Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

Between The Lines
Never forget Kathmandu

There was no guillotine, no storming of Bastilles, no Madam Therese Defarge to knit the names of oppressors in the scroll she wove throughout the day. Revolution in Nepal, unlike the one in France, was peaceful. None from among the oppressors was even touched. The other day, eight months later, when I ambled through the streets of Kathmandu, I vainly tried to look for the ravages of revolution. There was none. The city was normal, as before, and shops well stocked. Both King Gyanendra and the kingship, once held sacred, had been thrown to the dustbin of history without any violence.

When more than one million people marched towards Nepal's capital last April from different parts of the country, they demonstrated their determination against a despotic ruler, not a person, however cruel. They could have removed him physically from his many spangled palace and destroyed his estate spreading over half of the city's centre. But they wanted only the king to step down.

The blood which was spilled was that of 25 people from the throng. The security forces, arrayed like a formation in a battlefield, had shot them down. How many more innocent they could kill? They had no heart in it and reported to the king, their commander-in-chief, the situation was "beyond control." Only then did he surrender his powers to leaders in the Nepali Congress, the largest political party.

Indeed, it was a triumph of people, the teeming millions, poor or marginalized, whom the outside world had written off. A Nepali intellectual even authored a book, Forget Kathmandu. People retrieved freedom and restored power to the elected parliament which the king had dissolved. The change was no less significant than the end of the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

There was dignity about people's revolt, something that evoked awe, democratic and disciplined as it was. Yet there was a message of defiance to the tyranny of one man and his collaborators. Nepal had witnessed something similar in 1990 when the People's Movement had overthrown the panchayat system of absolute monarchy. The revolution made the Nepalese transcend the barriers of caste and clime, span the distance between rural and urban and Tarai and hilly tracts. Diverse communities rose like one person. This has its plus and minus sides. The plus is the unity that has come about. The minus is the rise in expectations. However, what struck me at Kathmandu was the patience with which people wait for the outcome of talks between the two contesting sides, the Nepali Congress, along with its leftist allies, and the Maoists, the communist party of Nepal, commanding the People's Liberation Army. With bated breath, people saw finalisation of the interim constitution in November. A month later, they witnessed the removal of King Gyanendra as the head of the state. Both sides sorted out their difference by making the Prime Minister as the head of the state.

Prime Minister Girja Prasad Koirala has not apparently liked the arrangement because he has said in a statement that the Prime Minister has become too powerful and there is a danger that he can act as a dictator. The interim constitution has kept intact the institution of monarchy and it will be voted upon on the opening day of the constituent assembly, yet to be elected.

However, the monarch is still revered, particularly in villages. One estimate is that at least 50 per cent of Nepalese want the institution to stay in some shape because they regard the king as the incarnation of god. The Royal Nepal Army is tilted towards the king. It has retained the word "royal," although the Nepal Airlines has dropped it. Even after the revolution, the interim coalition government sent a letter to King Gyanendra on his birthday, although it did away with the ceremony of ministers going in a delegation to greet him.

With the kingship out of the way, the Koirala government and the Maoists are concentrating on the surrender of arms. The modus operandi has been settled: the Maoists will lock up their arms in containers provided by India and the UN will supervise the whole exercise and guard the container, although the Maoists will keep the keys.

The point which is bothering most Nepalese is whether the Maoists will surrender all the arms. The suspicion is that they will stack some elsewhere since there is no inventory. This has divided the society not as pro and anti-king, but as pro-Nepali Congress and pro-Maoist. The former claims to protect democracy, the latter people's rights. Still the fact remains that the Maoists who have conducted an armed struggle for 10 years have bid goodbye to arms. When I asked top Maoist leaders whether they would return to violence if the parliamentary system did not work, their reply was that their faith in peaceful methods was irrevocable.

If this is so, I am unable to understand the Maoists' attack on the far-flung police posts which are being re-established after their destruction during the insurgency. Examples of extortions or "donations" are galore. I do not think that the cadres are out of control of the Maoist leadership. I believe that such assertions of authority or their misuse may go on till the Maoists join the interim government, something which should have taken place by this time. The surrender of arms may pave the way.

The arduous task--finding resource for providing basic amenities to people and enforcing law and order-- will begin only when the Maoists join the government. They took to arms because the system could not deliver. The same question would stare at them after the parliamentary system is in place. The kingship, the Maoists' methods and the parliamentary ways or, for that matter, socialism and communism, are means to an end, not the end by themselves. How much good will they do to people is the criterion. If they are sacrificed, for what is considered good for the country, is that the right objective to have?

Civil society which should provide the answers has a grievance that it has not got its due. I concede that the intellectuals in Nepal are better and more committed than the ones in India. But the latter have had a genial environment of open society. Tall national leaders gave them a headstart and recognised their importance. The Nepalese had to work with the king who, however benevolent, was the king. But Nepa is more homogeneous after the April revolution than ever before. There is freedom in the air.

With the Maoists adopting democratic methods and the Koirala and his allies keeping their sides of the bargain, there is no reason why peace and prosperity should elude Nepal.

Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.