Nepal is at a critical crossroad; in fact the rebirth of the country as a new nation-state is in question. To assess the evolving situation, I recently undertook an extensive tour of the country. During the tour, I had wide interaction with various segments and classes of Nepal including some important personalities and political leaders across the political divide.
From my observations and interactions, I aver that Nepal is struggling for a new identity and soul, as never before in the last two centuries. There is confusion, uncertainty, despair, apprehension and despondency amongst all segments of the Nepalese society. There is near paralysis of administration. Law and order, which was very respectable under the monarchy has totally degenerated, particularly in the Terai belt. There is abnormal increase in murders, kidnappings and extortions, and other criminal activities. Road-blocks (bandhs) for days together have become an endemic feature. This is adopted not as a last resort tactic, but the first one. This is something the society has learnt from the Maoists. Electricity supply in important places like Kathmandu, Janakpur and Pokhra is limited to four or five hours a day.
There is a distinct fault line operating the East-West Highway, threatening to vertically split Nepal.
Many people especially in the Terai region questioned the very concept of Nepal as a nation-state. Even in the hills of eastern Nepal, the Limbuans (martial class like Limbu, Rai, Magar), are questioning their association with Nepal. The Tharus and the Muslims have been demanding special status and exclusion from the Madhesh identity, something which the other Madheshis and their leaders feel, has been engineered by the Maoists to drive a wedge in the Madheshi unity. Many hill people (paharis) have been compelled to leave Terai and flee to the hills after selling off their properties cheap. The Maoists have lost much of their influence in the Terai region, and have been supplanted by a plethora of Madheshi organization, some of which are no less criminal in their intent and activities. Elsewhere too, the Maoists influence has considerably waned, but there does not appear to be strong alternatives in the minds of the people particularly in the hill region.
There is a distinct fault line operating the East-West Highway, threatening to vertically split Nepal. The ultimate instrument of security, i.e. the Nepal Army is being humiliated and marginalized by the Maoists in the government. The Maoists have not renounced violence. It is only the Maoists, who appear to be working with a clear purpose and objective, the other political forces are either weak or in disarray. There is an unprecedented interaction at all levels between Nepal and China. The Maoists have subverted the very idea of a Constituent Assembly by declaring policies that legally can only be adopted once the new constitution comes in force. There is a sense of disquiet amongst a large segment of the people, most political parties and the Nepal Army about the agenda and working pattern of the Maoist leaders at the helm of the government. A faint trigger may just explode Nepal.
The moot question, as also echoed by Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra’s home minister, is – what is going to be the new philosophical mooring of the new state? To effect a paradigm shift in the type of polity and political dispensation, the most rudimentary imperative is that the protagonists must shun violence, which the Maoists have not done. They insist on calling their militant cadres, ‘Peoples Liberation Army’ (PLA), on the Chinese lines. As per the Himalayan Times, 21 March 2009, published from Kathmandu, “former General Secretary of CPN-UML Madhav Kumar Nepal recently stated that it was a great mistake of political parties to bring the Maoists to the government while they still had a parallel army and they were still carrying arms.” He further said: “there is a risk that the nation could face chaos due to wrong doing of the Maoist led government… We cannot expect respect, honour and political culture from the Maoists as they are guided by weapon-oriented ideology.” The Maoist leadership on so many occasions has threatened to re-launch their armed struggle if their key demands are not met. As per Mr Harihar Dahal, member of the Interim Constitution Drafting Committee, the Maoists were adamant that the word ‘democratic’ should not figure and the country should be just called ‘Peoples Republic’. After much of persuasion and cajoling, they conceded to include the word ‘democratic’.
Even the declaration of Nepal as a secular country by the Maoist leadership does not enjoy public approval.
Even the declaration of Nepal as a secular country by the Maoist leadership does not enjoy public approval. In Madhesh as well as in the hills, the overwhelming refrain was that if a referendum were to be held, 90 percent of Nepal would vote in favor of a Hindu state. The latest move by the government to accord special status to Muslims is being seen as contrary to the basic tenets of secularism. Many in Nepal feel that the Maoist leadership has not declared Nepal a secular state out of any love for secularism, but, because they feel that religion can pose the biggest antidote to their radical left politics. One of the reasons that the Maoists created mid-western Nepal as their initial stronghold was because they felt that the ethnic groups in that region were less influenced by Hindu religious moorings.
The other issue of Nepal being a federal state is also mired in controversy. Mr Ram Chandra Jha, a UML leader and Local Development Minister, told me that there was a proposal by the Maoists to have two parliaments, one for Madhesh and other for hill region. He said that he opposed the move as it would not be a ‘federation’, but confederation as such. I added that the move would ultimately result in the vertical split of the country. There is another proposal to divide Nepal into 13 to 14 regions based on ethnicity. Mr Jha and some other political leaders questioned the efficacy of this proposal, as they maintained that Nepal had more than 200 ethnic groups, however in no district of Nepal, any particular ethnic group was in majority.
In the Madhesh region acute anger against Kathmandu was palpable. People brazenly questioned their nationality. They argued that there was not a single good reason for them to be part of Nepal. They maintained that they have been neglected, rather ignored, by both Nepal and India, despite constituting 50 percent of the population. Most influential positions in governance, they said, have been traditionally enjoyed by the hill people. Most blamed the pahari dominated dispensation of destroying the ecology and environment of the region. They complain that the entire ecology of the region was destroyed during the construction of the East-West highway and nothing has been done to restore it. A few decades back, the Terai region was characterized by dense forests, which have disappeared with the connivance of government officials (predominantly paharis), causing much devastation and floods in Terai and the contiguous areas in India.
The Terai people accuse India of looking at Nepal through the prism of the Gurkha soldier, Gurkha sentry (darban), and Gurkha servant. Leave alone Indian citizens, even the Indian diplomats, they felt had little knowledge and awareness about them. The only ambassador, who made an attempt to address their concerns, was Mr Shyam Sharan. They averred that their past, present and future is intertwined with the contiguous states and regions of India, as their economic and social well-being was not dictated by northern Nepal, but India and the Indian people with whom they have familial ties. The hunt for bride and bridegrooms invariably extends into the Indian territory. They were generally of the strong contention that legally and historically they were part of India. Some of them invoked history to argue their case.
It is only the Maoists, who appear to be working with a clear purpose and objective, the other political forces are either weak or in disarray.
One scholar pointed out that the entire region of Madhesh was given on lease to one Mukunda Sen by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam-II for 13000/- Rupees. Mukunda Sen divided the Terai region between his two sons, who were known as Palpa Raja and Makwan Raja (Gandaki to Kosi). After Prithvai Narayan Shah, annexed these regions, he continued to pay tribute to the East India Company something which continued till the rule of Jung Bahadur Rana (hereditary prime minister). The lease extended upto Lehariasarai and Darbhanga in Bihar. After the battle of Sagauli in 1816, the East India Company took back Terai, but after two years gave it back on lease. The East India Company forces had reached upto Hetauda and were threatening to capture Kathmandu. However, the British thought it wise to enter into a treaty as their principal security concern lay in Afghanistan. The King of Nepal’s position was that of a subordinate. The British never called the Nepal King as ‘His Majesty’. Pleased with the contribution of Gurkha soldiers of the Nepal army in defeating the Indian war of Independence–1857, the British revoked the lease of Terai and permanantly awarded certain areas in the region refered to as Naya Nepal.
The Madheshis find it amusing and discriminatory that they are referred to as ‘people of Indian origin’ by the hill people. Their contention is that many hill tribes including the Shah family and the Ranas are basically Indians, who migrated to Nepal at some point of history.
The lack of development, continued self-destruction of economic assets, and total external dependence, have made the people of Nepal cynical and despondent about their country. They feel economically extremely vulnerable and apprehensive about Nepal being a totally consumer country. It produces only seven percent of its consumer needs. Nepal, today basically subsists on remittances, which last year amounted to Rs. 1 trillion. People in the Terai said that there is relative peace in the region because most of the Madhesh population between 18 to 35 years of age was outside the country, especially in Southeast Asia and the Gulf. As per a banker, remittances coming in Janakpur, amounted to Rs.10 crore a month. They apprehend that if there were to be reverse inflow of Nepalese labour due to global recession, there will be chaos in Terai.
The ultimate instrument of security, i.e. the Nepal Army is being humiliated and marginalized by the Maoists…
The assertion of ethnicity is not only confined to the Terai, but the hill region as well. The Limbuans of Eastern Nepal constituting of martial castes like Rai, Limbu, Magar are demanding separate rule based on the contention that they came under the Nepal monarch, Prithvi Narayan Shah under a special arrangement, but now, since the monarchy is gone, they are no longer part of the country.
Even in the hills, therefore, the concept of Nepali nationalism is very vague. Some people attributed the lack of nationalism to the historical reason that Nepal comprised more than 50 different principalities/petty-kingdoms unified artificially by Prithvi Narayan Shah. In the small state of Nepal, there are a host of external players like China, US, UK and Pakistan. Its geographical proximity to China and the changes taking place there (Tibet) lends Nepal immense strategic importance. The lack of hostile neighbours and the Kathmandu centric orientation of the country have also contributed to the lack of nationalism. One political leader quipped that there is no one in Nepal who is ready to die for his country. One politician even made a euphemistic suggestion that if India were to somehow extend the Sixth Pay Commission to Nepal, the country would happily accede to India.
The people in the Terai region draw their political inspiration from the Indian political template. On the other hand, the people in the hills are little aware about the contours of Indian politics. Even domestically, compared to the people in Terai, they are less politically active because of their day-to-day hard struggle for subsistence and survival. Nevertheless, the hill people see the Terai and its people as an extension of India. They see the Maoists as just another political force rather than being influenced by any ‘ism’. While the Terai people are apprehensive about any strong inroads by China and share the Indian perspective and concern, the hill people are hardly sensitive on the issue. Many people in the Terai region even supported the economic blockade by the Rajiv Gandhi government. They maintained that the blockade did much to compel the monarchy to restore democracy.
Apparently, the Maoists influence has been supplanted by the Madheshi movement, even though the Maoists leaders are trying their best to split the Madheshi ranks by instigating the cause of Tharus and Muslims. In 2007, more than 20 Maoists were slaughtered at Gaur in a public meeting. Last year fierce clashes took place between the Madheshis and the hill people (Paharis) in the Terai region. Video tapes of Madheshi-Pahari clash were shown in various places in Terai to arouse passions. The customs office at Bittha More on the Indo-Nepal border near Janakpur, was attacked and in its wake there were no border officials to be seen for the next 20 days. Most paharis were compelled to sell their properties at throughaway prices and migrate to northern regions. The Maoist government did nothing to stop this as part of a deliberate strategy to cause polarization and confusion in Nepal. Some petty Pahari businessmen, however, are trickling back since then.
The lack of hostile neighbours and the Kathmandu centric orientation of the country have also contributed to the lack of nationalism.
The common people in Terai do not harbour much hatred for the hill people and they consider them extremely innocent, but are bitter about the pahari heavy dispensation over the years. Both, influential hill people and Terai people that I interacted with, were cagey and cautious while discussing the issue, but a sense of disquiet and apprehension was discernable.
A distinct fault line presently operates alone the East-West Highway dividing the hill people from the people in Terai. The chasm was growing by the day, but off late the realization is creeping in that the fault line is adversely impacting both on the hill people and the Terai population. As long as the hill people were there in the Terai, the markets were thriving. The exodus of hill people from the Terai has caused severe labour problems; as a result all economic activity has come to a halt. The only beacon of hope seems to be the President of Nepal Dr Ram Baran Yadav, who is increasingly being seen as a Gandhian and a statesman; the President, a qualified heart specialist, has been repeatedly stressing on the unity of the people of Nepal, which is being extremely well received by the people due to their growing exasperation with internecine violence and mutually ruinous hatred.
Hurtling towards a failed state
When I crossed the Nepal border, there were no customs officials. Despite deployment of large number of police personnel in various areas in the Janakpur region, there was no indication of active policing. People were traveling on the roof top of buses with gay abandon, something which never happened under the monarchy. Schools are closed for most of the period. Cheating in exams, which was an unknown feature, has now become rampant. I visited a school in Pipra village near the border, where the Indian government has given three crore rupees for refurbishment and expansion, the foundation stone for which was laid by Ambassador Shyam Sharan. Construction work stopped midway due to extortion demands of the Maoists and other groups. People maintained that the education system in Nepal was better than India in many respects. However, now, to compensate for the loss of school hours, children could be seen in hordes with their school bags going for tuition classes. Students in Madhesh are considered to be very promising and hardworking, but do not see much future in Nepal.
In Madhesh as well as in the hills, the overwhelming refrain was that if a referendum were to be held, 90 percent of Nepal would vote in favor of a Hindu state.
There are now more than three dozen outfits espousing the cause of ‘One Madhesh One Pradesh’. Most of these outfits are nothing but criminal organizations indulging in arson, loot, murders and extortion. I met a banker living bang opposite the residence of the SP, who confided to me that he was compelled to pay one lakh rupees to one of these organisations. These organisations are now flush with finances and new weapons. Most of these organisations have been infiltrated by ex-Maoists. Kidnapping has become a industry with money being shared with the police. The general feeling was that the situation was not as bad even during the peak of Maoist agitation, and the Maoist leadership was working to a plan of destroying the entire system.
Road blockades and bandhs in Nepal are so frequent that people have become inured to it. Road blocks and bandhs are never partial but complete, and it extends for days together, causing much hardship to the people in the hills due to acute shortage of essential supplies, triggering abnormal price rise of commodities. I could not proceed from Janakpur to Kathmandu by road due to bandh imposed by the Tharu community, which had entered its 23rd day. There was not even a modicum of effort by the government, and its law and order agencies to enforce a solution. The Janakpur-Kathmandu road link constitutes the main artery for the Kathmandu valley. Again my travel from Kathmandu to Pokhra by road was interrupted by a road blockade created by a student group during student elections. More than hundered vehicles with tourists lay strung on the road. Large posse of policemen was seen to be moving up and down, but did not attempt to clear the blockade.
After four hours, I and others were compelled to pickup baggage and walk 5 to 6 km before I could find another means of conveyance on the other side of the blockade. People were of the opinion that the culture of bandhs and road blocks in utter disregard to the needs and hardships of the countrymen was introduced in the political culture of the country by the Maoists, and therefore now when in the government, they do not have any moral authority to condemn and contain the very same method, which they engaged in with telling effect.
The peace pact and the democratic process, they consider, as just another halt or a stepping stone in their journey to a Maoist state.
Both in the hills and Terai, power cuts range from 16 to 18 hours a day. This includes Kathmandu and Pokhra as well. The void created by the monarchy and its institutional framework has not been supplanted by other effective mechanisms. In fact, the existing institutions are in complete confusion and disarray. There is a growing feeling that it is a part of deliberate Maoist strategy to destroy or marginalize all existing institutions including the army.
Influence of the Maoists
Most people including those inhabiting the areas of Maoist stronghold maintained that the electoral success of Maoists was due to a combination of extraordinary factors. In the remote hill regions, there was no presence of any other political force other than the Maoists, therefore the poll results in favor of the Maoists was a foregone conclusion. In other areas, fear of the Maoists and intimidation by them were the factors. And in the areas where the Maoists were a weak force, they adopted a humble political posture requesting the voters to give them a chance, as they had tried all other political players in the past. The general public failed to see the danger posed by the radical ism of the Maoists. The Maoists even threatened to continue their armed struggle if not voted to power. Fed up with a decade of violence and hardship, many people decided to give the Maoists a chance. The Congress leaders disclosed that Mr Koirala, in the very late stages was given intelligence inputs regarding the emergence of Maoists as the leading political force, yet he did nothing to scuttle the elections. Therefore, in a way he did favor to the Maoists.