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The kingdom of fear

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005


An anti-Monarch protest on the 54th National Democracy Day, in Kathmandu, on February 18.-DEVENDRA M. SINGH/AFP

An anti-Monarch protest on the 54th National Democracy Day, in Kathmandu, on February 18.-DEVENDRA M. SINGH/AFP

Nepal's crisis casts a special duty upon Indian political leaders and civil society to act in solidarity with the people of that country to aid and strengthen democracy.

THE usurpation of absolute power by King Gyanendra in Nepal has sent shock waves through India - to the point of stirring even the somewhat complacent foreign policy establishment into making a series of responses. More vitally, it has ignited a public debate on many issues: How does the coup affect India, with its 1,400 km-long open border with Nepal? How should New Delhi respond to it without intrusively interfering in Nepal's internal affairs? How is India's "national interest" in stability to be reconciled with a principled commitment to democracy? How can India's civil society and political parties help the Nepali people in their struggle for democracy?

These questions acquire urgency as popular protests against the Palace become increasingly articulate despite the brutal repression unleashed by the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), and lack of a clear agenda and focussed leadership, which can effectively mobilise Nepali popular energies. As I write this, the blockade of Kathmandu appears to be succeeding with the number of trucks entering the city falling by 80 per cent in two days.

Faced with domestic protest and widespread international disapproval, the King has adopted a dual strategy. On the one hand, he has been selectively releasing political detainees and assuring them, however meaninglessly, that his absolutist rule will be of a short duration. While media censorship and other controls, including bans on political meetings and criticism of the RNA, remain firmly in place, the monarch has relaxed a few restrictions, including those on telecommunications, and set up an anti-corruption commission. He has also been making awkward overtures to the Maoists.

On the other hand, he has appointed Tulsi Giri and Kirtinidhi Bishta, two old-time diehard ultra-conservative royalists, as deputies. The RNA has launched ruthless helicopter-gunship raids on the Maoists. The government has threatened to take over the property of any individual. Barring habeas corpus, all fundamental rights remain suspended.

Pulled out of the woodwork, Giri has staunchly defended the coup as having taken place under "compulsion". He says: "There is a chaotic law and order situation... because of terrorism... What are we expected to do? Will you allow killing to go on?" Giri asserts that Nepal is only doing the minimum necessary to prevent anarchy. "Every country has a problem... What did America do after 9/11? What is India doing in Kashmir?" Incidentally, Giri, it is reported, is a former instructor of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in Bihar and Kolkata. Bishta is known for his pro-China stand and an obnoxiously pro-Palace, anti-democracy orientation.

The Indian government has sent messages of disapproval to King Gyanendra - first, when it cancelled the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka, and second, when Indian Ambassador to Nepal Shiv Shankar Mukherjee met him on February 9 to urge the release of political leaders and the restoration of basic freedoms. These moves have had little effect on the King, although they were welcomed warmly by the Nepali public. Mukherjee - unlike the Ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom - had to wait for two days to get an audience with the King.

THE King evidently reckons that if he can wait out the pressure for a few weeks, the world will forget about Nepal. The time has come to go beyond words. Many options are available to India within the framework of bilateral agreements and international treaties and conventions, including the reduction of trading routes/points. But as a first minimal step, India should announce that it is suspending all military aid to Nepal indefinitely, pending significant progress towards democratisation.

Such a step is necessary for three reasons. Almost 70 percent of the military aid received by Nepal comes from India. As writer Manjushree Thapa puts in: "It is a tragic anomaly that a liberal democracy should foot the bill for such a suppressive regime, and that Indian taxpayers - themselves endowed with all the fundamental rights - should be paying for a regime bent on denying the same to Nepalis."

Second, India helped build Nepal's military from a tiny ceremonial force in the 1960s to a well-equipped, 78,000-strong force. In recent years, India donated modern arms worth Rs.350-400 crores, including helicopters, landmines and riot-control gear. These are liable to be used, and were used, against domestic insurgents and peaceful civilians. India bears a special moral responsibility to ensure that this aid is not abused thus. Indeed, India should ask the RNA to account for the armament donations (a good proportion of which were probably sold by the corrupt RNA to the Maoists).

And third, it is important to appreciate that February 1 was as much a military coup as a Palace takeover. It is hard to sever completely the two and to demarcate them hermetically from each other. The King would not have staged the coup without the RNA top brass' agreement, and probably some hard-line goading from it (The RNA has long been known to favour a purely military solution to the crisis posed by the Maoist insurgency.)

The King's power has a thin, amorphous, unstable and shrinking social base, and lacks legitimacy, especially after October 2002, when he dismissed the first Deuba government and dissolved Parliament. That power rests largely with the RNA and the coup has further strengthened it. The RNA is now interfering in the civilian administration. Breaking the RNA-Palace nexus is a precondition for Nepal's return to even nominal democracy - whether a constitutional monarchy, or a full-throated republic. So long as the nexus remains, the King can always throttle democratisation, as had happened in the early 1950s, in 1960, and in 2002.

However, India has been hesitant even to announce that it has taken the elementary step of suspending military aid to Nepal. Many media reports say that it has actually frozen all assistance in the pipeline - in the face of resistance from the Indian army (The Tribune, February 13, The Indian Express, February 16). But India has decided not to go public, or else, the Foreign Office would have confirmed the freeze. Nor would Foreign Secretary Shyam Sharan have said on February 15 that "India is constantly reviewing" the issue of military assistance.

This ambivalence is misguided. India can contribute significantly to the Nepali pro-democracy sentiment by declaring that it will not be party to the use of armed force to muzzle freedom. There is every reason India should do so - without trying to influence or lead that movement. Nepal is not just another state, another neighbour. India and Nepal have a very special relationship - with family ties at all levels and with the free movement of people and goods across an open border. The effects of a collapse of authority or state failure in that country are bound to spill over into India not just through refugees but also in a myriad other ways. The two societies and economies are sovereign and separate, but closely tied together.

India would be equally right to take the next step of cutting off all state-level aid to Nepal (as distinct from non-governmental organisations, which provide public services). Nepal's government has become pathologically aid-dependent over the years. Almost 70 per cent of Nepal's budget depends on it. In the short run, aid suspension might hurt some programmes relevant to the people. And yet, it seems to be the Nepali people's own demand. A number of exiled Nepali political leaders I spoke to in Delhi voice it. This is in keeping with the domestic popular pressure for sanctions in apartheid South Africa, for instance.

INDIA has carefully avoided even hinting that it might suspend aid - as Canada and Switzerland have done - and the Nordic countries and even Britain are thinking of doing. New Delhi's hesitation seems to stem from numerous factors: lack of reliable intelligence and sound assessment of the Nepal situation; a once-bitten-twice-shy attitude among some policy makers who regret India's high-handed behaviour in the past; failure to engage with different currents of Nepali opinion, including the Opposition; implicit trust in the Palace and the hope that the King will finally do well by his people; and above all, the fear that the Maoists will gain dominance in Nepal and strengthen Naxalites in the border States.

The last two factors are the most important. The fear that weakening the King will "naturally" strengthen extremist forces is based on a false binary. There are other forces besides the Palace-RNA and the Maoists, including parliamentary parties of different hues, civil society groups, and an intelligentsia that played a positive role in the mass mobilisation that brought democracy back to Nepal 15 years ago. Nepal has a small, but vibrant, media too, including community radio (in which it is a world leader).

The Maoists use indefensibly violent methods, including the torture and killing of non-combatant villagers, and extortion - as does the RNA. But they are not "terrorists" inspired by extremist or Pol Pot-style goals. They articulate, even if in a distorted manner, the ordinary Nepali's aspiration for a minimally tolerable life. The rise of Maoism is rooted in a myriad injustices and grievances. The space it represents cannot be eliminated through physical coercion - but only through land reform, minimum needs programmes in health and education, and a sweeping drive against corruption.

Most important, Nepal's Maoists are not fighting for radical agendas like a classless society, proletarian dictatorship or one-party rule. Rather, they want a more responsive, more accountable democracy. They have time and again pledged a serious commitment to multi-party democracy. The 75-point Common Minimum Policy and Programme of the United Revolutionary People's Council, sponsored by the Maoists, unambiguously stresses a multi-party system. The Maoists are also more open to negotiation and dialogue with government than most non-parliamentary extremist organisations.

Even more irrational is the fear that their growing weight will translate into a spurt in naxalite activities in India's border States - and threaten India's security. Naxalism has grown primarily, if not wholly, because of domestic factors related to abysmal poverty and landlessness, rural inequalities, collapse of public services, and appalling corruption in the bureaucracy and the police establishment - factors that spell a dysfunctional or failing state.

Naxalite activities now cover 170 districts in 15 States in India, according to the Home Ministry. Of these, only three States are close to the Nepal border. And in some districts (for instance, Darjeeling or Jalpaiguri), naxalism is about 30 years older than Nepali Maoism. The naxal movement is strongest in Andhra Pradesh and central Bihar, which do not border Nepal. If naxalism spreads in areas contiguous to Nepal, it will be on account of domestic factors.

New Delhi cannot both advocate a dialogue between the government and Maoists, and adopt a basically paranoid approach based on a questionable concept of "security". It should be guided even less by approaches that are soft on the monarchy, itself part of the tyrannical system of feudal and unaccountable rule familiar to South Asia. Regrettably, such approaches, favoured by former princely rulers and their descendants, seem to have influenced India's past Nepal policy.

These approaches regard the monarchy as "natural" or "organic" to Nepal - much in the way Jeanne Kirkpatrick regarded "authoritarian" (as distinct from "totalitarian") regimes in the Third World, and justified U.S. support for them in the 1980s. But Nepal's history, replete with intrigue and bloodshed in the deposing of dynasties, tells another tale: the Shah dynasty is as much an imposition as our princely states were.

Should there be a polarisation in Nepal between Republican and monarchist forces, thanks to an anti-Palace mass movement, India should know which side to choose. This argues for solidarity with the Nepali people, not interference in Nepali affairs. India must not repeat its blunders in Sri Lanka, Maldives and earlier, Sikkim. Indeed, India must be extremely careful that it does not appear overbearing or heavy-handed. It must be mindful of how its past actions - over water sharing and support for certain political parties, and above all, the blockade of 1989 - have been perceived in Nepal. It is of no minor significance that Nepal keeps its clocks separated by 15 minutes from Indian Standard Time.

But caution should not prevent India from leading the way, even while working with multilateral initiatives involving Nepal's major donors. India has a unique relationship with Nepal - and hence a special responsibility. It must keep other states informed, but it should not wait for them to seize the lead. Even when acting jointly - as the U.S., the European Union, Britain and India did in withdrawing their Ambassadors for consultations - New Delhi should demarcate itself, especially from the U.S., which has put the Maoists on its terrorist list and encouraged a purely militaristic approach to them.

The Nepal crisis casts a special duty upon Indian political leaders and civil society. They, more than the state, must act in solidarity with Nepali pro-democracy struggle, and aid it and strengthen it in numerous ways - unconstrained by state-level relations and diplomatic considerations. Supporting a worthy cause like Nepali democracy is an end in itself. It can only strengthen Indo-Nepali bonds and the momentum for popular empowerment. Every atrocity committed by the King against human rights reverberates in India. Indian civil liberties groups have as much of a stake in opposing arbitrary arrest and detention of Maoist sympathisers by our government as in defending our own citizens' fundamental rights.

Nepal's principal political parties will soon confront their Indian counterparts with a choice. They are gravitating towards the demand for a Constituent Assembly - well beyond a return to pre-February 1 and lifting of the state of emergency. This is a concrete, specific and minimalist demand, which at once opens up major possibilities. It represents concerns and agendas that governments can rarely articulate - as distinct from political parties.

Indian parties must forge strong links with Nepali parties on the basis of radical-democratic programmes. All Indians must unequivocally support the Nepali people. We have a collective stake in creating a humane and just order based on democracy and popular empowerment.



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