Recent Developments in Nepal
Chair: Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Dipankar Banerjee
Speaker: Mr. Nischal Nath Pandey
In recent months, Nepal has been undergoing momentous developments like the reconstitution of the cabinet, the scheduling of Constituent Assembly (CA) elections for 20 June and so on. Further, it will be a crucial period for Nepal because of many critical issues facing the country such as inclusive democracy, representation, national development and, most importantly, the making of a new constitution.
Nischal Nath Pandey
At the end of the April Movement in 2006, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) restored the parliament which was dissolved in October 2002, and also formed the government with the aim of conducting peace talks with the Maoists. The total toll during the decade-long insurgency stands at 13,190, with 400,000 people displaced and $230 million worth of property destroyed. The SPA has accepted almost all the demands of the Maoists: curtailment of the King's power, establishment of the sovereignty of parliament and formation of an interim constitution and government to hold the CA elections. The Maoists signed a peace agreement with the government and stationed their militia and over 3,000 arms in UN-monitored cantonments. These developments have been hailed as heralding a new era of stability and peace in the country. However, there are three things that could have been avoided by the government:
First, there was no need to declare the country a secular one. Nepal, which has 86 percent Hindus, eight percent Buddhists, and four percent Muslims never witnessed any communal disturbance during its 300 years of history as the only Hindu Kingdom in the world, but since being officially declared a "secular state", it has already seen two major riots based on religious lines. Several Hindu fundamentalist organisations with Indian links are now active in the Terai region.
Second, agitations by the Janatantrik Mukti Morcha (JTMM) and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) in the industrial and agricultural hotbed of Terai region pose a major threat to the country. Over 42 people have been killed in two major agitations. These disturbances have badly affected the transport of daily commodities to the capital city of Kathmandu and other areas of the country. The present uprising is the result of the Madhesis' long-time feelings of exclusion by the state and their belief that the time has come to secure more rights from the state. The region has also become a battleground for the Maoists and other extremist groups. Although the interim constitution has been amended to have a federal structure based on ethnic representation, accommodating the demands of 52 different ethnic groups, however, would be an extremely difficult task for the interim government.
Third, continuous looting, extortion, arson and vandalism have transformed the situation in Nepal into one of complete lawlessness. The US Ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, opposed the inclusion of Maoists in the government without their agreeing to abandon violence; the business community also has recently organized a major anti-Maoist rally in Kathmandu condemning their harassments. Considering the slow pace of preparations for the elections, the election commissioner of Nepal warned that the time period was not enough to hold the election on 20 June. The citizenship and voters list have not yet been updated due to the ongoing riots in the Terai region, and the political parties have only just been registered with the election commission. In this situation, there are major suspicions about Maoists arms outside the cantonments and their cadres have already come out of the cantonments twice in recent months. The prevailing precarious security situation should be considered before holding CA elections. Presently, some of the political parties like Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and Jansakthi Party have been branded as rightist parties and they have no representation in the interim cabinet, leaving the government without any opposition.
As far as the neighbouring countries are concerned, China is more concerned because of Nepal's border with Tibet, active United Nations involvement in the peace process and the recent arrival of a Japanese delegation for monitoring the situation. While major initiatives to construct rail, oil and gas pipelines are underway between India and Nepal, cross-border infiltration of anti-social elements across the open border and the recent disturbances in the Terai region will have serious implications in future.
Are the Maoists really committed to democracy?
How much control do the Maoists' top leaders have over the lower level leaders and cadres?
What will the Maoist policies be if they form the government on their own?
What are the chances for the rise of King once again in Nepal?
What are the consequences likely to be if elections are not held on 20 June? Will that lead to any serious constitutional crisis?
Are the Maoists willing to surrender their arms that are suspected to be outside the cantonments?
Till now the Maoists have achieved everything through the barrel of the gun, and there are strong doubts among their cadre about their future vis-à-vis the other parties if they have to give up weapons. However, barring some minor incidents, the Maoist party is in complete control of its cadre. Now their strategy is to get into the space of the UML and acquire second largest political party status in the Nepali politics. As far as the Maoists role in the state is concerned, they will not go for a state-controlled economy by imposing land ceiling or nationalizing properties. On the question of monarchy, the King has had no role in the functioning of the state over the last one year, and so, there will be no major change in the political system even if the monarchy is abolished after the CA elections. The relationship between the Maoists and the business community will remain the weakest and there will not be any trust on either side. The judiciary too, was not satisfied with its position in the interim constitution. The interim constitution must have more amendments to satisfy and establish an independent judiciary. Frustration has been growing especially among the younger generations, mainly because of the blame game of the political centers, the deteriorating law and order situation and the scarcity of daily essential commodities. Certainly much more needs to be done and delivered to the people.
As per the interim constitution, this government cannot rule the country if the elections are not held by mid-June. If the present interim government fails to hold elections on 20 June, then a new government has to be formed which will likely be unpopular. So, the Maoists want the elections to be held as soon as possible to win more seats and to strengthen their position. However, the delay in holding elections and the resultant constitutional crisis will have major impact on the peace process.
The US ambassador has said that the Maoists have only deposited in the cantonments those weapons bought from Bihar. There is a widely held perception that the more sophisticated weapons acquired from elsewhere have been retained. Nobody believed the Maoist chairman when he said that a lot of weapons were swept away when they were crossing a river. The over 3000 weapons that the Maoists have surrendered also includes those weapons they had looted from the army and police forces in the past.
Issues in the Terai region
The way the government handled the situation has escalated tension in the Terai region. Now, the Madhesis are demanding a state within a state on lines of the Indian union. The situation could deteriorate further and might lead to a major demand for a separate state. The recent riots in the Terai region could become a major spoiler of the peace process. Even the security forces do not seem to be confident enough to control the law and order situation there. As some Indian security analysts anticipate, the growing number of madrassas in the Terai region will have major implications and create more possibilities for fundamentalist groups to become active in this region.
The US has been unhappy over the inclusion of the Maoists in the government before completely abandoning violence. India, meanwhile, is renewing its policy towards the Nepalese Maoists who too are unlikely to go against Indian interests. Despite this ground reality, the possibility of an anti-India regime coming up in Nepal cannot be ruled out. With India and the US retaining the Maoists in their list of terrorist organizations, the coming two months would be a crucial period for the Maoists to build their image and prove their commitment towards peace before the international community.
In the larger context, major developments have not been taking place only in Nepal but in the whole of South Asia. The debate over democracy, constitutionalism and state structure have been continuing in India as well, but within the framework of a strong democratic structure. In Nepal, the processes of state restructure and nation-building will not be smooth. Even if CA elections do take place in June, perhaps it may not satisfy the expectations of either the people of Nepal or the international community. The country will face a more turbulent phase during the process of accommodating the various interests of ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional groups. The political parties, which have created confusion in the country during the past 14 years, are once again back in power- this time with the addition of the Maoists. At this moment, simple cosmetic changes like removal of the monarchy from the political structure etc. will not resolve all the problems. The coming months will see the presence of some more international powers in Nepal to monitor the peace process. At the same time, India's policy towards Nepal will also be a critical factor in the current Nepalese situation. Though Nepal has remained relatively calm in the past months, there are chances of considerable turbulence in the near future.