Himalayan challenge

Print edition : March 10, 2006

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), during his interview with The Hindu at an undisclosed location on February 6. -

Re-establishing democracy in Nepal is predicated upon the Maoists and the political parties building a non-violent movement.

IN early February, the Maoists of Nepal celebrated the tenth anniversary of their uprising, while the royal Chairman of the Council of Ministers, King Gyanendra, celebrated the first anniversary of his military-backed coup. Having sidelined the parliamentary political parties, the two warring sides are engaged in the relentless pursuit of destroying the economy, constitutionalism and the ability of 26 million citizens to live in peace and democracy.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka `Prachanda'), chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), marked the anniversary of the `people's war' with a blitz of disarming and unrehearsed interviews to the national and international media. For his part, Gyanendra gave an address on national television, replete with bald misrepresentations about how democracy was being restored, how the international image of Nepal had been burnished, and how peace was at hand with the Maoists reduced to "occasional petty crimes".

Even as the royal lips were moving, the Maoists were destroying district headquarters in far corners, blockading highways, and killing soldiers and policemen. The Kathmandu Valley might be protected, but there is little peace in the countryside. As for international standing, Gyanendra has all but ensured the country's status as an outcast.

The internal conflict should have been relatively easy to solve because Nepal's Maoists are home-grown. Additionally, they claim to be fighting a class war, rather than one based on ethnic caste identity where animosities would run much deeper. But the fighting has continued this long because it has become three-way; the play of dynamics between the Palace, the rebels and the political parties has created a complex brew that feeds the fire while the people suffer endlessly.

While the Maoists have terrorised the rural space, the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) polices the urban areas. It has benefited from the war in terms of men and material;soldier strength has doubled in less than five years and it has amassed guns and helicopters.Yet its war-making has been dishonourable. Besides fighting a dirty war marked by a high degree of disappearances and extrajudicial killings, the RNA was part of the royal coup d'etat of February 2005 meant to crush democracy. Since then, the army has emerged as the de facto administrator of the country and the militarisation has compromised the police force, the bureaucracy and society as a whole.

While the army's record may not match the rhetoric of some of its senior generals, it is true that the soldiers are better able to protect themselves in their barracks, with the help of sophisticated arms and training. And while the soldiers may not go and defend the district headquarters under Maoist attack, the ability to preserve themselves has been a setback for the rebels.

Rather than head-on confrontations, the highly motivated cadre is now reduced to conducting ambushes, killing civilian police and blowing up the government's administrative buildings.

Even as the capture of Kathmandu and state power through `people's war' was looking impossible, the Maoists were confronted with an unfriendly international and regional geopolitical scenario. Fearing for its own internal security from the burgeoning rebellion across the open border, India became dead set against the Maoists. Realising the limits of insurgency, the rebel leadership has decided to cash in its chips and seek a political safe-landing. Apparently, this process began three years ago, and the `great leap forward' was taken in a plenary meeting last August in the western hills.

That plenary unanimously passed a resolution endorsing a change of course to a `competitive multiparty system', which clearly meant - though not expressly stated - an abandonment of the `people's war' started in 1996. Events began moving swiftly thereafter. Parliamentary parties, stung by Gyanendra's coup and dogged imperiousness, decided to engage with the Maoists in their transformed agenda. Party leaders flew to New Delhi, where the Maoist leaders were encamped, and signed a 12-point understanding to face the royal regime jointly. Meanwhile, the rebels implemented a four-month unilateral ceasefire, which was not reciprocated by the regime. The daily death roll fell from an average of seven to less than three a day, and the Maoists regained some part of their lost political soul.

With the Palace continuing in its bizarre willingness to seek only a military solution, and the political parties as yet unable to bring down the royal regime through street action, the rebel leaders are today caught in a dilemma. They have fighters who have been propagandised and motivated over the years with visions of the glorious takeover of Kathmandu. To bring them in from the cold, the insurgent commanders need a convincing road map to place before the cadre. From the Maoist statements, their minimum requirement at this stage would be elections to a constituent assembly and a peace process facilitated by the United Nations or an alternative international presence.

Activists of Nepal's main political parties rally in Kathmandu on February 19 to protest against the monarch's year-old authoritarian rule.-

While the political parties could be persuaded to go along with this for the sake of peace, there are two complications: Gyanendra and his army will have none of it, and India has thus far refused to countenance any international involvement in what it considers its backyard.

Overall, New Delhi's position vis--vis the royal takeover has been unexpectedly firm in favour of democracy and against the royal adventurism. This stance seems based on pragmatism - political stability in Nepal is impossible to imagine under this unpopular King. A democratic and politically stable Nepal, on the other hand, would serve as an economic catalyst for the depressed contiguous regions of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Hardly keen for a romanticised Maoist rebellion in the neighbourhood, New Delhi also seems to have played a role in silently pressuring the insurgents towards a settlement, which perhaps explains the sudden switching off of their anti-India vitriol, which is now reserved for the Americans. For all the bravado in the Maoist supremo's interviews, the leadership seems desperate to join open politics, and the leaders want to bring their cadre along with them. For this reason, and out of its own self-interest in seeing a peaceful Nepal, New Delhi may want to reconsider its stonewalling of international facilitation as the Maoists' minimum requirement for face-saving surakschit abataran, or safe-landing. With Gyanendra not reciprocating the Maoist truce of last autumn, an opportunity for peace was lost. The Maoists reverted to ambushes, detonations, destruction of district headquarters and highway blockages. The country again descended into the pit of violence. Simultaneously, however, the 12-point agreement has provided a fillip to the movement by the political parties against the royal agenda.

The agreement having reassured the public that the parties would be able to deliver not only democracy but also peace, their demonstrations and rallies around the country began to gather steam and rattled the regime.

In the interim, Gyanendra pushed through a surreal municipal election on February 8, a farce in one act whose original intent was to convince the world of the his democratic credentials. It was yet more proof that Gyanendra holds the population in contempt and does not mind converting the country into a naked outcast state as long as he gets to hold absolute power. Whatever explains his autocratic, arrogant streak, it has been disastrous for the maintenance of lineage and dynasty. Today, it is hard to conceive of Nepal's monarchy surviving other than through Gyanendra's abject surrender to the people's will, which itself is hard to conceive from his domineering visage.

While Gyanendra maintains his well-known scowl and refuses to cooperate, the Maoist leader in his run of interviews has conceded that the Maoists want out of the fight. Putting a brave face on the party's climbdown to `competitive politics', he even suggests that this is the formula most appropriate for India's own naxalite groups. This lowering of rhetoric and jettisoning of the `people's war' would not have been credible were it not for the fact that the rebels were acting under pressure. They seek a `safe landing' before their movement becomes corrupted from the inside or is destroyed from the outside.

Gyanendra sought to use the excuse of combating terrorism to stalk and run down democracy, but his autocratic agenda today lies exposed. The Maoists thought they could take a shortcut to state power through violence and prejudiced ideology, but they have been stymied by national and regional realities. Whereas the rebels have now believably indicated their willingness to seek a political solution, Gyanendra has not. That leaves the political parties and Nepal's vibrant civil society to build over the course of the spring of 2006 a non-violent people's movement, a jana andolan, against the autocratic Palace.

King Gyanendra sacked the government and seized power in February 2005. A file photograph.-

The Maoists can only spoil this peaceful struggle, so it is best they hold their fire if they are not yet willing or able to put down their gun. Only a non-violent movement can deliver peace and democracy simultaneously, which is what the people of Nepal want.

Kanak Mani Dixit is editor of Himal Southasian and publisher of Himal Khabarpatrika.

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