New direction

Print edition : December 15, 2006

PEOPLE CELEBRATE PEACE on the streets of Kathmandu on November 22. - GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

The Government of Nepal and the Maoists make peace and set out a road map for a democratic future.

ON November 21, the government of Nepal and the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which committed both sides to ending violence and setting out a road map for the future. This enlarged and formalised the agreement reached two weeks earlier between the ruling Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists. Peace, which has eluded the country for the past decade, has been given a chance.

Over the years, some people maintained that the only answer to the Maoist challenge lay in negotiations. A great deal of bloodshed later, this has brought about a framework of peace and progress. The negotiated transformation of a militant, revolutionary outfit into a political party opting to share power in a multi-party democracy is a unique event. However it is still only the beginning of a journey and the commitment so far displayed by the actors will have to hold firm in the face of the challenges ahead.

The agreements commit the signatories to "sincerely and strictly" abiding by all undertakings, agreements and code of conduct agreed upon earlier and provide for an interim Parliament in which the Maoists will be represented by 73 members in a house of 330. Two hundred and nine members will be representatives of the Seven Party Alliance, who were elected members of the dissolved Parliament (excluding those who did not participate in the "jana andolan", or people's movement). Maoist arms will be kept under United Nations supervision and members of the Maoist army will be confined to seven cantonments and 21 sub-cantonments.

Other decisions include investigating the fate of people on all sides who `disappeared', returning properties seized by the Maoists and rehabilitating Maoist combatants. Elections to the Constituent Assembly, due in mid-June 2007, will be monitored by the U.N. The electoral system will be an even mixture of direct and proportional representation (on the German model). The decision about whether or not to retain the monarchy should be taken at the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly.

The most difficult question was on the management of the arms of the Maoists. On the one hand, there was genuine and understandable concern in Nepal that without disarming Maoist cadre there would be no level playing field before the elections. The Maoists, on the other hand, recalled earlier instances when the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) laid down arms but the establishment failed to keep its promises, particularly in the instance in which it kept the convening of a Constituent Assembly pending for over five decades.

The solution became acceptable to the Maoists after it was agreed that the restrictions would also apply to some of the arms of the Nepali Army and they were assured of U.N. monitoring. It is always possible to argue that there may be loopholes in the arrangement and confidence in the success of the procedure will depend on how events unfold.

However, what is important at present is that there has been a demonstration of some mutual confidence by all concerned.The Maoist leadership had expressed its commitment to a multi-party democratic system of governance in Nepal in the context of the common movement to undo the royal takeover. Its present decision to participate in the interim government and the elections is another major step forward. It would have been a difficult task to persuade the cadre to engage in a new kind of activity where persuasion would have to be carried out by reason and appeal to self-interest without the gun as the arbiter. It is also a major decision by the Seven Party Alliance, whose members have been prevented from carrying out their normal activities in the countryside.

The future of the monarchy was obviously one of the major areas of recent discussions, even though the people had expressed themselves unequivocally in the tumultuous days before April 24, when they retrieved state power from the Palace. There was consensus that while the people would decide if the monarchy should remain, it would at best do so for ceremonial purposes. References to the monarchy as one of the two pillars of the Nepali state are no longer heard in Nepal (or India).

The various arguments advanced for the retention or otherwise of the monarchy may or may not have merit, depending on one's perspective. But in the light of recent events, continuing suggestions that the monarchy is a unifying factor is an affront to the Nepali people's sense of unity and nationhood.

Adherents of the view that the monarchy is necessary for Nepal perhaps fear that without the palace the country would be run over by hardline communists. Such a view ignores the history of the palace over the past five decades and gives no credit to the demonstrated democratic urges of the people.

PRIME MINISTER GIRIJA Prasad Koirala and Maoist leader Prachanda after signing the peace accord in Kathmandu on November 21.-BINOD JOSHI/AP

Recent experience should strongly tilt views against the continuation of monarchy in any form. Otherwise, it is likely that observers abroad may make the same misjudgement they made in assessing the mood of the Nepali people prior to the royal capitulation on April 24 this year.

The challenge before the Maoists is the most daunting. Governance in the coming days will be a learning experience. `Prachanda path', as the ideology of Nepali Maoism constructed by Pushpa Kamal Das, or Prachanda, is known, will have to be revised. If the Maoists are to win popular acceptance, their nationalism will have to be seen as inclusive.

A good starting point may be to analyse the 40-point demands of 1996 - many of them were quite unexceptional but none was taken seriously by the establishment - which resulted in Prachanda's followers spending subsequent years in the wilderness. Many of the points are contained in the agreements just reached.

The Maoists need to demonstrate that the unique event of a band of revolutionaries trusting the will of the people in free elections is not a mirage. As members of the interim government, the Maoist leaders will need to ensure that the promises they hold out while campaigning for the Constituent Assembly are rooted in reality.

Further, there is the question of militias that may claim to act for the Maoists. Disciplining them and keeping them within the parameters of the law will be no easy task. As members of the interim government, the Maoist leadership cannot divest itself of this responsibility. Indeed, as is noted in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, "the concept of `two sides', as mentioned in this agreement, would automatically cease to exist after the constitution of the Interim Legislature - Parliament." The scope for holding the `other' responsible for shortcomings diminishes, if not disappears.

Meanwhile, as Prachanda confessed in New Delhi, the party stands accused of both selling out on principles and engaging in a charade with a view to an armed takeover. Both views, he said, were incorrect. It may be expected that a psychological war, based on disinformation to discredit the Maoists and divide the political classes, could be waged.

Members of the Seven Party Alliance will have to adjust to a confident and self-assured Maoist political party. Regrettably, their own record in governance since 1990 does not redound to their credit. But the consistency with which they have stood by the people against all odds after the royal coup, in terms of both internal threats and international vacillation at critical moments, should stand them in good stead. They have gauged accurately the desire of the Nepali people for peace and a future rooted in democratic norms. The CPN (UML), offering its own version of Marxism, would have particular reason to be concerned and it is to be hoped that its rhetoric does not spill over.

People used to conventional administration based on the preservation of existing structures of state, economy and privileges may be aghast that a group described even now as terrorists by some should be allowed to succeed after its armed revolt against state power and permitted entry into legitimate political activity. Caution about the transformation of the Maoists into a party committed to multi-party democracy is understandable, as is concern about Maoist arms, as was indeed demonstrated in the recent negotiations. These concerns can best be met by strict compliance from the Maoists with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

However, it is also worth noting that state power failed, despite all international assistance, to quell the Maoists, who only increased their reach over the years. The heaviest toll was that of the common people, the majority of whom were targets of state power. The window of opportunity for peace and an inclusive democracy cannot be ignored by turning otherwise legitimate concerns into paranoia where distrust feeds on itself.

It is not a matter of whether the Maoists can be trusted. Trust in the Maoists, or for that matter their trust in others, can only be to the extent that agreed objectives need to be pursued. Trust from neither side can be such that the other side can take undue advantage. But the absence of unlimited or unqualified trust should not be equated with active distrust.

It would be tragic if the Maoists are seen as the `other' when a genuine possibility for an inclusive and lasting peace seems to be on the anvil. Nor should it be expected that the Maoists are willing to enter mainstream politics for any purpose other than acquiring state power. Acquiring political power is, without exception, the objective of all genuine political parties. The objective is not exceptionable; the means could be. Elections monitored by the U.N. in a multi-party democracy should provide a level playing field for all.

In the days to come, lessons from the past should be remembered. The Maoists might recall that their years of insurgency brought the country to a standstill and being locked in a stalemate with the Army brought them no nearer to the power they needed to serve the people. The chain of events leading to the pull-back by the King on April 24 was possible because the people of Nepal rose as one as the Seven Party Alliance organised itself and provided the leadership.

The Seven Party Alliance might recall that it was the overwhelming popular urge for peace and its rejection of the royal manoeuvres that made the people trust them once again. It is not insignificant, and perhaps goes beyond the self-criticism of erstwhile communist-ruled countries, that both the Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance have agreed to internalise the errors in their past and promised not to repeat them.

These are exciting times in Nepal - a nation that is redefining itself with a sense of true nationhood and purpose. The challenges are huge since the physical and intellectual debris of the past await removal. The certitudes and servility of only half a decade ago are being discarded. The people at the periphery, the janjatis, Dalits and others, are asserting their new-found consciousness. People are daring to hope.

This not only puts a burden on the Maoists who sought change through violence. They were not successful but proved to be the catalyst. The people of Nepal have taken on the might of the state - and succeeded in asserting their democratic rights. The revolution, for such it is undoubtedly, has unleashed a wave of expectations among the people. In their new-found confidence they will no longer be spectators if the political class as a whole does not deliver. Nor may they be forgiving if a return to violence is encouraged. Henceforth, political promises from any quarter will be difficult to sell unless they are matched by genuine effort and performance. After centuries of feudal rule and years of bloodshed, a new Nepal deserves no less.

Deb Mukharji is a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal

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