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J. Sri Raman: New Test for Nepal

New Test for Nepal

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

In less than a week, Nepal is scheduled to vote and elect a Constituent Assembly (CA). As the Himalayan nation's first major step toward a new constitution, which will lay the foundation of a new democracy, the event slated for April 10 warrants high expectations. Not every Nepali, however, shares the excitement.

Some, in fact, see the election as the opposite of a prelude to peace and progress for Nepal. They warn of a war ahead. The warning cannot be less welcome in a nation that went through a civil war for a decade before the pro-democracy movement ended a despotic monarchy and the Maoists returned to the political mainstream.

A well-known royalist was reported the other day as putting the war in religious terms. Major General Bharat Keshwer Simha, known for proximity to the palace, said: "If the Maoists can take up arms and come to power, Hindus will also take up arms. It will be worse than the Maoists' war."

This, in his grim forecast, will be the response to a post-election emergence of a republic of Nepal from forces that want no democracy without recognition of the divine right of the virtually deposed king. This and similar other warnings are not without a logic of their own. Whoever wins the election - the monarchists or those who want to preserve monarchy in any form or manner - are bound to lose after the votes are counted. The twice-postponed election has become possible only after an agreement among the Maoists and seven other political parties represented in the interim government on the total abolition of monarchy after the vote. In order to make the agreement possible last December, the Maoists gave up their insistence on immediate abolition of the institution and the others gave up insisting on a constitutional monarchy for the country. The 601-member CA will have to formally ratify the abolition, but all the main political players take it as a foregone conclusion.

The election was originally to be held in June 2007 and then in November. The monarchy's fate was the main bone of contention between the Maoists and the other parties in both cases. The violent agitation for autonomy, launched by Madhesis, the Indian-origin minority in Nepal's southern plains, around November proved an additional impediment to the election. The Communist Party of Nepal, however, saw the monarchists' hand behind the sudden eruption of ethnic movements here and elsewhere.

The delay in holding the democratic exercise has also been blamed on the slow progress toward the integration of the CPM-N's People's Liberation Army (PLA) with the Nepal Army (which has shed its former prefix of 'Royal'), which had earlier been agreed upon. The Maoists have attributed this also to the monarchists, with the army under General Rukmangad Katuwal making very little secret of its continuing loyalty to King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev.

This is only one of the uncertainties related to the election. Even more agonizing is the one about whether the election will be held at all. Informed observers in Kathmandu do not rule out the possibility of an extremist fringe of religiously fanatic monarchists attempting sabotage aimed at derailing the democratic exercise.

A recent bomb blast in a mosque in Biratnagar in eastern Nepal, for which the Nepal Defence Army has claimed responsibility, has heightened such fears. The NDA has warned that it will "continue such attacks until Nepal is reinstated as a Hindu nation."

The election campaign has been marked by non-monarchist violence as well. Members of the CPN-M, the Nepal Congress (NC) of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist-Leninist (CPM-UML) have been attacking each other with merry abandon, with the United Nations' poll observers constrained to pull up these parties. The violence has claimed at least two lives so far, with the victims including a candidate.

Uncertainty remains also about whether the non-monarchists will accept the election results. The Maoists have repeated the assurance that they won't return to the jungles to launch a war again if they lose. They have also repeatedly voiced confidence in the UN personnel's capacity to conduct a fair and peaceful election.

But, top Maoist leader Prachanda has thought to fit to declare: "We won't accept the results if we sense that there is any conspiracy or unfair activities towards us during the election." Ananta, deputy chief of the PLA, has elaborated on the Maoist stand. He has said the former rebels will not accept the results if "we find that 'booth-capturing' has happened, that voters have been paid and that people have been forced to cast their votes for a particular party through fear."

What worries India's well-wishers of Nepal and its pro-democracy movement is whether New Delhi will accept any election results in more than a formal sense. India's National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan has made no secret of his masters' partisanship in the matter. Recently he raised concerns about India's post-election role in Nepal by confiding in the media: "We have put a great deal of faith in Prime Minister (Girija Prasad) Koirala and the Nepali Congress. We're unsure as to where we stand with regard to the Maoists despite professions on both sides that we can work together."

Naryanan, perhaps, feels emboldened to indulge in such a diplomatic impropriety of disclosing New Delhi's preference in Nepal's election because of the belligerently anti-Maoist stand of India's main opposition, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In his recently published autobiography, Lal Krishna Advani, former deputy prime minister and the BJP's shadow prime minister, has reiterated his party's view of the Maoists as a grave menace. He had earlier voiced support for Nepal's monarchy as "a symbol of its unique national identity and a source of its stability." Other far-right outfits, as we noted before in these columns, had glorified King Gyanendra as the "emperor of all Hindus."

We have no word from Washington about whether it will accept any election results. Former US Ambassador to Nepal James Francis Moriarty, who has figured so frequently in our Nepal reports, may have been more outspoken. It must be noted, however, that the George Bush administration is yet to officially remove the "terrorist" tag from the Maoists thus far. Despite this rare instance of the administration's reticence, it is hard to see it reconcile itself easily to any election results that assure the Maoists a significant place in Nepal's political mainstream.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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