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Nepal’s Turbulent Year of Transition

by J. Sri Raman, 28 April 2007

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Friday 27 April 2007

Nepal has just completed a turbulent year of attempted transition from a despotic monarchy to a democracy. How far has the Himalayan state advanced towards its goal after its glorious achievement of last April?

At midnight of April 24-25, 2006 King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev issued his last royal proclamation, “returning power to the people” and paving the way for the government of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) under Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. The king’s near-abdication, it was noted then, signalled the end of two wars. A third, however, was to continue.

With the proclamation, the street war of several weeks between the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) and the people came to an end. Also over, at long last, was the civil war between the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist or the CPNM and the RNA, which had raged on for a decade and ravaged the country, taking a toll of about 13,000 lives. The war, which Washington had declared years ago on the Maoists and now resolves to continue to re-intensify as part of the “war on global terror,” continues with imponderable consequences.

Overall, the transition has been a remarkable success despite all the turbulence. The people of Nepal have proven wrong the prophets of gloom, who had pointed to many allegedly insuperable obstacles and pitfalls. A political war of sorts was, in fact, predicted between the SPA and the Maoists as the testing days of transition wore on. The Maoists’ induction into the interim government of Koirala, which formed a crucial stage in the calendar of the transition, appeared impossible to some observers. After several delays and deadlocks, however, the former insurgents abandoned their guerrilla fatigues and joined the government this April 1.

Similarly, the other major event in the same calendar – the surrender of arms by the Maoists and the now-renamed Nepal Army for safe UN custody too, was considered extremely unlikely. But the event did come to pass, to the satisfaction of the UN and the Koirala regime. There was one dissatisfied party, though, and no prizes for naming it.

In April 2006, many in Nepal and elsewhere also entertained misgivings about India’s possible role in the dramatic developments next door. New Delhi, after all, had long advocated a “twin-pillar policy” for Nepal. The two pillars were the monarchy and the parliament. Gyanendra’s family links with houses of feudal royalty in India were no secret. He also enjoyed, as the deemed avatar of Hindu deity Vishnu, the support of India’s far right, which claims a Hindu-religious halo.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government appeared to prevaricate initially. It did seem to make last-minute efforts to save Gyanendra’s hopelessly lost cause. New Delhi’s policy, however, was to undergo a sharp and significant change. India’s parliamentary Left, whose support the Singh regime needs to survive, made a difference in this regard. New Delhi has appeared to act on the assumption that the Maoists’ entry into Nepal’s political mainstream would help it meet the extreme-Left challenge in India.

The single major source of implacable hostility to the Maoists and their mainstreaming must be located in the impressive precincts of the US embassy in Kathmandu. The voice of Ambassador James Francis Moriarty – sternly warning Nepal, its neighborhood and the world against the perils of letting the Maoists share power – has been heard loud and clear throughout the past year.

Moriarty went public against the SPA and Koirala softening to the Maoists, even as the power-sharing parleys began. He has tirelessly repeated that Washington did not propose to take the “terrorists” tag off the Maoists, even if they entered office. He has scoffed at the Maoists’ arms surrender, saying that they have given up only “crummy weapons.” After the Maoists’ induction into the government, he has reiterated the strange Washington stance that the US development assistance won’t be extended to ministries in Maoist charge.

War cries are emanating afresh from Moriarty, as yet another date in the calendar of transition is being missed and yet another violent conflict has erupted in the streets of Kathmandu and the countryside. Elections to the constituent assembly, originally scheduled for June, appear extremely unlikely so soon. Ethnic rebellions have erupted in a series and have made Nepal’s struggle for democracy even more arduous than it appeared last April.

It may be a pure coincidence that conflicts, which began with violent protests by the large Madheshi minority in Nepal’s southern plains, flared up on the eve of the Maoist induction into government. It may be misleading also to see any major significance in Moriarty’s frequent trips in the recent period to the troubled Terai region. On record, however, are his many statements taking undiplomatic sides in such an internal conflict and calling on Kathmandu to settle ethnic issues expeditiously.

There is no doubt that Nepal must resolve the issue of federalism seriously, if the flare-ups are not to continue. The country observed the first anniversary of the new Koirala dispensation in a state of paralysis – the result of prolonged shutdowns called by Madheshi and Chure communities in large areas bordering India. The blockades and strikes have heaped misery on the common man by disrupting all activities ranging from agriculture and education to trade and transport and sending prices of fuel and other essential commodities shooting up.

The situation has brought forth a shockingly strong statement from Moriarty. He envisages even a breakup of Nepal as a result of the bloody agitation. Talking to a US newsman, he said: “If you do see the state splinter, which could happen – if people do not listen to the demands of various marginalized groups or if you end up with a totalitarian state eager to export its revolution – you could destabilize a neighborhood that is hugely important for the future of the world.”

Reading between the lines, could it be that that the “crusade for democracy,” which Moriarty is conducting in this part of the world, can be carried to the point of dividing the country?

An affirmative answer to the question will still not undo the revolution of April 2006. Nepal’s people, it bears repetition, have carried the democratic process forward despite all Cassandras.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist of India, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to t r u t h o u t.