Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Cold questions for embattled Nepal

The upshot of it all is that Nepal should be allowed to emerge as a stable democracy. The beneficiary would be Nepalis as well as both the countries in their neighborhood. The sooner the neighbors realize this, the better.

By Dhruba Adhikary
Nepal's capital on Wednesday appeared like a city under seize, with shops closed and serpentine lines of vehicles in front of gas stations. Few residents, already struggling to survive cold winter days and nights amid power interruptions of eight hours a day, had expected supply lines cut a week before to remain severed for so long.
Bitter experience prompts residents to blame what is effectively a blockade on the country's Maoists and their militant wing, Young Communist League (YCL), whose president on February 7 said it was capable of "capturing" the entire Kathmandu valley in just five minutes. The use of threat and intimidation continues even as the country is preparing for elections scheduled for April 10.
Yet the "credit" for effectively disrupting supply lines to Kathmandu, the seat of Nepal's political powers, is being taken by a coalition of three parties which were formed in recent months. The parties, together with some armed groups, are based in the country's southern plains, the Terai region, bordering mainly with the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Six demands they have advanced include "autonomy with right to self-determination" for the entire region. Interim Prime Minister Koirala and his coalition partners read secessionist tenor in this demand, and appear unwilling to meet it at least until the elections to the Constituent Assembly are held.
There is a perception that the Terai groups would not have been able to impose a blockade on the capital and the rest of the country if they had not been encouraged and aided by the government in India.
Unlike in the late 1980s, when Indian authorities directly imposed a trade and transit blockade to take revenge on Nepal for having imported some of its military supplies from China, the blockade this time has been applied indirectly - through Terai groups.
The possibility that leaders of these groups are being handled by New Delhi has to be seen in the context of their frequent meetings with the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu, some of which have been reported by Nepal's electronic media. One such meeting was brought to the public notice by a television channel on February 20.
Only a week ago, an Indian delegation led by Congressman Digvijaya Singh visited Kathmandu when Singh's public statements said India favored neither monarchy nor any other particular group among Nepal's disputing political factions, and that New Delhi would welcome a decision by the people of Nepal. This public posture resembled to the approach from Beijing. But what is happening on the ground is different. The visiting Indian politician, for instance, assured Mahantha Thakur, chairman of the recently formed Tarai-Madhes Loktantrik Party, in private conversation that he wished that their six-point demand be fulfilled. Thakur himself revealed this information to the media.
His party, together with other two, has decided to stay away from the hustings. India's role - some call it outright interference - in recent times has been pervasive. In a media interaction a few weeks ago, Interim Prime Minister Koirala said that the problems created in Terai could be resolved "in a minute" if India offered sincere cooperation.
His remarks apparently made New Delhi unhappy as they gave credence to public perceptions that the Indian authorities have a hand in the Terai unrest. "I have told India and the UN that I will not compromise on [ Nepal's] sovereignty and integrity," Koirala stated at a high level meeting of the party he heads, Nepali Congress, on February 17.
Even so, a noted Nepali columnist described Koirala recently as a "puppet" of India. Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the military wing of CPN (M), is equally uncomfortable with the meddlesome role that New Delhi is playing. Like Koirala, he too thinks the Terai agitation would not be sustained "even for a minute" if India stopped supporting those associated with it. In a public meeting held on February 12, Prachanda also accused Nepal's discredited palace and Americans for having instigated Terai groups. Prachanda and some of his comrades-in-arm obtained shelter in India during the "people's war" they conducted in Nepal. He spent eight of 10 years up to 2006 in India.
Prachanda's assessment coincides with an analysis based on the views of the India's main opposition party, BJP, that the Manmohan Singh government has "outsourced" its Nepal policy to its communist coalition partner and leader Sitaram Yechuri. And, as far as Washington is concerned, it outsourced its Nepal policy to New Delhi, in bid to lure Indians into the fold of strategic partnership. Americans also found it expedient to help India to contain China - Nepal's neighbor to the north. Nobody knows how and when Beijing will react to all these developments.
Meanwhile, another dimension surfaced on Tuesday when the constitutionally sidelined King Gyanendra issued a message to the nation asking his countrymen to pay attention to safeguard Nepal's integrity, independence and nationalism.
The occasion was Democracy Day, which reminded the people of the country's first attempt at democracy in 1951. In the message, Gyanendra described his grandfather, Tribhuvan, as the architect of democracy. And the message was made public in His Majesty's name. The interim constitution does not have provision for the monarchy. Parties promoting a pro-republican agenda, including Maoist leaders, denounced the move and have seen it as a part of a Western conspiracy to prevent them from reaching power.
By alluding to Nepal's integrity, independence and nationalism, Gyanendra appeared to be telling Nepalis that he too sees a threat to the existence of Nepal as an independent country. Those who continue to support the monarchy in Nepal (simultaneously being critical of Gyanendra and his son Paras) hastily cite the sequence of events in Sikkim in the 1970s - the Himalayan territory was eventually annexed by India, in 1974. First, the Sikkimese people were encouraged to get rid of their monarchy, then an elected assembly was prodded to pass a resolution seeking merger with India. Being a part of India, Sikkimese did get democracy, and lost their country in the process.
Nepal's larger size and status, analysts contend, is not comparable with Sikkim's; not even with Bhutan's. But they do agree that a separatist movement in Terai needs to be read in the context of what happened in Kosovo, with its declaration of independence from Serbia, earlier this week.
The upshot of it all is that Nepal should be allowed to emerge as a stable democracy. The beneficiary would be Nepalis as well as both the countries in their neighborhood. The sooner the neighbors realize this, the better.

(It was published on http://www.nepalnews.com/ and has been reproduced on http://www.nepalnews.com/ courtesy http://www.atimes.com/.)

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