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The 'Ides' of April

The popular jubilation at the first round of victory in April in Nepal is tempered with a realistic scepticism about the next moves to be made by the seven-party coalition as well as the king. Nevertheless, Nepal is on the threshold of a new dawn and the Maoists there may yet show the way for armed revolutionaries elsewhere.

Commentary

The ‘Ides’ of April

Lessons from Nepal

The popular jubilation at the first round of victory in Aprilin Nepal is tempered with a realistic scepticism about thenext moves to be made by the seven-party coalition as well asthe king. Nevertheless, Nepal is on the threshold of a new dawnand the Maoists there may yet show the way for armed

revolutionaries elsewhere.

SUMANTA BANERJEE

… The uncertain glory of an April day, Which now shows all the beauty of the sun, And by and by a cloud takes all away!

– Shakespeare

A
pril in Nepal was packed with tumultuous events. The popular jubilation at the first round of victory is tempered with a realistic scepticism about the next moves to be made by the seven-party coalition as well as the king. Given the pressures of the different powers having stakes in the Himalayan kingdom – Washington, New Delhi and Beijing – there is no certainty that the final outcome of the proceedings of the newly convened parliament would reflect the wishes of the Nepalese people. It is not going to be a cakewalk for those who had been fighting all these years the feudal exploitation of an authoritarian monarchy, demanding land reforms, social justice and democratic rights.

Although confined within Nepal, the anti-monarchy movement there has had a multi-dimensional impact on India. For one thing, it brought out in the open the attitude of the Indian state and the role of the various political parties, some among who tried to influence the course of the developments there. More importantly, it carries some important lessons for the Indian left – both the parliamentary stream and the Naxalites. The configuration of the international powers around the movement in Nepal also indicated the diverse positions taken by the US and China – bereft as usual of any moral principle and concern for democratic values.

The Indian state, earlier under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, had regularly supplied arms (e g 5.56 mm INSAS assault rifles and 7.62 mm SLRs) and ammunition to the Nepal monarchy and gave military training to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) in their bid to suppress the Maoists there. The BJP, which hails king Gyanendra as the only Hindu monarch, was naturally all too willing to bolster him up. After Gyanendra dismissed parliament and became the supreme authority in February 2005, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (which by then had come to power in Delhi) stopped large-scale military assistance, but continued to supply transport facilities for the RNA. The king retained friendly relations with the Indian government and some of the Congress leaders. If the BJP was bound to Gyanendra by the ties of Hindutva, these Congress leaders who came from erstwhile princely dynasties of north India, were related to him by family ties. (It was not a mere accident that the emissary chosen by New Delhi to talk to Gyanendra at the height of the crisis was Karan Singh, scion of the ex-royal family of Kashmir, and related to the present royalty of Nepal.)

But apart from such personal bonds, the Indian government had remained a close supporter of the Nepal monarchy for a number of other reasons. Rivalry with China in the subcontinent is a major factor. New Delhi has always suffered from the fear that Beijing may come too close to Kathmandu and gain an upper hand over India in influencing its policies. The communist giant – never known for moral principles in its foreign policy – sure enough stepped into the vacuum caused by the withdrawal of arms aid to Nepal following Gyanendra’s coup. At a time when all the other nations were treating Gyanendra almost like a pariah, China came to his help, along with Pakistan – another state ruled by a president who has little respect for democratic values. China poured in arms and ammunition to help Gyanendra fight the communist rebels in Nepal who had been waging a war against him for a decade now, swearing by the name of the very leader who led the Chinese communists to capture power nearly 50 years ago!

Nepal as a Site of Sino-Indian Contention

The Chinese leaders have made it quite clear in their public statements that although they still regard Mao with some grudging respect in their own country, they are not willing to encourage those elsewhere waging revolutionary warfare in his name. More than once, they have dissociated themselves from the Maoists of Nepal. They would rather forget Mao’s Hunan phase of insurrection (which probably inspires the present generation of Maoists operating in the deep interiors of the countryside in India and Nepal). Today’s Chinese leaders would like to draw inspiration instead, from their chairman’s last phase of opportunistic diplomatic alliances with some of the most notorious regimes of the world in the 1970s. The phase began with Mao’s invitation to Nixon (when the US forces were bombing Vietnam), and was darkened further by his regime’s support to the Sri Lankan government when it crushed a left wing youth rebellion in 1971, and to Yahya Khan of Pakistan when he carried out genocide in East Pakistan the same year.

The present generation of Chinese communist leaders have no use anymore for the revolutionary tactics that Mao once recommended for the rural poor of the underdeveloped countries, in a strategy of an agrarian revolution in the “third world” (a term which is no longer in use in today’s polemics). Disappointed by the failure of his expansive strategy in the 1960s, Mao gradually retreated into his Sino-centric cocoon in the 1970s – formulating an alternative strategy of expedient alliances and negotiations with governments abroad

Economic and Political Weekly May 13, 2006 that would help protect only China’s national interests and expand its commercial zone – indifferent to the consideration whether these governments met the democratic rights and aspirations of their own people or not. In a total abdication of responsibility for upholding the norms of international communist solidarity, China

– like the Soviet Union in the past – drifted into the games of diplomatic expediency. It is not surprising therefore that China would act in a way that caricatures its communist pretensions.

Hoping to outwit China, the UPA government of India formulated a policy that betrayed the obscurantist feudal bias that is built into the psyche of the Congress ruling powers. It kept on repeating the worn out credo that the future of Nepal could be ensured only on the twin pillars of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy – a concept borrowed from the Westminster model, which was being discarded by the Nepali people on the streets of Kathmandu and other parts of the country. Trying to salvage the concept, prime minister Manmohan Singh sent Karan Singh to advise king Gyanendra. What the king announced soon after was a vague assurance of returning power to the people, without touching upon the main demand – drawing up a new constitution that would limit the king’s powers. New Delhi however, acting on a cue as it were, immediately welcomed the royal proclamation. There could be no better way to court sure disaster. The Nepalese sevenparty alliance, which had rejected the king’s offer, came out sharply against India’s gesture. Indian foreign ministry officials, looking for a face-saving device, rushed out with a statement saying that they had only welcomed the king’s “intention” and believed that it was for the people’s representatives to decide what the future of Nepal was going to be.

The other factor that determined in a large measure the UPA government’s policies regarding Nepal was the fear of the alliance between the Naxalites and Nepalese Maoists. Both the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)

– the CPN (M) – and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) – the CPI (Maoist) – are members of the subcontinental body of revolutionaries known as the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA) and have known to be coordinating with each other through Nepal’s porous borders with the Naxalite-affected areas of Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. The UPA shares with the BJP the same apprehensions about, and rancour against the Indian Naxalites and the Maoists of Nepal. It therefore naturally adheres to the same policy that the BJP-led government followed in the past towards the Naxalite movement. Given this mindset, New Delhi views with concern the success of the Maoists in building up an alliance with the seven-party coalition and making it accept their main demand (of drafting a new constitution that would end monarchy). During the movement, Indian officials had tried to wean away the seven-party coalition from the Maoists by raising the bogey that the latter would take over Nepal, and the protest movement would lose its peaceful character. It, however, could not hold back the Nepalese leaders who were literally being compelled by the mass wave of protests to go the whole hog against the monarchy.

Indian Left and Nepal

Interestingly enough, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – the CPI(M) – which is up in arms against the homebred Maoists in India, has been acting for quite some time, on a low key, as an intermediator between the Nepalese parliamentary opposition and the underground Maoists of Nepal. The latter also, while keeping active links with the Naxalites in India, kept its doors open for discussions with the CPI(M). The fact that some of the Nepalese Maoist leaders were alumni of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University where many among today’s CPI(M) leadership also had studied, could have helped the forging of links. It is also a sign of the diplomatic skilfulness in negotiating with other political forces (both domestic and foreign) that had marked the CPN(M) – unlike its counterpart, the CPI (Maoist) in India, which had kept itself away from the political mainstream, in its efforts to preserve its bigotry and remain purist.

As for the CPI(M), the open-door policy of the Nepalese Maoists offered it an opportunity to make its presence felt in the politics of the neighbouring country, and establish its credentials as an ally of a revolutionary movement. The party is fast losing its radical tag in its homeland – what with the adoption of the policies of liberalisation and a model of development by its government in West Bengal, which are accompanied by growing pauperisation of retrenched industrial workers and displaced rural people. Indifference to the needs of the tribal poor in the most impoverished backward districts (Bankura, Purulia and Midnapur) during the last three decades of left rule has created pockets of discontent – which have become centres of a resurgence of the Naxalite movement.

Economic and Political Weekly May 13, 2006

Incidentally these tribal-dominated districts border Jharkhand, a state where swathes of territories are controlled by Naxalites. The ethnic affinities that bind the Santhals, Oraons, Mundas and other tribal communities which inhabit across the borders of West Bengal and Jharkhand, have further consolidated the hold of the Naxalites who are fighting for their rights (on forest produce), defending them against atrocities by the police and contractors, and helping them out with little initiatives like digging water pumps, building roads, setting up schools, etc – which have been neglected all these years by governments, whether run by the Left Front in West Bengal or the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and BJP-led governments in Jharkhand.

Incidentally, the CPI (M) leaders of India view the Maoist insurgency in Nepal as a backlash against the poverty, feudal oppression and absence of land reforms that have ravished the vast underdeveloped countryside. In its political resolution adopted at the 18th Congress in 2005, it condemned the US for supplying military equipment to the king to fight the Maoist insurgency. One wonders how it reconciles this understanding with its visceral hostility towards the Naxalite movement in parts of India (including West Bengal) which has also grown in response to poverty, failure of land reforms, and feudal relations in the backward tribal-dominated districts. While denouncing repression on Maoists and democratic forces in Nepal, why is the CPI (M)-led government resorting to the same methods to quell the Naxalites in West Bengal? Why is it not instead taking the appropriate measures that would eliminate the basic economic and social roots, which give birth to the Naxalite movement?

Future of Armed Insurgencies

The Nepal developments have brought to the fore once again the role of armed movements in bringing about political changes. There can be no denial of the fact that the success of the “people’s war” launched by the CPN(M) in February 1996 (in the course of which they have managed to seize control of almost two-thirds of the country) helped the Maoists to emerge as a decisive force in Nepal’s politics. It is they again who have brought about a radical shift in the democratic movement there by placing on its agenda the demand for a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution that would put an end to the authoritarian powers of the king. They have also demonstrated a flexible attitude by agreeing to a multiparty system, willing to participate in elections, and announcing a three-month ceasefire. At the same time, to make it clear that they are not prepared to compromise on their basic stand, they have refused to give up arms – so that if the seven-party coalition reneges or dilly-dallies, or king Gyanendra uses his loyal RNA to scuttle the new constitution, or external powers intervene, the Maoists will resume the “people’s war”. It is yet to be seen how the parliamentary parties work out a smooth arrangement with the Maoists.

Causes of Success

But whatever the outcome may be, it is worth examining the causes of the success that the Maoists have achieved so far in Nepal, as well as their limitations. It should be borne in mind that apart from enjoying the support of vast masses of the poor and underprivileged (mainly consisting of Magar, Gurung and Kiranti communities), the CPN(M) has the advantage of operating in a mountainous and forested terrain spreading over the north-west that is largely impenetrable by the army. Lack of modern facilities of development (for example, roads and communication), and consequent absence of police and army outposts within miles, have helped the guerrillas to establish their bases and preserve them till now. We cannot but notice the similarities with the Indian Naxalite support base today among the poor tribals of the inaccessible hilly corridor of dense woodlands running from Bihar and Jharkhand through Chhattisgarh and Orissa, down to Andhra Pradesh.

In both the situations, changes in the infrastructure – economic and physical – could transform the terrain to the disadvantage of the armed revolutionaries. Statesponsored measures like land reforms, provision of better agricultural inputs, introduction of healthcare and education facilities for the poor villagers, could remove the immediate grievances that lead them to support the communist revolutionaries. Improvement of roads and communication system could attract entrepreneurs from outside who would invest in business and industries offering avenues of different types of employment for some among the local poor – mainly unskilled labour. Many would be uprooted from their homes and agricultural livelihood by the expansion of development projects, and would be forced to emigrate. In fact, this is what has happened in West Bengal, where limited land reforms by the Left Front government in the 1970s helped in the diminution in the extent of absolute poverty among the rural poor and led to the creation of a comparatively prosperous section of small farmers from amidst them in certain parts of the state, thus eroding the old Naxalite base in those areas, which used to draw support from their grievances. But the regional – and partly ethnic

  • imbalance in the distribution of benefits, have left the tribal poor and marginalised sections in the backwoods of West Bengal in their old state of existence. It is these miserable souls in pockets of underdevelopment who have reinvigorated the Naxalite movement today. Another new generation of aggrieved people in West Bengal and other parts of India may soon gravitate towards the Naxalites. Thousands are being ousted from their homes and occupations by development projects; industrial workers are retrenched from factories which have been closed down. New types of class relationships and conflicts are thus developing between beneficiaries of land reforms and those left out, between the labourers employed by development projects and those driven out from their homes by these projects.
  • In the near future, the villages in the backward districts of Rukum, Rolpa, Jajarkot, Salyan, Humla or Dolakha (among many others in the north-western part of Nepal where the Maoists have formed local governments) will be no exception to this trend when they will be opened up to the development process, and will experience a new transformation, giving rise to different types of class contradictions. In such a situation, the present Maoist strategy and tactics may have to undergo a radical change. Once brought into the “political mainstream” – the term that is being used frequently by the parliamentary politicians both in India and Nepal – they will have to forge new weapons to carry on their struggle. The CPN(M) leader Prachanda (in an interview with The Hindu in early February this year) sent an indirect message to his comrades among the Naxalites in India suggesting that they should also think in terms of “multiparty democracy”
  • which the Maoists in Nepal have agreed to experiment with. On the threshold of a new future, Nepal’s Maoists may show the way for armed revolutionaries elsewhere. Will the “uncertain glory” of April remain sunny, or will it be overtaken again by another dark spell of clouds?
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    Email: sumbiz@sancharnet.in

    Economic and Political Weekly May 13, 2006

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