These are momentous times for the people of Nepal. Two years ago, in the late spring of 2006, for 19 exhilarating days, tens of thousands of Nepali students, farmers and workers surged on to the streets of Kathmandu — peaceful, resolute and uncompromising in their demand for the end of monarchy. The Rhododendron Revolution, as it came to be known, has culminated two years later with notice to the last monarch after 240 years of the reign of the Shah dynasty to vacate the palace, and the metamorphosis of a Hindu kingdom into a secular republic.
The same people’s power again unexpectedly asserted itself, when it elected through the ballot, for the first time anywhere in the world, a Maoist revolutionary party with a still standing ‘people’s army’. Not many observers had anticipated the wave of popular support for a party that was leading an armed insurgency since 1996. Political commentator Kanak Dixit sees the vote for the Maoists as fuelled by the aspirations of youth, and of the silenced and suppressed minorities — by caste, ethnicity and class — disenfranchised by all earlier regimes, regardless of whether they were democratically elected, monarchic or panchayats. But the turbulent Maoist insurrection has left a bloody trail of an estimated 14,000 deaths, the economy virtually stopped growing, and impoverished people fled the mountains and plains in droves as they found themselves not only in hopeless poverty but caught in the crossfire between the royal and insurgent armies.
The unexpected popular mandate to the Maoists to lead (in collaboration with the Congress and Marxist parties) not just the new republican government but also the Constituent Assembly to frame the Constitution of the newly born republic, has raised critically important debates about the legitimacy of violence for political transformation that both resonate and have vital lessons for India as well. Many interpret the spring revolution of 2006 to be the triumph of non-violent public protest, as the king was ultimately dethroned without any blood being shed. But others argue that the mass support of the Maoists was based on foundations of their prior mobilisation around what was unarguably a violent rebellion. The electoral victory of the Maoists is interpreted by their supporters as an endorsement of the ideology and strategies of the Maoist ‘people’s war’ (which incidentally was waged against the democratically elected government and not against the king). But others argue that it is paradoxically a vote for peace, as it signalled that the Nepali people wanted the Maoists to abandon their firearms for the instruments of democratic statecraft.
The debate around political violence spilled recently again on to the streets and popular debate, when a Maoist sympathiser was exterminated in murky circumstances, allegedly because he expropriated illegal money that he had gathered for the party. I was in Kathmandu when a bandh was called to remonstrate against this killing on May 20 2008, and observed visible mass anger again on the streets, with crowds of young men protesting that a democratically elected party continues to use extortion and murder. Maoist leader Prachanda, in a public meeting, rather grandly compared himself to the ancient emperor Ashoka, who abjured violence after a long and bloody war in Kalinga. But there have been by the Maoists no official pronouncements of regret for the excesses, killings, extortion and disappearances in the guerrilla violence of the past decade, and many — not just political observers but also ordinary people in Nepal — seek a clear assurance of peaceful democratic practice for the future. There is optimism that the Maoists will usher in land reforms, end debt bondage and untouchability, and respect ethnic identity aspirations. But there is far less certainty that they will end bloody cycles of slaughter and mayhem which has racked life of ordinary people for too long.
This passionate political and ethical debate — about the legitimacy of the use of political violence, including armed insurrection, to fight perceived injustices — that rages today in Nepal not just in newsprint, but in roadside cafes, farms, and factories, has been evaded for too long in various troubled zones of India. There is appropriate anger among human rights defenders in India against State repression and killings in Maoist strongholds like Bihar and Chhatisgarh, but conspicuous silences when Maoists blow up police stations and kill scores of junior police personnel. Brave human rights defenders in Punjab continue to fight for accountability of security forces which killed and cremated thousands of youth, but many among them celebrate uncritically Khalistani icons like Bhindarawale, and almost none protest the depiction of Indira Gandhi’s assassins as revered Sikh martyrs in the Golden Temple. There is righteous opposition to the suppression and atrocities by uniformed forces in Kashmir and Manipur, but rare non-official condemnation of the violence and even extortion, often targeted against civilian populations, by armed insurgent groups. It is as though violence is wrong only when the State crushes dissent, but not when non-State organisations and guerrilla armies kill, molest and rampage. Such a position is just not ethically tenable, as the experience of Nepal reflects.
One notable exception in India is a group of citizens of undisputed moral standing which came together in early 1997 to form the Committee of Concerned Citizens. Convened by S.R. Sankaran, its aim was to bring an end to decades of violence in Telengana by consistently applying the same democratic and moral principles in evaluating acts of violence by the state and by revolutionary parties. The committee condemns killing of alleged Naxalites by police in ‘encounters’, which it describes as “targeted extra-legal executions”. It maintains that ‘the government particularly the police have converted themselves into the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner....’
The committee is significantly also scathing in its condemnation of Naxalite violence, which focuses more on “military actions rather than on the mobilisation of people for social transformation”. Its strategies include physical liquidation of people, attacks on police stations and targeted killing of police personnel, killing so-called informers and ‘coverts’, exploding landmine, destruction of public property, and death threats. It regards the policy of individual annihilation followed by the Maoists as flawed, mirroring the policy of government which believes that liquidation of activists and leaders will lead to liquidation of the movement.
It concludes that “there is a general public feeling that people are sandwiched between Naxalites and police apparatus...” This could be as true of Nepal, tribal tracts of central India under Maoist influence as well as the insurgent regions of Kashmir and India’s North-East. It calls on both the State and Maoists instead to “establish a tradition of human rights and values as a part of their political perception and practice”. This is advice that Prachanda, leader of the elected Maoist party in Nepal, could do well to heed.
The world will watch how a political party in Nepal, which raised and armed its cadres for armed insurrection, but which acquired power through non-violent democratic instruments, handles the responsibilities of building a just and humane polity. The experience of the people of Nepal will carry lessons vital for everyone.
Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari.