At Stake, Democracy


Manjushree Thapa

Manjushree Thapa

SINCE ITS inception in 2006, the peace process in Nepal has remained shaky. Any pretence to the contrary ended with the resignation of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The resignation came after a protracted power struggle between the Nepal Army and the Maoists.

Fires of dissent Opposition party protesters in Kathmandu
Fires of dissent Opposition party protesters in Kathmandu
Photo: AP

The treaties governing the peace process stipulate that neither the army nor the Maoists could recruit additional forces. The struggle began in December 2008, when the army announced that it was going to fill almost 3,000 vacancies with fresh recruits. This was the army’s third recruitment drive since the peace process began. Each drive was a direct provocation to the Maoists, whose People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was waiting in UN-monitored cantonments for integration into the army. But the Kathmandu establishment — the Nepali Congress, the Unified Marxist-Leninists, and the Madheshi People’s Rights Forum, all loosely guided by India — had thought it expedient to look the other way during the earlier drives. Since its severance from the monarchy, the army had come to be viewed, in Delhi and in Kathmandu alike, as the sole balance to the PLA. Only the army stood in the way of a total Maoist takeover of Nepal — so went the conventional wisdom.

The Maoists refused to look the other way when the army announced its third recruitment drive in December 2008. They did not have to, anymore: they had won nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Constituent Assembly election held in April 2008 and were now heading the government. The Maoist leadership was also under great pressure from its cadres to stand up to the army.

Nepal’s peace process is intricate. Constitution-making, the final step of this process, will be delayed

Nepal’s Defence Minister, the Maoist’s Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal,’ therefore, ordered a halt to the recruitment. A defiant Chief of Army Staff, Rookmangud Katawal, refused. The matter went to court, which ordered a halt to recruitment; but by then the recruitment was a fait accompli. In a childish tit-for-tat, the Maoists also inducted fresh recruits to the PLA.

Then, in March, the defense minister refused to extend the terms of eight army generals, as requested by the army chief. Again, the matter went to court, which ruled, this time, in favour of the army, much to the Maoists’ ire.

The Maoists then decided to notch up the power struggle by dismissing the army chief altogether. Katawal was a staunch royalist before 2006, one daft enough to publish anti-democracy rants under a pen name. The Maoists’ decision to dismiss him was preceded by weeks of speculation that an army coup was in the offing, with possible Indian support. The Maoists had said as much when the heads of all political parties visited Delhi in April 2008. This accusation had prompted denials all around; but the Maoists clearly felt they would benefit from taking on the army chief.

India’s ambassador, Rakesh Sood, tried hard to dissuade the Maoists from dismissing Katawal and the other parties in government refused to endorse the dismissal. This did not stop the Maoists from dismissing Katawal unilaterally. Prime Minister Dahal sent the letter of dismissal to President Ram Baran Yadav on May 3.

This was where events took an unexpected turn for the Maoists. The President, a Nepali Congress stalwart, came down firmly on the side of the army by refusing to accept the dismissal. The following day, the prime minister resigned, leaving the polity scrambling to come up with a new government.

Imagine a one lakh-plus, part-feudal, part-Maoist army that believes it can act with impunity

It has been death by a million cuts for the peace process. Army integration — the merger of the PLA and the army around which this particular power struggle has been waged — is but one aspect of the peace process. It is intimately linked to the other aspects: reforming the security sector, delivering justice to the victims of war-time atrocities and drafting a new (and hopefully democratic) constitution.

The main mistake in Delhi and in Kathmandu has been to believe that one aspect of the peace process does not affect the others. Indeed, from the start, India has treated Nepal’s peace process rather too casually. Here is a country in the grip of two competing revolutions — a democratic revolution and a Maoist revolution. This is a life-or-death struggle for democracy in Nepal. But India has adopted a complacent ‘business as usual’ approach to it.

Take security sector reform, an agenda that was dropped early in the peace process, upon Delhi’s insistence. Nepal’s army has had long-standing relations with India’s army, and hawks in India made sure that the Nepal Army stayed untouched by peace process. Had security sector reforms been effected, Katawal would not have been in a position to create mischief.

RELATEDLY, NOT a single wartime atrocity has been tried in court. Atrocities were committed by both warring sides: the army stands accused of having disappeared more than 900 people, of having killed thousands of civilians, and of having raped, tortured, and illegally detained people during the war. The Maoists, too, have much blood on their hands and are accused of having recruited child soldiers. Neither the PLA nor the army has had to account for a single atrocity.

Army integration in the absence of security sector reform and justice would be disastrous. (Imagine a one lakh-plus, part-feudal, part-Maoist army that believes it can act with impunity). Yet, this is precisely the course that India has advocated, and the course that Nepal has followed, blindly.

This, despite offers of help from many quarters, including the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). India’s attitude towards the UNMIN —a ‘not in my backyard’ stance — has ensured that the UNMIN mandate was so small as to be laughable. Yet, what the UNMIN could have done — in security sector reform and justice — India can never do, as any Indian initiative will be construed as undue interference, inflaming anti-India and nationalist passions. India can never be as neutral as the UN. The resulting vacuum in the peace process has been, as we have seen, dangerous, especially in the past months, with Indian politicians distracted by elections.

Nepal’s peace process is just too intricate to treat carelessly. Constitution-making, the final aspect of the peace process, will now inevitably be delayed. The new constitution was already very contentious, with ethnic federalism being championed first by the Maoists, then by the Madheshis and by a number of ethnic and caste groups across the country. Others feel that drawing federal boundaries along ethnic lines will lead to the eruption of ethnic violence. There are strong sentiments on both sides.

There are also vastly divergent visions on the kind of state Nepal should become under the new constitution. The Maoists have already floated a ‘Draft Constitution’ which envisions Nepal following the Chinese state structure. Most other parties envision Nepal following the Indian state structure for parliamentary democracy. Again, there are strong sentiments involved.

It will take protracted deliberation and intense negotiation to come to a consensus on any one, let alone all, of these issues. This is what lies ahead for Nepal.

For India, what remains is to come up with a constructive role, like the one it played in 2006 by bringing the Maoists into peace talks with political parties. It can do so again by encouraging, rather than turning away, neutral international bodies like the UN and by reviving the forgotten aspects of the peace process: security sector reform and justice. It can help by urging the political parties in Nepal to better themselves, rather than urging them to seek security with the Nepal Army. It can help by showing the Maoists that there is no choice but to come to a democratic platform.

Not only can India do this, it must. What happens in Nepal is an indicator of what may eventually happen in the Naxalite-inflicted parts of India. In India, as in Nepal, carelessness is not an option. For democracy is at stake.

Manjushree Thapa is the author of Tilled Earth and Forget Kathmandu.


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