Something interesting is happening these days in otherwise turbulent Nepal. Instead of incessant headlines about senseless killings and human-right abuses on a daily basis, there is news of peace parleys and multilateral dialogue.
This seemingly non-violent face is a u-turn for a war-torn country so often described as a nation on the brink of collapse, a failing state.
In what appears to be a major breakthrough in the decade-long civil war, the ruling pro-democratic seven-party alliance (SPA) and the insurgent Maoists decided on 8 November 2006 to disarm under United Nations supervision. The 35,000 "regular" Maoist guerillas will be kept in seven cantonments around Nepal and their arms will be locked up. This, it is hoped, will ease the path for the constituent assembly election scheduled for June 2007.The fifteen-point agreement is described as a prelude to "Nepal's roadmap", a comprehensive deal. This was due to be signed on 16 November; its last-minute postponement is a signal of the political currents that are still operating below the surface.
Dharma Adhikari teaches journalism and international media systems at Georgia Southern University in the United States. He is the founder and editor of www.Newslook.org. He grew up in India and Nepal, and became a Fulbright Scholar at the Missouri School of Journalism at Columbia University, where he also received his doctorate in journalism. His homepage is here
Also by Dharma Adhikari in openDemocracy:
"Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude"
(9 January 2006)
"Bhutan's democratic puzzle" (30 June 2006)
A political dynamic
After ten years of fighting, the loss of more than 13,000 lives and about $2 billion in infrastructure damage, as well as the displacement of millions and untold human suffering, the Nepali Maoists have emerged as a formidable political force. But as they have gained ground, the rebels have noticeably revised their proletarian vision of hoisting the hammer and sickle atop Mount Everest; they now say they will embrace competitive elections and democratic pluralism.
In a symbolic marking of this shift, the Maoists have abandoned their jungle hideouts, and some have even discarded their grubby beards along with their Mao-style hats. The increasingly clean-shaven Maoist leadership now meets the press in Kathmandu's five-star hotels. Most significantly, the Maoists have decided to join the interim multi-party government to be formed on 1 December. With seventy-three members, they will be the second largest party, after the centrist Nepali Congress (NC), in the 330-seat legislature.
Another crucial agreement involves the fate of the 238-year-old institution of monarchy. The first meeting of the constituent assembly in June 2007 will decide via a simple majority vote whether to retain a strictly ceremonial monarchy or abolish it altogether in favor of a republic. Until April, before the perpetually feuding SPA and the Maoists aligned for massive street demonstrations and forced King Gyanendra to relinquish his absolute powers, monarchy remained above the law, commanding the loyalty of the national army, and demanding the subservience of all branches of government.
A combination of related events - ranging from the June 2001 palace massacre to King Gyanendra's ill-conceived coup of February 2005, his mass arrests of politicians, widespread censorship of media, a massive grassroots uprising, and an unprecedented international outcry for democracy - propelled the nation towards a republican set-up, sooner than anybody had expected.
The resurgence of the left
Both prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala and rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) appeared euphoric on 8 November following the deal earlier that day. Koirala, the ailing 85-year-old patriarch of Nepal's democratic movement, has said that he had to gamble with the Maoists to give lasting peace a chance. For his part, Prachanda declared to the press that his insurrection had won, and thus redefined Maoism and proletarian revolution for the 21st century.
Indeed, the broader implications of the Nepali Maoists' political strength suggest that history has far from ended. Francis Fukuyama, who argued that long-term trends were working in favour of the triumph of liberal democracy over rival ideologies, has material in abundance (from Nepal, elsewhere in south Asia, and Latin America, to name only those regions) for further reflection on his influential thesis.
The rise of Maoism in Nepal provides a glaring contrast to the failed revolution of the Peruvian professor Abimael Guzmán, from whom Prachanda once derived inspiration for his "people's war". "Presidente Gonzalo" of the ruthless Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) has been in prison at a naval base near Lima since his capture in 1992 and later sentenced to life imprisonment. Comrade Prachanda, meanwhile, is on his way to Singha Durbar, the seat of power in Nepal. Prachanda's cheering message may also strike a chord with a large swath of ultra-leftists and Naxalites (Maoists) in India, Bangladesh and beyond.
But instead of blanket solidarity, Prachanda has also earned rebukes from his Indian comrades in recent weeks. An article in People's March, the Communist Party of India (Maoist)'s official organ, blasted the Nepali Maoists for "betraying the revolution". The Nepali Maoists, in turn, view Indian Maoists as revisionists, sectarian and dogmatic, and thus incapable of becoming a national party.
For those who seek coherence and logic behind Nepal's somersault politics, the recent developments will appear abstruse. How could the democratic moderates, such as the Nepali Congress, end up in bed with the ultra-leftist Maoist party? How could monarchy, regarded by many for centuries as a divine institution incapable of erring, become an object of scorn in a matter of years? How did Maoism, anachronistic even in Mao's China, and reviled by India, gain such a strong foothold in China and India's backyard?
"The spectacle in Handigaon (an ancient village in Kathmandu valley) is unlike anywhere else," as a popular Nepali saying has it. Substitute Nepal for Handigaon, and that may help the effort to grasp the emerging reality.
The Maoists are the latest graduates of a long-lasting political culture that has often made bloodletting and unlikely coalitions or compromises the means to power, as well (sometimes) as provisional peace in the country. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN(UML)] has emerged from obscurity in the early 1970s, when it was involved in an armed resurrection in Jhapa (in rural, eastern Nepal), to become the second-largest party, adhering to a socialist agenda not dissimilar to that of the centrist Nepali Congress itself.
The NC traces its own roots to an earlier, 1950s armed struggle against the feudal Ranas, who had held the Shah royalty hostage for over a century. The NC then aligned with the monarchy and toppled the Ranas. By 1990, these sworn foes - the CPN(UML) and the NC - worked together to overthrow the one-party panchayat system patronised by the Shahs.
This political culture is consistent with the widespread Hindu cultural view (epitomised by the ancient epic Mahabharat) that politics is essentially full of incongruities, and that any type of compromise is possible for politicians.
The logic of compromise
Today, the Maoists have stolen the thunder of the CPN(UML) and the NC. They effectively forced these two parties to rise against the king and to collaborate with them in their quest for a republic. The Maoists' actions seem in this light the culmination of those parties' past inactions and compromises.
But the Maoists' recent accommodations will not help erase the doubts of many about their true intentions. That happened with the CPN(UML). In 1994, the CPN(UML) had formed a short-lived, democratically elected government in Nepal. To deflate world suspicions about their democratic credentials, the CPN(UML) emphasised socialism and multiparty democracy so as to reflect "a creative application of Marxism and Leninism in the Nepalese condition."
The Maoists today echo the CPN(UML) in their "creative" formula. They have agreed to embrace multiparty democracy and a market economy in exchange for a constituent-assembly election to pave the path towards a republic. Prachanda has publicly acknowledged that, given the current world situation (America's war on terror, India's abhorrence of Maoists), it is impossible for them to realise a totalitarian state via continued armed struggle.
Furthermore, external influences - If not outright interventions - have helped conclude the peace agreement. The past experience of failed deals means that the world community's reaction to the 8 November accord has been cautious (a stance vindicated by its postponement). Nonetheless, there is some optimism, and a focus on the need to implement the accord. In order to exert continued pressure on the Maoists, the US retains them on its list of terrorist organisations.
In fact, and despite the peace accord, Maoist excesses are ongoing in many rural areas - and even in Kathmandu. The ceasefire monitoring committee says that the movement's murders, attacks on civilians, abductions, extortion, harassment and threats, have actually increased by 75% in recent months.
It bothers me as a journalist that my colleagues in Nepal have to work in extremely dangerous conditions. The past few years have been the bleakest in terms of press freedom. Scores have been killed, and many more tortured, arrested and manhandled. The Maoists, despite their recent pledge to respect press freedom, continue to intimidate and threaten news professionals. The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) has said that both the government and the Maoists loathe sharing information with journalists; the Maoists in particular do not want the press to report on their flaws.
The Nepali rebels have shown flexibility in adjusting to new situations as well as an ability to discern threats and harvest opportunities. Now, the Maoist leadership is back in the parliament where some of the cadres served as elected representatives until the early 1990s.
What are the Maoists up to? It is tempting to ignore the threats and hope for the best, as some analysts seem to be doing. Newspaper editorials are upbeat about the peace deal, some even describing the emerging scenario as "the dawn of a new age". But if history is any indication, the Maoists could be plotting their own version of a Bolshevik takeover in Nepal. Prachanda insists that his target is feudal monarchy, not multi-party democracy. But in China, Mao Tse-tung dismantled a short-lived parliamentary democracy in 1949, almost four decades after emperor Pu Yi was overthrown by the nationalists. The Bolsheviks in Russia dismissed the constituent-assembly election outcome.The Maoists have amended their tactics in the past, and have broken truces. The latest agreement does not mean anything unless it is implemented honestly by all sides.
openDemocracy writers analyse the conflicts in Nepal:
Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's war without end"
Chandra D Bhatta "Nepal's civil war: from security to politics"
Manjushree Thapa, "Democracy in Nepal and the 'international community'"
Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's political rainy season" (July 2005)
Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink"
(24 April 2006)
Kanak Mani Dixit: "Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)
The challenges ahead
The Maoists must understand that in a true democracy peace is the basic condition of progress and no one has an upper hand over the others. For those who are used to settling their scores with guns, this can be an awkward notion.
There is no guarantee that the rebels will report all their arms and assemble all their 35,000 guerillas in the seven UN-monitored cantonments. What about the informal militia of more than 100,000 and their small arms? There is also the need to dismantle their parallel "people's government" and "people's courts" that continue to operate in rural areas. Unicef says that thousands of children (under 18) conscripted by Maoists in their war are still missing. An equally thorny issue involves merging the Maoist guerillas with the national army.
The April 2006 revolution that helped sideline the king is an illuminating example of what collective action is and can be. In fact, that uprising was not even led by politicians. The Citizen's Movement for Democracy and Peace (CMD), a network of civil-society groups, began the agitation which was later joined by political parties.
Devendra Raj Panday, one of the organisers of that campaign, told me recently that despite differences on key issues like monarchy, the structure of the future state, and the role of the army, the political parties are actually monolithic units. "Hopefully, the force of the people who want democracy, justice and peace will win at the end of the day," he said. A culture of dialogue, rather than a culture of confrontation, is the path towards those ends.
But Nepal's irony lies in its emerging model of an insurgent democracy, a dangerously fluid system constantly in agitation and resuscitation. That combines well with a highly fluctuating public opinion. Now that monarchy is virtually suspended, it is Maocracy vs democracy.
The founding fathers of modern Nepal must grapple with questions about the nature of the future republic, regional autonomy, economic development, as well as the rights and the responsibilities of citizens. Regional autonomy is a real issue, for a country of diverse ethnicities and languages. In total land area, the country may be smaller than Britain, but culturally it is a universe in its own right.
There is also the need to define democracy for Nepal. Is it going to be a monarchical republic or a communist republic or just a federal republic? It is possible that the 425-member assembly, based on direct elections and proportional representation, may retain the monarchy. A recent national poll by Interdisciplinary Analysts (IA) found that 54% of Nepalis think there should be space for monarchy in future. In case the king survives the constituent-assembly vote, will the Maoists abide by that decision and approve the draft constitution?
Nepal is in need of healing and reconciliation. The king has so far yielded to popular demands and compromised with the emerging reality. At the moment, a commission is scrutinising his actions during his rule. There is also the need to hold the Maoists accountable for their many excesses and atrocities in the last ten years.
Democracy is about listening. Even the losers and the "insignificant" must be heard. Grievances based on ethnicities, regionalism, ideologies and religion will become louder in the days ahead. Samrat, leader of the Nepal Janatantrik Party (NJP), a new political outfit, announced in October that he would start a rebellion in mid-December in support of the king and to "show disagreement with the current political activities." He was dismissed as a minor nuisance. He also sounds like Prachanda ten years ago.
In the long term, the business of new Nepal involves much more than elections and state restructuring. Poverty and deprivation, the crux of the Nepali problem, cannot be solved without adequate investments in agriculture, education, human development and infrastructure.
There is clearly the need to revitalise tourism and other service sectors, such as IT. Easing foreign-employment procedures and adopting comprehensive land reforms will help ameliorate the social meltdown. More than 47% of citizens remain unemployed and about 50% are illiterate. Those are plausible reasons for the young to join the Maoist militia or other rebellious groups.
Nepal cannot afford to be, in perpetuity, a rebel nation.