The year 2001 was the most turmoil-ridden in Nepal’s modern history, and arguably in its entire two centuries as a nation-state. The week preceding the new year was rather inauspicious, with the so-called Hrithik Roshan riots, in which the rumoured but unstated anti-Nepal remarks by the Indian matinee idol had sparked anti-India violence on Kathmandu streets. But things merely got worse as 2001 progressed.
Looking back, the two markers of 2001 were the Narayanhiti royal massacre and the wildfire Maoist insurgency. The associated fallout has been: an economy at standstill with capital flight, tourism downturn, drying up of investment, and the added burden of fighting the Maoists via the expensive military apparatus; the image of ‘peaceful country’ so important for tourism destroyed; and, lastly, the declaration of a state of emergency to tackle the violent insurgency. The Nepali population has every right to be confused and distraught, and is.
The year began with Girija Prasad Koirala in the Prime Minister’s seat unable to curb the Maoist upsurge. The left opposition, with longstanding antipathy for Koirala, did its best to make life difficult for the septuagenarian Congress Party stalwart, with bandhs, chakka jams and a boycott of the entire 2000-01 winter session of Parliament. Likewise, strikes by tourism workers and school closures affecting more than a million children country-wide added to Koirala’s troubles. Governance suffered as the police and bureaucracy lost motivation, problems arose with the bilateral 1996 trade treaty with India, and the Bhutanese refugees continued to languish in the camps of southeast Nepal despite the charade of a ‘verification’ process initiated with the Bhutanese authorities.
With Koirala beleaguered, the Maoists stepped up their violent so-called People’s War, making a habit of storming police posts with hundreds of cadre. The attacks on the police- supposedly for past misdemeanors and for representating the Nepali state- led to the largest mass killings in Nepal’s history since the incident known as the Kot massacre of 1846 at the Kathmandu court. A single week in April saw 70 policemen dead, and a night in mid-April took the life of 41. Many were killed execution-style.
Even as the Maoists were making their gains over large tracts of the hinterland, the national society was visited by a thunderclap in the form of the 1 June massacre within the Narayanhiti Royal Palace, in which King Birendra and nine members of his immediate family and other relatives died in a hail of automatic gunfire. With details not forthcoming from a devastated palace and with a government unable to fill the information gap, the country erupted in an orgy of conspiracy-seeking and looked variously for culprits in the surviving brother Gyanendra, his son Paras, or the intelligence agencies of countries near and far.
Once he ascended the serpent-backed throne, the new king Gyanendra provided full access to an enquiry committee headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nepal, which after two weeks of investigations released a voluminous report detailing eyewitness accounts of the tragedy. These accounts pointed to Deependra as the perpetrator, a crown prince with access to the latest in automatic weaponry. However, the rumours of conspiracy refused to die, considerably weakening Nepal’s constitutional monarchy, which remains a significant player in national politics and is required to stand behind the country’s parliamentary democracy.
Interestingly, the Narayanhiti massacre stopped being a factor in the political process quicker than one would have expected. ‘Tuning off’ may have been the public’s way to come to terms with the tragedy, but more likely it was the preoccupation with the progression of Maoist violence in the midhills. Their action came to a head for the first time when, in mid-July, a Royal Nepal Army contingent came close to a fight with the insurgents in their stronghold of Rolpa District in the west. Prime Minister Koirala appealed to King Gyanendra to persuade the generals to put up a fight, but when the latter demanded a procedural way to activate the army Koirala felt he had to resign on a matter of principle
Sher Bahadur Deuba took over the helm in July, this change of guard allowed a series of political openings that had been blocked due to the innumerable eddies of political animosity surrounding Koirala. The left opposition in Parliament came around to a modicum of across-the-board understanding on the need to address the Maoist threat, and back-channel discussions between Prime Minister Deuba and the Maoists led to a ceasefire with the insurgents. The Maoists came above ground to conduct open rallies and meetings, but even as talks with their government got started the insurgents maintained their main political demands as non-negotiable— a republic sans monarchy and a constituent assembly to decide on a new constitution.
The phase of rapid expansion over the last couple of years seemed to have led to an over-stretching of the insurgent’s command and control, one proof of which lay in the sudden escalation of extortion by professed Maoists. Then Chairman Comrade Prachanda announced a plan to amass half a million people in Kathmandu Valley to press for his demands. Till that point the Kathmandu middle- and upper-classes had been relatively unmindful of the Maoist juggernaut in the hills, but now with the insurgents knocking at the Valley’s door, these classes turned decisively anti-Maoists. The broadsheet dailies, till then rather coy in their coverage of the insurgency, then came out strongly in their reports and editorials against the Maobaadi.
The Maoists were also cornered by some other factors in the last quarter of 2001. The 11 September attacks on the United States and the subsequent campaign against ‘terror groups’ did not work to their advantage, particularly after the Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh jumped the gun on the Nepali government in terming the Maobaadi as ‘terrorist’. The Beijing government, for its part, pointedly signified its opposition to the Maoist action and support for the government’s move against the insurgents. When it was learnt that Chairman Prachanda was openly holding court in Siliguri, West Bengal, and receiving Nepal’s topmost left leaders, there was a media backlash against the Maoists for supposedly being coddled by the Indian establishment.
Perhaps due to this series of setbacks, the Maoists suddenly announced that their demand for a republican state was for now on the backburner. As the Maobaadi seemed to go on the defensive, the government and establishment began to feel energised, sparing little effort to provide a face-saving “safe landing” that some in the insurgents’ political leadership said they required. There was also clearly a tussle within the Maoist leadership, with the military wing backed by gun-toting cadre that had been primed to storm the Nepali establishment unwilling to consider a compromise formula. This may have been the cause of the decisive break of 23 November, when, days after Comrade Prachanda announced his unilateral withdrawal from the ceasefire, a Maoist group overran an army garrison in Dang District close to the Maoists heartland of Rukum, Rolpa and Jajarkot.
Since the Maoists People’s War was launched six years ago on 13 February 1996, the attitude of the Royal Nepal Army had been to keep its hands firmly in its pockets, forcing the ill-trained and badly-armed policemen to tackle the highly motivated insurgents. While the concern of the army brass not to be misused by the political parties was genuine, the generals were also without doubt using the military’s historical proximity to the royal palace to keep from coming under the umbrella of the civilian government. After the severe loss of face following the debacle at Dang, however, the military was forced to come out of the barracks. But it did not do so before an Emergency was announced.
On 26 November, in one stroke, Prime Minister Deuba: announced a state of Emergency, had an antiterrorism ordinance take effect, and declared the Maoists a ‘terrorist’ organisation. The deployment of the Royal Nepal Army has not seen the immediate collapse of the Maoist structure that some had expected. At the end of December 2001, the army seemed to be consolidating its position across midhill Nepal’s tortured terrain rather than going in hot pursuit of the insurgents. Meanwhile, the press in Nepal had gone meek under the Emergency, and in the resultant information vacuum it is not clear what is the state of war or peace in the country at large. Besides the fear of the rise of the right-wing in the Emergency period, the concern is that high-handed state action can lead to widespread country-wide human rights abuse. This can only promote further insurgencies in the future even if the Maobaadi of Comrade Prachanda are neutralized for the present.
The year 2001 was a time of telescoped historical experience for Nepal, which has had to undergo multiple traumas that countries elsewhere would have taken decades to collect. Nepalis look forward to some release from relentless bad karma in 2002.