Nepal’s civil war: from security to politics

Chandra D. Bhatta
22 May 2005

The politics of Nepal in the first five months of 2005 have been dominated by a spiralling series of events: King Gyanendra’s coup in February, the state of emergency and the imprisonment of political leaders and activists. The international community (led by India, the United States and Britain, Nepal’s chief backers), responded by suspending development and military aid to Nepal, though in India’s case the ban on military supplies proved short-lived.

Also on Nepal’s crisis in openDemocracy:

Anuj Mishra, “Nepal’s war without end” (April 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, “Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community’ (May 2005)

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After nearly three months, Gyanendra in theory lifted the state of emergency and released key political leaders. It appears that the royal government may regain some sort of working “legitimacy” with the international community who have been backing the Nepali war for nearly a decade.

India’s calculation

There are three reasons why the international community might give legitimacy to the royal government. First, it was hoped that some sort of political rapprochement between the wayward and outdated Nepali political parties and the monarchy might take place, but this has not occurred. Second, these parties and their leaders have nothing much to offer except “protest and demonstration”, which in the present circumstances is only going to strengthen the rebels and will not yield much for democracy. Third, any further escalation of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal is a real problem for India. This could be the principal reason that India never wanted to suspend Nepal’s arms supply, and did so only as a show for the international community and an expression of lukewarm sympathy for Nepal’s political leaders.

India has already sensed a real threat from Nepal’s Maoist insurgency and fears that in a few years some of its own states (Bihar and Andhra Pradesh) will be as red as Nepal. So there are genuine reasons for India to be worried about the situation in Nepal and to wish to crush the insurgency by any means. India, realising that an “unstable” Nepal is not good for its own security in south Asia, prioritises stability rather than democracy in Nepal. If the king proves able to stay peacefully in power in Kathmandu, then – to be frank – who is worried about democracy? As long as the master behaves well no one is going to worry about the servants, a rule that applies in Nepal as in other smaller states.

India, moreover, has the power and the capability to persuade the wider international community that India’s view is good for Nepal. The problem is that this is the wrong solution. The Maoist movement is not going to wither away. It is a real political problem that needs real work to solve and the solution will only come through negotiation.

A new factor in this situation is the Nepali diaspora and a new generation who will feel uneasy if things move in the wrong direction. The diaspora is getting stronger and the new generation is very different from the old. They speak English, they are more educated, they have seen democracy at least on the television and understand the value of democracy and a free society and, overall they are more nationalist than their outdated leaders.

In fact, diasporas now play a great role both in fomenting and containing the conflict, and the Nepali diaspora has staged demonstrations both for and against the king’s move; on 22 May a series of protests drew thousands of people, including one in Kathmandu itself. So whatever decision the king or the political parties take has to satisfy Nepalis both within and outside the country that it is for democracy rather than for personal benefit.

The burden of Nepali history

Any resolution of the Nepali war has to comprehend the roots of the turmoil. Nepal emerged as a state in the mid-18th century when the Gorkha warrior Prithvi Narayan Shah unified a series of petty principalities. His descendants still rule Nepal. The Shah kings ruled Nepal until 1846, then shared power until 1951 with the Rana family who held the hereditary premiership.

The fundamental characteristic of the Nepali state, since its very formation in 1768, is that of conflict within the ruling class. In 1950 a mass movement for democratic change erupted and a pseudo-democracy was introduced. There was a symbolic change in that the Shah family reclaimed its supremacy over the Ranas, but the feudal domination by the Shah-Rana continued. Within a decade, the Shah king, Mahendra, regained control and in 1962 a partyless, panchayat system of nominated royal loyalists was established. A further democratic wave in the late 1980s swept away the panchayat system in 1991.

1990, the year that Nepal joined hands with democracy and the year the Nepali “people” became the “public”, was the turning-point in the 250 years of Nepal’s political history. But all the achievements went swiftly downhill when the first Nepali Congress government poured cold water on the spirit of the people’s movement. This was the beginning of the end for the newly established democracy.

The Congress government was internally divided, fighting over the distribution of power and the United Marxist-Leninists (UML) were organising daily strikes and stoppages in order to try to unseat it – a tactic that has become part of daily life in Nepal for political organisations, trade unions, and professional associations in pursuit of their own interests.

The squabbling among parliamentarians toppled successive governments and created a deep frustration among the people about the way “democracy” was working. Not one post-1990 government completed its term in office and a serious crisis of governance has resulted. Some even thought the erstwhile panchayati democracy was preferable.

Meanwhile, the Maoists were clandestinely organising in the hills of mid-western Nepal. By the time government in Kathmandu realised what was happening, the situation was already out of control. The social alienation based on caste, religion, ethnicity, gender and uneven and centralised development policy all helped fuel the movement.

The road to breakdown

The Nepali Congress party dominated most post-1990 governments and its leadership has always tried to suppress smaller political groups. Charismatic leaders like Baburam Bhattarai (then a leader of the modern Maoist movement, recently purged) exploited this opportunity. He based the movement in the most downtrodden, inaccessible, poverty-stricken and ethnically segregated part of the country to legitimise the Maoist ideology and built a movement with young people who were politically conscious but engulfed in poverty and frustrated by the policies of the main political parties. These young people, indoctrinated by a Maoist rhetoric of a utopian, just society, took up arms against their own clans while the ruling class in Kathmandu remained in deep slumber.

Central governments in Kathmandu regarded the situation as a law-and-order rather than a political challenge, and started to suppress the movement. They never tried to correct their own mistakes and bring Maoists into the mainstream.

Since 1990, Nepali political parties and governments have committed three mistakes: they failed to recognise the Maoists as a “political force” in the early years, ultimately forcing them to take up arms; they failed to resolve unfriendly inter-party relations; and they failed to establish good relationships with Nepal’s bureaucracy, monarchy and security forces (all of which have grossly discredited the image of successive governments). What resulted was a polarisation in Nepali society that allowed the monarchy to reassert its power.

What is the rationality behind the Maoist movement? The Nepali conflict has different meanings for different people. For the government, it is terrorism; to the Maoist it is liberation from feudal rule; for some others it is a case of “revolutionary romanticism”. Some commentators have described it as a new barbarianism or a kind of Hobbesian anarchy or reversion to some imagined state of nature. Independent observers, however, variously see the insurgency as a communist revolution or as an ethnic alliance against high-caste, Hindu-dominated political elite.

But the Maoist-led guerrilla war is neither solely an ideological war nor an ethnic conflict. It is not an ideological war because Maoists have always been willing to come to terms, provided the regime offers a genuine opportunity to discuss their demands. It is not an ethnic conflict because no ethnos has been threatened. The Nepali caste system is no longer pyramid-shaped: people can challenge it and there are provisions to do so. So ethnic and religious issues, and the “identity politics” based on them, are nothing more than a surrogate of political power and ambition used to gain advantage over rivals. It is not a secessionist movement because there is no ambition to change the borders of the state.

If none of these are the objectives, then what is this movement all about? It is hard to understand Nepal’s Maoist movement through the logic of new and old wars, because the state has been reeling from conflict since its formation. A series of massacres and coups, which brought no societal change, sowed the seeds of deceit for the future political system. The pseudo-democratic shifts of 1950 and 1990 and the failure of political leadership have established an anti-political culture and created a vacuum in the overall system of governance, leading to the repeated emergence of the triangular power struggle between the assertive royal palace backed by the army, the political parties and the rebels.

Most political scientists blame social, political and economic exclusion for the unrest in post-modern Nepal and argue that the Maoists have effectively made use of these for their program of class struggle. Rebellion was inevitable, given an environment of rampant corruption and injustice coupled with extreme poverty. But if this is so, Nepal should have witnessed a movement of this kind long ago. The Maoists are not the first to discover inequalities in Nepali society: they have just exploited them. If the Maoist movement had not emerged, another would have come along to counter the excessive behaviour of post-1990s political leaders.

Nepal and democracy

The cold war had little bearing on Nepal’s domestic politics, largely due to the “zone of peace” proposal by King Birendra in 1972 which warded off superpower rivalry over the country. But the role of the international community – particularly the US, Britain and India – in fuelling hostilities by supplying arms, cannot be dismissed. Did the failure of the international communist movement force communists to look for a weak state like Nepal where they could easily succeed? The Maoist movement seems to have been supported by various clandestine revolutionary groups from neighbouring countries and beyond; and the international community’s ever-increasing interest in Nepal prompts speculation as to whether interference has worsened or helped mitigate the conflict.

But the question remains: why have the seemingly peaceful and law-abiding people of Nepal suddenly turned to violence, and under democracy rather than autocracy? Nepal’s retreat from democratisation at the height of a democratic revival is unique. Today the situation encompasses all the major ingredients of conflict: (Maoist) violence, non-violent conflict (which began with state formation), and conflict among traditional forces (monarchy and political parties).

Violence has become a legitimate mode of political behaviour among state and non-state actors. Civil society, political parties and even the king have failed to bring these actors into a common platform to address the Maoist problem, despite the international community’s genuine interest in reinstalling and defending democracy in Nepal. The conflict, a product of centuries of bad governance and unholy compromise between elected politicians and selected elites, is so confusing that it is hard to discern whether it is fought in pursuit of a certain ideology or just over power.

Any solution now rests entirely on the maturity of the actors involved: the traditionalists headed by the king (who wants to keep patrimony as the source of power) parliamentary political parties (who in theory believe in representative democracy, but have neglected to assimilate social movements into the system), and the Maoists (who have not yet been able to convince the majority of their strategy of state transformation and have largely discredited themselves by their terrorist approach). In these conditions, and with a Nepali population and diaspora hungry for democracy, the only chance for peace in Nepal lies not in “stability” but in a genuine democratic politics.

Further reading:

Reuters Foundation background report

Michael Hutt’s book Himalayan ‘People’s War’ – Nepal’s Maoist Rebellion (2004) is one of the best guides

Nepal Research – information and reports Nepal and the Himalayan region

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