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Peace is trickier than war

At any rate, Prachanda and his comrades should not threaten the democratic process by freeing thuggish elements of the Young Communist League to counter noisemakers employed by political foes, writes Sudeep Chakravarti.

india Updated: May 21, 2009 22:13 IST

Kanak Dixit, the resolute editor and human rights activist in Kathmandu, told me once of a word he had to coin in Nepali, shabodhkhanan, to explanation exhumation. There had been no need of it before the ten-year war that pitted the state against Maoist rebels, and killed nearly 14,000.

Since 2006, he, like his country, has had to absorb a more welcome word: ganatantra, rule of the people. It replaced the trick of prajatantra, rule of subjects.

Those quick to dismiss Nepal as a spectacular train wreck should note the gifts of democratic impulse. It ensured the end of war. King Gyanendra went from despot to ‘commoner’. Maoist rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ became Prime minister. And, this past month, he quit over his firing of, and reinstatement of the Nepalese Army chief by the president.

Prachanda and his party are scrabbling for political supremacy in a Constituent Assembly elected in April 2008 to birth a new Constitution. While Maoist leaders have churlishly stalled the business of this Parliament for the past fortnight, they have done so fearful of losing power, and losing face.

Churn can be disturbing, but the process of democracy needs unfettered encouragement. This is not a time for mythical constructs such as the return of monarchy, or the shutdown of Maoists.

Nepal’s royalty and nobility are callous and venal. They impoverished Nepal, and for long misled the world, and India, into believing they should be rewarded for it. As snot-nosed children smiled for trekkers in the Himalaya, and flower children blossomed on a compost of hash brownies and The Doors around Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, the royalty gathered palaces, businesses, bank accounts, and toadies.

Grateful for an illusion, the world provided this twisted Shangri-La roads, dams, schools, schoolbooks, buses, bus shelters, traffic lights, weapons, and immunity at the United Nations. And yet, Nepal remained impoverished, a den of progress-cannibals. At the military museum at Chhauni cantonment in west Kathmandu, a gold-hued Rolls Royce Silver Cloud III is an exhibit. A sign notes: “His Majesty the King of Nepal received this car as a gift from the British Queen. This is the first Rolls Royce in Nepal.” Enough said.

Beyond Kathmandu Valley and some industrial towns in the Terai, where three-quarters of the people depend on brutal agriculture, Nepal is destitute. Discrimination on account of caste, ethnicity and gender is as dismal as in India. In the Terai, the Madhesis, people of Indian origin, still chafe at de facto second-class citizenship. A corrupt, wilfully incompetent political leadership that ran Nepal during the 1990s, the result of a first-flush democracy movement now called Jan Andolan I, perpetuated all of Nepal’s preconditioned ills as a gleeful monarchy looked on.

Nepal’s Maoists diligently gathered such tinder. It provided the rebels a chance at copybook Maoism, proliferating first in the countryside and later encircling the “citadel” — Kathmandu. Their arrival told the world there could be no future for Nepal without the Maoists in the equation. That holds as true today.

Those who maintain that Maoists in Nepal must be put down as their primacy will feed India’s ongoing Maoist rebellion need to consider that India’s Maoists have done quite well without Nepal’s Maoists. Even as civil war in Nepal began to wind down from 2004, India’s Maoist rebels have since engineered their most spectacular strikes, and proliferated greatly.

Nepal’s issues have a deeply internal context. At a time when Nepal needs to emerge more fully from conflict, the danger lies in the overplaying of hands.

The Army and Maoists need to cool from a war of which unpalatable questions are still being asked, to account for deaths, disappearances, and compensation to victims from both sides of the conflict.

And, of course, the issue of 19,000 or so Maoist combatants now in UN-monitored “ceasefire” camps across Nepal. Integration into Nepal’s Army, a demand of Maoist hardliners, resisted, among others, by Army chief Rookmangud Katawal — a reason for Prachanda losing his shirt — is a delicate matter. A mishandling can trigger rage among former foes. Irrespective of whether Maoists are able, or unable, to cobble together the majority of 301 required in the 601-member Assembly to remain in government, other political formations, led either by the moderate Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or the arrogant Nepali Congress, would have to deal with this issue.

Though the Army chief is seen as insubordinate by Maoists, it is gratifying to note Maoist cadres taking to protest across Nepal are being contained by police cordons, not army bullets. To ensure it stays that way, the Army needs to continue with restraint, and — as unpalatable it may seem — enter into serious negotiation to rehabilitate with honour former enemies.

For his part, Prachanda needs to acknowledge that peace can be trickier than war. He has also to battle both scepticism among citizens, and hardliners in his party disdainful of the post-war Maoists’ “Pajero sanskriti” — the arrivistes’ culture of the SUV.

At any rate, Prachanda and his comrades should not threaten the democratic process by freeing thuggish elements of the Young Communist League to counter noisemakers employed by political foes. This includes Gyanendra, who has seen his likeness on currency notes replaced by that of Sagarmatha, or Mt Everest. (A former envoy of India to Nepal described this embittered ex-monarch to me as a “cussed, vainglorious chap”. He also confessed he had no idea what the wily Prachanda “would do next”. This is worrisome, with the Maoist propensity to suggest that they always have recourse to war.)

Nepal’s well-wishers must ensure flexibility among hard line, disruptive elements across the political spectrum. They did it several times in late-2005 and 2006, paving the way for Jan Andolan II, the public sweep of protest that broke Gyanendra’s stranglehold.

It’s too soon for Jan Andolan III. Tired and hopeful, Nepal needs a break.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, and a commentator on issues of conflict.