People triumph in Nepal

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

The democracy movement's glorious victory holds lessons for all of South Asia about integrating social justice issues with mainstream politics.

THE short interval between April 6 and 24 will go down as a revolutionary moment in Nepal's history, during which its people brought a supremely arrogant autocratic monarch to his knees through the sheer moral-political force of their collective action. Perhaps, never before in South Asia's recent history have so many people been so rapidly politicised and radicalised as they were in wave after wave of agitation in Nepal. Particularly noteworthy was the post-April 21 period, when King Gyanendra played what he probably thought was his trump card: the offer to appoint a nominally democratic toady government.

Rather than defuse popular discontent, this further inflamed it, forcing Gyanendra to reconvene Parliament respecting "the wishes" of the "Jan Andolan", and to acknowledge that "state power and sovereignty are inherent in the people". Ultimately, all concerned saw the writing on the wall: the United States, which had been egging Gyanendra to make concessions to the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) only to divide it from the Maoists; India, which vacillated at the crucial moment after taking a good stand; and above all, the Nepali people, who decided the King's time is up.

It is of no mean import that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) chief chose to distance himself from the King and reportedly advised him to sue for peace on April 23/24. Lt. Gen. Pyarjang Thapa could not have but known that among the young people thronging Kathmandu's streets were countless relatives of his Army's own rank and file. Identifying the Army brass too openly with the monarch would risk splitting the force horizontally. In short, even the most conservative monarchist elements concluded that it would be impossible to split the SPA-Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) bloc.

Behind all these classic signs of profound, radical change - one is tempted to call it revolution - lay one clearly identifiable force: the people of Nepal, in flesh and blood, who suddenly transformed themselves from subjects to citizens and gave themselves rights. It is impossible not to feel proud of the Nepali people and share their joy as the Pratinidhi Sabha reconvenes after four years to pave the way for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly.

This agenda was subverted twice, in the late 1950s and in 1990, thanks to the cussedness of the monarchy and the willingness of mainstream parties to collaborate with it. Now, a Constitutional Assembly is likely to materialise soon. Not only are the SPA and the CPN(M), committed to this through the 12-point agreement of last November but they are being watched by a vigilant public that has drawn great energy and confidence from the 19-day mobilisation, which witnessed the birth of its power.

Broadly, three factors explain this changed situation.

First, Gyanendra's coup of 2002 and his putsch of February 2005 made a grotesque mockery of the idea that the Palace would guarantee political stability in Nepal. The "twin pillars" - "Constitutional monarchy" and "multi-party democracy" - for long a convenient faade for supporting the Palace, collapsed under Gyandendra's horrendous misgovernance, marked by disastrous economic policies, cronyism, blatant interference in numerous Ministries, collapse of public services, including the police in half the country, muzzling of the media, and ruthless suppression of fundamental rights.

Second, the people's experience of parliamentary democracy post-1990 was on the whole positive and empowering - despite the system's many flaws, opportunism of the main parties, and their embarrassing record in power. There was a major improvement in social indicators - literacy rose from 36 per cent to almost two-thirds, health-services provision quadrupled, life expectancy rose by about 10 years, and access to drinking water increased 74 per cent. Nepal also witnessed fairly impressive infrastructure growth, with electrification increasing four-fold and total road length doubling.

Even more important, after 1990, development spread to the traditionally backward areas outside the Kathmandu Valley, which had hitherto concentrated all power in Nepal. Subaltern ethnic and tribal groups (Janajatis), religious minorities, and women, experienced an improvement in living standards and access to services. All this established the substantive relevance of democracy for the people. It enfranchised and politicised the disadvantaged strata.

A 2003 survey by Tribhuvan University said that for 62 per cent of Nepalis, "democracy is always preferable" to other forms of government while 78 per cent favoured either a limited monarchy or its abolition. A more recent survey says 55 per cent prefer a republic and 42.5 per cent a ceremonial monarchy. Only 2.5 per cent want traditional monarchy. The King's direct, draconian, rule was seen as negation of this, an obstacle to social progress, and an assault on democracy. The Nepalis took to the streets.

Third, there was a major change in the stances of the SPA and the Maoists, with their strong rural poor base. The parties were excluded from power and got alienated from the Palace. The Maoists radically rethought their strategy. Their ideologue Baburam Bhattarai propounded a new, healthy, thesis: in the 21st century, one cannot base a viable political strategy on armed struggle alone nor use controversial tactics - revolutionary violence - which Nepal's two big neighbours, India and China, oppose.

The Maoists took the bold step of committing themselves to moving "in a peaceful new political current," to institutionalising a "competitive multi-party system, civil and fundamental rights, human rights and the rule of the law," and to disarming themselves under the auspices of the United Nations or a "credible" third party. The SPA-Maoists' interaction with Nepali civil society groups, and with Indian parties, with whom they have always had fraternal ties, was a crucial input. The Congress, the CPI, the CPI(M), and former Socialists, played a catalysing role in the 12-point agreement. Under their pressure, the till-then-vacillating Indian government facilitated meetings between the SPA and the Maoists on Indian soil.

This paved the way for the successful boycott of local body elections last February and an agreement to launch a mass agitation beginning April 6. The agitation got increasingly radicalised as the Palace unleashed savage repression, with mass arrests, gagging of the press and community radio (in which Nepal is a world leader), curfews, and shoot-to-kill orders. This has culminated in an achievement that is historic by any yardstick.

Nepal's democracy movement holds major lessons for all of South Asia. It reveals the potential of our peoples for a determined struggle against despotic rule and for justice. It reassures us that no amount of brute force can suppress the popular urge for responsive government and self-empowerment. It gives the lie to the idea that "fatalistic" South Asians, especially the poor and dispossessed, will tolerate any amount of oppression without resistance.

The movement's triumph also shows that New Delhi was wrong to align itself for long months with the U.S. and Britain, supply arms to the RNA, and vacillate at a critical juncture, as it did on April 21-22, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh disastrously welcomed the King's ploy to perpetuate his rule. The Manmohan Singh government must fight and marginalise the domestic pro-Palace feudal and Hindutva forces. India's interests do not lie in any form of monarchy, even ceremonial rule, in Nepal but in a robust democracy. Today, that probably means a republic. India must support that demand against the U.S. preference for a "ceremonial monarchy" which leaves the backdoor open to manipulation.

However, the biggest lesson pertains to forming a productive bloc between the radical ultra-Left and the parliamentary parties. Many naxalite groups will probably take this to heart. It is equally important for progressive parties to treat them as partners while bringing them into the peaceful democratic mainstream. This can only happen if their agenda of social justice and advocacy of the interests of dispossessed and impoverished rural masses, are treated with respect and taken on board.

It is futile to try to deal with the naxalite challenge primarily with armed force. That approach has proved to be bankrupt in both Nepal and India. The social pathologies that engender and sustain the extreme Left must be addressed through a radical political agenda. Only then can India's democracy acquire a solid, substantive character and an enduring base among a majority of the people, which is necessary to counter the elite's attempt to hijack it. The best way of expressing solidarity with the Nepali people is to advance this emancipatory agenda.

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