Militarisation and democratic rule in Nepal

On 4 October 2002, King Gyanendra seized state power in violation of the 1990 Constitution of Nepal when he dismissed the elected government of Sher Bahadur Deuba and nominated Lokendra Bahadur Chand, leader of the royalist Rastriya Parjatantra Party (RPP) as prime minister. Caught unawares, the mainstream political parties could do nothing except belatedly condemn the king's rapidly unfolding actions. They were not even able to organise mass protest rallies against what was really a palace coup. From this failure of the main political parties to mobilise mass opinion against the rapidly unfolding new dispensation in Kathmandu, both the king and Maoist rebels presumed that the process of polarisation of the polity between themselves had been completed. Therefore, the political parties were ignored in the subsequent talks between the king's government and the Maoists.

On 29 January 2003 the nominated government and the Maoists agreed to a ceasefire. When there seemed to be a glimmer of peace on the horizon, the mainstream political formations forged an alliance at the end of March 2003. They jointly finalised an 18-point common minimum programme and launched a movement against the monarchic takeover. Since then, the power struggle in the country has acquired a tripartite character and the balance of forces in the polity has been such that a political settlement has not been reached and none seems to be in sight because the current bargaining positions are mutually incompatible. The royal palace, backed by the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), is looking to resume the role in the national polity that it enjoyed before the 1990 Constitution came into effect and circumscribed its power. The Maoists, by contrast, are adamant in their demand for the creation of a constituent assembly to draft a drastically revised constitution that does away with perceived anomalies in the relationship between state and society. In opposition to both these positions, the mainstream political parties are demanding a return to constitutional government through the restoration of the dissolved parliament or the creation of an all-party transitional government.

These irreconcilable demands have obstructed the peace process and provides little hope for a long-term truce between the two armed forces as well as the over-ground political parties. The possibilities of peace are being further eroded by the consolidation of military capability on both sides. The fighting strength of the RNA is being upgraded through aid from the USA, the UK and India, while the Maoists have been freely recruiting cadres in the countryside and replenishing their armoury. After three months of ceasefire starting end-January this year, the official regime and the rebel regime sat at the negotiating table in April after agreeing to a code of conduct. At the second round of talks, the government acceded to the Maoist demand of restricting the movement of the army to a five kilometre-radius from their barracks. While it has been reported that this concession had King Gyanendra's all-important sanction, the army denied that any such consensus had been arrived at. Following the army's refusal to submit to the five kilometre restriction, the nominated government of Prime Minister Chand collapsed in May since it had lost the confidence of one of the most crucial entities in the post-constitutional polity.

After the departure of the Chand government, the mainstream political parties were still hopeful of finding a meaningful role in the political process. If they had any expectations from the palace, however, these were clearly unjustified. The king studiously disregarded their claims and, instead, nominated Surya Bahadur Thapa (also of the Rastriya Parjatantra Party) as prime minister. This reconfirmed the suspicion of the mainstream political forces that the democratic rhetoric emanating from the palace was so much eye-wash and that the takeover of 4 October 2002 had not been a short-term fix for an immediate problem but an attempt at institutional consolidation and to recover past glory. The Maoists, who had hitherto deluded themselves into believing that they constituted the decisive factor in the prevailing equilibrium, also realised that the hopes they entertained of a share in state power had come to nothing. The negotiations could obviously go no further, but the ceasefire remained in force since the Maoists were constrained by public pressure and unfavourable circumstances to respect it.

In August 2003, the king's government put forward its political agenda for the last round of negotiations, which while being long on social agenda which would have been considered far-reaching at any other time, clearly and unequivocally repudiated the core Maoist demand on constituent assembly. This brought an official closure to the negotiating process, since there was nothing left to be negotiated. Almost simultaneously, the Royal Nepal Army launched an anti-insurgency operation in which 19 Maoist activists were killed in Doramba, Ramechhap districts. This signalled the collapse of the ceasefire, and the interrupted civil war was resumed.

Towards militarism
The declaration of the 'people's war' by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in 1996 was the first step in the creeping militarization of national society that has now suddenly gained momentum. The immediate goal of the rebels was to render parliamentary government obsolete by crippling its functioning, while its long-term goal was the overthrow of the monarchy and the capture of state power. Therefore, in the short run they targeted democratic institutions and the mass base of the parliamentary forces. They proved to be adept at using the situation to their advantage and exploiting the contradictions between the palace and the parliamentary forces, as also the inter- and intra-party conflicts at the core of the political mainstream. These stratagems gave them the space to expand their influence in large parts of the country from their original, limited 'base area' in the midwestern hills.

Concentrating their operations in rural areas, the rebels first went after and often killed politically influential persons affiliated to the Nepali Congress, when the party was in government. They refrained from attacking the army and instead concentrated their firepower on the civilian police force since this would effectively neutralise the capability of the government. In the initial phase of the 'people's war', the leadership of the Nepali Congress believed that, in the long-run, Maoist activity would diminish the mass base of its nearest political rival, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), though it was their own cadre which was at that time at the receiving end of the violence. For its part, the leadership of the CPN (UML) was misled by the early Maoist focus on Nepali Congress cadres into the believing that the long-run effects of the war would be to weaken the Nepali Congress. This misreading was encouraged by the fact that the retaliatory killing of Maoist cadres was taking place on the orders of the incumbent Nepali Congress government. This process, the mainstream communists believed, would eventually be beneficial to them. The political parties relied too much on these mechanical calculations, and to that extent they fell victim to the Maoist leadership's shrewd strategy of creating and exploiting contradictions within first the political parties and then the ranks of local administrative institutions.

This accentuation of contradictions within the constitutional polity was a necessary precondition for the Maobaadi strategy of building 'red bases' in the countryside until the revolutionary armed forces were ready to capture political power in the main cities. Within Maoist thinking, the "principal area of struggle is the countryside". The situation in the country was conducive for a rapid consolidation based on the disenchantment among the masses. The rivalry between the political parties, their disregard for development, extraordinary levels of corruption while holding the reins of power, and the accentuation of neo-liberal economic policies were the cause of extreme frustration among the rural populace, which was compounded by the absence of employment opportunities in urban areas. The political parties were bereft of radical agenda for socio-economic transformation and bringing about more inclusiveness in the polity. The Maoist slogan that the rebellion would provide a solution to the ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional conflicts as well as to the political and economic problems besetting the nation evoked a popular response in the countryside. This slogan attracted disgruntled radical elements in all parties, as also deprived sections of the people who faced economic, social, cultural and political exploitation.

Seen in a comparative historical context the Nepali Maobaadi strategy differs substantially from the Chinese peoples' war strategy. The leadership of the Maobaadi has given priority to the military rather than the political strategy. After the breakdown of the second ceasefire last August, the Maoists have been implementing a politico-military strategy (pol-mil), which was first implemented by the Vietnamese Communist Party from 1936 to 1939, when they were fighting against French colonial oppression. This strategy was later adopted by a number of other radical parties in the Philippines, such as the Workers Party of Philippines, the Revolutionary Workers Party, and the Marxist-Leninists. This strategy relied more on the military component and included individual acts of terror designed to destabilise the state, create a dramatic impact, give a warning to individual capitalists and the armed forces, and exert pressure on the ruling class or its individual representatives through assassinations, bombing, sabotage, 'expropriation' and other punitive acts. This strategy unleashed the progressive militarisation of both state and society.

Since the inception of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, the palace and the Kathmandu valley elite in its attendance were more than satisfied with the systematic targeting of parliamentary institutions and their mass base, which was the main bulwark against monarchical absolutism prior to the people's movement that culminated in the 1990 Constitution. The organisational and institutional dismantling of parliamentary forces at the grassroots gave the king a greater leverage over the political process. The Maoists, meanwhile, made the most of this rivalry within the mainstream polity to strengthen themselves organisationally and militarily.

The demise of civil authority
What helped the Maobaadi in particular was the ambiguous position of the army in the state system. While the rebels were attacking the cadres of the over-ground political parties, restricting their political activities among the rural masses, immobilising the police, and destroying the physical infrastructure in the control of the civil government, the army refused to engage in combat on two counts. The army leadership claimed that it could not be party to the killing of Nepalis by Nepalis. It also argued that the army could be mobilised only after the political parties had forged a consensus on the issue and insisted that its intervention was predicated on royal initiative since the king is the RNA's supreme commander. It was clear from these preconditions that the military did not see itself as being subordinated to the elected government but as an institution loyal to the palace.

While King Gyanendra was looking for a legal route to concentrate power within the palace, the army was taking the first steps in driving a wedge within the state system that the monarchy could utilise for its own political purposes. The deliberate refusal to engage militarily with the Maoists at Holery village in Rolpa district in July 2001, despite the army having been dispatched there for that purpose by the then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress, was part of this tactic. The RNA's refusal to obey civil instructions had the desired outcome in the form of Koirala's resignation. It is significant that Koirala was the one political entity to have consistently refused to do the palace's bidding. Consequently, on his resignation, he refused to dissolve parliament, a move that the royalists and the army were banking on to take their plans further. Therefore, royal take-over required a few more steps to be taken before the objective was achieved.

This task was made somewhat easier by the fact that Koirala's successor was Sher Bahadur Deuba, who, in order to retain power, was more than willing to appease both the palace and the army. The royalist plans proceeded at an accelerated pace during Deuba's  incumbency as civil government and parliamentary institutions, weakened by seven years of pounding by the Maobaadi, ended up taking several measures that shifted over power to the monarch. The crucial event in the consolidation of monarchic power was the Maoist termination of negotiations with Prime Minister Deuba (who had by then broken off from the main Congress party of Koirala) and the simultaneous unprovoked attack on the army barracks in Dang in November 2001. The timing and motive behind this seemingly ill-conceived Maoist move which forced the army to dramatically enter the fray is shrouded in mystery. This was the first time that the Maoist leadership had made a seemingly self-defeating tactical move, and what is more, this uncharacteristic gambit came at a time when the international circumstances, in the aftermath of 9/11, were none too conducive for such actions.

Whatever the motivations, this development prompted the fulfilment of one of the RNA's main preconditions for entering the combat zone, namely the imposition of a state of emergency and the suspension of civil laws by the Deuba government. In effect, the army's entry into combat was primarily a political move. The consolidation of the anti-constitutional forces was finalised, ironically enough, by the parliamentary forces, which gave the declaration of emergency their stamp of approval twice, first through legislative ratification and then through renewal six months later. The seeds of the subsequent dissolution of parliament were sown with these two acts of surrender to the palace.

This paved the way for the militarisation of the state to match the militarisation of society by the Maoists. To achieve this, the last vestiges of civil government had to be removed and the first move in this direction was the dissolution of parliament in May 2002 by the ever pliant Deuba in order to re-impose emergency in the face of stiff opposition from the non-royalist political forces, who were now convinced that the re-imposition was a ploy to strengthen the palace and the military. The dissolution of parliament for the purpose of renewing the emergency was a contradiction in terms, because at the moment of dissolution both the rationale and the instrument for the re-imposition of emergency also ceased to exist, since the takeover of the polity by the anti-constitutional faction was practically complete. All that remained to be done was to remove all elected local bodies (in villages and districts) and this happened a month later. The foundations of state-led militarisation had been laid with these two climactic acts, dissolution of parliament and local bodies. The Deuba government, in effect, represented a transitional regime, facilitating the replacement of a parliamentary government by a palace government.

At this stage in the proceedings, with the Maoists holding the gun in the countryside, it was quite clear that the climate was not suitable for seeking a fresh political mandate on a nation-wide scale. The promise of elections by Deuba was no more than a fig leaf to destroy what was left of civil government after Deuba's leadership. The final blow was delivered on 4 October, when the now politically redundant prime minister was removed by the king on grounds of incompetence.

With the total elimination of parliamentary forces from any reckoning on the ground, and a royal surrogate in the saddle, the situation was ripe for rightist forces to launch an all-out militarisation of the nation in the name of suppressing the insurgency. Predictably, the incumbent Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa announced, recently, the introduction of a unified command, which subordinates civilian and political decisions at all levels to the military command. A unified command had been introduced earlier too, during Deuba's tenure, but that was of a qualitatively different order, entailing a mechanism for coordination between the army and the police in counter-insurgency operations. The present mechanism is just a more dignified name for military rule.

The unified command also represents a seal of approval and governmental authority to militarisation that has now become country-wide in scope. Its effects are comprehensive. The role of parliamentary forces and statutory bodies has been severely restricted while the operation of constitutional rights has been curtailed. The abrogation of freedoms has reached such absurd levels that the police and army are prohibiting the sale of progressive books and literature. More ominously, even in Kathmandu, where Maoist activity has been low-key, people are being killed on suspicion without verification of their antecedents, and houses are being raided without judicial warrants. In the countryside matters are even grimmer, with encounter killings becoming routine. The army officers have achieved such a level of control over the polity that they nonchalantly disregard judicial orders to present their detenus in court.

Managing civil obedience
With the rise of the military in the affairs of the nation, there has been a proportionate neglect of state institutions that fall within parliamentary jurisdiction. The election commission is, for all practical purposes, defunct as it not only has no chief election commissioner; it has no members at all. The Public Service Commission is similarly devoid of commissioners. Procedurally, the present constitution provides no way out of this institutional paralysis. Theoretically, the king has the nominal right to make appointments to all constitutional bodies. But this right can be exercised only on the recommendation of the prime minister in his capacity as Chairman of the Constitutional Council. This body has five members, namely, the prime minister, the chief justice, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Upper House, and the leader of the opposition in the House of Representatives. Since May 2002 there has been no House of Representatives, therefore the posts of the speaker and leader of the opposition do not exist. Meanwhile, the term of office of the chairman of the Upper House also expired in June. Three out of the five mandatory offices are vacant and two of them cannot be filled without a general election. King Gyanendra has also been avoiding appointments to several vacant constitutional offices despite the necessary recommendations by the full council.

But it is not just vacancy of office that creates problems. Even where institutions have their full complement of officials, the absence of a parliament hinders proper functioning. Bodies like the Department of Auditor General, Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, the Nepal Human Rights Commission, the Public Service Commission, the Office of the Attorney General and other constitutional bodies directly accountable and responsible to the House of Representatives have no parent body to report to.

With the Constitution having been given a de facto burial, the governance of the nation is currently being conducted through ordinances signed by King Gyanendra. In the absence of any accountability, royal whims seem to take precedence over national concerns. Because the state is ruled by the hukumi shasan (direct rule) of the king, the institution most symmetrically aligned to the interests of the palace¬—the Royal Nepal Army—has placed itself beyond law and legality, and to that extent its adventurism reflects the excitement of an institution that has suddenly discovered power after long being in the shadows. Since the collapse of the second ceasefire in August this year, the army and the Maoists have, between them, been killing, on average, as many as 17 people per day. While not much may be expected of rebels who declare themselves to be unbound by law and worship violence as a means to a political end, the impunity with which the army is conducting its actions takes it far beyond the pale of the law.

Economic incompetence
The civil government of Deuba in Nepal was dismissed by King Gyanendra for being 'incompetent'. More than a year has passed since the country has been taken over by royalists. What has been their performance in the department of performance? The death toll in the conflict has mounted dramatically and there is no end in sight. The consequences for the economy have been severe. Government spending on development projects has fallen drastically due to the diversion of funds to the military and inability to spend in the Maobaadi-infested countryside. Further, due to political instability and deteriorating security, development, construction and investment have come to a standstill. In a country where the government is the largest investor in the infrastructure sector, there has been no fresh investments. This has adversely affected both the purchasing capacity and the overall employment climate, fuelling frustrations that do not bode well for the prospects of peace. National capital is gradually fleeing the country. All available economic indicators suggest a marked deterioration.

Overall, the government's revenue mobilising capacity has plunged to new depths and the deficit in the budget is being kept in some kind of control only by contracting debts. In other words, the burden of maintaining the security establishment at greatly expanded levels is being borne by pushing the country into a debt trap. The so-called counter-insurgency operations being directed by the king's government is being financed through external borrowings. This is the kind of "efficiency" that the country was awaiting after being delivered from the evils of civil government.

In 2002-03, direct investment in Nepal decreased by 50.4 percent over the previous year, and fiscal and employment-related industries grew only by 0.09 percent. Leaving aside the question of how neo-liberal ideologues will explain away this uncomfortable fact, there is the even more serious problem of the political consequences in the countryside of this reversal. In this regard, the consumer price index does not bring any cheer either. The price of food and beverage has increased by 6.1 percent in 2002-03 as against an increase of 3.5 percent in the corresponding period of the previous year. But the price of rice and pulses has decreased. In other words, the peasantry of Nepal has to bear the burden of declining real incomes. On the other hand, the prices of all imported goods have increased. The price of government-controlled goods has seen an increase of over 11 percent. The price index is more than adequate to demonstrate the proof of rising misery. In such a grim economic climate, the only relief comes by way of financial remittances from Nepali labourers overseas, particularly in the Gulf and Malaysia, which has seen an increase of 28 percent over the previous year. But this repatriation of funds also highlights the Nepali tragedy. Today, caught between the ever-present Maobaadi threat and the military dragnet, able-bodied males have all fled, many of them to work on low-paying jobs in India and overseas. A reorientation of the country's fundamental economic activities is underway.

Completing the circle
While the government has failed abysmally to arrest the declining trend in the economy, Maoist activity has been undermining the basis of livelihood in countryside. The rebels have been destroying small hydro-electric projects, post offices, irrigation projects, offices of the village development committees, telephone towers, forest offices, public health posts and every other kind of service delivery infrastructure. They have also been looting banks and cooperatives in the countryside, besides disrupting schools and other social sector institutions. The Maoist method of financing the "people's war" has subjected the rural economy to enormous stress. The public distribution system in many areas is non-functional since Maoist cadres and the RNA commandeer what remains of the supplies after government officials and contractors have taken their share of the spoils. In the case of the army, the seizing of public food stocks is also a counter-insurgency technique to prevent supplies from falling into Maoist hands. Whatever be the official logic, the net result is to push vulnerable families to the edge of starvation. Today, most of the mountainous and hill districts of the country are in the grip of acute food scarcity as essential commodities, including medicines, are diverted to facilitate the prosecution of a war that threatens to become permanent. Maoist extortions have increased and the financial demands being imposed on small and marginal peasant families are often well beyond the carrying capacity of the household budget. All this, compounded by the violence and the government's failure to manage the economic downslide, has increased the compulsion on people to leave the country in search of the most menial of livelihoods.

By now, militarisation has left its stamp on practically every aspect of national life. Militarisation is not merely the increased presence of armed forces in the public sphere. It is the comprehensive reorientation of national energies and resources to the prosecution of war. On both sides of the conflict, it subordinates politics to the military purpose so that the institutional arena loses its civil character. Most importantly, organised violence is normalised and nationalised as the organisations of war reach all corners of the country and penetrate every level of social and economic activity. In Nepal today, even short-distance bus journeys take an inordinately long time as security checks hold up traffic along the highways. And the checks are so intrusive that little heed is paid even to the ordinary protocols that govern the public interaction between strangers. The militarisation of the country has gone so far that it now routinely invades the modesty of the village woman. What makes it worse for the ordinary citizen is that the primacy accorded to the military conflict has been at the expense of political activity, which for the last decade has been their only medium of articulating grievances. Political silence is the most perverse outcome of the militarisation, as the civil society institutions are intimidated and turn meek.

Reinstating the democratic system
The extreme right and the adventurist left have commandeered the country, and in polarising the depoliticised polity between them they have circumscribed the revival of mass democratic politics. But in doing this they also share the common delusion that they have destroyed mass democratic politics. In the absence of any system of registering what people in society want, this is clearly a premature conclusion. Unfortunately, diplomatic missions and country offices of international institutions also partake of the same feast. In September, when the five-party democratic combine were preparing to launch a mass struggle against the palace to force it to restore the Constitution and the Parliament to its rightful status, there was a frantic bout of diplomatic activity as the ambassadors of India, the UK and the USA rushed about the capital to defuse what they considered to be a crisis. And the so-called crisis was eventually resolved in favour of the palace-military combine as pressure was brought to bear on the parties, by these three countries currently most active in the internal affairs of Nepal. In fact, ambassadors extended their assurance to the leaders of the agitation that they would impress upon the king the need to restore the parliamentary process. Of course, they omitted to mention a time frame for the restoration, and the gullibility of the five political parties who represent the political spectrum and are presumably the true representatives of the people.

Both internal 'nationalist' forces and international 'democratic' forces have assumed a recalcitrant attitude to the restoration of the political process in Nepal. The reasons are obvious. The extreme right, including the institutions of international neo-liberalism, and the extreme left, both share a paranoid fear of mass democracy, and the current configuration is ideal for all anti-democratic forces reflecting as it does the common commitment to keep parliamentary institutions defunct.

The belief shared by the royal palace, the Maoists and the more powerful members of the international community in Kathmandu, that parliamentary parties have become defunct, is simply a by-product of their current political expediency. The space for mass politics does exist. The problem is that since influential forces believe it does not exist, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as they deploy their influence to ensure that it at least looks like it does not exist. This is one of the main difficulties facing the beleaguered parliamentary forces in the current phase of amplified militarism. Political parties face a very difficult situation today. Mass politics thrives on mass contact and if it is prevented from reaching out to its defining constituency by the reign of terror unleashed by militarised politics, the illusion will be perpetuated that no one needs mass politics any more. But the absence of mass politics currently does not signify the absence of the urgent need for mass politics. In the countryside, the acceleration of the war has revived faith in the political process because of the ways in which the military process bears down on society with such oppressive weight. Caught between two sides whose sole objective is not to lose a war that they are fighting in the belief that they will win it, the rural populace has nowhere to turn to but the political process to articulate their interests.

In such a situation, and despite the opposition of 'patriots' inside the country and 'democrats' outside the country, political parties can play a major role if they assess the balance of forces objectively, forge alliances on the basis of a common minimum understanding (just as the 'other side' has done), jointly cultivate the constituency for peace and parliamentary revival and organise a non-violent movement against the current and evolving autocracy. By doing so they will have responded to a genuine need that exists but is not allowed to be expressed. The sovereignty of the masses was at least nominally established in 1990. It has been taken away in 2002-2003. To begin with, that nominal sovereignty can be restored through the same joint platform that secured it for the first time a decade ago. Once they have regained their native turf, the political parties can then resume their ideological and political rivalries in parliamentary ways.

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