America, Nepal and the Royal Coup
On 15 December 1960 (पुस १) exactly 60 years ago, King Mahendra ordered the jailing of Prime Minister BP Koirala and other political figures, many of whom the Nepali people had put in power 18 months earlier in Nepal's first-ever election.
Ending a decade of democratic experimentation, Mahendra decided to rule the country directly. After his death in 1972 his son Birendra took power. Many of today's top political leaders cut their political teeth in years of underground opposition to the monarchy.
The U S government at the time noted that Mahendra's coup was accomplished ‘with great secrecy and superb organisation’. After 1960, the US slowly shifted its approach in Nepal, embracing the monarchy and moving away from democratic reform.
Ten years earlier, the globalisation of the Cold War had forced the US to pay more attention to South Asia. After China turned Communist in 1949 and war broke out on the Korean peninsula in 1950, Asian nations, particularly those near China, became hot spots for Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and China on one hand, and the US led capitalist democracies on the other.
During the 1950s, believing economic progress and expanded political freedoms would inoculate Nepal against communist influence, the U S offered aid programs and supported democratic reforms. As part of this vision, Washington promoted health and agriculture programs but also, in part to counter populist Communist Chinese programs, pushed for economic leveling programs such as land reform.
In the late 1950s, the US grew increasingly concerned as China and the Soviet Union expanded activities in Nepal. A November 1960 National Security document warned that Nepal had become ‘a particularly vulnerable target’.
But the US believed that Nepal's 1959 election had strengthened the country. Nepal, the National Security document noted, ‘currently enjoys greater internal stability than heretofore, following the introduction of popularly-based parliamentary government’.
The US also thought highly of B P Koirala. A 1960 memo explained, ‘Koirala is intelligent, forceful, respected by his party, and popular with his people.’ He was ‘basically pro-Western and anti-Communist’ and didn't underestimate the communist threat, showing ‘grave concern’ about it.
The US had a less positive view of Mahendra. He was seen as anti-communist and as a ‘stabilising and unifying force’ but seemed less forceful, and less consequential. An internal memo discounted him as ‘a conscientious man of simple tastes and austere habits … rather naive politically and not particularly forceful as a ruler … awkward socially, and indecisive’. It noted he had advanced some reforms but that ‘he is firmly convinced that a strong monarchy is necessary to insure stability’.
The last lines of an April 1960 US memo raised the possibility of a royal takeover in Nepal, saying the king was not ‘irrevocably committed’ to representative government. But it discounted the possibility: ‘Such a drastic step is not anticipated.’
A week after the coup, on 20 December, 1960, CIA Director Allen Dulles told the National Security Council that the King's ‘strange coup’ owed to two reasons: Koirala was ‘too progressive’ and had too ‘close relations’ with India. He warned of a more ‘archaic form of government’.
US Ambassador Henry Stebbins met with Mahendra on 21 December, 1960 and cabled Washington to say that the King professed a strong belief in democracy, which he claimed he himself had brought to Nepal. He said he dismissed the Koirala government and imprisoned its leaders because they were guilty of corruption and of aiding and abetting Communism. In a letter to US President Dwight Eisenhower a couple days later, he also blamed poor administration.
Stebbins did not buy it. He wrote: ‘Mahendra is guided less by the issues of corruption and Communism than by a growing fear that his own personal position and prestige were dwindling and that if he did not act soon, it might be too late." Stebbins thought the coup might yield ‘disastrous’ results.
President Eisenhower addressed the Nepal coup at a 11 January 1961 meeting, just 10 days before handing over the office to John F Kennedy. He was reminded of ‘intensive Bloc efforts to detach Nepal from India's sphere of influence’. The choice was to support the Nepali Congress or create some kind of accommodation between the NC and the king. The US chose accommodation, pointing to ‘the inevitable chaos which would be exploited by the Communists … and the Nepali Congress’ presumed inability to establish a viable government’.
But this didn't mean giving the king full legitimacy. As a later document put it, for a short time after the coup, the US maintained ‘correct relations’ with Mahendra but didn't openly back him ‘for fear of alienating the exiled NCP (Nepali Congress Party)’.
Things began to shift a year later, by early 1962, even before the dramatic events of later that year on the Sino-Indian border. ‘State is considering a new emphasis in our Nepal policy,’ reported a February memo. Department officials ‘now believe the King will probably stay in power despite the recent sharp increase in NCP-sponsored dissident activity’. They showed new concern the King would turn to the Communist bloc. ‘State feels now may be the time to move closer to him, lest he look increasingly to the Bloc for support.’
Democratic values seemed less a concern than power politics. ‘Our chief problem is to keep Nepal from becoming too dependent on Bloc aid, especially from Red China, and to preserve her strong economic ties with India. In the past, we’ve tuned our policy to New Delhi’s.’
At first, though, coming round to support the King did not mean the abandoning US efforts at democratic reform within Nepal. Instead, the US hoped Mahendra could be the source of reform. Mahendra, it said, ‘is probably making almost as much progress with economic and social reform as the NCP did’. He appeared to embrace land reform as well.
Everything changed in the fall of 1962 when China and India came to blows over disputed Himalayan territory. Catching the Indians flat footed, Chinese incursions spurred a reversal of India's hardline stance toward Mahendra. India abandoned support of Koirala and the Nepali Congress dissidents, and moved to win back Mahendra's favour. The U S lost leverage in Nepal, and land reform lost momentum.
Mahendra continued to back भुमी सुधार land reform, but only outwardly. By March 1963, an American Ford Foundation official had noticed a new ‘spirit of complacency’ in Kathmandu on the issue. He wrote: ‘The desire to move ahead with the measures of unquestioned importance for the welfare of Nepal, so evident in September is hard to find now.’
A sea change in Nepal politics had occurred. Observers began to see the 1950s as a restoration, not a revolution. The monarchy had returned to full power, not the people. The US, once a strong voice for democracy in Nepal, now supported the king and gave up on programs such as land reform.
America's Reform Push in 1950s Nepal
Visiting Kathmandu in 1953, US Ambassador to India and Nepal Chester Bowles confronted a tricky issue: As an outsider working in a starkly hierarchical society, how much should you work with the existing power structure and how much to push for change?
Nepal's land ownership patterns, some of the most unequal in Asia, spurred Bowles to ponder this question. He had come to Nepal to meet with Nepal's King Tribhuvan to discuss land reform. How hard should the U S push?
Many foreigners in Nepal do not see the country's harsh hierarchies. Or they see parts, such as class and gender divisions, but miss more unfamiliar caste and ethnic divisions. I still remember my disappointment visiting Dang a few years ago after the end of the Maoist war, and learning that, of the many foreign volunteers working in the district, all of whom lived with local families, not one lived with a Tharu or Dalit family.
But Bowles had an unusual background, and the early 1950s were a special moment. He had emerged from a progressive tradition, connected to the Great Depression of the 1930s, that had emphasised structural poverty and social reform. And because of family relations, he possessed a much deeper understanding of America's history of racial discrimination than many white Americans. In the 1950s, he pioneered opportunities for African Americans as diplomats, including in Nepal.
In February 1953 Bowles travelled from New Delhi to Kathmandu to meet with Nepali government officials, including King Tribhuvan, to discuss new American development programs for Nepal. In the previous year the US had started mineral surveys, agriculture, and health programs. But most of all Bowles wanted to discuss land reform.
Few Asian countries had starker disparities in land ownership than Nepal. A UN report as far back as 1952 highlighted that fully one-fourth of Nepal's cultivable land was tax-free birta and that the jamindar landlord class held most of the other land. ‘The illiterate peasants,’ the report said, ‘are always exploited by Zamindars and used for state labour.’ Rents ate as much as 50% of each crop.
Unequal land distribution seemed to hold Nepal back economically and politically. But it was a tricky issue. How much should Bowles push? Would he alienate powerful Nepalis he hoped to win over to the US side?
The early 1950s saw new worlds emerge. In the previous five years, three huge earthquakes had shaken South Asia's political landscape: Indian independence from Great Britain (1947), the Chinese communist party's takeover of China (1949), and war in Korea (1950).
Both Nepal and the US stood at the crossroads. In Nepal, after the Rana regime that had ruled for a century collapsed in 1950, a new coalition government promised democracy and development.
The U S had emerged from World War II Asia's most dominant power. The British departed. War between North and South Korea had intensified Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and its communist allies and the United States and its democratic capitalist allies all over Asia, particularly those, like Nepal, near China's borders. ‘The invasion of Tibet by Chinese Communists,’ Bowles wrote in 1952, ‘has catapulted Nepal into the front line of the cold war.”
To bolster Nepal, the U S relied upon India’s security umbrella, but also economic development programs. The US gave taxpayer dollars for health and agriculture programs in Nepal for altruistic reasons, but also for geopolitical gain. But would these programs succeed without more equal access to the single most essential resource in Nepal's rural society: land?
On one hand, pushing for land reform could be seen as a kind of internal interference, an overreach that smacked of imperialism. Even if in the name of greater equality, what gave the US the authority to judge right and wrong and to decide the path for change? And didn't the US have its own huge problems of inequality?
On the other hand, the US was giving hard-earned resources for programs desperately needed in Nepal. Bowles wanted those programs to be effective. It might be convenient to partner with the castes, classes, and genders that ran Nepal, but wouldn't that just reinforce them? Today, especially in the wake of Acemoglu and Robinson's influential 2012 book Why Nations Fail, ideas of ‘inclusive institutions’ and ‘inclusive development’ have become conventional wisdom among development professionals. Wasn't Bowles simply pursuing an early variant of this?
In a candid letter from early 1953, Bowles reflected on exactly this dilemma: how much should an outside country like the US press for internal reforms in Nepal. Bowles noted that the year before he had proposed that US foreign aid be denied to any country not making sincere progress at land reform and other internal reforms. He also noted that many diplomats and policymakers strongly disagreed, seeing his proposal as inappropriate internal meddling.
In the end, he decided that donor countries must insist upon certain ‘basic reforms’ within recipient countries or else ‘our aid is wasted’. Pressure for reforms should not be dismissed as interference, as he saw it, because development aid would fail without those reforms. To not push for serious reforms would be not just nonsensical but also counterproductive; it would mean ‘wasted’ aid.
In the early 1950s, several factors made it easier for Bowles to make these arguments in Nepal. Prominent Nepali Congress leaders like B P Koirala also called for land reform. And it seemed that such efforts would help counter the appeal of Chinese and Soviets calls for resource redistribution. So Bowles wasn't really going far out on a limb.
In his 1953 meeting with Tribuvan and his advisers, including some of Nepal's wealthiest men, Bowles pushed hard for land reform. Many American programs in the 1950s, including its flagship program in Chitwan, featured strong land reform programs. In the end, they often failed to deliver much social levelling, but not for lack of trying.
American programs in Nepal in the 1950s reflected the reformer hopes of Bowles. Paul Rose, the top US official actually based in Nepal from 1952 to 1958, described U S programs in Nepal as a ‘prescription for revolution’.
On 15 December 1960, Tribhuvan's son Mahendra seized absolute power. For a couple years, the US government continued to push for land reform in Nepal but the push for such reform would not last long. In the early 1960s, people and politics would align in a very different pattern than in the early 1950s.
Tom Robertson, PhD, is author of Notes from the Archive: U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles’s 1953 Letter to King Tribhuvan, about Land Reform and U S Development Programs in Nepal, Studies in Nepali History and Society, December 2020.