It was Sunday, the 8th of April in 1990. A few minutes past eleven at night, the state radio broadcast a royal palace communiqué announcing the lifting of the ban on political parties. That prohibition had been the handiwork of King Mahendra, who had carried out a coup against the existing parliamentary government in December 1960 and introduced the ‘partyless’ Panchayat system. That radio broadcast essentially represented the success of the non-violent People’s Movement of Vikram Sambat 2046 and the overthrow of the hated Panchayat. That was the day a peaceful resistance pushed back a violent, autocratic monarchy.
The next day, 9 April, the streets of Kathmandu Valley were full of jubilant crowds. Never in Nepali history had the power of non-violence manifested itself this intensely and successfully. The political parties, who had been maligned, proscribed and persecuted for three decades came to power and constituted the government on 19 April. Seven months later, a Constitution which vested sovereign power in the citizens was promulgated.
The people had believed that the fight for a pluralistic political system was over, and what remained was to work towards an inclusive state where social discrimination and economic deprivation would be tackled and historical wrongs corrected. But they are today back on the streets, once again using the principles of sustained peaceful agitation to bring back democracy from the grip of Mahendra’s son, King Gyanendra.
On 1 February 2005, the citizens saw a replay of December 1960. King Gyanendra used the excuse of fighting the Maoist insurgency to take complete control of the state, appointing himself as chairman of the cabinet. The people are now back to a movement to overthrow a king’s autocratic agenda. This time around, the non-violent struggle is complicated by the fact of the Maoists insurgency (though presently in a unilateral ceasefire) and the deployment of the Royal Nepal Army countrywide to enforce the royal will.
The 1990 Constitution vested sovereignty in the people, and it was the first time since the national unification of 1769 that the citizens were thus recognised. The document gives no discretionary power to the king except on the matters of succession to the throne and royal palace employees. The power to impose states of emergency, to dissolve Parliament, to issue extraordinary constitution-related orders, all have to be exercised on the recommendation of the prime minister based on a cabinet decision. The Constitution does not envisage a situation without a prime minister, and the Royal Nepal Army is to function under the government. King Gyanendra’s drastic action of 1 February turned the Constitution on its head, and it is left to the people to wrest their sovereignty back.
If anyone needed proof, the People’s Movement of 1990 demonstrated that the power of non-violence is ultimately superior to violent agitation. The force of ideas and high principle, sustained over a period of time despite the reactionary violence of the state, is bound to change the polity and bring back peace and democracy. Having experienced political freedom over more than a dozen years, the people are convinced that the usurpation of power by King Gyanendra has to be reversed. Knowing the devastation wrought by the decade long insurgency, they have opted for peaceful resistance which reveals itself in rallies of political parties and civil society organisations, including those of lawyers, journalists, university teachers, human rights activists, workers and peasants.
The seed to peaceful change lies in a refusal to cooperate with those who wield the stick in order to rule. Peaceful resistance to an unjust order is nothing new in human society. It has been there from the very beginning of human civilisation, from which the concept of ahimsa was developed by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to make it an effective political weapon. Non-violence is an essential and universal human value which Gandhi did not invent. But it was he who rediscovered it, honed it and revealed it to the people as a means to fight repressive regimes and remake the society according to the principles of justice.
It is important to understand that Gandhi’s brand of non-violence did not urge reconciliation with an unjust order, nor consensus with the bearers of injustice and untruth. On the contrary, he proposed an active rejection of reconciliation and consensus, which is why he termed his resistance formula, “the practice of truth”. And just as Gandhi wielded the weapon of non-violence in South Africa and later India, Leo Tolstoy preached it in his writings from his retreat of Yasnaya Polyana. Martin Luther King practised it in his struggle for civil rights in the United States. Civil movements, including those linked to labour, women, peace, environment and human rights, have all practiced non-violence.
The use of peaceful means to settle contradictions and conflicts is an indicator of evolved civilisation, and it also has a civilising role. Without respect for the dignity of the human spirit, the cause of Indian national liberation could never have attained its heights under Gandhi. If the people of a so-called backward country were incapable of aspiring for the highest values of world political civilisation with its emphasis on democracy and human rights, Nepal’s People’s Movement of 1990 could never have achieved its zenith. We are seeing this same understanding being applied today in Nepal, rejecting the violent methods of the insurgents and the royal state alike. And today, there are indications of a possible change of heart even among the Maobaadi rebels, who have expressed a willingness to enter multi-party politics and have arrived at a 12-point understanding with the political parties to fight the autocratic monarchy.
In the end, peaceful resolution of conflicts is all about the compatibility of ends and means. Just ends do not require unjust means. The best example is seen in what the Maobaadi insurgents sought to do, which is fight injustice and discrimination through the barrel of the gun. This has only served to set society adrift, while at the same time devastating the economy, weakening the state internationally, and militarising the countryside. When it comes to fighting for democratic values, we find that we have to return to the peaceful charge led by the above-ground political parties which do not believe in the gun.
The Kathmandu regime’s ongoing steps to entrench autocracy and its repressive measures against political parties, civil society, media, non-governmental organisations, professionals – all of this has unwittingly brought all the healthy forces and elements of Nepali society into the fold of non-violent movement. In addition, the growth of the non-violent movement has compelled the Maoists to review their tactics and strategy and rethink their political platform.
Leading the fight against King Gyanendra are the seven political parties of Nepal, including the two major parties which were confirmed as pre-eminent political forces by the results of successive parliamentary elections in 1991, 1994 and 1999 – the Nepali Congress party and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). The parties are cooperating to restore the constitutional democratic process even while seeking a just restructuring of the state coupled with progressive socio-economic transformation
While King Gyanendra has sought to use the insurgency as a foil to entrench his autocratic rule, the seven parties opened dialogue with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to end violence and bring them into the democratic peaceful fold. The 12-point understanding signed with the rebels on 22 November this year appeals to people from all walks to “actively participate in the peaceful movement launched on the basis of … understandings centred on democracy, peace, prosperity, forward-looking social changes and the country’s independence, sovereignty, and self-respect.” In this Memorandum of Understanding, the Maobaadi have made public their commitment to “clearly institutionalise the values of competitive multiparty system, civil and fundamental rights, human rights and the rule of the law.”
The rebels seem to have realised before it got too late that it is the non-violent process that has prepared the ground for the change towards democracy and development. They would be left behind if they tarried any further. While the leadership appears to be convinced, they now have the task of convincing their cadre and fighters that non-violence is part of the normal process of development of human civilisation, its permanent and basic feature. On the other hand, violence is a deviant and ephemeral phenomenon in the march of civilisation. The more non-violent the society, the more humane it becomes.
The rebel leadership may also have understood that their ‘people’s war’ will only be recorded as a momentary phase of history in one corner of the world whereas the certain success of the ongoing People’s Movement of 2005-06 will usher sustained peace and democracy that will take the people in a giant leap forward.
Around the time of the People’s Movement of 1990, more than a dozen nations of the world were experiencing non-violent revolutions. Today, Nepal is one of the few countries worldwide where there is an active, energetic, peaceful movement for a return to peace and democracy. This non-violent movement is being spearheaded by the political parties and civil society. The Maoists are invited to join.
Gandhi was an Indian, a Southasian, and a man of the whole world. His legacy is found wherever there is an aspiration for a future based on change achieved through peaceful means. Progress does not require violence. We, in Nepal, are waging a non-violent struggle for a peaceful future within a democratic frame. The Mahatma would have approved.
~ Nilamber Acharya is a constitutional activist who was minister of law at the time of promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal 1990.