A new equation

Print edition : May 19, 2006

In September 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his Nepalese counterpart Sher Bahadur Deuba in New Delhi. - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Indo-Nepal relations must evolve from one of largely personal linkages to one truly between two sovereign states.

THE people of Nepal have won a remarkable victory in the bloodstained streets of their country. There are only a few instances in history where a non-violent upsurge of people has forced an usurper of the state to retract and retrace his steps. But if a major battle has been won, victory, encompassing peace for a battered nation and a clear road map for the future, is still some steps away. These are days when the political parties and the civil society of Nepal need to be mindful not only of their responsibility towards the citizens who have brought about the change, but also of the manoeuvres that will be attempted to derail the future.

The history of Nepal is one of deprivation. In the middle of the 19th century a ruling elite locked up Nepal and threw away the keys. In collaboration with the British in India, the image of a Shangrila and its valiant warriors was cultivated. The nobility could import Rolls-Royces, reduced to manpacks for carriage across the southern hills, for short drives in the valley of Kathmandu, while the population was encouraged to revere the King as an incarnation of Vishnu and to lead their lives much as they had for a thousand years.

For a brief decade Nepal was allowed to open its windows until, in 1960, the King locked the gates and this time kept the keys in his personal custody. After a further protracted struggle, democracy was restored in 1990. But the Constitution adopted included flawed provisions, which could be, and were, interpreted by the Palace to provide for its control of the Royal Nepal Army and to intervene and take over the administration at will.

The decade of the 1990s saw unseemly bickering for power by parties and their leaders. The Maoists, originally a part of mainstream politics, went underground and grew in influence in the years that followed, while Kathmandu was unable to deal with them either militarily or through negotiations. An initial, extensive police operation was characterised by harsh action on innocents and fuelled the Maoist movement. The Royal Nepal Army refused to intervene without orders from the Palace. The Palace, meanwhile, used the instruments at its command to increase dissension among and within the political parties. After the massacre in Narayanhiti Palace on June 1, 2001, there came a new occupant with the expressed desire not merely to reign, but to rule.

The political parties had not endeared themselves to the people since 1990 and there seemed no end to the dark tunnel of violence and uncertainty that Nepal had entered since the beginning of the Maoist insurgency. King Gyanendra found the prevailing mood of despondency appropriate for his assumption of effective control, in October 2002. It was, in fact, a coup, though not readily recognised as such, and was welcomed by the Western powers. The Nepali people may have had reservations but hoped that the King would deliver. These hopes were soon belied. The Royal Nepal Army made no effective headway against the Maoists, whose influence and territorial hold increased as the writ of the government ran only during the day, and that too often behind fortified positions.

As the King surrounded himself increasingly with pliable courtiers and treated the political classes with disdain and the people with contempt, the economic and security situation in Nepal continued to degenerate. Brushing aside the internal situation and international opinion, the King went a step further and assumed total control and moved towards the controlled royal democracy of his father. Nepal was now in a constant state of unrest and, eventually, in November 2005 there emerged a 12-point agreement between the seven-party political alliance and the Maoists, followed by another agreement in March 2006. While the differences between them remained, they agreed to engage in a comprehensive agitation to bring about democracy, with a commitment to a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution. This was followed by the call for a four-day strike from April 6, which saw police violence towards peaceful demonstrators leading to several deaths and an indefinite extension of the strike.

A peaceful agitation for the return to democracy became an uprising in which people from all walks of life, often with no political affiliation, participated. Eventually, on April 21, the King, counting on the greed for power, made a grudging offer to appoint a Prime Minister of the choice of the seven parties, which was summarily rejected. As masses of Nepali citizens threatened to move to his sanctuary at Narayanhiti, and it perhaps became unclear that the Royal Nepal Army would shoot unarmed fellow citizens, King Gyanendra agreed on April 24 to reconvene the dismissed Parliament. G.P. Koirala was later sworn in Prime Minister and he appointed initially a cabinet of seven.

It is undoubtedly true that it is the Maoist insurgency that has provided the background for the political changes in Nepal over the past decade. It was a challenge that the state was unable to overcome by force even as its own authority was being gradually lost to the Maoists in the countryside. It was the security problem posed by the Maoists that was essentially the excuse for the royal takeovers.

Besides, the insurgency highlighted the fact that Kathmandu could not isolate itself from the reality of distant Nepal, as has been the norm where Nepal has meant the Valley, and that security was indivisible. A sense of Nepaliness, of sharing suffering and aspirations, has come to stay. Equally true is that the Seven-Party Alliance provided the platform from which the pro-democracy movement could be launched. What the Maoists or the political parties would not have expected was the people's response to their call. Those who came out in support in tens of thousands and more across Nepal, risking their lives, were ordinary citizens. Their desire was for a final end to an autocratic monarchy and the restoration of peace. The strength of their voice should carry a message to both the political alliance and the Maoists that the mandate must be honoured.

The month of April may have outlined the future contours of Nepal, but it is only a battle, however major, and not the war that has been won. Differences between the political parties will surface on major issues of policy and even on minor considerations of sharing of interim power. Within the Nepali Congress, in the forefront as far as political parties go, there are established views suspicious of dealing with the Left, as there are others who may still be in some awe of the Crown. It is certain that every effort would be made to encourage differences. The hopeful signal is that people are gathering on the streets cautioning the political parties against deals that go contrary to the spirit of the revolution that has taken place.

The alternative to arriving at a firm ceasefire and rapid steps towards a Constituent Assembly could well be a state of nationwide anarchy. The role of civil society has been exemplary and it must continue to be intimately and credibly involved in the current process. Doubts will be raised on whether certain decisions of Parliament or the government conform to the 1990 Constitution. To such doubts the response should firmly be that the reconvened Parliament and the present government are not there by reason of royal munificence but in response to the expressed will of the people and to them, in the form of a Constituent Assembly, that authority must soon devolve. The issues are essentially political and least legal.

India has obvious and abiding interest in the developments in Nepal. Geography, history, the open border and the millions of Nepali citizens in India leave no scope for indifference. While the future of Nepal will be determined by its people, Indian views are not dismissed in Nepal and, hence, must be articulated with care. The interests of the Nepali and Indian people are congruent and there is no reason for those of the states to be divergent, except that it is for each to pursue its chosen path.

In the past year, India has broadly pursued a course of support for the democratic aspirations of the people. The few hiccups have been unnecessary and caused by the feudal and military connections between the two countries. Immediately after the royal coup of February 2005, India reacted by cancelling the Prime Minister's visit to Dhaka for the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as King Gyanendra would also have been there. Uncertainty was created by statements from the Indian Army and the Ministry of Defence, which implied that there should be support for the King because the Royal Nepal Army, loyal to the King, was friendly to India.

The camaraderie of the top brass was itself greatly assumed and ignored the fact that a recent chief of the Royal Nepal Army was of the opinion that Nepal's relations with India and China were in the ratio of 60:40. Nor is there any reason whatsoever to believe that Nepali soldiers in the Indian Army have any overwhelming loyalty to their monarchy beyond that of their co-citizens.

Fortunately, India persisted with the arms embargo to Nepal. Meanwhile, India also facilitated the agreements between the Maoists and the Seven-Party Alliance only to falter with the despatch of Karan Singh as the Prime Minister's special envoy, followed by the hasty and ill-judged welcome to Gyanendra's meaningless initial offer of April 21. Subsequent explanations from Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury's efforts to find a meeting ground between the Maoists and the political parties have put India back on course, giving its undiluted support for the people.

If India is not to stumble in the coming days and not send mixed or confusing signals, it would be important to keep certain things in perspective. Given the nature of relationships at all levels, it is unavoidable that feudal elements in India should have some sympathy for the Palace in Kathmandu. But such sympathy must be seen by the Indian leadership for what it is worth and not allowed to influence policy.

It also needs to be stressed that since 1960 it is the Palace in Kathmandu that has been implacable in its hostility to India in order to boost its image as the preserver of Nepali nationalism. The barbs in almost every statement from the royal government in the past year bear this out.

The argument that a stable monarchy is good for Nepal - and India - as a focus of unity and a fount of stability begs a whole lot of questions. The monarchy is today the main cause for instability in Nepal and the disdain for it in recent days is ample proof of its irrelevance in the coming days.

But if feudal support for the monarchy can be considered at best of frivolous importance, a more serious question is that of the Maoists. There is too often a tendency to despair that Maoists in governance in Nepal hold terrible threats to India because of its own Maoist insurgencies across a wide belt.

While the concern about India's Maoist problems can be genuine, it also, perforce, has to be understood that the past four years of army action against them in Nepal has led only to their increased hold and influence. If military action has been demonstrably counterproductive, surely there is some wisdom in bringing the Maoists into the political mainstream, as now seems possible.

Pet obsessions should not blind India to the possibility that a democratised Maoist movement across the border could indeed have a sobering influence on the Maoists in India. Few seem to note that the original 40-point demand of the Maoists contains hardly any suggestion that would not be welcomed by any state concerned about the welfare of its citizens.

Presumably in 1996, demands for a Constituent Assembly, abolition of special privileges for the royal family (not the abolition of monarchy) and bringing the army and the police under people's control were considered heady medicine. Today, the people of Nepal seem to want more.

As far as India is concerned, the references to it in the 40 points do not appear to be beyond the scope of discussion. It is also, of course, not certain that in any future government, it is the Maoist view that will prevail.

A new Nepal, gestating unseen, was born in April 2006. As the people of Nepal go about structuring their future in the light of new realities, India needs to offer a helping hand without being burdened by the obsolete calculations of yesterday.

One would hope that Indo-Nepal relations will evolve from one of largely personal linkages to one truly between two sovereign states, each acting in its own interests and those of its people, without, in any way, diminishing those of the other.

Deb Mukharji is a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal.

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