that many Nepalis have come to associate with citizen-led protests. Its protests against Oli’s dissolution of the House of Representatives were labelled by one commentator as “inexplicably silly, feeble, and unnecessary.” But the BNA has maintained that Oli is simply a symptom of broader and long-standing problems in Nepali politics today.

Civic movements like the BNA also can struggle to sustain momentum until their goals are achieved, unlike explicitly political movements with specific goals (like the push to overthrow the Nepali monarchy in 2006). The BNA’s core leadership team will need a clear sense of purpose and concrete, achievable ways to accomplish its broadly defined goals.

The BNA also presents itself as an organization devoid of hierarchies that welcomes participation from the wider public. However, if such an impulse is taken too far, the movement could risk letting participants use the BNA selectively for self-serving goals. The challenge will be to manage this risk without making the movement seem rigid, overly formalized, and elitist.1 And although women have been part of BNA protest movements, the public face of the leadership is dominated by men from the urban class. To maintain its upward trajectory, the BNA must present itself as an inclusive, more representative opposition force.

The BNA’s Future

Citizen-led opposition movements in Nepal have historically succeeded when their goals are aligned with those of political parties, as happened in 2006. But what happens when the goals of the country’s political leadership and a civilian movement do not converge?

The BNA has disavowed all political affiliations and has argued for an overhaul of Nepal’s entire political system. In doing so, the movement appeals to Kathmandu’s liberal intellectual class, but its ability to draw crowds to its protests is limited for now. While mass mobilization may not always yield favorable results, if the BNA could somehow garner more widespread support from across the country, that would likely help the movement become a more prominent voice of dissent in Nepal.

As with any protest movement, the question is whether the BNA has the wherewithal to force the state to meet its demands. While a few political parties engaged with the BNA while the parliament was dissolved, no political party or leader has shown an inclination to align themselves with the BNA thereafter, nor has the state responded to its pronouncements, except by detaining its leaders. The Nepali state has shown it can absorb, deflect, or violently suppress civilian dissent, especially in the Terai plains, where several civilian deaths have been reported since 2015. Thus far, the Nepali government has not responded to any of the BNA’s white paper demands. Further, all political parties, including the Maoists, have largely shunned questions of representation and inclusion, shrinking the space for such discourse in Nepal.

The BNA will also have to contend with a popular turn to Hindu conservatism, a strain of political thought that argues that Nepal is not suited to be a secular republic and that its identity remains bound to the erstwhile Hindu monarchy. Calls for a return to a Hindu monarchy, antithetical to liberalism and democracy, mark the greatest danger not just to movements such as the BNA but also to the republic itself. Nepali political leaders like Oli (who remains a member of the national legislature) are cultivating ties to conservative Hindus in Nepal as a vote bank for future elections, not unlike Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done in India.

Ultimately, although the BNA represents a liberal and inclusive strand of discontent against Nepal’s political status quo, its decision to shun formal politics and the legislative process limits its leverage over the country’s major political parties. Why would an establishment that has embraced the status quo yield any ground to a movement that does not threaten it from within? This, perhaps, will be the question that defines the BNA in the years to come.

This article is part of the Politics of Opposition in South Asia initiative run by Carnegie’s South Asia Program.

Notes

1 The Nepal Peace Process, ed. Deepak Thapa and Alexander Ramsbotham, Accord, no. 26 (2017): 109–112, https://rc-services-assets.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/SecularismAndStatebuildingInNepal.pdf.

2 The BNA white paper was published in Nepali. All the translations were provided by the author of this article.

3 Author interview with BNA representatives, Patan, Nepal, November 9, 2021.