NEPAL One of the more peculiar aspects of Nepal’s decade-old internal conflict has been that, for the past few years, the autumnal Dasain festival has heralded a brief pause in the fighting. In deference to general public sentiment, the rebel Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has declared unilateral ceasefires, while the government has responded in spirit, even if not always with formal announcements. The importance of Dasain to Nepal lies not just in its religious significance, although it is the major yearly festival for the dominant, mid hills Hindus. More importantly, it is the time for hundreds of thousands of Nepalis to make the annual trip (or trek) back home in order to catch up with their families.
While it is still fashionable to lambaste the above-ground political parties for all manner of inefficiencies and lack of vision, the fact is that they harbour a deep sense of distrust towards the CPN (M), which is keeping them from fully embracing the insurgency in an attempt to isolate the king. For one, the assurances of the rebel leadership have not been matched in the past by its cadres’ actions on the ground – particularly the continued harassment of party workers, including the use of extreme physical violence. For another, the political parties are not inclined to take the rebels’ affirmations of democratic principles at face value. The Maoists have sought to explain their changed stance by emphasising that Nepal has yet to undergo the transition from a mediaeval monarchy to a ‘bourgeois democracy’. According to an Indian newspaper report quoting the articulate Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, only ‘bourgeois democracy’ opens the path to ‘people’s democracy’ – an end that, apparently, can be reached even through peaceful means. The continuum from bourgeois-to-people’s democracy has certainly informed earlier Maoist proclamations, but in retrospect those appear to be no more than the mechanical chanting of communist mantras. After such hoary preaching, the new Maoist rhetoric seems to reflect something of a reassessment of the post-royal takeover political reality. This newfound desire to seek democratic legitimacy could indicate a political maturity gained by the Maoist leadership over the course of the previous decade. While India’s role in nudging the Maoists and political parties to work together is widely accepted, that possibility would not have come about without a critical review by the rebel leadership of their organisation’s own strengths and weaknesses. After all, despite their widely publicised control over 80 percent of the country’s territory, the rebels are no closer to capturing state power now than they were four years ago, when the RNA entered the fray. Chairman Prachanda recently conceded as much in an emailed interview to a Nepali monthly. “Realistically speaking,” he said, “in today’s international context, outright military victory is very difficult…” Various conditions – objective and subjective, domestic and international – seem to have forced the Maoists to prepare for some sort of compromise. Although they are still adamant about elections for a constituent assembly that would draft a new Constitution, the focus now seems more on meeting the political parties halfway. In the early days of the takeover, rebel overtures to the parties were heavy with tones of ‘either you’re with us or you’re with the king’. The change from such language implies that the Maoists may have come to understand that the political parties are only willing to find common ground insofar as the rebels make space for the resumption of the democratic process in Nepal – which alone would define the role and place of the monarchy, as well. The fact that such a process would be the only alternative that would find favour with the international community does not seem lost on the Maoists either. Conditions apply
The challenge now for the Maoists is how to make the jump from revolutionary warfare to open politics. That is also where the role of the international community becomes paramount. To begin with, it would be highly unrealistic to expect the Maoists to surrender their arms as a prelude to a negotiated settlement; the best that could be hoped for, at present, would be their public announcement to give up the path of armed struggle, with certain conditions applied. But that alone would achieve nothing in the face of a recalcitrant king and his army, where the only restraint could come from foreign actors. There is also a wider appreciation that the CPN (M) is essentially just another political party with a specific agenda, geared towards achieving power like any other political entity, the decade-long violence notwithstanding. A sober reading of all recent rebel pronouncements and documents leaves no doubt that the Maoists want it finished. The civilised response would not be to scoff at them at a time when they, or at least their leaders, seem to have seen the light. The proper reaction would be, as the catchword goes, to provide the rebels with surakschit abataran, or safe landing. It is subsequently up to the political parties to recognise this fact and to help ease the transition of the CPN (Maoist) into a legitimate and democratic political player; this would also obviate many more years of bloodletting, should the agenda be to crush the Maoists militarily, as seems to be the (misplaced) royal inclination. What is required now is for the political parties to engage the Maoists through a continuous process, challenging the rebels to stick to their commitments and helping them to help themselves in their desire to come aboveground. The prospect of the parties and the king reaching a mutually acceptable settlement would certainly be the least favourable scenario for the Maoists. But considering the emphatic insistence of the international community on just such a combine (with negotiations with the Maoists thrown in as a proviso), it cannot be entirely dismissed. Unless the Maoists figure out a way to wedge their way into any such compromise, they will find themselves once more on the margins of Nepali politics. At the same time, unless they are invited to be party to any political negotiations, tragedy will continue to sweep the killing fields and terraces of Nepal.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)