The day the nation took a standThe Nepali people fought for long years for the advent of democracy, and in February, their struggle finally bore fruit
Every year, except under the tenure of the then-prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, Nepal has observed February 18 as ‘Prajatantra Diwas’ or Democracy Day. February 18 marks the day when King Tribhuvan, in his address to the nation, declared democracy and announced the end of the 104-year-old Rana family rule in 1951. He also guaranteed the rights of the people, assured people’s representatives in the interim government, and pledged the formation of a constituent assembly elected by the people, who were to be responsible in penning a democratic constitution.
Following his address, King Tribhuvan fell sick and his successor, Mahendra, whose intentions towards democracy and the rights of the people were decidedly doubtful, conspired to break away from those pledges made by his father. After King Tribhuvan succumbed to his illness and passed away in Switzerland whilst undergoing treatment, the crown prince Mahendra ascended to the throne. And the new king quickly made known his lack of sincerity in realising a fully democratic Nepal. It was only because he was unable to bear the pressure of the non-violent movement known as the ‘Bhadra Awagya Andolan’ launched by the democratic front in 1957 that he promulgated the constitution and allowed a general election for seats in parliament. Despite King Mahendra’s anticipation of a coalition government, the Nepali Congress Party won a two thirds majority in the house. Since the day BP Koirala was sworn in as the first-ever democratically elected Prime Minister of Nepal in 1959, the king through his close aids and conspirators actively tried to defile the image of the elected government. He even went so far as to stage a coup and arrested Prime Minister BP Koirala and his colleagues, dissolved the elected government and parliament, and suspended the democratic right of the people. However, despite his ill intentions he was unable to scrap the ‘democracy day’ celebration throughout the entirety of his rule. February 18 yet stands as a reminder of the 1951 revolution, Sat Sal ko Janakranti, that led to King Tribhuvan’s address.
But there is one other day that is unique and historic: February 15, 1951. This day has passed unnoticed. On February 15, 1951, two aeroplanes flew from Patna, India and landed at the Gauchar Airport, now known as the Tribhuvan International Airport. Aboard the aircrafts were King Tribhuvan, and the leaders and commanders of the revolution. King Tribhuvan had finally returned to Nepal after being ousted from the throne by the Ranas in 1950. His arrival was greeted by a mass of supporters who cheered them on as they made their way into Kathmandu Valley. Also awaiting him at the airport were Prime Minister Mohan Shumsher and his generals, who were, in all likelihood, unwillingly waiting to salute the king they themselves had a hand in ousting. Regardless, the presence of both the revolutionaries and the Ranas indicated that all regarded King Tribhuvan as the legitimate head of state of Nepal.
On February 15, 1951, colourful flags of Nepal and the Nepali Congress were waved along all the streets and roads in the valley of Kathmandu. Revolutionaries thronged the streets of the Valley. BP Koirala in his memoirs Atmabritanta says, ‘…I saw the king’s arrival creating a unique wave of unusual encouragement among the people.’
On the day of February 18, the king addressed the nation and declared democracy in Nepal. The king also pledged a new constitution through the formation of a constituent assembly elected by the people. Moreover, in his address, the king named cabinet members for the first time in the history of Nepal. BP Koirala was nominated as the leader of the people and given the portfolio of Home Minister. Mohan Shumsher continued as the Prime Minister, not as a despotic ruler, but as a coalition partner in a democratic government. The People-Rana coalition government was given the responsibility of governing the nation with a democratic system of governance until the election of the constituent assembly.
The Nepali people fought for long years for the advent of democracy. Ever since the days of Jung Bahadur, who seized power after the bloody coup known as the Kot massacre on September 15, 1846, the people had been suffering under a Rana dictatorship.
Sporadic attempts to overthrow the Rana rule had not succeeded. After World War II, the oppression and suppression of the people under the tyrannical Rana rule was unbearable. A number of organisations in and outside the country that worked either directly or indirectly against the Ranas came into existence, but not as a united force that could create enough pressure to truly make a difference. It was only in 1947 that the Nepali Congress Party was founded as the ‘Nepali Rastriya Congress’. The party immediately launched a historic labour strike at the industrial town of Biratnagar. During the labour strike BP Koirala was arrested, along with GP Koirala, Manahohan Adhikari, and a number of women leaders from the Koirala family. Before
being sent to prison, BP Koirala and the other arrested members were sent to Kathmandu on foot, which entailed a month of walking on difficult and rugged trails up and down hills and mountains.
Eventually, ‘Nepal Democratic Congress’ also came into existence and merged with the ‘Nepali Rastriya Congress’, heralding a new era of people’s force in 1950. The party thus formed was the Nepali Congress.
With the formation of a united, stronger party, dedicated cadres and resourceful and experienced members worked together and started to prepare for an armed revolution without delay. Since the government of India was against the use of arms in the revolution, the party acquired arms and ammunitions from Burma with the help of Burmese Socialist leaders.
The resolution to launch the armed struggle was passed in a conference that is popularly known as the Barganiya Conference, 1950. This decision was made by the Supreme Command Council, comprised of BP Koirala, Subarna Shumsher, and Matrika Koirala. Matrika was dubbed the ‘dictator of the revolution’.
Roused to the cause
The Supreme Command Council decided to launch the armed revolution on November 11, 1950. Their decision was based on the information that the King Tribhuvan—who had recently been ousted and subsequently had sought refuge in the Indian Embassy—planned to fly to Delhi on that date. The Supreme Command Council wished to launch the struggle before he left Nepali soil. The Nepali Congress’ high command was seized with the urgency of the information. They decided to rouse the nation against the Ranas’ rule. They decided to air drop hand bills from the east to the west including in Kathmandu. The first attempt to fly over Kathmandu and to drop of thousands of hand bills was successful. It was tactically done by a Captain Freser, who flew at a low altitude over the roofs of the houses to escape the range of anti-aircraft guns. This operation was carried out during Tihar when the Ranas were busy playing card games and gambling.
On the designated hour on November 10-11, the revolutionary forces started their attacked in Birgunj, the strategic town near the Indian border of Raxaul and captured the Badahakim, his governors’ bungalow and his security guards and their arms without bloodshed. By morning, the revolutionary forces had captured almost all government offices in Birgunj. Since the military barracks were well entrenched, the Mukti Sena besieged it from all strategic sides so that no one could escape. The commander of the Birgunj operation was Thir Bam Malla, a skilled cadre officer who was educated in an Indian military school. He was from Parbat of the Dhaulagiri region in western Nepal. As he was issuing instructions for ‘peace and order’ for the security of the people, a Rana officer suddenly fired on him and ran away and disappeared from the scene. Thir Bam Malla was quickly taken to Dankan Hospital at Raxaul, where he died. But the fighters did not lose heart at this news and bravely continued their struggle.
The great achievements of the attack were proper infiltration of revolutionary forces, publicity through international media, an adventurous and sensational trip to Delhi where members of the high command handed over the captured sum of over INR3.2 million to King Tribhuvan. Enough pressure was created to pressure the Rana government to bow down before the legitimate demands of the people. Despite the great loss of a bona-fide commander, revolutionaries following the directives of the high command constituted ‘a provisional government’ that ran the captured areas successfully. This continued until the additional forces from Kathmandu that were dispatched by the Rana Army reached Birgunj.
The wave of revolution spread from Birgunj throughout the country. The revolutionary forces marched over remote hill districts which were easily captured through the surrender of Rana troops.
Over a three month period, the liberation army did their best to capture and control the district headquarters—even in far flung regions. A radio station was installed in Biratnagar known as the ‘Democratic Radio’ of Nepal, and it began to air sensitive news and revolutionary songs. This proved to be a powerful medium in creating a conducive atmosphere for revolution While February 15 could be regarded as the day on which the people emerged victorious over a century-long Rana rule, February 18 legitimises this struggle through the king’s address to the nation. Thus the two historic days are inseparable. The celebration of democracy should begin on February 15, as this was the day on which the advent of democracy truly began.
Pokhrel is a former member of legislature Parliament