Democratic worries

Print edition : July 13, 2007

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (left) and CPN(M) chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal `Prachanda' after the signing of a landmark peace agreement in Kathmandu on November 21, 2006. Have the Maoists got entrapped by Koirala and lost their capacity for independent initiative?-Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (left) and CPN(M) chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal `Prachanda' after the signing of a landmark peace agreement in Kathmandu on November 21, 2006. Have the Maoists got entrapped by Koirala and lost their capacity for independent initiative?

The process of forming a Constituent Assembly remains uncertain even as elections are scheduled for November.

IT is over a year since the April 2006 Jana Andolan II forced an all-powerful King Gyanendra to bow down before a massive countrywide popular agitation and announce the restoration of people's sovereignty in Nepal. The world watched with awe tens of thousands of protesters strip the monarchy of its trappings of absolute power, proclaim secularism, swing towards a republic, flag an inclusive federal structure and accept the convening of a Constituent Assembly as the decisive site for effecting the Himalayan kingdom's peaceful transformation.

The agitation also signalled the end of the Maoist-led `People's War' and the group's integration into a transitional multi-party democratic alliance, the launch of Nepal's unique experiment in loktantra (democracy) and the radical restructuring of the relationship of state and society.

It was a time when the Maoists appeared to enjoy enormous leverage given that among the oligarchy of leaders of the Eight Party Alliance (EPA), the chairperson of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) or CPN (M), Pushpa Kumar Dahal `Prachanda', and the president of the Nepali Congress (NC), Girija Prasad Koirala, had reached a tactical understanding seemingly based on the recognition of being first among equals.

Today, the air in Kathmandu is thick with conspiracy theories and growing uncertainty although the postponed elections to the Constituent Assembly are now scheduled to take place on November 22. Do any of the eight political parties want elections? Will the Palace-Army combine and the royalists in the mainstream parties just sit back and watch the Constituent Assembly abolish the monarchy? Will Koirala work to enable the survival of a ceremonial monarchy? Can the Maoists make Nepal a republic through the Interim Legislature Parliament? What have the Maoists to show for their involvement in "competitive democracy", especially as it has meant soft-pedalling on their primary agenda of federal restructuring, inclusion and land reforms? Have the Maoists got entrapped by Koirala and lost their capacity for independent initiative? Will the Maoists go back into the jungle? Will the peace process hold? Given the overall insecurity, the schedule of the June elections was never a realistic one.

Political tension is inherent in the paradox of the octogenarian status quoist Koirala presiding over the revolutionary transformation of Nepal. So the Maoists have appended a dissenting note to the compromise Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The Interim Constitution echoes the CPA insofar as "restructuring" and resolving "problems related with class, ethnicity, regional and gender differences" but fails to bind credibly the Constituent Assembly or indicate the principles of an institutionalised response to address the key issues of Bahun-Chettri domination, discrimination against the janajatis (indigenous peoples) and marginalisation of Madhesis, a regional group that is getting ethnicised as plains-dwellers of Indian Hindu origin.

So overwhelmingly dominant are Bahuns (who comprise 13 per cent of the population) and Chettris (18 per cent) in public life that indigenous rights activist Krishna Bhattachan describes the negotiations of the EPA as hill Brahmins talking to hill Brahmins. During their 10 years of "People's War', the Maoists had successfully mobilised the janajatis and made their territories de facto base areas.

Espousing self-determination, the Maoists backed the formation of nine ethnically defined federal units. Subsequently, they backtracked on ethnic federalism. Maoist leader Baburan Bhattarai wrote in the weekly Budhwar that "self-determination applies in principle but not in practice and that linguistic and territorial division also matters".

However, in contrast to other political groups in the 329-member Interim Legislature Parliament, the Maoists have appointed representatives of women, janajatis, Madhesis and Dalits to the 83 seats (73 Maoists plus 10 independents) allocated to them. This progressive outlook is also evident in their nomination of five Ministers in the transitional government.

The sheet anchor of the CPN(M)'s position is the establishment of a "democratic republic" through the process of an elected Constituent Assembly. Nepal's progress towards a democratic republic requires the elimination of the institution of monarchy and the feudal elements that draw their strength from it.

"We are for total abolition of King Gyanendra and his feudal monarchy," Prachanda told CNN IBN in an interview, in the context of Koirala's covert support for the institution.

However, in the interest of political expediency, the Maoists have put on the back burner their core demands of federal restructuring and inclusion. The extent of resistance to restructuring on the basis of community representation can be gauged by CPN (United Marxist-Leninist) leader K.P. Oli's response: "Limbus and Kirats claim that 3,000 years ago they were in a majority in their territories, but not today. In which district are they in a majority? Nepal is a country of minorities."

The janajatis are out on the streets demanding a principled commitment to restructuring and proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly. The Nepal Adivasi Janajati Federation is demanding "one ethnicity, one seat". Krishna Bhattachan, who is a member of the janajati negotiating team, is defensive about the government's accusation that their agitation is delaying the formation of the Constituent Assembly. He blames the government and the Maoists for not being serious about janajati issues.

More formidable has been the challenge of the Madhesi agitation and even more dramatic has been the failure of the Maoist response. Indeed, the two dominant armed groups, the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (Jwala Singh) and the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (Jayakrishna Goit), splintered from the CPN(M) and Yadav Upadhya, the leader of the political formation Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), is a former Maoist. Maoist leaders accuse them of robbing their slogans.

"If the Maoists leave a vacuum, it will be filled," stated Shyam Srestha, Editor of Mulyankan. "These mobilised groups are stakeholders in the revolutionary process but find no place in the EPA structure. They are outside, agitating."

The Madhesi agitation prompted Koirala and the Maoists to amend unilaterally the Interim Constitution to address the issues of representation to Madhesis, particularly the delimitation of constituencies for the mixed electoral process. But it was too little too late. Confrontation between the Maoist Youth Communist League (YCL) and the MJF came to a head in March when a mob, which included MJF activists, attacked a meeting of the YCL in Gaur and beat to death 28 of its cadre. "It was in retaliation for months of harassment by the Maoist group," says Terai political leader Sarita Giri.

Some 11 armed groups are operating in the Terai and there is much speculation about the involvement not only of criminal-smuggling networks but, more significantly, of royalist supporters, who are tapping into Hindu sentiment, and Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh elements.

The MJF has steered towards secular federalism (Muslims comprise 4 per cent of the population), but Yadav Upadhya is not beyond flirting with forces of the Hindu Right, as seen at a meeting in Gorakhpur on the border in Uttar Pradesh. Researcher Prashant Jha, at the conclusion of a study tour of the area, did not find any significant involvement of the RSS or "Indian agencies" but of some minor religious outfits.

Members of Parliament representing the Madhesis protest inside Parliament in Kathmandu on May 14.-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

Given the multiple fault lines in the area - hill migrants vs plains settlers, Madhesis vs Maoists, and Madhesis vis a vis the state - the Terai threatens to become a tinder box. What compounds the situation is the fact that there is no shift in the discriminatory mindset of the upper-caste hill elite, says columnist C.K. Lal.

The Terai accounts for 40 per cent of the country's population. The Madhesi agitation has eroded the support base of the NC, although the constituency of the Maoists, made up mostly of Tharus and the socially downtrodden sectors, is likely to remain intact. The UML has its support base among the hill migrants. Top UML leaders such as Madhav Nepal and K.P. Oli hail from the Terai belt. Growing uncertainty about the electoral prospects of the NC in the Terai may be driving Koirala to keep alive the hope of survival of a ceremonial monarchy, in order to attract pro-Palace elements to his side.

Crucial to the holding of the United Nations-monitored free and fair elections is an atmosphere of security. The German Ambassador in Nepal, echoing the sentiments of the diplomatic community, said: "I would agree with other observers that under the prevailing conditions it would be impossible to hold free and fair elections."

India seems to be the lone player pushing for a commitment to the electoral process, despite speculation that like the others it too is falling back on the twin-pillar theory of constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy. The red carpet spread out for Madhav Nepal was intended to seek renewed support for the EPA.

According to sources close to the Indian establishment, the King's man, Surya Bahadur Thapa, visited New Delhi recently to seek support for the monarchy. It was up to the people of Nepal to decide, he was told.

India's apprehensions about the collapse of the peace process is driven by misgivings about the United States' grand strategy in Nepal. The US' "terrorist" tag still hangs on the Maoists. It could well live with a war in Nepal to keep the Maoists out, say sources close to the Indian establishment.

The security situation has been further compounded by the confusion in governance structures. Former Human Rights Commissioner Sushil Pyakurel, during a tour of 13 districts, found total breakdown in the structures of authority as everything had to be approved by the EPA and there was no coordination committee. In the Kathmandu media, the villain of the piece is the YCL, comprising commanders of the People's Liberation Army who have been kept out of the cantonments.

Schooled in violence, they use methods of policing that are rough. The YCL strength has expanded to 100,000, reflecting the Maoist interest in building up a contingency force. With an uncertain Constituent Assembly process, Maoist leaders are turning to street agitations. The Maoist policy of involvement in multi-party democracy emerged from a two-line struggle and that tendency is regaining strength.

Is the Palace recovering ground? No, says a recent opinion poll guided by social scientist Krishna Hachhethu. Support for the monarchy is at an all-time low: 59 per cent voted for a republic, while in 2004 only 15 per cent did. Curiously, more than 60 per cent oppose secularism.

Moreover, a June amendment to the Interim Constitution has stipulated that the monarchy shall be abolished if the King creates serious obstacles to the Constituent Assembly process.

The historical memory of King Tribhuvan's 1951 proposal for a Constituent Assembly and his son's eventual re-assertion of absolute power is making democratic forces in Nepal more and more anxious.

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