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Nepal Turmoil – More Than Meets The Eye

For most of the nine months of the coalition government in Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the dominant component, single mindedly pursued the policy of converting the country into a totalitarian state. There was little governance, the Constituent Assembly hardly got to seriously work on a new constitution on the basis of a national consensus taking into consideration the protection of the legitimate interest of all sections of the people. The peace process never appeared to be at peace.

The Nepali Congress (NC), the party with the second largest number of seats in Parliament, was a most unlikely member of a coalition led by the Maoists. Having been the main political party in Nepal and the moving spirit behind the democratization of the country, the NC was not going to play second fiddle to the Maoists. The ideology of two were in contradiction. They joined forces in second people revolution, or Janandolan-II, to oust the draconian rule of King Gyanendra. But it cannot be said that the NC was happily in favour of dissolving the tradition of monarchy altogether. The Maoists, on the other hand, always suspected the NC of harbouring a secret desire to revive the monarchy at least in the form of a figure head.

The Madhesi Janadhikar Front (MJF), generally representing the aspirations of the Madhesis of the Terai region had much hope of support from the Maoists who preached equality for all people.

The CPN (UML), the largest party in the government, buried past ideological differences with the Maoists, and found a common benefactor in China. The other components of the coalition were not of any significant significance.

The 238 year old monarchy was a benevolent ‘god on earth’ for the Nepalese people. He was the symbol of Lord Vishnu. In the eyes of the people, however, King Gyanendra had desecrated the lineage of the monarchy. He came to the throne in a palace massacre in 2001 when King Birendra was killed by his son Crown Prince Dipendra and was himself killed by the palace guards on the orders of the Queen mother. This is the official version. But many people still suspect the massacre was engineered by Gyanendra. Hence, the people supported the Maoists against King Gyanendra who was also responsible for Nepal’s plummeting economy.

Although the Maoists still said to have some public support, and have their own armed youth wing the Young Communist League (YCL), and the Maoist army of over 33 000 also known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the people’s support is still to be tested on the ground. One of the agreements of the peace process was the rehabilitation of the PLA fighters mainly in the security forces. The United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) did the initial segregation in the PLA selecting those fit for security duties. Here the main problem started.

The Nepali Army Chief Gen. Rookmangud Katawal put his foot down against wholesale induction of the PLA into the army. He held that only those among the PLA who satisfied the set bench mark for recruitment would be inducted in the army. He was very vocal against the politicization of the country’s professional army. But the Maoists, mainly led by Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, had other ideas. He and the Maoists wanted a Nepali Army as an politicized and indoctrinated PLA on the pattern of the Chinese PLA. It is reported that that ultimately the Maoist army Chief would take over as the Nepali Army Chief.

Technically, it is correct that Gen. Katwal defied some of the orders of the Defence Minister and the Cabinet including filling up the vacancies in the army through normal recruitment process. He also went to the Supreme Court to get a stay on the retirement of eight Brigadiers against the Defence Minister’s wishes. Further Katawal instructed the regular army sportsmen not to complete with PLA participants at the national games. In short, Gen. Katawal made it clear the Nepali Army did not recognize the legality of the institution of the PLA. This was not acceptable to the Maoists.

The Maoists appeared to be in great haste to establish Marxist rule in Nepal. They picked up pages from several Marxist revolutions across the world especially the Chinese communist revolution victory. Therefore, the first thing to be done was to demolish the existing state and free institutions of Nepal including the army, the higher judiciary, the existing bureaucracy and the free media that dared criticize the Maoist policies. The army is seen by the Maoists as the strongest pillar of the erstwhile ruling establishment which fought the Maoists. It was also the preserve of the deposed monarchy. Though Gen. Katawal was born a plebian, he was adopted by King Mahendra making him a converted reality, if there is anything like that. That the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, appeared to side with the army and Gen. Katawal on some issues, incensed the hardliners among the Maoists. They would settle for nothing less than Katawal’s head. The Maoists wanted to replace Katawal with Lt. Gen. Khadka, who is to retire at the end of May. The law laid down by Maoist Central Committee was ‘head I win, tail you lose’.

It appears that CPN (M) head and Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal @ Prachanda, was in favour of a consensus. But consensus could not be arrived at because hardliners wanted everything their way to emphasize their writ. The opposition would not have it. Prachanda was not given an option by his Comrades, forcing him to dismiss Gen. Katawal, which was negated by the Nepali President, Dr. Ram Baran Yadav. Prachanda had to resign as Prime Minister, and India was blamed by the Maoists.

India did interfere in the sense that it tried to advise all concerned to avoid a confrontation that would bring down the Maoist led government. But the Maoists deliberately twisted the Indian intentions, despite the fact that India had supported the Maoists against King Gyanendra and helped broker the 12-point agreement between the Maoists and the other political parties to institute democracy in Nepal and start the peace process.

Despite enjoying Indian goodwill for a peaceful Nepalese political settlement, the Maoist hardliners felt India would not turn a blind eye on their one party state strategy. They went to China from the very early stages for support. This was despite the fact that the Chinese supported the monarchy including with arms to fight the Maoists, while India, the US and UK stopped military supplies to monarchy- led government of King Gyanendra.

The Maoists swallowed the Chinese bait hoping to put India against China in Nepal, and inviting the Chinese in. They forgot the political principle that a country remained safe and independent as long as it did not indulge in setting one neighbour against another. They also missed the point that after Tibet, China was trying to push its strategic border against India to the Indo-Nepal borders.

In June, 2007, the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Zhen Xialing, told a local newspaper the ‘Nepal’ that “China will not tolerate any foreign intervention in Nepal”, adding “whenever the Nepali people face any problem or difficulty, China shall treat them as its own especially when the problems pertain to sovereignty or territorial integrity”. Both the interviewer and Ambassador Zhen recalled the 1962 statement of Chinese Vice Premier Chen Yi, that China would not tolerate any foreign interference in Nepal. The import of 1962 and China’s attack on India that year, is pregnant with significance in the current context. Since then other Chinese officials visiting Nepal have expressed similar support. The Chinese also promised the Maoist PLA assistance and training in open and official statements. They also sent a secret draft of a new friendship agreement with Nepal earlier this year which contained articles that more than implied Chinese support to Nepal against India especially on territorial issues. For more than a decade now the Chinese have been whispering to the powers that Nepal’s opening a dispute on the Kalapani border issue with India, would be in China’s tactical military interest on the ground against India.

The Nepali political parties and people must seriously contemplate on two Chinese strategies that threaten Nepal’s own security. First is the strengthening of a parallel Maoist army in Nepal in opposition of Nepal’s national army. The second is to conjure confrontation with India where none exists. The Nepalese people would have to weigh this against the benefits and security that rest in the historical, cultural and people-to-people India-Nepal relations.

President Yadav has given a deadline to the Nepalese political parties to form a national government by May 9. This is unlikely to happen. On the eve of proclaiming dismissal of Gen. Katawal, the Maoists had mobilized their cadres, the YCL and the PLA to take positions in Kathmandu and elsewhere in the country.

The CPN (UML) withdrew from the government. The Nepali Congress is also organizing countrywide protests against the Maoists. Anti and pro-Maoists demonstration are taking place. If the Maoists, at the instance of the Chinese, resort to another armed movement, the people of Nepal would be the losers. The world will not stand by mutely and see the Maoists burn Nepal.

Both the opposition and the Maoists are working to form a government. The Nepali Congress is willing for a new government with the UML as the leading party and Madhav Kumar Nepal of the UML as the Prime Minister. But the Maoists are trying to split the UML by enticing a faction by the pro-China President of the UML to join the Maoists with his followers. But Prachanda’s personality suffered when a video appeared on Nepali televisions showing a speech by him in which he said how they had inflated the PLA figures and tricked the UNMIN to induct their other cadres in the Nepali army and grab State power. This has also created some consternations in the party.

The Maoist cadres, YCL and the PLA have warned officials and workers of the Nepali Congress and UML not to oppose the Maoists and leave their villages. Clashes are also being reported. The Nepali Congress leader G.P.Koirala, had cautioned Prachanda if Gen. Katawal was dismissed they would be inviting a catastrophe. This old politician’s experience goes longer than that of the Maoists put together.

The CPN (M) may also be heading towards a split between the moderate and the hardliners. The only way to save the situation in Nepal would be for the Maoists to desist from armed action and arrive at a consensus through discussions. The Nepali congress and the UML would still be ameable to reasons. Destructive diplomacy of fighting for China’s machination against India has disaster written all over.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.

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