Nepal has entered a telescoped period of self-destruction in which a perfectly worthy country has been laid to ruin by power-hungry commissars with discredited ideology who have handed guns to the youth. This is class war without an identifiable class enemy. Arrayed against the Maoists are Nepal’s political parties, the intelligentsia, kingship, the police, the media – and the army at the latest instance – all of whom have watched this national disintegration with singular selfishness. It is the Nepali on the hill terrace whose world is being eroded and destroyed.
If, apart from the killings on both sides, there is a single factor that has been constant about the ‘People’s War’ launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), now in its seventh year, it is its unpredictability. Unpredictable not only in what the Maoist leadership is going to do next, but also in terms of how events are going to develop in the mainstream of Nepali politics.
Take the flip-flop sequence of events of the past year. In February 2001, the Maoists held their second national conference, which announced that ‘the guiding thought” of their party would henceforth become “Marxism- Leninism-Maoism and Prachanda Path”. Besides confirming General Secretary Prachanda to the new “highest post” of chairman, the meeting significantly left out the long-standing demand for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution for Nepal. This was taken as a softening in their stance, but even as the government was readying to respond, the Maoists went on a spree of attacks, killing scores of policemen.
The next surprise came after the 1 June slaughter of King Birendra and his family. The Maoists claimed the killings to be part of a larger conspiracy since, they said, the late king had been unwilling to use the army against them. Further, they asserted that “On some national questions we and King Birendra had similar thoughts” and that they had had “an undeclared working unity” with the late king. The Maoists tried to capitalise on the fluid situation created by the civic disturbances in the wake of the royal massacre by instigating the people, and the army, to rebel against the new monarch, Gyanendra, holding him responsible for the killings along with the then prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, and Indian and US intelligence agencies.
The Maoist attempt to drive a wedge between the new king and the masses did not prove effectual, and the massacres of policemen as the representatives of the state continued. Finally, in July, a beleaguered Koirala called it a day, paving the way for Sher Bahadur Deuba, also of the Nepali Congress, to take charge. This was a changeover the Maoists had been looking forward to, given Deuba’s loud submissions for a negotiated settlement. A ceasefire was declared by both sides, and three rounds of talks were held over three months (during which the demand for a constituent assembly popped up again). But then, on 23 November 2001, exactly four months to the day after the truce was announced, the Maoists broke it and plunged the country into a state of emergency. This time, they had dragged in the army as well.
In the political sphere, Deuba and Koirala have undergone a role reversal. Deuba used to be the Maoists’ darling, and his elevation to prime minister was celebrated by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’) as a victory over “the fascist Girija faction”. Today, Deuba has turned an ogre for the Maoists, having clamped down the emergency, declared them ‘terrorists’, and ordering the soldiers out to pursue them. In the meantime, the Maoists have sent feelers to Koirala, who remains the powerhouse of the Nepali Congress, in the hope of weakening Deuba’s resolve to get them to give up their guns before sitting down for talks. In a recent interview, Prachanda has gone so far as to praise Koirala as a staunch advocate of parliamentary rule. As for the main leftist grouping, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) — recently unified once again after a splinter group returned to the fold — after years of calling for a “political solution” to the “ultra-leftist adventurism” of the insurgents, it has come out in support of the state of emergency, and armed action against the rebels.
‘Fascist ruling gang’
The royal succession passed off smoothly enough, given the dire circumstances, and the Maoist role as agent provocateur notwithstanding. But the intense media interest which brought hundreds of journalists from all over to cover the Shakespearean tragedy sprung by a lovecrazed prince suddenly led to the discovery of the raging insurgency. It was open house for the international press, as reporters trooped off into the mountains in the company of Maoist interlocutors and reported to the world on what was happening in the midhills of Nepal. Nepali newspapers were not far behind either, as reporters went on ‘guided tours’ organised by Prachanda’s followers. There was a surreal feel to it all, not unlike the Narayanhiti royal killings.
Never ones to miss an opportunity, the Maoists were soon back in action. While there was no doubt about the institutional loyalty of the army towards the new man under the bird-of-paradise crown, the rebels were able to take advantage of a new equation at the apex of state power to step up their attacks. If that was a strategy to force the government to the negotiating table, it seemed to work when Sher Bahadur Deuba took the helm in July. Deuba, who had been heading a government commission looking into the Maoist issue, was known to claim in private that he could resolve the problem in a jiffy and was itching to get going. It was this confidence that drove Deuba to declare a ceasefire as soon as he took office, an offer that Prachanda immediately reciprocated.
It was clear from the beginning that the road to dialogue would be a rocky one, for the non-negotiables on the two sides were so far apart – one side wanted a republic while the other side was steadfastly behind the Constitution of 1990. It did not help that the talks were conducted wide out in the open, with the three designated Maoists representatives in particular setting out their negotiating positions in public rallies. There were no secret talks taking place behind the scenes as some may have hoped — what the public saw was what it got. The Maoists did not budge from their three main demands, which were for a new constitution, a republican state, and an interim government to make both happen. There were other clauses as well, but of the kind that forms the standard plank of any other party. No one expected miracles from the meetings, but there was hope that a breakthrough of sorts was in the offing and that it was the Maoists who would relent.
For the Maoists, the truce was an opportunity to reach out to the public – and also to be exposed. The rebel cadre emerged from hiding and began organising mass meetings all over the country, including in major urban centres. The biggest of them all was to be a rally on 21 September in Kathmandu, for which the Maoists claimed they would bring a quarter million people into the Valley. With the Maoists finally making a bid for Kathmandu, the capital-centric national authorities got worried enough to ban public meetings. This came in the wake of the 11 September attacks, and the government was emboldened by the worldwide condemnation of terrorism (to which chorus Kathmandu also lent its voice). Sensing the changing mood, the Maoist leadership called off plans for the Valley rally, and a possible showdown was averted for the moment.
Even as this was going on, there were arrests of Maoist sympathisers. Meanwhile, the rebels did not let-up in attacks on supporters of mainstream parties (although the police enjoyed a brief respite). Each side accused the other of endangering the talks, but neither pulled out, and the situation did not seem hopeless. Just as the third phase of talks was to begin on 13 November, the Maoists dropped their demand for a republican Nepal. Even though they continued to insist on an interim government and a constituent assembly, this was seen as a sign of flexibility – or, more optimistically, as a letting go of the rebel’s entire raison d’etre. However, the third round too proved inconclusive with the demand for a constituent assembly proving unresolvable. Still a breakdown was not announced and Prime Minister Deuba declared, ‘I am hopeful that the Maoist problem will be solved from the coming round of talks. The government is committed to solving the problem through dialogue and I also personally pledge to solve the problem.”
A couple of days later, Prachanda came out with a statement claiming that there was no more justification for the ceasefire, which sent alarm bells ringing within the government and prompted Deuba to ask Maoist strongman to reconsider his decision. Unheedful, the insurgents took one of their most precipitate actions to date on 23 November, mounting a surprise attack on an army garrison in the western Nepal inner-tarai district of Dang. Declaring the Maoist attack a betrayal, three days later Deuba imposed an emergency, termed the CPN (Maoist) a “terrorist” organisation, banned it and all its fraternal organisations, and declared that there would be no further talks until the rebels gave up arms.
The attack in Dang showed a fair degree of confidence among the militant leadership, for they surely knew that the army would finally then be forced to emerge from the barracks where they had been comfortably ensconsed for the entire six years of the ‘People’s War’. On, the day of the attack, the Maoists also announced the formation of a 37-member United Revolutionary People’s Council of Nepal, described as “an embryonic Central People’s Government Organising Committee” under the convenorship of Baburam Bhattarai, who had earlier headed the political wing of the CPN (Maoist) before it went underground in 1996. In effect, this meant that the Maoists had set up an alternative government.
What could have led to the Maoists to back out of the talks? A letter dated 3 December marked for heads of diplomatic missions in Kathmandu and jointly signed by Prachanda and Bhattarai, says: “As an immediate political solution, we proposed the formation of an interim government, drafting of a new constitution and proclamation of the republic. But when the idea of a republican form of state was not acceptable to the ruling side we put forward an alternative proposal of convening an elected constituent assembly so as to give the ultimate right of choosing between a monarchy or a republic to the sovereign people themselves. As this proposal, too, was summarily rejected and the fascist ruling gang mobilised the royal army throughout the country we had no other alternative than to return to the people and continue with the movement.”
The statement can be seen as a face-saving attempt to explain the renewed fighting. It is possible that the rebels’ political leadership saw no advance other than through political compromise, whereas the military wing felt its momentum weakening as the negotiations progressed. Days before the Dang attack, there was speculation in the press that the Maoists’ military wing was urging a breaking off of talks. The surprise assault on the army base could have been the militants’ way of creating a fait accompli to prevent the political leadership from reaching for accommodation within the existing system.
It will be up to the historian to trace the sequence of events that led to end of the ceasefire, but the rebels have been quick to point out that the supposed differences within the party were “just the figment of imagination of the reactionaries, if not a deliberate disinformation campaign to confuse the masses”. Indeed, given the vociferous refusal by parliamentary parties to consider even a constituent assembly, the Maoists could have been looking for a reason — as laid out above — to begin fighting in order to be able to bargain from a position of strength when negotiations began anew.
Rather than discuss why the Maoists broke te truce, it may be more useful to examine why they got into it in the first place, given that their demands were so fundamentally opposed to the existing structures of state. Prachanda’s views on negotiating strategy might offer some illumination. Talking to A World to Win, the magazine of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, in May 2001, he said: “Our guiding principles on the question of negotiations are the experiences and summation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty under Lenin’s leadership and the Chunking negotiations under Mao’s leadership.” (Instances where the Bolsheviks and Mao’s forces talked peace while building up strength for an offensive.)
By the time the Maoists agreed to the talks, they knew that their next adversary would be the men in green. The rebels seem to have used the respite to regroup, sharpen tactics and access more advanced weaponry. Already, by that time, their core fighting cadre had graduated from musketry to .303 rifles, and it was time to move up to automatic weaponry. There were reports of an arms cache of 400 assault rifles being interdicted on 2 November in northern Burma, thought to be headed for the Maoists.
State in emergency
This is the second time the country has been under a state of emergency. The first was after the royal takeover of 1960, when the multiparty democratic system was abolished in favour of direct rule by King Mahendra and political parties were banned. But that was at least two generations ago and few people have any memories of it. This time, a democratic government suspended all fundamental rights and freedoms, and Deuba made it clear that he was aware of what he was doing. “I am fully convinced that all the Nepali people, political parties and the civic society is aware of the fact that a government accountable to the people won’t take such a difficult decision if an unfavourable situation did not exist,” he said in an address after imposing the emergency.
Two reasons can be posited for the weak protest against the imposition of the state of emergency. One is that the government-Maobaadi talks had since peace hopes were raised, the rebels lost sympathy when they walked out of the talks and attacked the army in Dang. More significant, perhaps, was the behaviour of the Maoist cadre during their time aboveground.
One way that the ‘People’s War’ had touched people in all brackets was the ‘donations’ that were demanded for the ’cause’, sometimes on pain of death. While this was a permanent feature in areas where the Maoists were in total control, such as demands for food and lodging, collections were made in cities like Kathmandu as well, albeit clandestinely. With the ceasefire, the Maoists suddenly acted high-handedly. The extortions became pronounced in the run-up to the proposed 21 September mass meeting, and ‘donations’ were demanded from all and sundry, despite the Maoist leadership’s avowal to put an end to such collections. Meanwhile, factories, schools and even individuals were asked to get ready to billet the masses that would arrive for the rally. For the first time, the capital experienced first-hand what the people elsewhere had been living with. The situation could well have turned ugly had the rally gone ahead as planned, but, even without it, there was a positive mindset towards armed action against the Maoists among the Kathmandu middle class. That seems to have made all the difference in how the capital’s influential section views the emergency.
If the general public’s attitude towards the curtailing of rights was favourable, the press too bent over backwards to please the government. The Nepal Media Society, an alliance of the major dailies formed ostensibly to keep out foreign investment in the Nepali media, announced its intention to write “in favour of parliamentary system and democratic constitution, keeping in mind the situation of law and order in the country’. Daily newspapers that had been using various euphemisms to refer to the Maoists, overnight took the government’s cue in labelling them ‘terrorists’, limited their coverage of the emergency to government handouts, and generally backed off from their role as public watchdog.
To give them due credit, the much-maligned political weeklies continued to report in their inimitable fashion despite the government’s expectation that journalists would fall in line. In fact, one of the first post-emergency actions of the government was to take into custody journalists from newspapers considered Maoist mouthpieces. And within days, it even came out with a controversial list of do’s and don’ts for the press to follow. Further, to prove that it meant to business, the government began to jail journalists seen to be deviating from its injunction. As of the end of March, more than 70 journalists had been taken into custody. Many of these arrests were carried out by the army, which, by arrogating powers far beyond its jurisdiction, has been surprisingly enthusiastic in the crackdown on the press for perceived slights, large and small, occasionally making faux pas due to its feeble intelligence mechanisms.
“In establishing our form of actions, the first, second, third and fourth priorities have been accorded to: ambush and mining, raid and commando attack, various types of sabotage, and selective annihilation”, said Prachanda in the A World to Win interview. “With savagery,’ he might have added.
Even before the ceasefire, the Maoists had been known to execute policemen who had surrendered, while their ‘annihilation’ of supposed ‘class enemies’ and ‘informers’ were often accompanied with displays of the barbarism. Granted that the Maoists and their supporters, particularly in the hill districts of the midwest, had been at the receiving end of police brutality in the past. But, in the present phase of fighting, there is added viciousness to the Maoist actions. Security personnel have been found hacked and mutilated before being killed, while, increasingly, the Maoists seem to have no qualms about harming innocents in their zeal to sow terror.
The Maoists seem to have decided to put all political agendas aside and focus entirely on creating a sense of panic nationwide. Whereas the insurgents had earlier left Kathmandu blissfully free of their actions, other than some ‘soft’ bombs placed for scare value in the houses of prominent politicians and bureaucrats, now the bombs are for real and ordinary people are getting killed. Going by their unconcern, the Maoists probably view such losses as nothing more than ‘collateral damage’.
The successes against the army — both the surprise attack on Dang and a subsequent decimation of a platoon in Achham district – led to a new-found Maoist confidence. However, while the rank and file seem to have been let loose to carry out ‘action’ against political people at the village level, such as the killing of school teachers, the topmost echelon seems to have no illusions about the impossibility of toppling the state. Prachanda’s press statement in mid-February, on the sixth anniversary of the People’s War, provides a hint: “Our party appeals to all parties within parliament and outside and propeople forces to come together against the military dictatorship of the near-dead feudal autocracy. In this historic moment we are ready to be involved in talks, dialogue, fronts or show any kind of flexibility.” Significantly, he added, “We have never dosed the door for talks to find a political solution and we will never do so in the future either.”
The offer of talks was repeated in another statement two weeks later. Not long after, a group of human rights activists announced that they were gearing up to bring the two sides to the negotiating table again, while news leaked out that Congress Party President Girija Prasad Koirala had been in touch with a top Maoist leader through an intermediary. (What is interesting in all of this is the typically ‘Nepali’ approach of carrying out talks in the open, when everyone knows secrecy is what is required to hammer out real deals.) When Sher Bahadur Deuba visited India in late March on an official visit, mainly to seek support in tackling the followers of Prachanda Path, at least two senior Maoist leaders were known to be on standby to try and meet the prime minister in Calcutta. Although the meeting did not take place, it shows that at least one voice within the Maoists is for talks.
In the meantime, the Maoists have continued with their vituperation against King Gyanendra (and his son, Paras). The insurgents obviously consider the king an easy target considering that Gyanendra is still hobbled by the inauspicious beginnings to his reign. In an interesting letter directed at potential tourists to Nepal, put up on the web in March, Baburam Bhattarai tries to manipulate foreigners who know little about Nepali politics, indicating that the Maoists’ fight is against an absolute monarch, whereas, if anything, the war is against the Nepali Parliament. Indeed, the Maoists would have everyone believe that the emergency is solely the king’s doing, whereas the fact is that it has the concurrence of the mainstream political parties.
Their bluster and doublespeak could be hiding a creeping fear among the rebels that they could be facing tougher times. To begin with, the whole world’s establishment is now arrayed behind George W Bush in his ‘war on terror’. The international and regional scenario therefore looks bleak for Nepal’s Maoists. The possibility of capturing state power in Nepal, too, seems remote although the rebels certainly can — and seem to want to — inflict maximum damage on the society.
Procuring arms may not be a problem given the treasury chest the Maoists have built up and which they frequently replenish through looting banks and extracting ‘donations’, including from national-level politicians, bureaucrats and police officials. But the goodwill they had gained through the social reforms initiated in core areas where they hold sway is not going to last forever, as the populace gets restless for an end to the bloodletting, and for development projects, which have ended in large parts of the country, to restart. The government has cut down the development budget to support the expensive army operations, while NGOs, INGOs and the aid agencies have mostly retreated to the security of the Kathmandu Valley. While the Maoists may control swaths of countryside, the fact is they are unable to introduce significant development works that would be the way – rather than fear – to buy the long term loyalty of the people.
The most immediate concern for the Maoists could be finding willing volunteers to fill their ranks. It is reasonably clear that the large rural populace that seems to support the Maoists – even to the extent of joining their people’s government at village level – do so out of fear and coercion. When push comes to shove, the Maoists will probably find that they have only a few thousand hardcore fighters willing to fight for the cause. Recruiting is going to be more difficult since the mountainsides of Nepal have emptied of young men in particular, who are escaping forced conscription into the Maoist force as well as harassment during the ongoing security operations by a military that is unable to distinguish between different shades of red. They are leaving the country in large numbers as is evident from the increase in demand for passports in remote districts following the onset of emergency, and others have either fled to India or sought shelter in the cities and highway settlements of Nepal.
Sipahi vs. Maobaad
The Maoists have shown a capacity to spread terror, and the intensity of their attacks is increasing by the day. Considering the situation with utmost gravity would be the Royal Nepal Army. The attack on the Dang barracks tarnished the army’s image before it was even deployed. All in all, it seemed clear that the army brass which had watched the police being mowed down by the rebels over the years had not been preparing itself for the inevitable war that was slowly, but surely, wending its way to its doorstep. Army officers were known to boast that they would finish off the Maoists in a week, but it turned out to be an empty boast. Meanwhile, what people had considered the Maoist bluff about taking on the army seemed to be a misreading. After the army deployment their command and control structures have not collapsed as was expected by so many pundits. After years of taunting the army, the Maoists had actually demonstrated their willingness to take it on.
The army received another devastating blow to its operations and image in mid-February in Achham district, when the Maoists attacked the district headquarters and annihilated the army platoon stationed there together with the district police force. Dang was a surprise attack, but Accham seemed to show poor leadership and field ability.
It was not hard to foresee that the Nepali army would find the going tough against a rebel force that has honed its fighting skills over the past six years, using all tactics fair and foul, including villagers as human shields, swarming into police posts, psy-war through loudspeakers, and calculated use of committed core cadre when the time came to make the kill. In addition, the Maoists are innovative, building their own arsenals as well as developing indigenous weaponry in the form of ‘pipe bombs’ as landmines, ‘socket bombs’ as grenades, ‘pressure-cooker bombs’ for death-dealing force, as well as low-pressure ‘banner bombs’ and Molotov cocktails for psychological impact. Most importantly, the Maoists know their mountainous terrain. The perceived superiority of the army’s weaponry is likely to be cancelled out to some extent as the Maoists tum the captured weapons on Nepali soldiers.
The Royal Nepal Army’s strengths are those of any reasonably well-trained fighting force except that the soldiers are now having to deal with a guerilla force consisting of their own countrymen and -women. But for every conscientious officer and sipahi who is presently out on the field braving the rebel’s bullet are not a few who rue the day they joined the army for a comfortable, effortless career. The weaknesses are many. For a force whose central strategy to tackle the ‘enemy’ has always been jungle warfare, the army has been found to be significantly lacking thus far.
To be sure, it is hobbled with the task of securing 75 district headquarters, transmission towers, hydropower stations, the royal palace and other royal precincts and national parks. In addition, at least a couple of thousand of the army’s soldiers are away on plum peacekeeping assignments. The problem with numbers is genuine. On the face of it, the Royal Nepal Army’s strength does not look so bad: a 50,000-strong force pitted against a guerilla band consisting of perhaps a few thousand committed fighters. But, Prime Minister Deuba did not correct his interrogator on CNN’s Q&A when she suggested that the army had no more than “6,000 to 10,000 troops” and that “you don’t have that manpower or military capacity to really fight”.
A severe lack of intelligence has also hindered army operations, which makes one wonder what its much-vaunted Department of Military Intelligence (DMI) [check] was doing in the interim. That the 23 November Achham rout could take place at all, and that a thousand-odd rebels could gather undetected in the surrounding villages before the attack, indicates that the army commanders had been taking the Maoist threat lightly. Or they may have considered themselves invulnerable – not an unlikely possibility given that the last time the army was out was in 1990 when unarmed demonstrators heading towards the royal palace were cowed down by the sight of soldiers in full battle regalia. Going by the report of one Nepali journalist who was taken in by the military and interrogated blindfolded over ten days, the armymen seem to be gathering ‘intelligence’ from the daily newspapers.
Cause for even more concern is the battle-worthiness of the army. For decades, its role has been limited to providing the pomp and pageantry during public ceremonies in Kathmandu. The last time the Royal Nepal Army saw any real action was in the early 70s when troops were involved briefly in skirmishes with the CIAand India-backed Tibetan Khampa guerillas camped along the northwestern frontier of the country to engage the Chinese army. Since then, the only field experience the Nepali army has had has been as UN peacekeepers.
Institutionally too, the Royal Nepal Army has its problems, and that surely has a bearing on its professionalism. Stories of corruption having to do with raasan-pani (supply procurement) go back decades, and one recent report even involved the sale of arms and ammunition to militant Islamic groups during a peacekeeping tour of duty in Lebanon. Influence-peddling is rife, particularly to do with selection as the UN’s blue helmets where income is high. Successive democratic governments since 1990 have not dared look into the workings of the army, and because of that it is often said that the army is probably the only institution that has not been politicised by the politicians who have meddled everywhere, including the national police force.
But that is only half the story. There is politics in it, and it is politics of a by-gone era. The Royal Nepal Army likes to trace its roots to the conquest and subsequent unification of modern-day Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the tenth direct ancestor of the present king, in the mid-eighteenth century. It is no secret that the force’s first loyalty has always been to the monarch; that the 1990 Constitution has transferred the country’s sovereignty to the people has not really mattered – that the politicians have themselves shown themselves individually to be deserving of the army’s fealty is a different matter. The men who traditionally form the officer corps at the highest levels come from Kathmandu’s elite class and the position of army chief for close to two centuries has always been reserved for a small group of the powerful Khas-Thakuri caste dose to the royal family. For want of a better term, the Nepali army is feudal as only an institution that refuses to change with the times can be. What else would you call an army that requires fully-trained soldiers to help out as domestics in the houses of officers and, in some cases, in the houses of their relatives as well?
One of the biggest weaknesses of the army, like any organisation that has allowed fat to grow around its midriff, has been a hyper-sensitivity towards criticism and an unwillingness to consider itself also a people’s institution that can be challenged by civil society. Which brings up the most important issue of civilian control of the army. It was a sign of the conditions under which the present constitution was framed that, unlike in any other democratic system where the army is automatically under the authority of the civilian executive, the compromise formula worked out between the palace and the people placed it under a National Defence Council. And the king, as Supreme Commander, was to “operate and use the Royal Nepal Army on the recommendation of the National Defence Council”. In principle, the NDC is dominated by the government with the prime minister and the defence minister forming a civilian majority of two against the commander-in-chief, who is also theoretically nominated on the advice of the prime minister. But the army has marched to its own drummer, and this did not matter as long as it was not required to respond to a nation in crisis.
The officer corps’ defence is that being kept away from the grasp of the civilian governments has allowed the army to remain uncontaminated, unlike the police force which has been made corrupt and robbed of motivation by the politicians. One could have accepted that argument had the army showed its ability to hit the ground running once it was deployed, utilising its strengths to maximum advantage and moving proactively against the Maoists. Instead, there seems to be an attempt at covering up inadequacies by pointing at the terrain, the vastness of the exercise, and the ineptness of politicians, and so on.
Commander-in-Chief Prajwalla Shumshere Rana put forward his best arguments at the passing-out of officers at the Army Staff College on 28 March, when he berated the Nepali political establishment for its ineptness. “Who is responsible for the present state of the country?” he asked. “Was it mal-governance (kusashan) or was it the army? How just is it to burden the army with this difficult situation created by political reasons?” The speech was breath-taking for its lack of sense of time, place and propriety. One would hope that it is merely the angry letting off of steam of an about-to-retire C-in-C, but it is not unlikely that his speech would not have been vetted by the Royal Palace. In which case, the question as to whether this was a trial baloon being set afloat by conservative elements in the Nepali polity has answers that are pregnant with ominous possibilities. The commander’s statement is as political a statement as any that can come from the army, but if the past is any guide, the government will let the admonishment pass quietly. After all, it did not remind the army chief about his impropriety in asking his Indian counterpart for arms or when he made a similar request to US Secretary. of State Colin Powell when he came visiting in January. And it is not likely to at this juncture, especially when it needs the army to deal with the Maoist insurgency.
The challenge to civilian authority has become increasingly apparent over the years, and Gen Rana’s outburst is only the latest event. First came the self-same army chief’s demand nearly two years ago that an all-party political consensus evolve before the army is deployed. Then, in July 2001, Girija Prasad Koirala resigned as prime minister following the army’s reluctance to come to the rescue of the police during a hostage-taking crisis. Even though the consititution does not require an emergency for the army to be called out of the barracks, it has been reported, with Koirala concurring, that proclaiming an emergency was a precondition set by the army before it would go after the Maoists. The arbitrary arrest of journalists, often without the knowledge of the government, is only the latest instance of the contempt shown by the highest echelons of the army for civilians.
Revolutionary dynamo of South Asia
India was one of the first countries to support the declaration of the state of emergency, and its Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh the first to declare the Maoists ‘terrorists’. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called up King Gyanendra (and later Prime Minister Deuba as an afterthought, it seems) offering “whatever assistance is required” in the fight against the Maoists, and this was followed up with some military equipment and two scout helicopters. Soon, Indian newspapers were implying that it was only a matter of time before Indian troops arrived in Nepal to fight the Maoists, although Sher Bahadur Deuba denied any such possibility. “There will be no foreign troops here at all,” he told the press. “Our army is capable of dealing with the situation.”
Apart from being an act of good neighbourliness, there is more at stake for India in controlling the insurgency in Nepal, and that has to do with its possible tie-ups with Indian Maoist groups in an arc spreading from Nepal, through Bihar, Jharkhand, parts of West Bengal, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra up to Andhra Pradesh. Deuba’s recent visit to Calcutta is also believed to be to address the West Bengal government’s concerns about possible linkages between Nepal’s Maoists and the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation in strategically sensitive northern Bengal, and the implications of a militant network extending further to Bodo and Assamese militant groups and on to the Indian Northeast’s numerous insurgencies.
That Nepal’s Maoists have received support from Indian ultra-leftists, most notably the Maoist Communist Centre and the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (People’s War), is established. Besides a moral boost received from these ‘fraternal’ militancies in the early days (and which is now reversed, with the Nepalis as the role-models for their Indian counterparts), the Maobaadi have clearly received training in camps in India, said to be in far corners, including Bengal, Punjab and the deep South. The Indian groups have also been helping identify the illegal arms bazaar in India and granting use of shelters to the Maoist leadership; the last has been critically important as they have had to flee Nepal with the emergency and army action.
The inter-Maoist linkages became more than fraternal when, in June 2001, a meeting was held somewhere in West Bengal, to form the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations (CCOMPOSA) “to unify and coordinate the activities of the Maoist parties and organisations in South Asia ‘to spread’ protracted People’s War in the region.” The committee, which includes four Indian Maoist groups, seems obviously encouraged by the success so far of the Maobaadi. Its joint statement reads: “The irresistible advance of the New Democratic Revolution or protracted People’s War in Nepal under the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-m) is changing the political geography or revolutionary dynamics of South Asia.”
In early January, a press statement issued by CCOMPOSA declared “its wholehearted solidarity with the revolutionary forces in Nepal” and warns “all the external reactionary elements, particularly Indian expansionism, not to intervene militarily or otherwise there and let the Nepalese people decide their own political future themselves.”
While members of the Indian public who do not know much about Nepal in any case are convinced that China is behind the Nepali Maoists — for no other reason than an absence of historical learning and the name ‘Mao’ – New Delhi strategists and pundits profess to see the hand of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (a) in the rise of Nepal’s Maoists. This would seem patently absurd were it not for the fact that it is a matter of faith with the establishment in New Delhi and the media that feeds off it. It is also a charge that the Maoists themselves scoff at with credibility. The October 2000 issue of its party organ, The Worker, says: “It [the Indian government] had been labelling People’s War in Nepal since its initiation as being funded and trained by ISI agents. In fact BJP is so phobic against communism that it has labelled the MLM [Marxist-Leninist-Maoist] groups waging People’s War in India as ISI agents!” The Maoists believe that, “The Indian state is using ISI whip for the short term benefit in order to malign People’s War in Nepal, for the long term strategy it is brandishing ISI stick to bring Nepal under its defence-umbrella.”
It became dear during Prime Minister Deuba’s end-March trip to India that some arms of the Indian government want to use the Maoists as a bargaining chip. “You take care of Is! infiltration, we will take care of Maoists in Nepal,” seemed to be the proposed quid pro quo. The New Delhi establishment has an exaggerated sense of the use of Nepal by the ISI as a base for activities against India, but Indian authorities could still use the argument to demand a larger say in Nepal’s security affairs in return for curbing the insurgents’ activities in India.
The one factor that is uncontested is that India is the staging ground for the Maoists of Nepal, and more so since the emergency crackdown in Nepal. Former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala has even gone to the extent of claiming that India was helping the Maoists by providing a safe haven to their leaders. The accusation was refuted by the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, but the fact remains that despite making all sorts of conciliatory gestures to help the Nepali government fight the Maoists, India has been turning a blind eye to their activities within its own territory. Meetings are called, rallies held, and prominent Maoist interlocutors openly pursue their activities and move around without restriction freely organising meetings in the name of front organisations. For having taking the intitiative to term the Nepali Maobaadi ‘terrorists’ even before the Nepali state had done so, the Indian government is surprisingly lenient towards the insurgents enjoying safety.
The political parties
It comes as no surprise that despite all the killings that have gone on for more than half a decade, the response from the political parties of Nepal has been most uninspiring. While none tire of declaiming that the ‘root causes’ of the insurgency needs to be tackled, there seems to be no vision of how that is to be done other than to say – “politically”. Prime Minister Deuba did start off on what seemed to be the right foot, announcing an eight-point reformist programme as soon as he took office in July last year. His plan included the issue of land reform and what could be considered sops to the backward ethnic and dalit communities, and women. But, Deuba soon got mired too deep in the quagmire of politics to do anything about it, and his reforms are hanging fire to date.
Despite the rhetoric against corruption emanating from all parties, a much-anticipated anti-corruption bill was quietly shelved. Rather than strengthen the statutory Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, the one institution that is showing some energy in the generally debilitated Nepali polity, Deuba has formed a commission to investigate the property of just about everyone who has held public office, including in the bureaucracy, since 1990 (and their families). No one believes anything will come of it and the faith in government is eroded further.
On the other side of the parliamentary divide, the role of the main opposition CPN (UML) has been intriguing. It did make the mandatory noises against the imposition of the state of emergency, but willingly added its numerical strength to the ruling party to make up the required two-third majority to get it approved by parliament and extended for another three months after the first period ended in late February. The calculation obviously seems to have been that the party will stand to gain with the decimation of the Maoists.
In return for the support extended for extending the emergency, the CPN (UML) expects the government to reciprocate with a constitutional amendment. Changing the Constitution (which its general secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, helped draft in 1990) has been the hobby horse of the CPN (UML) for quite some time now, and given its ‘progressive’ provenance one would expect the changes it proposed to reflect its philosophy and worldview. More so, since its present rationale for tinkering with the Constitution has been to pre-empt the revolutionary agenda of the Maoists. But a look at the proposed changes give the lie to everything the party professes, and shows it to be more interested in getting to the seat of power than in genuine reforms. Essentially, the party wants an allparty government to hold elections, and for this selfish reason it is willing to take the country through an exercise of constitutional reform. It seems the ‘Aemaley’ (the ‘UML’ acronym in Nepali) has been out of power for three long years and ‘wants in’ through constitutional amendment.
Politics, meanwhile, continues as usual. Having handed over the responsibility of dealing with the Maoists to the army, the politicians have decided that there is no need for their involvement in governance. A senior and junior minister have just had a slanging match over who was more corrupt — until both were forced to resign. “The obscenity is that all this is happening during a month when 300 Nepalis died fighting each other”, commented the weekly Nepali Times dryly, and that said it all. The former prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala has begun to create difficulties for the sitting prime minister, just as Deuba gave him headaches while he was on the high seat at Singha Durbar. Koirala would like to have a broad democratic alliance of all parliamentary parties, an idea that the UML does not dislike even if the idea has been floated its old nemesis (Koirala). (Koirala has another agenda as well. Since he feels let down that the army was not released when he was prime minister, he wants to also push through the constitutional reform so that the army is brought firmly within the grasp of civilian government.)
While the politicians and political parties go about trying to manoeuvre themselves into positions of power, they have failed to address a major cause of dissatisfaction in a large section of Nepali society. They have not bothered to understand why the critical support base of the Maoists consists of the ethnic communities and dalits. One reason that ethno-nationalism has not boiled over after ethnic assertion took off in the early 1990s with the advent of democracy may be that the Maoists have diverted the steam to their use. From the very beginning, the Maoists have made gestures to win the ‘minority’ communities over, going to the extent of setting up various ‘liberation fronts’ for each major ethnic and regional group. The latest concession comes in the form of their Revolutionary Council’s ‘draft constitution’, which proposes to divide the country into nine “autonomous regions” under “a system devised on the basis of self-determination”.
While the Maoists thus cynically manipulate the sentiment of the ‘backwards’, the state machinery and political parties have made insincere gestures and provided platitudes aplenty. The democratic setup has not been sensitive to the needs of the historically deprived, and even the constitutional amendments that are proposed provide little for these classes and communities. The recent formation of the National Women’s Commission is a case in point to prove the insensitivity of the managers of the Nepali state. The much-overdue body could at least have been made more representative, but of the eight members in the Commission (which includes the prime minister’s mother-in-law!) seven belong to the dominant Bahun-Chhetri community. The choice is clearly aimed at ensuring the representation of the political parties rather than the population at large.
King, Country and India
The quality of life in the Nepali midhills has considerably deteriorated this past half-decade. In some parts, Maoists are in control, elsewhere bandits are masquerading as insurgents. The politicians visit their villages and districts no more. Local fairs, ceremonies and rituals have been abandoned, perhaps never again to be revived fully. The blasts of musketry to herald Dasain celebrations and other joyous occasions will be heard no more as guns kept as heirlooms from as far back as the war with the British (1814-16) are surrendered by villagers to the authorities (that is, those still remaining after the rebels’ appropriations). Families leave their homesteads to live as refugees in roadhead settlements, and young men flee to work as ever-cheaper menial labour in India, the Gulf and Southeast Asia.
If the Maoist strategy is to wreck the economy and plunge the nation into chaos, they have succeeded in large measure. Vital infrastructural installations are being destroyed, the tourism industry is more or less in its death throes after the attack on the Lukla airstrip, which reverberated around the globe. The garment industry is a skeleton of its old robust self, and every aspect of production and industry is producing at a fraction of its capability. There are no more investors coming in to Nepal, and only foreign aid, remunerations from expartiate labour, and financial reserves accumulated in past years have kept the economy standing, but not for much longer. More and more money is being siphoned from development into fighting the insurgency, and development works are at near standstill.
More people have died in the four months of the emergency than during the five years leading up to the ceasefire in July last year. The ratio of security personnel (soldiers and policemen) to Maoists (or those suspected to be so) killed is more or less the same. Which only goes to show that the war is not going so much in favour of the government as it would like it to be. Moreover, it is clear that a large number of those killed by the security forces are either innocent victims of mistaken identity, sympathisers, or those forced by the Maoists to join local-level ‘people’s governments’. The core of the Maoist fighters apparently remain unscathed.
Manning the frontline are the hapless policemen with their antiquated .303 rifles. If they are to continue to be the first line of defence against a guerilla force that swarms out of the mountainside, the least the government could do is equip them with automatic weapons. It is the travesty and tragedy of Nepal that everyone knows the lowly policemen are being sacrificed in the name of the state, that many more are bound to die cruel deaths, but there is no attempt or even discussion about procuring better guns for them. To add to the sense of tragedy, the only reason these policemen do not desert their posts seems to be the generous posthumous compensation that the state pays the families of the dead.
The army has slowly geared itself up and, from the numbers of dead they have been notching up every day, is beginning to go on the offensive. There are some heartening reports — indirectly collected in these days of truncated press freedom — of responsible army commanders who take risks to save innocents from the crossfire. But, increasingly, as the scale of confrontation increases, the soldiers are also getting trigger-happy. The hills of Nepal are not happy places today. There are obviously many civilians dead, which is a matter of greatest concern even if it is not being reported by a press that is not out there. The daily average of presumed insurgents to have been killed over the last month is around ten, which is a terrible figure but it now fails to make an impact. Indeed, the daily death count has become so routine that the terror and loss that it represents does not touch the television viewer or radio listener any more. Besides the number of those dead, the question arises, how many are injured? That is never reported, which could indicate a take-no-prisoners policy.
Even as the army goes on the offensive, the Maoists have given up all semblance of having a political agenda. Besides attacking government installations and ambushing army patrols, many Maoists are also descending to patently criminal activity — bombing passenger buses, placing landmines and booby traps on hill trails, executing policemen, and killing village-level party activists and teachers by the dozen.
The monsoon rains are just two months away, and the Maoist strategy would be to wait it out till then, after which the logistics-heavy army machinery would grind down to a snail’s pace. Without helicopter support, the soldiers would find it difficult able to patrol and man their positions, leaving the platoons open to surge attacks, as happened to the policemen before them. If no breakthrough – political or military (both of which seem unlikely as of this writing) – is achieved, Nepal is in for a dreadful monsoon and autumn. Meanwhile, the Maoists will regroup, restock, and come back to fight another day.
Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka, a known hardliner who was in the same job when the Maoist genie was allowed to emerge following to police atrocities in the mid-western hills, has conceded that it could well take three years for suppression of the Maoist problem even with the army out. Back in his earlier term as home minsiter, he had claimed he would bring the situation under control ‘in four or five days’. His change of tone could speak of reality sinking in, and the reality could well be that ultimately the two sides will have to face off at the negotiating table.
The hovering presence in the polity is that of King Gyanendra, known for a sharp and calculating mind and who, by his own admission, prefers to be more active than his laid-back late brother, Birendra. Murmurs of a royal takeover have been in the air for quite some time, and there is no doubt that a section of the population regards the monarchy as the ‘last hope’. And yet it is unlikely that King Gyanendra will take the jump, if only because the one weapon he had to use to tackle the Maoists – the army – is already out in the field. Besides, looking beyond the Maoists insurgency which the new king too surely wants to see defused, he will surely want to protect the image of a severely battered royalty, which can no longer happen when the king both reigns and rules.
It is interesting that in the waxing and waning of their enmity index, the king has now become the arch enemy of the Maoists, and those who do not know how the political parties have ruled the roost (and soiled it) these past 12 years would be willing to believe Baburam Bhattarai’s canard that the Maoist battle is really with the king. For his part, the king has been saying that he would like the Maoists to join the mainstream, although he has made it dear that it can only be after they disarm. The government position on talks is similar. “I don’t want to legitimise the Maoists again by entering into dialogue. They have to prove their sincerity. The proof of that would be if they lay down their arms”, said Deuba in a press interview in late March.
So, with the political parties bickering with each other and within each other, the army already out but not delivering, and a weakened monarchy as yet trying to find its moorings, the Maoists would be getting ready for a long haul – or at least to continue to fight beyond the monsoon. True, the long-term prognosis is not good as far as the Maoists are concerned, for the international climate is quite inimical to what they represent, but the Nepali physical and political terrain is conducive to their survival for some time to come. And with that will come continuing tragedy, probably at an increased scale as the level of desperation increases among the ground-level cadre.
Everyone is agreed that there must be talks, but simply mouthing this desire is not enough and one must be able to suggest what results the talks may have. As things stand, there is little likelihood that the mainstream political forces will want to succumb to the Maoist demand – with a gun pointed to the head as it were – that the constitution be changed, and an interim government be named. Even if the Maoist public relations exercise would want the world believe that Nepal is a feudal polity run by the king, the country is a democracy, although far from perfect, run by political parties in Parliament. So, the flexibility would obviously have to come from the Maoists, who are presently made up of gun-wielding youth that want to wrest state power through the barrel, manipulated by the top-rung leadership who know better.
This top-rung leadership presently resides in India, and under little pressure from the authorities there. If the need of the hour is to bring the Maoists to the negotiating table, the responsibility plainly lies with New Delhi, and it is asked not to act as a big brother but as a friendly neighbour. To act on his oft-repeated promise to help Nepal tackle the Maoist insurgency, Atal Behari Vajpayee can simple make it difficult for the Maoists leadership to operate out of Indian territory. For, it is the open border guaranteed by the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal (and the bugbear of all Nepali leftists, including the Maoists) that provides them the scope to act with impunity against the Nepali state. This is a particular privilege that the Maoist leaders have — of being able to take refuge in the very state they profess to despise, using the open border, to hit back at the home country.
Nepal should not be begging India to stop serving as a Maoist haven, but rather demand that while India may not be able to stop the movement of the rank and file across the open border it can surely act on the Maoist leadership that it monitors so closely. And the demand of Kathmandu should not be that India arrest and extradite these Nepali citizens, only that their activities be made difficult enough that they will return to their home country to fight a battle that is Nepal’s own concern.
This simple act by India as a friendly neighbour has the potential of untying the tragic knot that has tied the Nepali establishment, the Maoists and the suffering public of Nepal. For, the Maoists will be forced to be more amenable to negotiation once they are asked to stay the ground within their own country. And as the Maoists seek compromise, the Nepali establishment would be well advised to provide the insurgents with the space that they need to come above ground and join open politics. It will be a hard task, particularly because so much blood has already been spilt, but it can be done.
The brave new Nepali post-Maobaadi world may yet be ushered in without much more violence. Once its is made clear that India cannot be used as a base, Nepal’s Maobaadi could find cause to reach a compromise. They will come to the table with more flexibility, and this time they will stay there. Astute political negotiations by the government, aided by all political parties, would ensure that the Maoists are facilitated to come above ground, and to ultimately run for elections. The Maoists, for their part, could work to get back their image as social reformers, and work to bring change through political movements rather than ‘peoples war’. If they do it well, they could yet emerge as a third force in the party politics of the country. They must realise that there are no short cuts to power, and certainly not through the barrel of the gun.