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King's gambit

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

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Nepal's monarchy, which has taken centre stage in the country's politics, now finds itself under attack from the major political parties as well as the Maoist rebels.

THE Hindu kingdom's ritual cycle of festivals has begun. However, Gaijatra, the festival of the dead, saw little of the customary subculture of satire and political lampoon when everything is fair game, except the monarch, revered as the avatar of Vishnu. This was so perhaps because nowadays open criticism is common fare in the streets of Kathmandu, including that of King Gyanendra. Agitating activists of the Nepali Congress can be heard shouting slogans against the King. They can hardly be expected to be restrained, when party president Girija Prasad Koirala himself said at a public meeting in Birganj, criticising the King's takeover of power: "If the people reject him, he will not get a house to stay in." Koirala warned that the King may have "to leave the country and start a hotel business to earn a living if he does not correct his mistakes". (Before the massacre of the immediate royal line of his brother King Birendra in June 2001, Gyanendra was a successful businessman with controlling interest in a leading hotel in Nepal.)

Not since the Palace massacre has the institution of monarchy been dragged into such controversy. Then there was a closing of ranks, with the political parties joining the royalists in support of the survival of the institution of constitutional monarchy and saving Nepal from the fate of `Sikkimisation'. Today, with the King having positioned the Palace as the key player in Nepal politics after dismissing the elected government in October 2002, the institution of monarchy has been dragged into day-to-day politics. The 18-point agenda of the agitating political parties calls for curtailing the powers of the King; only a constitutional monarchy, with the proviso of a referendum, is acceptable to them. In fact, the republican and secular overtones of the agenda prompted the Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh to put up banners, coinciding with the King's birthday, extolling the King as the symbol of Nepali nationalism, particularly Hindu nationalism.

Meanwhile, Baburam Bhattarai, the main ideologue of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), in an article in Kantipur daily on August 10, reminded the public of the Maoists' republican agenda, though the actual demand is for the people to decide through an elected constituent assembly. The article reiterates the appeal to the King to see the writing on the wall and exit. More important, it emphasises the involvement of the King if the third round of peace talks are to succeed. Only the King "can empower the present government negotiators and give then the authority to decide his and his army's fate," Bhattarai wrote.

The King's proactive role has made the monarchy emerge as the key political player backed by the influential international community, a factor for stability and the bulwark against Maoist anarchy in Nepal. Its consequences could be endgame for the monarchy or, as the political parties with their conspiracy theories fear, a compromise that enables the King to consolidate his proactive role and the Maoists to gain power. Nepali Congress leader Chakra Prasad Bastola said: "In one act of constitutional reform, the King could hunt down the political parties and the Maoists, that is, not addressing the `ifs and buts' in the Constitution that have enabled the King to take over."

Apparently, the government's `forward-looking political agenda', tabled at the third round of talks in Nepalgunj on August 17, proposes only cosmetic reforms and leaves un-addressed issues of structural reform of the `feudal structures embedded in the Nepal polity'. The concept paper of the government's negotiating team, comprising Kamal Thapa and Prakash Chandra Lohani, says nothing about the role of the King, the Army and a secular state. Although it concedes the first two parts of the Maoists demand to convene an all-party round table conference to adopt a national consensus document and to form an interim electoral government in which the Maoists would be present, it is silent on the crucial demand for a constituent assembly that would restructure the Nepal polity. Instead, elections and constitutional amendments are proposed within the parameters of the existing constitution. Also proposed as a key item on the agenda is the surrender of arms by the Maoists, which the Maoists have rejected as ridiculous. "We reject the notion that law and order will be restored just by surrendering arms," Bhattarai said.

However, despite the negative rhetoric of `a hopeless offer' and `talks heading towards failure', at the time of writing the talks were to continue in Nepalgunj, in the mid-western stronghold of the Maoists. While the talks were on, thousands of people demonstrated for peace in Nepalgunj, amidst reports of 17 armed Maoists having been killed in clashes with the Army and the police.

Earlier, the peace process ran into a crisis after the second round of talks in May because the Palace and the Army disowned the oral commitments apparently made by the Narayan Singh Pun-Ramesh Nath Pandey negotiating team, especially on restricting the Army to a 5 km radius of the barracks. Senior Army sources blamed it on the `warlordism' of the two ambitious negotiators of a government handpicked by the King. Diplomatic sources saw it as an example of the Palace, under pressure from the agitating political parties, succumbing to the Maoists, who were taking tactical advantage of a divided ruling establishment. The commitment promptly came unstuck. The Army had not been consulted and its public protest led to speculation about the Palace's control of the Army.

THE Lok Bahadur Chand government was sacked, ostensibly for failing to stem the five-party agitation against the monarch's move to appropriate executive powers on the basis of the ambiguities in the 1991 Constitution. His successor was another Palace nominee, Surya Bahadur Thapa, who was appointed bypassing the claims of the leaders of the political parties represented in the dissolved Parliament. Thapa's government was nominated on May 30, and was denounced by the major political parties as `unconstitutional' and as a proxy, notwithstanding the Palace's statement that `executive powers' had devolved on the government. Thapa said that his government's priority was to tackle the Maoist problem. He said: "The problem with the parties is a temporary phenomenon." However, the half-dozen round of informal exchanges with the Maoists failed to end the crisis of confidence. Six months after the ceasefire, there was danger of the peace talks breaking down.

Until a couple of months ago, in line with the code of conduct agreement reached in March, the Army and the Maoists were at pains to avoid engaging each other in their respective territorial areas of control. There was a de facto border between the two authorities of a state within a state. However, after the disowning of the controversial May 9 understanding to restrict the Army, confrontations increased. The Army embarked on `humanitarian health missions' into the rural hinterland, which the Maoists saw as unwarranted intrusions into their areas. Low-intensity clashes became frequent, though there was no frontal attack on police or Army camps. "Whereas engagement was avoided before, now at every point there was confrontation," said Colonel Deepak Gurung, a spokesman of the Royal Nepal Army.

Intelligence sources point out that among the Maoists, a section is desperate to go back to the jungle. Army sources felt that the Maoists were seeking to put pressure on the government to deliver at the peace table. Six months after the ceasefire, the Maoist leadership had politically little to show the cadre. The demand for a three-stage political transformation in Nepal polity - the convening of a round-table conference, the formation of an interim government headed by the Maoists and elections to a constituent assembly - had not been met entirely. Increasing complaints of `extortion' signalled the need of the Maoists to mobilise funds to feed the `People's Army'. Media reports spoke of an increasing number of violations of the code of conduct on both sides, including abductions, forced extraction of donations and arrests. The situation was exacerbated by the absence of a monitoring mechanism. Sushil Pyakurel, member of the country's National Human Right Commission (NHRC), said that though the Maoists and the government had agreed that the NHRC would monitor an expanded human rights-cum-ceasefire code of conduct, they were distancing themselves from this commitment. The Nepali human rights organisation INSEC maintained that since the ceasefire 46 people were killed - 26 by the Maoists and 20 by the security forces. The government accused the Maoists of abducting 217 people.

More ominous was the uncertainty about the security guarantee for the Maoist leaders, especially with multiple agencies working at cross purposes, as was evident from the `abduction' of Bahart Dungana, the spokesperson of the Maoists, in July. In June, the five-member Maoist negotiating team suddenly dropped out of sight in the valley. After Dungana's abduction, the Kathmandu office of the CPN(Maoist) was closed down. The Maoist student organisation, ANNISU-R, also closed its office because its leaders were being rounded up.

Meanwhile, the Maoists sought assurances in writing from the Thapa government that the negotiating team was empowered to make independent decisions and implement them. Baburam Bhattarai's letters to the government in July were more like an ultimatum, indicating a hardening of stand. He demanded that the King be directly involved in the talks or demonstrate his backing for the negotiators. And, Bhattarai said, "if the agreement of the second round of talks was not implemented, we will be forced to conclude that the government has unilaterally breached the ceasefire agreement". Bhattarai also demanded the abrogation of the Nepal-United States Anti-Terrorism Pact within a week and the expulsion from the country of U.S. Military advisers. The government responded that there were no permanent U.S. military advisers based in the country and the Anti-Terrorism Pact was not Maoist-specific and was in force in 40 other countries. More important, as promised in the second round of talks, three central committee members of the CPN (Maoist), including Bamdev Chettri, abducted in 2001 from New Delhi where he was working in the Jawaharlal Nehru University library, were released. (The three have since been purged.) The whereabouts of 35 of the 322 missing were also disclosed. Maoist chairman `Prachanda' responded to this gesture by agreeing to talks on the political agenda and calling for the participation of political parties.

The government conceded the Maoist demand that the political agenda, and not the `technicalities' of the ceasefire code of conduct, be addressed first. The international donor community whose priority is the stopping of the violence, and not political transformation, was pushing a strategy of dealing with the issues of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Diplomatic sources consider the agitation of the political parties as placing the King at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Maoists.

Four months after the Thapa government took over, the third round of talks began. But all that was on offer was the status quo, with a soft landing for the Maoists and sops for specific constituencies such as the janjatis (tribal people, who constitute 37 per cent of the population) and Dalits (7 per cent) and women, who have been mobilised in large numbers by the Maoist agenda of structurally eliminating regional, ethnic, caste and gender discrimination and disadvantage. The government's political proposals do not address the structural roots of the conflict and it evade the crucial issue of the King and the Army.

Taking favourable note of Kamal Thapa's clarification that it would not be in the nation's interest to constrain the Army to 5 km radius of the barracks, a senior officer in the RNA was confident that the Thapa government, unlike its predecessor, would not compromise the Army's interests. These were `technicalities' that the Maoists had agreed to waive off in order to focus on the much larger question of who should control the Army, the people's representative government or the Palace. Earlier, the Maoists had joined the political parties in demanding that the Army should be under the government and not the King, as currently sanctioned under an ambiguous Article in the 1991 Constitution. Clearly, the Army has it own reservations. "The political parties are not responsible, they are self-seeking. Look how they've politicised the police," an RNA officer said.

The RNA believes it was militarily gaining the upper hand when the ceasefire was declared. Col. Gurung said: "There was no question of a strategic equilibrium, the Maoists were facing recruitment problems, were unable to establish a base in the east or take the Saleri armoury. They have no outside support. They would never have come to the negotiating table unless they were weak." Rejecting the label of a `parade ground army professonalising itself', Col. Gurung said that the new weapons systems had greatly boosted the Army's morale. In place of the ageing self-loading rifles (SLRs), troops are now equipped with the Minimax gun system from Belgium, 5,000 M16 rifles from the U.S. and, in the pipeline, are quarterly shipments of 2,000 more pieces over two years. A brigade has been equipped with the INSAS rifles from India offered at low rates when compared to the U.S. India has given two Cheetah (alouette) helicopters, and more recently, two Lancer helicopter gunships. The British have given two MI-17 transport helicopters.

As before, India is sensitive about Nepal sourcing arms from third countries, and has looked with some uneasiness at the expansion of the military profile of the U.S. in Nepal. Informed sources in the U.S. claim that to allay Indian anxieties, the U.S. has been seeking to keep India informed and involved, despite Nepal's insistence of bilateralism. The 9/11 syndrome has put Nepal on the U.S. global terrorist map, which has resulted in a huge assistance of $17 million, high-profile political visits, a two-officer military attache bureau in the U.S. Embassy and a substantive increase in military training. Embassy sources say that there is a quarterly programme of training, which at any one point in time brings in 40 to 50 U.S. military personnel from `JAG', doctors to counter-insurgency specialists. The U.S. Air Force planes spotted at the Kathmandu airport that prompted fears of a mass disgorging of U.S. troops were more likely to be C-17 Cargo planes used for embassy support flights to transport sensitive communications equipment or an occasional C-130 transport planes picking up uniformed military trainees. A U.S. diplomatic source said: "We have no permanent military presence or strategic plans to set up a base in Nepal."

That the U.S. is under pressure caused by fears about its profile in Nepal is evident from the press release it issued to clarify the circumstances of signing the April 25 Anti-Terrorism Pact and its official statement in support of the third round of peace talks. Moreover, in response to the Maoist threat against U.S.-funded development projects in Nuwakot and Sindhupalchowk districts, Public Affairs Officer Constance P. Jones chose to express "shame and pity". This was in sharp contrast to the U.S. Ambassador's statement on Nepal Television: "You put yourself on the terrorist list you get yourself off it." The Maoists have not moved against the U.S.-funded projects.

The international donor community, whose contributions account for two-thirds of the development budget of Nepal, is popularly believed to be backing the King at the expense of the political parties in order to keep the Maoists at bay. The U.S. was blamed for weighing against the appointment of a Communist Prime Minister, Madhav Nepal. However, U.S. sources denied that the U.S. played any kind of a prescriptive role, leaving that to the Indians and the British. Claims that U.S. interest is confined to the safety and security of U.S. citizens and property in Nepal have not convinced the Maoists or China. The latter asserted its interests in Nepal by persuading the Thapa government to hand over 18 Tibetan refugees rather than allow them safe transit to India, as is customary.

India too has backed the King while reiterating support for the twin pillars of the Nepal polity - multi-party democracy and monarchy. "India wants to be hands off, but in trying not to be the big brother, it has ended up not being brotherly," said Bastola, recalling the proactive role of India in support of 1990 pro-democracy movement. Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) supporter Subodh Pyakurel pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party was naturally inclined to support the Hindu King. Senior diplomatic sources in the Indian Embassy have made no secret of their dismay at the King's move to polarise the Nepal state polity with the King on one side and the agitating political parties on another, and thus weaken its capacity to tackle counter-insurgency. A successful Maoist takeover of power would have major consequences for India, with Maoists operating on its own territory. It is therefore ironic that the Nepali public is convinced that India is colluding with the Maoists.

Meanwhile, the political parties are planning to organise a demonstration of over 100,000 workers before the Palace in September. Without mass popular support, the agitation is increasingly looking like a sideshow fraught with the contradiction of the parties calling for peace and yet logically not being able to cooperate in the peace process. "It is the political parties that are keeping a distance from the Maoists," said Shyam Srestha, Editor of the monthly Mulyankan. It is a distance that helps the Palace. The King holds the key. As for the praja (people), the culmination of the festival season Tihar (Diwali) may not bring cheer but a renewal of violence, unless real flexibility is demonstrated.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 12, 2003.)

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