Nepal’s first parliament

- Lokranjan Parajuli | 2022-11-20

The first session of what was technically Nepal’s first parliament was held on 22 Sept 1950, although history books refer to the 1959 House of Representatives as the first parliament. Since the 1950 parliament was concocted hastily, and only one session (excluding the inaugural) of it was held, not much is written about this short-lived institution.

It was assembled as per Nepal’s (first) constitution of 1948, which was prepared by the penultimate Rana Prime Minister Padma Shamsher. Padma Shamsher presented the constitution in Jan 1948, which was to come into effect from April of that year. But, before that could happen, he was forced out.

Once Rana left the country, and his ‘conservative’ cousin Mohan Shamsher assumed office, the reforms that the former initiated were gradually sidelined. The idea of conducting elections to the parliament was also scrapped.  However, in June 1950, after more than two years of Mohan Shamsher’s accession to power, Gorkhapatra published notices and news items in which it was mentioned that there would soon be a bicameral parliament, as per the constitution.

Subsequently, the process to (s)elect members to both the houses was expedited. Some members were nominated (also some ‘elected’) to the houses, whereas a few other members, particularly of the lower house, could not be ‘elected’ allegedly due to time constraints, and thus remained vacant.

Within three months, Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher inaugurated what was to be the first-ever parliament of Nepal. How did a hardcore conservative prime minister, who had ousted his ‘liberal’ predecessor, reach to a point of taking an initiative to implement the constitution he had opposed less than two years ago?

Nepal, India and the world: The global political context 

To understand Mohan Shamsher’s sudden policy turnaround we need to look at the fast paced changes and political developments occurring in Nepal, in the neighborhood, and in the global arena.

When Mohan Shamsher became prime minister in Nov 1945, World War II had just ended, and changes were afoot around the world. Former colonies, including India, were set to be independent.

Nepali youths who had been in India for various reasons (as students, as exiles or as migrants) also joined the Indian independence movement. And when they saw the signs of Indian independence, their interest shifted to their own homeland, where the autocratic Rana regime had been ruling the country for nearly a century. They began to organize among themselves.

Nepali National Congress party was thus formed, and they subsequently launched labor strikes and satyagrahas, forcing the regime to respond.

The constitution of 1948, which gave limited power to the subjects, was prepared in response to quell the people. But, as mentioned earlier, the conservative camp led by Mohan Shamsher forced liberal Padma Shamsher to flee, and had stopped the reforms exercise. He had banned the Nepali National Congress even before he formally assumed office.

Mohan Shamsher however gradually came under tremendous pressure not only from the native subjects but also from the foreigners, especially the Indians, and because of the changes in the neighborhood and in the global arena. For example, on 1 Oct 1949, the government of the People’s Republic of China was formed under Mao Zedong. Soon, in Nov 1949 Mao’s People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, and subsequently took control of the region.

Wary of the volatile situation in Nepal, India put pressure on Nepal. The two countries signed the Nepal-India Friendship Treaty and Trade and Transit Treaty.

The Nepali side also wanted to sign an extradition treaty so that they could apprehend the rebels waging war against the Ranas from India. But that didn’t happen.

Meanwhile, two Congress parties got unified in India and decided to change their erstwhile policy of employing non-violent means for political change in Nepal. Preparations began for an armed revolt.  It is in this Nepali and global political context that Mohan Shamsher tried to introduce cosmetic reforms.

The policy turnaround

On the front pages of Gorkhapatra June-Aug 1950, tiny government notices began appearing. Titled ‘One educated person required’ is one of the first such notices issued by the Vaidhanik Samiti (legal committee). The notice stated that preparations had already begun to form the Rastriya Sabha (National Assembly, or the lower house).

To quote: As per the Nepal Sarkarko Vaidhanik Kanun, i.e. Constitution of 1948, the National Assembly will have a member from among the educated lot. If you possess Madhyama in either Nepali or Sanskrit or have passed matriculation in English, and want to vote or become a candidate from the padha-lekha or educated category, register your name at the committee’s office at Bhatbhateni during office hours of working days or send a formal application letter to the committee.

The schedule A of the 1948 constitution provides structure of the 42-member (elected) national assembly. The article C of this schedule has the provision of electing six members from the category called ‘people with special job or qualification’.

Even though the above notice mentions election of one member, the constitution has provision of electing two members from among the sub-category of ‘educated person’.

The article C sub-article 3 says: Those with the qualification of Madhyama or matriculation or above shall elect [2] members who are graduates [i.e., BA equivalent] or Acharya or equivalent Nepali degree.

The notice of Gorkhapatra was surprising in a sense because if the constitution of 1948 was properly followed the election should have taken some two years back, and there should have been a parliament up and running.

The Article 2 of the preface of the constitution stated: This constitution shall come into effect from mid April 1948, but if the Prime Minister (Shree 3 Maharaj) sees that the local conditions or any other circumstances make it impossible to implement all the Articles of the constitution at once, he will implement them as and when possible. However all the articles shall be enforced by the end of the mid 1949.

When Mohan Shamsher became prime minister, he was not interested in providing civil liberties, let alone sharing the power. Therefore he did nothing to establish the legislative assemblies—there was no sign that they would ever be established.

Prime minister caved in

Mohan Shamsher was thus violating the constitution by not implementing it. But by the mid of 1950 (i.e., in two years), he seems to have caved in. It is clear from another notice published in Gorkhapatra (Aug 1950) that Mohan Shamsher tried to convene the parliament in a haste.

To quote: It was conveyed to the prime minister that it will take a long time to set up the parliament following due process as outlined in the constitution. But the prime minister wished that the constitution be implemented as soon as possible.

It was then decided 32 members would be elected from among the 155 heads of Village Panchayat or village council, while other members would be elected from the special categories.

Just as in the latter Panchayati constitution of 1962, the 1948 constitution had the provision of leaders being elected locally (in local village panchayats), who could then gradually move up the ladder to become the member of central parliament.

In more than two and half years, the government of Mohan Shamsher had only set up 155 village panchayats. A village panchayat was usually a cluster of villages with around 10,000 to 15,000 residents. While the aim was to create some 700 village units, only around 20 percent of the job was done by the time Mohan Shamsher decided to set up the parliament. It was claimed in the news report of the time that all bases were ready to convene the session of the legislature.

The 1948 constitution envisioned bicameral legislative assembly. Together, these two assemblies were to have 90-100 members. The lower assembly was to have 70 members. Just as the Panchayati constitution of 1962, introduced by King Mahendra after dismantling democracy, this parliament also had the representation of what we can call ‘class organizations’.

There were provisions of representations from such categories as educated, landlord, businessman, bureaucrat and labor. But there was no such provision for the representation based on gender. There were no women representatives in either of the houses of the first parliament.

Likewise, the upper house called Bhardari Sabha (Assembly of Courtiers) was to have 20-30 members nominated by the prime minister himself. The upper house was reserved for the high ranking Ranas and a few high-ranking civilians or royal priests.

Inauguration of the parliament and the first sitting

Amidst the political changes occurring in the global arena, and after cherry-picking the members of the parliament, the first meeting of the first parliament was inaugurated on 22 Sept 1950 at the Gallery Hall of Singha Durbar by Mohan Shamsher.

In countries with a head of state, it is customary for the head of state (King or President) to inaugurate the parliament. But the then king (although he lacked any substantial power) was not present at the meeting of the first parliament of Nepal.

Gorkhapatra in its editorial hailed it as a historic moment. It declared that the establishment of the parliament would be one of the ‘best works’ of more than a century of the Rana rule.

After the first sitting of the parliament, a parliamentary committee called the Governance Committee was formed in accordance with Article 14 (b) of the constitution. During this process the 12 different parliamentary committees were also formed.

Apart from the inaugural meeting, the National Assembly met at least once more. And as the meeting was hastily convened, only a handful of members were allowed to speak. The parliament was then prorogued on the pretext of the Dashain festival.

Meanwhile, leaders and activists of the Nepali Congress, who were demanding people’s participation in the overall governance structure and state affairs, became even more frustrated with the sham parliament. They convened on the other side of the border, in Bairgania, to take a final decision to stage an armed insurrection to overthrow the Rana regime.

Amidst these developments, the then King Tribhuvan and his family took refuge at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu on the eve of Tihar, and fled to Delhi a few days later.

Infuriated, the Ranas declared Gyanendra, the grandson of Tribhuvan, as the head of state. The Nepali Congress saw this as an opportune moment and began armed insurrection the day Tribhuvan fled, which subsequently led to the downfall of the Rana regime.

Published date 2022/11/20

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