When almost a million Nepalese thronged the Kathmandu streets on 24 April 2006 in a historic demonstration, the event seized the world's imagination as a further display of democratic "people power" in Asia. The huge gathering raised great hopes among Nepalese and their foreign friends that one of the world's poorest countries could choose a path towards peace, prosperity, and human security. Democracy, it seemed, was the rising force that would heal the painful wounds of the decade-long Maoist insurgency that had claimed 13,000 lives. During the authoritarian rule of King Gyanendra, who had usurped executive power on 1 February 2005, the country was on the verge of collapse.
More than three years on, there are signs of real progress: Nepal has initiated a peace process, gone from one of the world's oldest monarchies to its youngest republic, and conducted successful elections that led to the creation of a Maoist-led coalition government. But in other ways, after what seemed like a road to immense possibility for this Himalayan country, Nepal's crisis is deepening. In particular, the three-year-old peace process is faltering.
The elections to the constituent assembly in April 2008 saw the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) emerge as the largest party. Since then, many outstanding questions remain unresolved; among them the integration of former fighters into the Nepali army, writing the constitution (in preparation for a convention scheduled for May 2010), and restructuring the country. Perhaps most difficult of all is the row between the Maoists and the Nepali army which triggered the former rebels' withdrawal from the government.
The Maoist-army dispute
The Maoist-led government attempted to sack the army chief General Rukmangat Katwal on 3 May 2009, following conflict over three issues: incorporation into the Nepal army of their combatants sequestered in seven United Nations-monitored cantonments; extension of the tenure of eight brigadiers; and the army's withdrawal from some of the events at the fifth national games.
The government, led by the Maoist prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (known as "Prachanda") gave a twenty-four-hour ultimatum to the army chief to defend himself against the charges. General Katwal, a staunch royalist and opponent of the integration of the Maoist combatants into the army, resisted the decision; he had the backing of President Ram Baran Yadav, who reversed the decision.
The Maoist-led government's effort to dismiss the army chief made the already fragile peace process look even weaker. The affair subsided with General Katwal taking a month-long mandatory leave before retirement, opening the way to a likely smooth transition to another chief-of-staff; but the ramifications of President Yadav's move are still being felt throughout Nepal.
The result is a series of fresh protests announced by the Maoists after several marathon meetings of its politburo and central committee. On 7 August, Maoist lawmakers - raising their fists and shouting slogans against the government - disrupted the meeting of the constituent assembly that doubles as Nepal's parliament. They are also mobilising their party cadres in ways that they hope will bring life to a standstill. The Maoists are far from all-powerful - they are pressed by rival political parties, their 19,000 combatants are locked up in cantonments, and there is strong public anger against the thuggery of their Young Communist League - but they are the only party in Nepal capable of paralysing the nation; they have penetrated every industry and section of society with politicised trade-unions and sister organisations.
After several rounds of talk between Prachanda and his successor as prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPU-UML] - who now leads the government with the support of a loose coalition of twenty-two parties - the Maoists suspended the protests. The Maoists are committed to what they call "civilian supremacy" and to reverse the president's "unconstitutional move".
The ruling parties declined to meet the Maoists' demand for civilian supremacy. Amid the talk of a "third people's movement", the Maoists have formed a Unified People's Movement Committee headed by chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. They have also renewed their ties with a regional Maoist group called the "Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia" (CCOMPOSA) and the wider Revolutionary International Movement (RIM). When Prachanda returned from a week-long European tour, he denied having met RIM representatives.
The Maoist have organised protests, include boycotting the public functions of prime minister and ministers, displaying black flags and organising rallies and public meetings. But these days even Maoists seem to lost their mobilising zeal: the demonstrations have been few and lacked energy. The party still seems eager to remain part of the national government and the political game.
But the tension persists, and creates dangers for Nepal's unending peace process. Both sides are tempted to retreat into their pre-existing positions: the main party leaders criticising the protests ("people have already seen so many protests", says UML chairman Jhalanath Khanal), while Prachanda threatens to launch a renewed revolutionary struggle (a "third people's movement" in the latest Maoist jargon) if the government fails to find a solution to "civilian supremacy".
The Indian factor
There is a further source of domestic dispute: the issue of the supply of arms to Nepal's military by its powerful and influential southern neighbour, India. The authorities in Delhi furnished Nepal with large amounts of weaponry to fight the Maoists during the civil war, but the process was suspended after the royal coup in February 2005. The Maoists vehemently oppose any suggestion of its resumption.
Nepal's defence minister Bidhya Bhandari, on her return from a visit to India on 6 August 2009, said that India had pledged to resume lethal military aid as per Nepal's need and demand. The prime minister, on his own trip to India on 19-22 August, has been more circumspect. This remains a toxic and potentially destabilising matter, entwined as it is with national sensitivities and larger concerns about Nepal's political direction (see Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard", 2 May 2008).
These in turn are highlighted by a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group which criticises India for meddling in Nepal's affairs (see Nepal's Future: In Whose Hands?, 13 August 2009).
The ICG report argues: "Behind much of the recent instability lies an Indian change of course. New Delhi framed the peace deal and acted as its de facto guarantor, pressing all parties to comply with its terms. Never able to digest the Maoist victory and uncomfortable with popular demands for change, it has pursued increasingly interventionist tactics through proxies in Nepali political parties while continuing its policy of ring-fencing the army as the most reliable bastion against Maoist takeover or anarchy."
The report says that the collapse of consensus and widening rifts between the major players have fuelled a more militaristic atmosphere. The ICG's experienced deputy project director for south Asia, Rhoderick Chalmers, comments that "The recent upheaval reflects deeper malaise underlying the political settlement. Nepali political leaders have forgotten the spirit of the peace deal and risk betraying popular aspirations."
The growing hostility among leading political actors casts a shadow over Nepal's future. The hopes of April 2006 seem ever more distant.
Also in openDemocracy on Nepal's politics and conflicts:
Manjushree Thapa, "Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community'" (4 May 2005)
Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's political rainy season" (12 July 2005)
Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)
Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal" (23 April 2006)
Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink" (24 April 2006)
Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)
Manjushree Thapa, "Forget Kathmandu: an elegy for democracy" (14 September 2006)
Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal: Maocracy vs democracy" (16 November 2006)
Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's peace accord: time for caution" (16 November 2006)
Dharma Adhikari "Nepal's unsettling peace" (6 February 2007)
Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal: peace is more than an election" (29 November 2007)
Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide" (16 April 2008)
Meenakshi Ganguly, "Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 2008)
Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard" (2 May 2008)
Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's misty season" (7 April 2009)