Nepal: Treacherous past, tortuous future
CK Lal provides a ring-side view of Nepal's historic transition from monarchy to democracy
The end of the decade-old armed insurgency in Nepal was heralded by a public ceremony at the Birendra International Convention Centre in Kathmandu on November 20. In an ill-organized affair -- till the last moment, the master of ceremonies didn't know who needed to be called to the dais -- Premier Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist supremo Prachanda signed a peace accord declaring that the civil war was over.
It was followed by a consensus over the interim constitution that is expected to pave the way for the entry of Maoists into the provisional parliament and interim government. The new set-up will then conduct the elections to a constituent assembly which will decide the fate of the monarchy and write the seventh constitution of the country.
Constituent assembly elections are slated to be held in June 2007. However, it is conditional upon management of the Maoists' weapons under UN supervision. Constituent assembly elections aren't like parliamentary polls that could be conducted under the provisions of the dormant constitution of 1990. The parliament will have to enact necessary laws to empower the election commission for re-delineation of constituencies, updating of electoral rolls and making preparations for the constituent assembly elections.
Even though the government and the Maoists have agreed to mobilize ex-Gorkha soldiers, retired from British and Indian armies, as a stop-gap arrangement in lieu of international monitors, arms management is unlikely to be formalized without the arrival of the full UN team. Under the circumstances, constituent assembly elections by the slated date -- June 2007 -- seem highly unlikely.
Since it is physically impossible to conduct polls during the monsoon months (July-September) and the festive season thereafter, elections may not be held by the end of this year. The uncertainty has given rise to a fear: will constituent assembly elections be held at all? The people of Nepal have been promised a constitution of their own making, a right which they had been denied the in the 1950s. The scepticism this time is fueled by the frustration of a once bitten, twice shy electorate.
The prospect of lasting peace hinges on timely, free and fair elections for the constituent assembly. The process can begin to unravel at the slightest hint of insincerity, either on the part of the government or on the part of the Maoists. Perhaps that is the reason for the the dramatic improvements on the ground, since the April uprising that clipped the wings of the king, forced the Maoists into the mainstream and coaxed the parliamentary parties into adopting progressive agendas.
The Rhododendron Revolution is still incomplete; and like all unfinished political upheavals in history, a fresh upsurge will be highly destabilizing.
The "unification" of the Kingdom of Nepal was initiated by King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha, a small and impoverished principality west of Kathmandu, in 1715, through an astounding mix of treachery (he made friends with the Malla rulers of Bhaktapur with the express purpose of annexing it), cruelty (he had every male member of Makwanpur's Sen dynasty, his in-laws by marriage, put to sword so that none could challenge his authority later), deception (he successfully mobilized Hindu ascetics as informers and advance party during his conquests), intellect (he attacked Kathmandu when its fighters were celebrating their annual Indrajatra festival by getting drunk in the traditional way), and bravery (Kirtipur tested his mettle, but he repeatedly attacked without being disappointed). By the standards of his time, Prithvi Narayan Shah was indeed a great king in South Asia.
The expansionist policies of King Prithvi Narayan Shah were given continuity by his descendents and their courtiers in Kathmandu. People, however, never figured in the royal scheme of things. For royal adventures in the south, east, and west, the court of Kathmandu relied on the services of ambitious mercenaries willing to take up the khukuri -- the famed curved knife of Gorkhalis -- in the hope of being rewarded with land grants in annexed territories. Expansionist policies of the Kathmandu court were halted in the north by the Chinese in Tibet, in 1792. The extension of the Gorkha Empire came to an end when it was roundly defeated in the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16, and was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Sugauli.
Frustrated by the confinement imposed upon it by the unequal treaty, the Gorkhali war machine turned upon itself as one court intrigue after another consumed statesman Bhimsen Thapa, warrior Mathber Singh Thapa, and administrator Fatte Jung Chautaria. Jung Bahadur Kunwar, the foxiest and cruelest of all the courtiers of the time, emerged the de facto ruler of the kingdom in the wake of the Kot Massacre that practically eliminated the entire nobility of the Kathmandu Valley in one fell swoop in 1846. Nepal's final boundary came to be determined by the return of Naya Muluk (Banke, Bardia, Kailali, and Kanchanpur districts in western part of the country) to premier Jung Bahadur for the services that he had rendered by helping the English crush the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in Awadh.
Jung consolidated his hold over the kingdom by marrying his progenies into the family of the reigning monarch. He dispensed with his Kunwar surname and conferred the title of Rana upon himself. Hagiographers of the day manufactured history to connect his ancestry to the House of Mewar on the fringes of the Thar Desert. After Jung, the transfer of power from one Rana to another was invariably through either a coup or a court intrigue. For 104 years, the Shahs reigned while the Ranas ruled, and the power never extended beyond the close family of these close cousins. A few Mewar nobles and some Brahmin priests did benefit from the crumbs off the royal tables, but that only helped in deflecting attention away from the ruling families. The competition among the aspiring elite was confined to an unhealthy rivalry for court patronage.
Such an attitude among the privileged middle-class of Kathmandu undermined the achievements of the "revolution" of 1950 when an India-mediated compromise restored King Tribhuvan to power in Kathmandu, and the Ranas were rehabilitated in national life under the king's direct rule. Elections for a constituent assembly were promised by the king, but were never held. King Mahendra intensified court intrigues to bring back all state powers from the Singh Durbar Secretariat to the Narayanhiti Royal Palace. Intensification of cold war rivalry created a suitable geo-strategic environment for King Mahendra to stage a military coup in 1960, and the experiment of parliamentary democracy in the country came to an abrupt end within 18 months of hesitant practice.
King Birendra followed in the footsteps of his father and fended off all attempts for restoration of democracy in the country with clever maneuvers like Go to the Village National Campaign (a kind of royal politburo that selected people's representatives at all levels of Panchayat), vague referendum (the details of "improved" Panchayat, a choice in the plebiscite, were deliberately left unclear), and deceitful constitutional amendments that always ended up reinforcing the royal control. He agreed to exercise his powers by staying within the limits of the constitution only when the People's Movement of 1990 forced him to reach an agreement with the political parties spearheading the movement for the restoration of democracy in the country.
Court intrigues, however, didn't cease even after the promulgation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, in 1990, which asserted that sovereignty resided in the people of the country. On the surface, King Birendra appeared as a model constitutional monarch, but behind the scenes he never refrained from exercising his power and influence. It so happened that one after another the Premiers -- Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Girija Prasad Koirala, Man Mohan Adhikary, and Sher Bahadur Deuba -- were only too willing to accept the king's wishes as his command.
Once out of office, Bhattarai admitted that King Birendra had told him that the command of the army rested solely with the monarch, and that the prime minister had no authority to mobilize it without his express permission. This diarchy spelled trouble, but nobody took serious note of it back then. Bhattarai failed to put the crucial issue of control of the army for discussion in the parliament, or to make it public immediately. He could have resigned after taking a principled stand; instead, he went out of Baluwatar in ignominy when faced with the prospect of a motion of "no confidence" in his own parliamentary party.
The Narayanhiti massacre of June 1, 2001 exposed the limits of the prime minister's authority when the Royal Nepali Army didn't take the ruling head of government into confidence, even hours after the killing of the reigning head of state. Premier Koirala weathered the storm of criticism but refused to publicly accept that he was as unaware about what went on inside the royal palace on that fateful Friday evening as anyone else.
Koirala did resign, but only when his image had been tarnished with the brush of what was clearly a cleverly orchestrated scandal over an aircraft lease deal. Koirala had to leave in a huff in July 2001 when the Royal Nepal Army refused to carry out the order of his government to rescue policemen held hostage by Maoists. However, he still refused to divulge the details of his humiliation. Such was the hold of the palace upon the high and mighty of the land. When Sher Bahadur Deuba became the premier after the ouster of Koirala it was widely believed that he had the blessings of the palace and the army.
The second term of Deuba as prime minister of the country turned out to be its most disastrous. He declared a state of emergency in the country, mobilized the army to fight Maoists, formed a breakaway faction of his mother party, and dissolved the parliament to support his political adventures. He failed on all counts: the insurgency escalated, the army got ambitious and the palace began to pull his strings.
Even though Deuba was ready to sign on the dotted lines in everything other than his own resignation, he was dismissed by the king as a prime minister "incompetent" for holding the election on the previously announced date. The palace had finally succeeded in outwitting all politicos after relentless effort for 12 years. During this period, courtiers used every trick in the book -- and some brilliant ones of their own, like making Deuba commit hara-kiri by dissolving the parliament when there was no way of holding an election -- to deride, defame, discredit, divide and then destroy all major political parties.
King Gyanendra thought that he had finished the job of burying all political parties when he took over all state power in a brilliantly executed self-coup on February 1, 2005. However, he had failed to take into account the vibrancy of Nepali civil society that had taken root in the imperfect but uninterrupted democratic exercise of a dozen years. All opposition to King Gyanendra's autocratic rule was spearheaded by civil society organizations.
Protests by engineers, doctors, journalists, lawyers, professors, human rights activists, cooperative groups and various other volunteer organizations succeeded in drawing the attention of the world. More importantly, Nepal's donors and friends withheld their support for the royal government. The king was forced to relent and restore parliament on April 21, after nearly a month of mass uprising that saw an unprecedented show of people power in Nepal. Hardly a family was left in the country that didn't have at least one member protesting against the autocratic rule of the king.
The sequence of events since April 21 has been dramatic, to say the least. The Maoists declared ceasefire on April 27 and the political parties responded positively to their offer. On April 28, the reinstated parliament opened. Two days later, a visibly ailing Koirala once again became the prime minister as the lower house passed a resolution to conduct constituent assembly elections, which made the parliament itself superfluous.
On May 4, Maoists welcomed the government's decision to declare ceasefire, and agreed to sit for negotiations. On May 18, the parliament curtailed the power of the king and brought the army under the command of the prime minister. A series of talks then culminated in the agreement over the interim constitution signed on December 16.
Maoists had called for country-wide protests to oppose the government's administrative decisions in the last week of December, but they withdrew all protest programs as abruptly as they had been announced. There is a feeling in Kathmandu that the scorching pace of change in Nepal is being facilitated by India, the country which was home to top Maoist commanders during the decade of armed insurgency. That impression gives rise to a lingering suspicion: withdrawal of Indian backing of the peace process on any pretext can derail it at any time.
The interim government of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) led by octogenarian premier Koirala has notched up notable successes. It has resolved the long-standing issue of citizenship of madheshis -- indigenous people of plains bordering India -- and has drawn up a comprehensive peace plan. But the SPA coalition isn't amenable to the demands for a federal structure.
The Maoists, too, seem to have acquiesced to the tendencies of the ruling coalition. The international community -- vocal during the autocratic rule of the king -- seems to have lost all interest in the political agenda of the country after the restoration of the parliament. Instead, they seem to be worried about the possibility of a Maoist takeover, facilitated by the inefficiency of mainstream political parties.
Uncertainties over the future of the constituent assembly elections may give rise to frustration in the Maoist camp. A substantial section of rebel commanders in the countryside feels that they have been let down by their central leaders. Ethnic autonomy promised by Maoist leaders helped them garner support against the unitary state. It appears now that they, too, aren't very committed to the idea of a federal structure for the country.
This may cause a fresh wave of insurgencies by breakaway factions of Maoists, a process that has already begun in the eastern parts of the country where a section of ethnic madheshis -- a Maoist splinter group -- have commenced a campaign against migrants from the hills. If it escalates, the resulting conflagration will be much worse than whatever this country has seen in the last ten years of ruthless insurgency that claimed over 14,000 lives.
A desirable future for Nepal will entail development of a national consensus over the agenda of peace, based upon restructuring of the state. The leadership will have to accept the inevitability of federalism, democracy, rule of law, and a commitment to social justice. These commitments will then have to be enshrined in a constitution written by the representatives of the people selected through free and fair elections.
These are challenging tasks even under the best of circumstances. It requires sagacity from leaders, commitment from political parties and the government machinery, and patience from the general population. A society yet to recover from the trauma of centuries of oppression, and over a decade of violent insurgency, doesn't have any of these in abundance. Add to that the silent fury of an outsmarted king, sullenness of an injured army, and the impatience of insurgents; and the picture looks far from reassuring.
Hope will have to be placed upon the TINA factor: There Is No Alternative to democracy, pluralism, and coexistence. Without democracy, the international community will not support any regime in Nepal. Pluralism is the sine qua non of functioning democracy in all multi-ethnic societies.
Maoists, too, will have to opt for coexistence as violent revolution is unlikely to be accepted by any of Nepal's neighbours. But these compulsions imply negative peace, possible only because all other alternatives have been ruled out.
For peace to be sustainable, positive grounds of solidarity need to be laid. Ironically, it is the unorganized masses of Nepal that have shown more political maturity than all the other important players on the scene. They have been denied justice too often in the past. With the April uprising, Nepalis have shown that they are ready to take destiny in their own hands should the leaders fail to live up to their expectations.
The oldest state of South Asia may yet prove to be the most vibrant one of the region. The course the country takes in the coming one or two years will determine its fate for the coming decades, just as promises not kept and opportunities denied in the 1950s have bedeviled its polity for over half-a-century.
CK Lal is an eminent Nepali columnist.