Out of the jungle. Into the mainstream. And some lessons for New Delhi

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By Avalok Langer

PLA cadres prepare to bid goodbye to their camp in Chitwan
A brand-new life: PLA cadres prepare to bid goodbye to their camp in Chitwan, Photo: AFP

TO THE average Indian, Nepal, our tiny neighbour to the north, is rather insignificant. However, after a 10-year civil war that claimed 15,000 lives, the Maoists came to power in 2008 and India was forced to sit up and take notice. The idea of a “red corridor running from Tirupati to Pashupati” made the Maoist problem New Delhi’s most serious security challenge and suddenly Nepal became very significant.

For the better part of the past three centuries, Nepal has been ruled by monarchy. The country’s power structure and economy was monopolised by upper-caste Hindu groups, who created a rigid caste system to ensure their dominance, thereby laying the foundation for the “people’s war”.

Despite the 1990 protest that forced King Birendra to give way to an elected Parliament under a constitutional monarch, an unstable Parliament that saw nine prime ministers in 10 years was unable to solve the country’s economic and social problems. Nepal remained a rigidly patriarchal, caste centric, oligopolistic society, a potent breeding ground for the Maoist movement to take root.

And on 13 February 1996, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) and Baburam Bhattarai, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) initiated an armed struggle against the Nepal government with the support of the Indian Maoists.

By 2000, the Maoists controlled 90 percent of a country desperately looking for change and on 22 November 2005, through the ‘12-point agreement’, the CPN(M) came into the mainstream. The king was removed, elections were held and the Maoists formed the government in a new multiparty system.

Having shaken the political foundation of the country, the Maoists are busy working on formulating a new democratic future for Nepal, which can be a positive example for India’s Maoists.

“India has been citing the example of Nepal’s Maoists and encouraging them (Indian Maoists) to join the political mainstream and bring change through policy and governance, like the CPN(M) was brought in through the 12-point agreement,” say Indian intelligence sources.

However, Maoist hardliners in Nepal see the current moves by the government as a “sellout” that is causing a rift in the party. On one side is Prachanda and Prime Minister Bhattarai’s faction, who are more progressive and pragmatic, and on the other is the Mohan B Kiran (Baidhya) faction.

9,705 combatants have opted for integration, 7,286 for voluntary retirement and just six for rehabilitation

Moreover, the Nepal Maoists’ immediate hurdles are integrating the 19,602-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the Nepalese Army and drafting a new Constitution.

Riddled with political posturing, the Special Committee formed to oversee integration has been unable to act for the past five years. The deadlock was broken by the ‘seven-point agreement’, which lays down the guidelines for integration and gives the 19,602 PLA combatants three options: integration, voluntary retirement and rehabilitation.

As of now, 9,705 combatants have opted for integration, 7,286 for voluntary retirement and just six for rehabilitation.

PLA combatants remain in various cantonments, their arms and ammunition locked up in containers that will be handed over to the Nepalese Army after integration. Though slated to conclude by 12 April, the integration process is yet to move ahead due to the following four hurdles.

Gen VK Singh and his Nepalese counterpart Chatraman Singh Gurung
In high spirits: Gen VK Singh and his Nepalese counterpart Chatraman Singh Gurung, Photo: AP

Major restriction on rank
While the Maoists have been pushing for the rank of a brigadier or colonel, the agreement stipulates that the highest rank offered to combatants will be that of a major. “We are trying to create a level-playing field,” says M Rijal of the Nepali Congress. “Those who joined the PLA right at the start in 1996 have 16 years of service, which is equivalent to that of a major in the army. Therefore, we feel that if combatants with the same qualification and experience are given higher ranks, it will be detrimental to the careers of serving officers.” Till now, there seems to be no consensus on the issue of ranks as the Maoists want more and the other parties aren’t willing to budge.

The expectations aren’t enough
“There should be a clear difference between recruitment and integration. Recruitment is open to every citizen, but this is a special situation and we should be integrated. But that hasn’t happened so far,” says Amrita Thapa, a member of the Constituent Assembly and a former PLA combatant.

However, a serving brigadier general in the Nepalese Army counters, “That’s their perception. Had it been recruitment, we would not have compromised on the education (dropped by two classes), the age limit (dropped by three years) and on the marital status (married combatants allowed).”

But former combatant Thapa is not impressed by that argument. “The democracy that Nepal is enjoying today is a result of our sacrifices,” she says. “These conditions of rank and education should not be there. They should respect our sacrifices.”

Training and role of combatants
The combatants selected for integration will have to undergo four levels of training; basic, bridge, rank-specific and group. The training period for officers has been cut from two years to 10 months and for soldiers from nine months to five. However, the Maoists feel that as they have functioned as an army for almost 20 years, they have the knowledge and know-how and don’t need further training.

But political parties believe otherwise. “The Maoist combatants are politically indoctrinated. So, training is very necessary,” explains Deepak Bhatt of the CMN(UML). To put it crudely, the indoctrinated combatants need to be detoxed, then re-indoctrinated by the army and then trained.

During his recent visit to Nepal, Indian Army chief Gen VK Singh asked if the political nature of the combatants would have an impact on the Nepalese Army. Stating that “what is in the interest of Nepal is in the interest of India” and hoping for an early settlement to the peace process, he offered his assistance, say sources.

Even PLA Section Commander Samir Adhikari admits that the time for politics is over. “Politics is a closed chapter for us now. Yes, in our hearts, we will still hold our political sentiments, but political views were relevant only during the time of war. Now, we will work for the nation.”

As for the combatants, they will be integrated into an yet-to-be-formed directorate of the Nepalese Army. The directorate will be tasked with development- related activities, forest conservation, industrial security and crisis management — all non-combat roles.

“As they are politically indoctrinated, we felt most comfortable with them performing these duties and it will take time for them to acclimatise,” avers Rijal.

An army officer suggests that “Once they are integrated, the major step of the peace process will be done. That might help bring about the new constitution and in the long run they may get other roles.”

Present educational qualifications should be considered
When Adhikari joined the PLA, he had only cleared Class X. “In the past six years, I have completed my schooling and got a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science. It saddens me that none of it will be counted,” he says. According to the agreement, educational qualifications registered by the United Nations Special Mission in Nepal in 2005 will be counted. This has left many Maoists unhappy, because like Adhikari, though they are qualified, they cannot apply for the officer’s rank.

GIVEN THE stringent criteria, it is believed that not more than 4,500 combatants will qualify. Those who don’t will join the 7,286 who have opted for voluntary retirement. “The retirement package is quite attractive,” says Geja Sharma of the Nepal Institute for Policy Studies. “In two installments, the combatants will get NPR 5-8 lakh (approximately Rs 3.1- Rs 5 lakh). That’s good money. If you are getting NPR 8 lakh in cash, why will you choose a training course? Maybe that is why only six combatants have opted for rehabilitation.”

‘Politics is a closed chapter for us now. Now, we will work for the nation,’ says PLA commander Adhikari

According to sources, “The money that the combatants are getting for voluntary retirement has been provided by the Chinese government. It isn’t officially recorded, but the money was given to Nepal in the form of budgetary support, which has been used for the retirement packages.”

But all is not well with those who have opted for voluntary retirement. Many of them are still protesting outside PLA cantonments. “We fought for the nation, but due to some criteria, we were made to take voluntary retirement,” says Jwala Nepal, a former combatant. “We want the money the party has taken from us. We want a system to be put in place for our future as we have been left out in the cold.”

Apparently, the Maoists sent 3,500 combatants out of the cantonments in 2005 to form the Young Communist League (YCL). It was a deliberate, tactical and strategic move. During the election, the PLA combatants will be in the cantonments and the Maoists needed members to do the party work and run around to gather support. So the YCL was created. To support them, each combatant was made to contribute 10-15 percent from their retirement package.

The clashes between the retired PLA combatants who are demanding their money back and the faction led by Prachanda and Bhattarai reached such a stage that on 10 April, after an emergency meeting, the Maoist leadership asked the Nepalese Army (through the Special Committee) to take over the combatants, arms and security of the Maoist cantonments.

Though this is being seen as a positive step, hurdles remain. Many in the Nepalese Army feel that this process of integration may affect the morale and psyche of the soldiers.

Having waged war against the Maoists, integration could be a problem, says a senior official. “We are not saying that there won’t be any problems. There will be some sort of impact on the regular soldiers. However, as they are going to form a separate directorate, it should be ok,” he says.

While the military takeover of the Maoist cantonments should hasten the peace process, until Nepal is able to finish the integration process and move ahead on the Constitution, a cloud of uncertainty will remain. The power vacuum has created a situation where the progress made by the Maoists in reforming Nepali society is regressing. They are losing support and their future is uncertain.

There is a fear that with various parties pulling in different directions, chaos will ensue and Nepal will go through another turbulent period. But then again, last-minute solutions are the hallmark of the subcontinent.

Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
avalok@tehelka.com

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