A very Maobaadi holiday

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. The ceasefire declarations by the revolutionary atheists are greeted with relief by the multitudes that make their living far from home; many Dasain plans would otherwise remain sadly tentative, were it not for the brief respite.

As if on cue, again this year the Maoists announced a ceasefire on the cusp of Dasain, once again to the relief of the general population. Previous years, however, have seen the temporary cessation attributed specifically to the festival. This year's message was different, as was its three-month timeframe. There was no mention of Dasain in the 3 September statement to the press by the CPN (M) chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('Prachanda'). Rather, it declared that the ceasefire was motivated by "a deep sense of responsibility" to finding "the democratic political way out" and satisfying "the aspiration of peace of the Nepali people … with an aim of doing away with doubts remaining in some circles about our movement."

Disregarding the obligatory nod to the people's long-standing "aspiration of peace", the statement is instructive for two reasons. First, for a group that set out to establish a "new democracy" on the ruins of a "semi-feudal, semi-colonial" Nepal, it is a remarkable turnaround that they would now be so eager to prove their democratic credentials. Second, after having harangued the international community variously as hegemons and imperialists, the statement's "some circles" clearly targets the political parties, as much as it does any external forces that need to be placated with a peaceful visage by the revolutionaries.

Much has been written about the all-round failure of King Gyanendra's government, with him as chairman, which has been running Nepal since the 1 February royal coup. But more than eight months into the crisis precipitated by the royal takeover, it is equally to the discredit of the Maoist leadership that the revolutionary movement has yet to make any gains from the disarray of the mainstream political forces. As the major benefactors from a palace-parties schism, some meaningful attempts by the rebels to reach out to the political parties (in a manner acceptable to those politicians) could have resulted in a fairly unified anti-royal front. Granted, the political parties opposed to the king's direct rule are a disparate lot with varied agendas, but they are united in their opposition to royal activism and in their eschewing of violence to achieve political ends. If there has been an inability for a quick understanding between the political parties and the rebels, the onus must be placed at the door of the latter. Three-quarters of a year after King Gyanendra's coup, there has been no movement towards an agreement on how to take on the ambitious monarch, whose main claim to legitimacy at present seems to be the bayonet strength of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). Like the onus, the urgency is also on the Maoists. It is the insurgents who will lose out in the long run if they dilly-dally in convincing either the political parties or the international community (most importantly India and the US, where the latter has refused to consider the Maoists a legitimate political actor) that they plan to revert from being a militaristic to a purely political organisation.

Comradely reassessment

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.

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Himal Southasian