A lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India

Monday 5 May 2008, by Siddharth Varadarajan

While the Maoists have earned applause around the world for their stunning victory in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly elections, spare a thought for the two defeated establishment parties — the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) — whose wisdom, statesmanship and political courage helped a powerful rebel group come down from the mountains and enter power through the ballot box.

Things need not have been this way. When King Gyanendra began asserting his authority from 2002, his alibi was the failure of successive governments to defeat the Maoist insurgency. After six years of armed struggle, the People’s Liberation Army and the ‘Royal’ Nepal Army had fought each other to a standstill. Each side was capable of staging punishing strikes on the other but in strategic terms, an impasse had set in which could have dragged on for years. While Gyanendra chose to press for an outright military victory, the Maoists sought to break out of this stalemate by opening a political front of struggle. On their part, the NC and the UML found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. To the extent to which they rejected the Maoists’ demands and use of violence, a section of their leadership found the King’s call for a fight to the finish appealing. But another section also knew that the violence of the Maoists was not merely nihilistic and that the rebels’ demands enjoyed support amongst the poor and marginalised. If some way could be found to get the Maoists to enter the political arena, they argued, not only would this help to bring peace to Nepal but a new power equation might get established which could further the struggle against autocratic monarchy.

Until February 2005, the dominant section of the NC and the UML leadership continued to work closely with the palace. But after the king’s putsch, collaboration with the monarchy was no longer tenable. Slowly but surely, the centre of gravity within these two establishment parties began to move in the direction of peace negotiations with the Maoists. With the assistance of Nepali civil society leaders, an atmosphere of trust and confidence between the parties was built up, grounded in the twin objectives of peace and constitutional reform. Had they wanted, the NC and the UML could still have dragged their feet. They could have refused to deal with the Maoists, whom they blamed for attacking their cadres. But leaders like Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal had the courage to place the future of the country above their partisan concerns. With the backing of India, they entered into a major understanding with the Maoists in November 2005. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Cynics will argue that these parties would have chosen not to enter into an agreement if they had known in advance that the Maoists would win the elections. No doubt the NC and the UML expected to triumph and have been a little churlish in defeat by refusing to join a Maoist-led coalition. But these parties also knew that bringing the Maoists in as an electoral force necessarily meant diluting their own share of power. And it was this willingness to pay a political price for the establishment of peace that makes the Nepali parties a breed apart.

Is there a lesson in this entire process for India? Writing in the Indian Express on Tuesday, the former head of the Research & Analysis Wing, P.K. Hormis Tharakan, said “the greatest advantage the government of India can hope to gain from the Maoist victory in Nepal is that it would have a demonstration effect on the Maoists in India.” Nobody who wants peace in India will disagree. Mr. Tharakan does not say so but it is obvious that as in Nepal, the Indian Maoists and security forces have entered a holding pattern. Each side’s capacity to inflict pain on the other may be growing but a knockout punch is out of the question. And yet, neither the government nor the Maoists are willing to explore other ways of pursuing their core objectives.

If the Indian establishment wants the Maoists to give up their armed struggle and take part in elections like their Nepali comrades, it will have to rely on more than political osmosis. For the Nepali ‘model’ is not just about the Maoists adapting creatively to changes in the national and international arena; it is equally about the ‘bourgeois’ parties there demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that has so far been completely absent in their counterparts south of the border.

Indeed, so backward is our political culture in relation to Nepal’s that instead of seeking ways of peacefully ending the naxalite insurgency, the Government of India has actually fuelled a new civil war. For the past three years, the Chhattisgarh government has been financing and arming a private vigilante death squad known as Salwa Judum (SJ), whose terror tactics have led to the forced displacement of tens of thousands of tribals from their homes. The Special Police Officers (SPOs), often minors, who form the core of SJ are accompanied by paramilitary forces and the police. Their modus operandi consists of forcing villages suspected of being sympathetic to the Maoists to relocate to strategic hamlets on the main road. Villagers who resist are attacked and killed, their huts and property looted and destroyed. Several independent inquiries — the most recent of which was by the National Commission for Child Rights — have confirmed the violation of human rights on a massive scale, including sexual violence. In Kota Nendra village, for example, during the course of an SJ attack in 2006, not only was a three-month-old burnt alive (his mother gave up eating and died soon after of grief) but other children were shot while bathing at the borewell and in the village pond.

Though the SJ is an initiative of the ruling BJP in the State, it has the full backing of the Congress at the Centre. In a recent appearance before the Supreme Court — which is hearing a PIL urging the disbanding of the vigilante squads — the Centre’s counsel actually argued that the government was forced to rely on civilian SPOs because the regular police were (allegedly) too scared to take on the Maoists. It is bad enough that the establishment insists on pursuing a purely military solution. But when it arms and dispatches untrained civilians to commit crimes, this makes the government, as the Chief Justice of India noted on March 31, guilty of abetment.

In Nepal, the political parties and the Maoist rebels realised that the civil war in their country would not be resolved militarily. The king was the only one who failed to recognise this reality and paid the price for his folly. In India, however, despite the military stalemate which prevails, both the establishment and the Maoists continue to believe in the supremacy of arms. And it is the people, mostly tribals, who are paying the price for the folly of others.

In Nepal, the peace process worked because civil society activists helped create an enabling atmosphere in favour of peace and justice. The PIL against Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court is so important precisely because it aims to strengthen the rule of law. In India, however, the natural inclination of the establishment is to look upon all criticism of official policy with suspicion. Thus, the Chhattisgarh government has chosen to accuse the petitioners — who include a former Secretary to the Government of India, two senior academics and a former MLA — of acting on behalf of the naxalites.

Last year, the widely respected medic and human rights defender, Binayak Sen, who had documented some of the excesses of the Salwa Judum, was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act, which criminalises dissent. One year on, he is still in jail. In the newspaper article cited above, the former R&AW chief has questioned the wisdom of using anti-terror laws against individuals who might otherwise be in a position to mediate with rebel groups. He didn’t name any victims but Dr. Sen — who has just been named as the recipient of the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights — is perhaps someone he had in mind. Another example is Lachit Bordoloi, the Assamese journalist and writer, who actually helped the government establish contact with the underground United Liberation front of Asom (ULFA). Last February, he was inexplicably arrested and charged under the draconian National Security Act.

If the Indian establishment really wants Maoists to follow the path of their Nepali comrades, it should listen to what the UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal has to say. I asked him in Kathmandu recently whether he had any advice for India on dealing with the Maoists. Though still smarting from his electoral defeat, he said the government should address the underlying problems of the poor and create the space for the naxalites to come forward for dialogue. “This will be less costly for the country and people than trying to deal with them militarily.” Is anyone in New Delhi listening?

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