Four days from today, on Thursday 10th April, elections for a constituent assembly (CA), which will also de facto be a national parliament, will take place in Nepal. These elections have been postponed twice before and this time too there is no absolute certainty until the deed is done, but to halt it now would be equivalent to a coup and a return to civil war. Once the new CA is in place the monarchy can be abolished by a simple majority, as already agreed, and Nepal can be declared a republic. A new era will commence, and to embellish it, but only a little: "A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance".
The road the communists have trod
The seminal event in all of this has been the progression of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) from civil war to negotiated settlement. In February 1996 the CPN(M) began an insurgency that has cost 11,000 lives; policemen, insurgents and civilians. It would, however, be more accurate to say that this was the price that the people of one of the poorest countries in the world have paid to overthrow feudalism and a royalist dictatorship. The Communist Party of Nepal was established in 1949 under the leadership of Pushpa Lal Shrestha, but splintered into numerous factions during the period of Sino-Soviet dispute. In the early 1990s two important unifications took place and two main currents emerged. The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) adopted a parliamentary, reformist and more social-democratic approach, whereas the more radical sectors merged to form the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre). In the 1994 elections, the CPN(UML) won a narrow victory and formed the first Communist led elected national government in Asia, though shifting parliamentary alliances brought it down in less than a year.
CPN(UC) on the other hand split again in 1994, with the main faction becoming today’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). There are now several small communist factions between CPN(UML) and CPN(M), five of whom have parliamentary representation. Party standing in the Nepali parliament as of December 2007 gives some idea of relative strengths; Nepali Congress Party 133, CPN(M) 84, CPN(UML) 83 and all others combined together 30 (none of these smaller parties have even 10 seats).
The following abridged and edited extract from an article by Achin Vanik in New Left Review No.49 summarises the rapid spread of the Maoists insurgency; a consequence of the semi-feudal rural social structure, poverty, and backwardness of the country.
"By the beginning of 2005 the insurgency had spread to all but two of the country’s seventy-five districts, and claimed to control 80 per cent of the countryside. During this period the CPN(M) sustained a highly organised underground political structure. There were five regional bureaux and many district committees at the base; they set up base areas and people’s committees at ward and village level and carried out development work and social programmes of inter-caste marriage, widow remarriage and temperance campaigns. From 2003 they moved into the Tarai border regions (in the southern plains; lightly shaded in map) where they spread like wildfire, since they had long articulated the demand for equality of ‘nationalities’ such as the Madhesis (a large ‘plains’ ethnic minority grouping)".
"Throughout the period of armed struggle there was also legal work through front organisations of workers, peasants, ‘nationalities’, oppressed castes, students, intellectuals and women. Accurate estimates of Maoist armed strength are hard to come by, but estimates are; a highly motivated force of 10,000 trained and armed guerrillas plus a further 20,000 armed militia".
The turning point was the "Palace Massacre" on June 1, 2001 when insane Crown Prince Dipendra (or perhaps, just more insane than the rest) shot and killed his father King Birendra, his mother, brother, sister, uncle and several aunts, before making his own exit. Birendra’s surviving brother Gyanendra was then proclaimed king. It was in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, in July 2001, that a cease-fire was announced between the government and the Maoists as part of an effort to seek a negotiated solution. Both sides sensed the opening for a new dispensation and talks were held between the government and Maoists during the next two months, but progress was slow. Mainly slight, but also at times unconcealed, Indian and American interference, such as arming and training the Royal Nepalese Army, sought to prop up the monarchy and hold back the radical changes that Nepal was pregnant with.
The Royalist coup and its defeat
The showdown came in February 2005; on 1 February King Gyanendra suspended parliament, detained political leaders, declared martial law and appointed a government led by him. Some opposition leaders fled to India and formed the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) of the seven parties which held nearly all the seats in the dissolved parliament. Then a historic alliance was formed; in November 2005 the SPA and the CPN(M) agreed on an unprecedented 12-point memorandum of understanding (MoU) for peace and democracy. The MoU proposed a peaceful transition through an elected constituent assembly to democracy; hence it implied an end to the civil war. Massive demonstrations broke out in support of the MoU across the country and threatened the survival of King Gyanendra’s rule. Twenty-one people died and thousands were injured during the 19 day uprising. In a total funk, King Gyanendra reinstated the House of Representatives on April 24 2006 thus admitting the defeat of his short lived royalist coup. At this juncture 84 unelected Maoists were nominated to parliament by the CPN(M) in an interim agreement with the SPA, pending the expected elections.
The King was stripped of impunity and his income made taxable, the term "royal" was removed from many institutions most significantly the army, and Nepal was declared a secular state ending its centuries old status as a "Hindu Kingdom". In July, 2006 agreement was reached to hold elections to a constituent assembly by April 2007. This however did not happen, the elections were postponed to November, and then postponed again. The agreement between the SPA and the CPN(M) broke down, but emergency fire-fighting led by the CPN(UML) brokered a deal under which elections are scheduled for this week. An agreement to abolish the monarchy by simple majority of the new CA was also reached.
It is only natural that now expectations are high and only natural that there will be both achievements and disappointments in the months and years ahead. Electioneering is in full swing and the country is covered with posters of Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal) the Maoist leader who has hopes – ridiculed by other parties – of becoming Nepal’s first president when a republic is declared.
The new CA will have 240 first-past-the-post constituency seats, 240 party based proportional representation seats, and 17 nominated by the Cabinet, making a total of 497. The Nepalese Army has been confined to barracks and the Maoists to seven cantonments; afterwards the two forces will be integrated. Arms are locked up in arsenals under UN supervision. The military agreements have held up so far, and now it only remains for the electoral arrangements to be implemented. Military and election plans have worked out smoothly thus far, notwithstanding some hiccups. Media predictions of the election outcome place the Nepali Congress and CPN(UML) in the first two places and the CPN(M) third, but if the Maoists do not obtain sufficient and credible representation there could be instability.
In the immediate future the fly in the ointment may, yet again and in another country, be ethnic tensions. The Madhesis who live in southern Tarai plains are of Indian origin; they are no more than 15% of Nepal’s population but are not seen as true Nepalese because they do not speak the common majority language. They allege discrimination by the state for generations in employment and other matters. There has been a spectacular rise in Madhesis nationalism since 1990. Achin Vanik, who I quoted previously, points to the deep and organic roots of ethnicity thus:
"But the very speed with which they (the Maoists) widened their appeal, even as it emboldened and assured them in a strategic sense, also blinded them to the underlying reality. A powerful new Madhesis dynamic had been unleashed, which in due course would escape the Maoists’ control and benefit other forces with much deeper historical roots that had stronger class, caste and patronage structures working for them, once they began taking up Madhesis grievances and demands".
Angry protests broke out among the Madhesis during 2006-7 when it became apparent that Kathmandu (SPA and Maoists) had no intention of granting a federal constitution. Rightwing and ex-Maoist leaders, landowners and poor peasants mobilised in a spontaneous upsurge and there where armed clashes between Madhesis and Maoist forces prompted in part by India which was concerned about the rise of Maoism across the border. Forty people were killed by the police gunfire during a 21-day uprising in early 2007. The formal administration broke down in parts of the Tarai and a medley of armed groups and gangs seized the opportunity.
Finally the powers in Kathmandu climbed down and agreed to the key Madhesis demand: an assurance that the Madhesis’ position on constitutional arrangements will be taken into account when the new constitution is drafted. Some minor demands regarding compensation for police shooting and an inquiry were also conceded. A "Plains" party, has been formed to promote and protect the interests of the Madhesis. Thus the ethnic issue remains a tinderbox and it is to be hoped that the new government and the new constitution makers in Nepal will learn from and avoid the folly of political ignoramuses elsewhere including Lanka and Malaysia.