It was an interesting time. The civil war was over, the Maoists were in power, the constitution was being debated and the roads of Kathmandu being widened. In 2012, after a decade-long civil war, Nepal’s Maoists formalised their move out of the jungle and into the county’s political mainstream, handing over their arms and integrating their army with the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), that was when I found my way to Kathmandu.
However, being a Nepal rookie, I needed a guide, a single window of information. I was searching for a person who had done all the hard work and could pack in years of knowledge and information into an hour-long blitz over a cup of coffee. Whoever I asked, journalists, embassy officials and friends, suggested the same name, Prashant Jha.
Jha, a legendary debater at the Delhi University, whose name was said in hushed whispers during my time on the debating circuit, had by 2012 made his name as a rising star of journalism with The Hindu and was somewhat of an authority on Nepal. Behind his humble countenance was a well-connected journalist who had his finger on the pulse of Nepal’s rapidly evolving political environment. And after a cup of coffee, I walked away with more insight than I could pen down and a list of contacts to help me put my stories together.
Two years on, at a time when the Maoists are no longer the single largest majority, Nepal’s constitution remains unwritten and India is yet to fully understand our neighbourhood to the north, Jha’s book, Battles of the New Republic – A Contemporary History of Nepal is a must read.
Access makes a journalist and the book truly reflects Jha’s access to leaders and sources on all sides of Nepal’s political spectrum (including India). Through anecdotes and interviews, he very aptly gives an insight into the inner ring of the Maoist movement, tracing their journey to power and sharing with the reader perspectives and insights that he developed over the years.
“… enrolled for a PhD in Regional Development at JNU, Baburam had begun to be increasingly influenced by Marxism. He had seen the plight of Nepali workers in India, and this made him both angry and reflective. Baburam began asking himself a range of questions — why did the Nepali poor have to leave their own country and work in circumstances without dignity elsewhere? Why were Nepali soldiers serving in foreign armies as mercenaries? Why was it that they had worked so hard but yet remained poverty stricken? Why did Nepal not take care of its own citizens? What was the way out?”
Paragraphs such as these give the reader a glimpse into the thinking and shaping of thought that different revolutionary leaders underwent. However, what makes the book extremely interesting is the fact that Jha himself has a very unique background. He is a third generation Nepali of Indian origin, who are called ‘dhoti’ in Nepal, a form of discrimination representing that he was an outsider. In India, during his years in New Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, his ‘Nepaliness’ was questioned as he didn’t fit the preconceived mongoloid image most Indians have. His background and conflicting self-image gives him an interesting perspective on the often-contradictory internal dynamics of Nepal.
“The quirks of history could not have been more startling. A man who had once thought of joining the RNA decided to launch a war against the Nepali state (Prachanda). Three and a half decades after the cia dropped guns to foment rebellion against an enemy communist regime in the heyday of the Cold War, Nepali Maoists picked up the same rifles to launch their battles against ‘royal feudalism, Indian expansionism and American imperialism’ after the obituary of communism had been written. They were aided and trained by former soldiers of the Indian Army — now living in Nepal on pension from the Indian state…”
One of the main strands of thought I came back with after my first Nepal visit in 2012 was the overwhelming fact that Nepal was not happy about India meddling in its affairs — the big brother treatment as it were, given India’s massive security interests in the country. In great detail, Jha deals with this aspect of cross-border relations. He goes well beyond the very obvious sentiment of Indian high-handedness and actually breaks down the flip-flops in Maoists’ policy on India. He explains how over the years India’s ability and inclination to shape local politics had not changed despite the changing of local actors. He talks of how the Maoists at first were upset with the Indian intervention, despite having worked in India during their years underground, only to later realise political consensus was possible only through India. What he aptly establishes is the chaos that exists at a political level between India and Nepal and therefore interferes in evolving a Nepal policy (though he does highlight success in the bilateral ties).
The book offers a lot for conflict-watchers in the region. It is well known that many of the ‘insurgent groups’ in and around the subcontinent are linked in some way and what drew me further was Jha’s exploration of the links between Nepal’s Maoists and India’s Naxals. Through conversations with leaders and sympathisers on both sides of the border, he talks of their links, training exchanges, joint meetings and the two finally going their separate ways when the Nepali Maoists ‘sold-out’ (in the eyes of India’s Naxals) and joined the mainstream.
With insight also comes some criticism. Jha has been fair in the assessment of the Maoists, Nepal’s former King, India, the RNA as well as the other political players in Nepal. He has spoken of the positives and shortcomings, the extortion and violence, the misunderstandings as well as the various opportunities lost, including the failure of a bloody, 10-year civil war to deliver a new form of governance.
Two years ago, I flew to Nepal and over a cup of coffee opposite the UN office in Kathmandu, a smiling Prashant Jha gave me a crash course on Nepal. Today, his book vividly captures the modern history of that country and provides much needed understanding, without incurring the expense of the coffee or the flight ticket!