New Nepal Versus Old Order
By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Columnist
Tuesday 06 January 2007
No ruling class or elite parts with power peacefully. Nepal is offering the latest illustration of a lesson that students of history learn from the story of every revolution.
Just over a fortnight ago, the sun of democracy seemed to have dawned at last on the snow-bound Himalayan state of Nepal. The days of bloody civil strife appeared to be over, with an interim parliament approving an interim constitution on January 15 and the "arms management" agreement assuring the people of a ceasefire between the Nepal Army and the Maoists. The nation had only to wait for the next date in the calendar of the peace process - sometime in June, when a constituent assembly is to be elected in order to frame a fresh constitution.
The easy optimism has evaporated faster than snow in the mild Himalayan summer. The streets of Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, may have witnessed only peaceful demonstrations for quite some time, but significant violence has erupted far away, in the fertile southern lowlands bordering India. The unrest in the Terai, as this region is called, has already taken a toll of at least 13 human lives.
The interim government, which the Maoists are to join this month, faces here a revolt of Madhesis (or Mahadesis), mostly an ethnic minority of Indian origin. The Madhesi Janadhikar (People's Rights) Forum, spearheading the revolt, claims that the community has been denied its due place in the post-monarchy dispensation and demands a new demarcation of constituencies.
The forum, whose members include former Maoist insurgents loath to lay down arms, has made its presence and protests felt. The violence, fueled by blockades and police firings, shows no sign of ending. And it may encourage other ethnic rebellions.
Some saw the protests coming, but not quite on this scale. Reporting on them, Rita Manchand recalls: "While the Jan Andolan (People's Movement) I (1990), the first democratic uprising that resulted in a constitutional framework, was essentially Kathmandu-centric, this time round there was a countrywide mobilization and convergence on Kathmandu, and the 'janajatis' (communities from the countryside) came in huge numbers."
Result: "The dominant wall graffiti in Kathmandu is all about ethnic assertion, and particularly the Madhesia community's right to self-determination.... The Chepang community (52,000) wants 'self-determination with autonomy' in 29 village administrative units spread over four districts. The Tamangs are claiming some of these districts." On January 31, the experiment in Kathmandu received an additional blow in eastern Nepal, as yet another group, the Limbu community, called for a three-day strike in its areas to press for an autonomous Limbu state.
In the immediate afterglow of the interim constitution's issuance, the advance toward peace and democracy appeared to have won acquiescence, if not acceptance, by all the major adversaries. Dethroned King Gyanendra and his loyal courtiers and generals refrained from striking a discordant note. No sign of sympathy and solidarity emanated from his clan and political constituency in India. And US Ambassador to Nepal James Francis Moriarty was on his best diplomatic behavior, with his embassy actually welcoming the interim constitution.
The appearances began to appear deceptive with the growth of ethnic disturbances. Moriarty, of course, has not publicly endorsed the ethnic protests. However, he has kept up his anti-Maoist offensive. Despite the interim constitution, he has announced, the "terrorist tag" put on the Maoists won't be removed. He has also made clear that, after the Maoists' inclusion in an interim government, the US aid to Nepal won't be extended to ministries under Maoist control.
The different policies toward the same government will be a tribute to his distinctively innovative diplomacy. But we have to wait for more evidence of Moriarty's assistance to his anti-Maoist allies in their current campaign.
It is not only the Maoists, however, who see evidence of the part played by the pro-monarchy political camp in the continuing Madhesi protests. The Maoists have always claimed to sympathize with the aspirations of the Madhesis and other ethnic minorities. The interim government of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and the Maoists have together "conceded" the Madhesi demands and promised a more federal Nepal under the new constitution. Koirala has announced a team of three ministers, two of whom are of Indian origin, to talk to the protestors.
The government, the Maoists, as well as several observers see the continuance of the agitation, despite the concessions, as proof of Gyanendra's hand in the background. As the government launched a crackdown in the Terai plains, the first to be detained were two former ministers of the deposed king - Kamal Thapa, who made himself hateful as the Home Minister ordering a repression of the anti-monarchy movement and Badri Prasad Mandal now facing investigation in a corruption scandal.
The political parties to have voiced the loudest support for the agitation are also those to oppose a total abolition of the monarchy. One of these is the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (Nepal), which has vowed to "actively work to build a prosperous and modernized state by maintaining the image of a monarchical Hindu Kingdom."
No one who knows the religious-communal far right in India (which has just engineered a seriers of Hindu-Muslim riots at home) can rule out its link with the agitation, considering its expressed concern over the fall of the "Hindu kingdom" under Gyanendra. Maoist chief Prachanda was quick to see the hand of "Hindu extremists" behind the Terai unrest.
As violent erupted in January, he said: "A few days ago, some Hindu followers had a gathering at Gorakhpur in India (bordering Nepal). Some elements who were involved in terrorizing Madhes also participated in the gathering, which has already been publicized in the media. These incidents happened after that."
New Delhi too, has issued an official statement welcoming the proclamation of the interim constitution. Many common citizens in Nepal are apt to wonder whether the far right across the border would have been to free to function in this manner, without India's government winking at its activities,
Well-wishers of the pro-democracy movement, like India's Left, hope that the proven determination of the Nepalese people will help them overcome all hurdles. It will be folly, however, to underestimate the forces arrayed against them.