Sandwiched between China and India, Nepal occupies a strategic location in South Asia astride the high Himalayan ranges. It had little contact with China in the past. Its ties with India have been intimate and long, developed over centuries of common history, culture, religion and commerce. Since 1815 when General Amar Singh Thapa’s unvanquished army marched out with arms from the Malaun Fort in Himachal, the two countries have remained intertwined through their military connection. Possibly about eighty thousand soldiers serve in the Indian security forces (more than half in the Army) and in the numerous para-military and police organisations. Approximately Rs 900 crores (US $ 200 million) are transferred from India every year for pay and pensions of Nepalese citizens working in the government of India. Probably many hundreds of crores more are remitted from non-official sectors.
Relations between India and Nepal are unique and closer than between any two sovereign nations anywhere in the world. Yet, over the last fifty years there have arisen misunderstandings affecting mutual relations. A new challenge presents itself today in the emerging Maoist insurgency in Nepal.
Nepal entered an era of democratic governance in 1990 with high expectations but little preparation. Over the next dozen years, ten governments, led by one political party after another and several combinations among them, ruled the country with equal incompetence. Ministers fought over power and pelf and the spoils of office, through government contracts and outright bribes, impoverishing the land and its people. They discredited themselves and undermined the democratic process, particularly in the countryside where all possibilities of economic development or governance vanished. Burgeoning population and absence of employment opportunities at home, combined with the above proved explosive and inevitably led to the Maoist insurgency
Leftist forces have long existed on the fringes in Nepal. In 1994 a more extremist group withdrew from electoral politics and from 13 February 1996 launched a Maoist uprising. Led by Pushpa Kumar Dahal (Prachanda) and the ideologue Dr Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists put out first a 40 point demand. The first five of these were set against India giving expression to all the traditional anti-Indian polemics of Nepal. Remainder were an agenda for a revolutionary Marxist revolution. While the uprising developed in the countryside, politics of opportunism continued as usual in Kathmandu. The first ‘strike’ by the Maoists was called in the capital in the autumn of 2000. In these turbulent conditions a regicide occurred in which the entire Royal family was assassinated by the young prince in June 2001. The King’s less popular younger brother assumed the mantle of kingship amidst rumours of conspiracy and worse.
Political instability too continued and a new Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba assumed office leading a faction of the Nepali Congress. Elections were to follow, but conditions in the country precluded holding it and he extended his tenure. In October 2002 the King dismissed the Prime Minister and in a constitutional coup installed a new government under a favourably inclined Prime Minister, in effect assuming direct political rule.
Counter insurgency in the early years was fought entirely by the civil police. Later a force of 15,000 armed police were specially raised and equipped with self loading rifles. They still remain untrained and under equipped. When the Maoists struck at the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) in November 2001 killing a large numbers of soldiers in Dang, the Army was compelled to intervene. In the last two years of insurgency alone about 8000 persons have lost their lives, with about 75 per cent (according to the RNA), belonging to the Maoist cadre. Yet, a rough estimate of the current cadre strength of the Maoists is said to be 5,500 combatants of which about one third are armed, 8,000 militias, 4,500 cadres and 33,000 hardcore followers. Passive supporters are likely to be in hundreds of thousands.
The Maoists control much of the countryside. While it is true that no place has been ‘liberated’ and the RNA can go anywhere at will, it is only by flying in by Indian or US supplied helicopters. All of the countryside except the District headquarters belongs to the insurgents by day and especially at night. They remain capable of mounting coordinated brigade size attacks with 1,500 soldiers in many parts of the country, even though these may not be entirely successful.
The RNA strength is under sixty thousand. There are plans to increase it to 75,000 soldiers now and soon there will need to be an army of over a lakh. It is now better equipped with Indian and somewhat lesser quantities of US arms, particularly M-16 rifles. It is increasingly receiving good training and has high exposure to UN peacekeeping operations. Yet, its combat capability against well motivated Maoist insurgents in the large and difficult terrain of Nepal will remain in doubt at least for several years more. The question is does Nepal have the time?