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Nepal: Southern Discomfort & Emerging Dynamics

Nepal: Southern Discomfort And Emerging Dynamics

By Sanjay Upadhya

The cautious optimism expressed by a senior United Nations assessment mission on the prospects for peace in Nepal must be juxtaposed with a perceptible souring of the Maoist rebels’ relations with India.

The precise nature, severity and implications of this downturn remain in the realm of speculation. The Indian media’s wide coverage of the Maoists’ harassment of Indian nationals in Nepal and New Delhi’s firm acknowledgement of ideological and operation ties between the Nepalese rebels and Indian Naxalites, among other things, convey sufficient bitterness. The timing of the chill, in the aftermath of reported Chinese overtures to the rebels, adds to the overall anxiety.

New Delhi’s request to the Nepalese government to ensure the safety of Indians from Maoist harassment points to the source of tensions. But such threats are nothing new. Indian individuals and establishments, like their Nepalese counterparts, have been subjected to Maoist intimidation and extortion for years. Moreover, in the list of the Maoists’ principal grievances, India-related issues are close second to the monarchy.

The Maoists had moderated their criticism of India, especially after what many saw as a New Delhi-inspired rapprochement between rebel supremo Prachanda and chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. The patch-up set the stage for the Seven Party Alliance (SPA)’s 12-point accord with the Maoists reached in New Delhi last November. The Prachanda-Bhattarai rifts, whose seriousness was widely covered by the Nepalese media, were mysteriously healed without much explanation.

The presence of US Ambassador James F. Moriarty in New Delhi during the height of the SPA-Maoist negotiations underscored the urgency with which Washington and New Delhi were comparing notes on Nepal. Leaks in the Indian press left room for speculation on how united the New Delhi government was behind Indian communists’ efforts to mainstream the Nepalese Maoists.

Were Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Sitaram Yechury’s overt initiatives genuinely aimed at bolstering the democratic mainstream in Nepal against an assertive palace? Or was he merely the public face of the Indian Left’s effort to preempt a challenge from Indian Maoists by subverting their ties with the Nepalese Maoists?

Given the enormity of the undertaking, it was perhaps essential for the SPA and the Maoists to leave certain ambiguities in their accord. However, it would be naïve to think that Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai signed on without having received private assurances on key issues.

Prachanda has acknowledged that Indian officialdom had played a major role in creating the broad anti-palace alliance. It would be safe to assume that the Maoists considered New Delhi the principal guarantor of its interpretation of the unfolding political course in Nepal.

In that case, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to send Karan Singh – undoubtedly a veteran politician but one who enjoyed close family ties to the Nepalese royal family – as his emissary to the monarch must have represented to the Maoists an egregious violation of New Delhi’s undertaking.

The seemingly open-ended existence the reinstated House of Representatives acquired under Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala -- against public expectations of a brief session paving the way for an interim government and constituent assembly elections – must have represented to the Maoists another manifestation of the imperatives that drove the Karan Singh mission.

The almost identical assertions from Washington and New Delhi making the Maoists’ participation in an interim government contingent on their disarming must have been the tipping point. The CPM’s advice to Indian Naxals to follow their Nepalese allies’ example of moderation could have only added the proverbial insult to the Maoists’ festering injuries.

The promptness with which Indian editorial writers and analysts chose to link the Maoists’ harassment of Indians in Nepal to the rebels’ reported contacts with Chinese emissaries should provide a broader setting for analysis. Throughout the decade-long insurgency in Nepal, India benefited from the perception in much of the world that Beijing was somehow behind the conflict. The ideology and the suffix the rebels carried tended to obscure the ease with which the Nepalese Maoists enjoyed safe haven – if not overt official support – across the southern border.

With New Delhi growing increasingly skeptical of China’s motives in South Asia, especially since Beijing received observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the slightest indication of a Chinese-Maoist connection is bound to raise passions in India.

Could the non-communist elements of the Indian establishment have made a conscious decision to sign on to Washington’s efforts to marginalize the Maoists? Assured of having taken a major step toward preserving their turf by hurtling the Nepalese Maoists to swim or sink in the mainstream, have Yechury and the Left front quietly acceded to the New Delhi-Washington consensus?

Prachanda’s three-month extension of the ceasefire and the threats he made in the announcement signal that the rebels have kept their options open. It would be tempting to believe that, having come this far in the peace process, Prachanda and the political leadership may have forfeited the credibility needed within the fighting force to mount a serious challenge to the state should things fail to go their way. Prachanda himself has been trying to rule out – in varying degrees of candor, of course – a return to full-scale violence.

The Maoists’ political leadership has proved too wily in the past not to be able to make the best of any situation. By amplifying the India-related component of their 40-point demand of 1996, they could hope to carve their space on the nationalism plank hitherto espoused by the palace. Clearly, it would be much more difficult for critics – domestic as well as foreign -- to discredit the Nepalese quest for full independence and sovereignty when its advocates can no longer be denounced as a “feudal anachronism.”

The Maoist political leadership’s eagerness to participate in mainstream politics without having much to show for a decade of bloody and bitter insurgency would almost certainly precipitate a serious internal rupture. A formal split led by military commanders and lesser-known political leaders would allow the state to deploy its coercive powers without the encumbrance of military sanctions from principal external stakeholders. The “mainstreamed Maoists,” for their part, could then find it easier to explore and enhance their compatibilities with key domestic and foreign constituencies.

In recent essays criticizing the SPA for reneging on its commitments, Dr. Bhattarai has revealed how alliance leaders pleaded with the Maoists to use their full force to disrupt the municipal polls the royal government held earlier this year. Dr. Bhattarai claims the democracy protests in April would not have succeeded without the massive participation of Maoist cadres. Can we expect future columns to shed more light on the confabulations in New Delhi that led to the SPA-Maoist 12-point accord? They might help illuminate Nepal’s road head.


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