Himalayan thunder

Nepal declares a state of emergency and the spotlight falls on the role of the King and the Army after the Maoist extremists strike in a big way.

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

Soldiers guard the road leading to the Army headquarters in Kathmandu. The Army insisted on the declaration of a state of emergency as a precondition for its deployment.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Soldiers guard the road leading to the Army headquarters in Kathmandu. The Army insisted on the declaration of a state of emergency as a precondition for its deployment.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

ON the night of Friday, November 23, the Maoist rebels struck - and wrote a new chapter in Nepal's history of political violence. The latest round could well threaten the survival of the country's system of multi-party democracy and constitutional monarchy. Overnight, the four-month-old ceasefire was broken as the Maoists, in a series of lightning strikes spread over a third of the country's area, attacked the Army, the police and government offices. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which just a day earlier had been a party to the peace talks with the government and was holding mass rallies in districts adjoining Patan and Kirtipur, Greater Kathmandu, was branded a terrorist organisation. A state of emergency was declared and citizens' fundamental rights were suspended. Thus empowered, the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), which over the last six years had obstinately held back from taking on the Maoists even as the extremists wiped out large sections of the police force, swung into action, using helicopter gunships among other pieces of equipment.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had staked his political future on the peace talks with the extremists, is now on the defensive vis-a-vis his restless predecessor, the hardliner Girija Prasad Koirala. As the country lurches into what could turn into a bloody civil war with its inevitable fallout on Nepal's nascent democracy and human rights situation, in political circles it is being bruited that Nepal's previous experience with a state of emergency in 1960 saw King Mahendra oust the democratically elected Nepali Congress government. Worse still, it is being said that the failure of the Army to defeat the Maoists might be an invitation for India to step in to prevent the destabilisation or the radicalisation of Nepal.

Strangely, the government alternates between overplaying and underplaying the magnitude of the ensuing change. Playing ostrich is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which has stated that the government is moving ahead with preparations to host the 11th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Kathmandu in the first week of January 2002, as scheduled earlier.

The popular mood in Kathmandu spells business as usual. Despite dramatic press headlines of major clashes and scores of people being killed in both the Maoist stronghold of Dang in the midwestern hills and towards the east in Solokhumbu district, most people in the valley remain relatively unaffected by the 'distant thunder' booming hundreds of kilometres away. A couple of days into the emergency, the only visible sign that things have changed is the presence of RNA forces in sensitive spots like the Singha Durbar (National Assembly). But noticeably, there was little reinforcement of security around the Army chief's residence. More conspicuous is the saturated deployment of smartly turned-out police personnel on the main streets and market areas. In a bus, you hear passengers whisper about copies of a tabloid newspaper - Prabhat Kalin - having been confiscated from a news vendor. But there is little sign of tension visible.

Journalists were among the first to be picked up under the new emergency regulations which suspended press and publication rights (Article 13) and provided for preventive detention (Article 15). Even earlier, editors like Krishna Sen of the publication Janadesh, had spent extended periods in custody. On the day the emergency was declared, the police arrested nine journalists associated with publications said to be close to the Maoists - Janadesh, a weekly, Janadisha, a daily and Dishabodh, a monthly. Contacts known for their Maoist sympathies, when telephoned, were said not to be at home. The Maoist Central Committee member of the CPN(M), Rabindra Sreshta, was picked up from his Kathmandu residence along with 11 party workers. Meanwhile, human rights activists were monitoring arrests and investigating reports of three university teachers having been arrested. The Human Rights Commission wrote to the government reminding it of international treaty obligations to respect human rights.

Prime Minister Deuba, in an address to the nation a day after the emergency was declared, promised that the civil rights of the ordinary citizen would not be curtailed. The government, he said, had shown "maximum flexibility to try and bring the Maoists to the mainstream", but the "Maoist terrorists carried out attacks on innocents... assaulting security personnel, including the police and the Army". The emergency had to be declared in order to prevent a worsening of the situation, he said. According to a senior leader of the Nepali Congress, Chakra Prasad Bastola, the Army had all along insisted on the declaration of an emergency as a precondition for its deployment. Bastola was Foreign and Home Minister when Girija Prasad Koirala was forced to resign on July 23, 2001 over the Army's double-speak and eventual refusal to come to the aid of the civil (power) directive and confront the Maoists in a major incident of violence at Holeri. Indeed, despite the massacre by the Maoists of scores of demoralised police persons last year, the Army merely stood by. The question was who controls the Army - the King, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army or the elected people's representatives? It was a constitutional confusion that was exploited by the Army, loath to get sucked into a civil war-type confrontation. The former King Birendra had kept a line of dialogue with the Maoists open. Now the Army has a carte blanche in its offensive against the Maoists. It will not be constrained by concern of fundamental rights or, more significantly, structures of civlianised control.

Senior Opposition leader K.P. Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) argues that the government should have resisted the imposition of the emergency as a precondition for the deployment of the Army. "The Maoists, by directly attacking the Army, had in any case created a situation which made Army deployment automatic," he said. There is concern within the Nepali Congress, too. At a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) which considered the emergency Ordinance, several members raised misgivings about a possible shift in the balance of power in favour of the King and the Army. Kapil Srestha, a member of the Human Rights Commission, put it candidly: "The Maoists have created a situation which gives an alibi to regressive elements to subvert democracy in Nepal." It will make for a more decisive role for the King. He, however, did not think that a repeat of the 1960 monarchical coup was possible. "Civil society" is much more mobilised now, he said.

Bastola, a Koirala camp insider, admitted that at the CWC meeting members had raked up memories of 1960. He said: "This monarchy is not a natural monarchy, it is a legal monarchy; and for a legal monarchy to stabilise, it will take some time." Also, in 1960 the collapse of the Nepal experience of democracy was part of a global backlash. Now the international situation has changed, and democracy cannot be so easily trampled upon. "You see today the alacrity with which the European Union and the United States have expressed support for Nepal's action. If it led to the subversion of democracy, they would not remain quiet," added the former Minister.

What about the response of other countries? Bastola acknowledged that one of the biggest concerns of the CWC members was the fear: "What if the Nepal army can't do it? What if we're forced to involve foreign troops? Will it compromise our sovereignty?" The government, in branding the Maoists 'terrorists' is taking out additional insurance. Already an obliging section of the media has picked up the refrain of 'Taliban and Maoists,' hoping to win the ear of the U.S. Indeed, Deuba has all along resisted labelling the Maoists 'terrorists', unlike his predecessor Koirala who single-mindedly pursued a militarist approach to the Maoist challenge. The Left Opposition also refrained from dubbing the Maoists 'terrorists', although the spate of attacks on Maoist workers had provoked CPN(UML) leader Madhav Nepal to do so. However, as Oli put it, their acts are of a terrorist nature but their objectives are political.

Political analysts in Kathmandu had argued that post-September 11, the Maoists who had been calling the shots in relation to a weak 'collapsing' state, were finding the tables to have been turned, as was dramatically highlighted in their climbdown on the matter of a proposed mass meeting on September 21 in Kathmandu. The government banned all public meetings and the Maoists called it off. An editorial in Nepal Times (November 9-15) reflected the changing attitude towards the Maoists' negotiating strength. "The clock is ticking for the Maoists. It is also in their interest to have a negotiated settlement. If they had settled three months ago they may have got a constitutional assembly of sorts. Two months ago they may have got their national government. Today the best they can hope for is perhaps a constitutional review committee."

Was it a gross misreading of the Maoist position - that they were looking for a face-saving formula to enter mainstream politics after six years of armed struggle? Because that was all that was on offer in the three rounds of talks. After two rounds of frustrating talks, their ideologue Baburam Bhattari told the Nepali daily Kantipur (October 21): "Do they really think that after making these huge sacrifices we will be willing to join the present political system which is rotten to the core?... If we try a little and remember the situation of the country to July 23, we will definitely get the answer. Haven't our great fighters achieved one victory after another from Dunai to Holeri? Doesn't the people's government formed in almost all districts now show that the nation is ready for a change, that the people have accepted us and supported us fully? Isn't this proof of our success and achievements? How can you imagine that a force which has been victorious on the military and non-military fronts will surrender on the negotiating table?"

On the table were the three political demands - a republic, an interim government and a constituent assembly. Before the third round of talks, the chairperson of the CPN(M), 'Comrade Prachanda' dropped the demand for a republic, focussing instead on a constituent assembly. Political parties from the Left to the Right rejected the demand on technical and political grounds, but conceded that there was a need for a constitutional review committee. However, as Shyam Srestha, editor of the leftist monthly Mulyankan explained, a fresh constituent assembly would have opened up the whole debate on whether the people wanted a monarchy or a republic." Blaming the government for being inflexible, he asked: "Do they mean that the Maoists should leave all their earlier demands and simply come to mainstream politics?"

Bastola, who was a party to the talks, has a different take on them. He said: "The first round showed the Maoist impatient to join mainstream politics. During the second round they tabled their demands and we responded saying - no go. How could any government have agreed? In the third round, half way through, they abruptly broke off talks. In the media, speculation was rife that there was an internal power struggle. "Comrade Badal, head of the military wing, was pushing for a return to the path of armed struggle. On the other side, Girija Prasad Koirala was campaigning to conclude the talks as they were getting nowhere."

On November 21, Puspa K. Dahal alias Prachanda announced that the talks had turned out to be 'fruitless' and there was no longer any justification for the ceasefire. However, he left open the possibility of a new process. Two days later, thousands of Maoists launched a new and more violent phase of the "People's War", striking in more than 35 districts and for the first time targeting army barracks. The bloodiest battles on the first night were in Dang and Syangja districts. According to news reports, some 1,000 Maoists attacked the Lamahi barrack in Dang and looted 300 guns including selfloading rifles, LMGs, pistols and a huge quantity of ammunition. Sixty of the 200 men in the barracks were away that night. Fourteen personnel were killed, including an Army Major. Police posts and district offices were attacked and bombs exploded.

On the night of Sunday, November 25, the Maoists struck at Salleri, the district headquarters of Solokhumbu (Mt. Everest) district attacking the nearby airport tower, the police office and the Chief District Officer's residence. A special platoon of the RNA and the Maoists exchanged fire from midnight until early in the morning. Eleven armymen and 13 policemen were said to have been killed. The toll on the Maoist side could not be verified. The violence was continuing.

As on November 28, the Maoists had used with devastating effect socket bombs, pressure cooker bombs, 302s and sawn off rifles. With new equipment that they have looted from the Army barracks they are likely to pose a more formidable challenge. However, this time, pitted against them is not a demoralised and under-armed police force but a well-equipped Army. However, as human rights campaigners and peace activists point out, counter-insurgency operations, especially under conditions of suspended fundamental rights, have in the past been often accompanied by gross human rights violations, and such a situation can only strengthen the insurgency.

Oli is aware that under emergency regulations, legitimate political forces will lose out. "The Maoists are armed and on the strength of their arms will hold mass meetings and mobilise the people, for outside the Kathmandu Valley there is no inhibiting presence of the state's authority. We obey the rules, but the emergency will prevent us from holding mass meetings to counter the ideological propaganda of the Maoists". Ultimately, the battle has to be a political one.

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