Thursday, May 15, 2008

India in its Nepali backyard

BY Manjushree Thapa


The Maoist victory in Nepal took India by surprise. But New Delhi must now critically reflect on its responsibility


There has been much fast and loose talk In Kathmandu these past weeks, as analysts try to come to terms with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)'s victory in the constitutional-assembly election on 10 April 2008.

There has been just as much of the same kind of talk in New Delhi.

The Indian government might understandably be worried that it will be blamed - or, by Maoist sympathisers, credited - for the Maoist victory, as it has driven Nepal's peace process, operating through the leadership of Nepal's established political parties: the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist / UML).India has always been influential in Nepal, but its involvement increased dramatically when it took a lead role in persuading the Maoists to enter peace talks with the Congress and the UML. This came after King Gyanendra's military coup in 2005. Until the coup, India had unfailingly backed the unpopular monarch - by granting him recognition as a legitimate head of state even as he usurped extra-constitutional powers; and offering aid to the Royal Nepal Army in support of its atrocity-ridden counterinsurgency against the Maoists. New Delhi backed a "twin-pillar" system of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in Nepal.India was therefore deeply embarrassed when the king effected his military coup. (Just one day before, when the Indian envoy had asked the king point-blank about the possibility, the monarch had denied having any such design). This breach provoked New Delhi to sever ties with King Gyanendra, and to suspend military aid. India, urged on by Nepalis as well as by the international community in Nepal, went on to host talks between the seven-party political alliance and the Maoists in New Delhi in November 2005, talks which eventually led to a Maoist ceasefire and the signing of a twelve-point agreement. This in turn paved the way for the joint democratic-Maoist "people's movement" of April 2006 to end the king's absolute rule; and for the subsequent launch of a complex, multi-layered peace process, of which the 10 April election to the constituent assembly was but one component (see Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide", 16 April 2008).

This trend of events meant that India had recovered from the setback of the coup to restore its position in its pesky northern neighbour. Now, however, the sweeping Maoist victory has caught it off-guard.True, officials in New Delhi tried to appear sanguine as the Kathmandu election results trickled. Siddharth Varadarajan of India's The Hindu could even write of senior officials "(seeking) to dispel the impression that India was worried or shaken" by the Maoist triumph, and saying "that the government not only accepted the electoral verdict in its northern neighbour but also welcomed it." Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign-affairs minister, was quoted extensively as deeming the Maoist victory a positive development.

Some Indian analysts did express concerns that the Maoists' ascendance in Nepal might strengthen India's own Maoists (see Ajay Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success", 20 March 2007). But most went on to dismiss suggestions that anything even vaguely negative might come of the result in Kathmandu, and even to mock claims by Nepali analysts that the Maoists had benefited, in part, from fear and intimidation. In New Delhi, it seemed, everything was coming up roses. PK Hormis Tharakan, a former head of India's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), summed up the mood: "Obviously, the common man in Nepal has made all the difference. For those who know and care for Nepal, the shape of things emerging from these polls could not have been better. It would be an understatement to call it a historic event" (see "Best of all uncertainties", Indian Express, 22 April 2008).Also in openDemocracy about Nepal's journey through conflict:Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal" (23 April 2006)Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink" (24 April 2006)Kanak Mani Dixit, "Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal: Maocracy vs democracy" (16 November 2006)Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's peace accord: time for caution" (16 November 2006)Dharma Adhikari "Nepal's unsettling peace" (6 February 2007)Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide" (16 April 2008)Meenakshi Ganguly, "Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 2008)All this cheering was not a little disingenuous, for it was open knowledge that on the eve of the Nepali election, India had fully expected the Congress to emerge as the largest party, with the UML in second place. It anticipated being able to continue working through its proxy figure Girija Prasad Koirala - the Congress's elderly and infirm president - or his dynasty (most members of which were, in the event, defeated in the election).Thus, India's truer reaction was captured by Bharat Bhushan of India's Mail Today: "The Maoist sweep in Nepal elections has taken the international community, including India, by a complete surprise. The shock is all the more in New Delhi because the Foreign Office mandarins had hoped that no single party would get a majority and the tried and tested Nepali Congress (NC) as the single largest entity would be the pivot of future developments in the country." Bhushan went on: "In short, it would be back to the predictable old days of backroom manipulation, with those in charge in Kathmandu looking over their shoulder for Delhi's approval. Alas, such hopes have been dashed."A closer look at the Maoists' victory makes it clear that Indian policy has harmed the very force it sought to promote in Nepal - the Nepali Congress Party - and with it, Nepal's peace process (see Manjushree Thapa, "The perils of voting", International Herald Tribune, 10 April 2008).Policies overt and covertThis is a large claim, and to amplify it requires a quick review of India's policies throughout the peace process. India's overt policies have mainly focused on re-establishing democracy in Nepal by bringing the Maoists out of war and into the realm of politics: judicious and selfless, as befitting a country positioning itself to be a global as well as regional superpower. India does have other interests in Nepal - especially hydropower and trade and transit treaties - but these are lesser issues: after all, it cannot force exploitative agreements on a small neighbour, nor can Nepal itself hold out on grounds of stubborn patriotism. There is, then, no real disagreement on India's overt policies in Nepal.It is the covert policies that cause worry. They (as many Indian analysts will admit) often lack transparency and are not subject to scrutiny. It is also true that India is not a monolith, and its policies are not unitary.Both elements - secrecy and confusion - are a challenge to clear discussion. Indeed, most reporting of Indian involvement in Nepal (in Nepal as well as India) is characterised by quotes from well-placed if anonymous sources and vague, if knowing, allusions. For many reasons, those "in the know" or regarded as such simply cannot, or will not, go on record about what precisely India is doing in Nepal. This shroud of secrecy allows the commentariat in both countries to indulge in gossip, speculation, and conspiracy theorising.I am going to risk being accused of all these in the following passages; and will defend myself only by saying that - if my analysis is also based on information from "well-placed if anonymous sources" - and makes no claim to completeness, it does balance different sources in the attempt to come closer to the complex reality of things (see Manjushree Thapa, "The Maoists come to power", London Review of Books, 8 May 2008 [subscription only]).Within the Indian government, the ministry of defence is extremely influential in shaping policy towards Nepal. The Indian military has a Gurkha contingent, and close professional ties to the Nepal army, which it has equipped and trained over the years.This is relevant to an understanding of how Nepal's peace process has unfolded. The process had three proposed components:▪ the now-complete constituent-assembly election▪ the integration of the Maoists' People's Liberation Army into the Nepal army▪ truth and reconciliation - including the prosecution of war crimes committed by both the Maoists and the military, in the war of 1996-2006 that took approximately 13,000 lives.In principle, the components affecting military matters should have been completed before the election of 10 April 2008. (Indeed, in hindsight the Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists deeply regret having gone into the fray against a party that still had an army and a militia intact). It was, naturally, their own decision to do so; but there is little doubt that they were listening to India in this matter. The problem is that India has been overconfident of its reach within Nepal.In India, ministry of defence and military lobbies have backed the open (and illegal) refusal of Nepal's chief of army staff, General Rukmangat Katwal (or Katuwal), to integrate the People's Liberation Army into the Nepal army. The thinking in India has been that the Maoist military should eventually be converted into either a border-security force (as has been done in settling insurgencies in India's northeast) or into an industrial- security force. India has also vociferously denied to the United Nations Mission to Nepal (Unmin) the opportunity to do much more towards the process of army integration than housing the People's Liberation Army in cantonments, and storing its weapons (as well as a corresponding number of weapons of the Nepal army).Indeed, India's basic response to Unmin has been: "not in my backyard". Unmin has again and again requested a larger mandate, but India has again and again blocked such a possibility. This has now resulted in Nepal having a ruling party with its own army of 20,000-plus, and a militia called the Youth Communist League. When Nepali analysts point out that the Maoist victory in the constituent-assembly election was aided by fear, they do not necessarily mean that the Maoists directly bullied voters into voting Maoist; they mean that the Maoists' threat to return to war in case they lost in the polls was rendered extremely credible by their having an army. The reasons why many Nepalis voted for the Maoists are varied, and desperation at the failure to fulfil the other conditions of the peace process must take its place alongside open-hearted endorsement. India's delaying of army integration, and refusal to allow Unmin a greater role, carries a great deal of responsibility here.The matter of truth and reconciliation is as potent as that of demilitarisation and army integration. Nobody in Nepal - save for the victims' families, and a handful of human-rights activists - has been sincere about the prosecution of war crimes committed by the Maoists or the military (see Meenakshi Ganguly, "Nepal: the human-rights test", 28 April 2008). India itself has a surprisingly poor record on human rights - as witnessed in Kashmir, Gujarat, the northeast and its other conflict-zones. It has never pushed truth and reconciliation in Nepal because it does not quite see the value of such a mission.Now, both the Maoists and the Nepal army are likely to compromise on the prosecution of the other's war crimes for the sake of attaining a "larger good", i.e., army integration. Victims' demands for legal redress are very likely to be ignored, and the moral standing of the new, integrated military force will remain compromised. Again, India's undervaluing of this component of the peace process bears a vital responsibility here.Politics, only politicsIn short, the peace process was already failing before the constituent-assembly election. This failure was caused, in great measure, by the prevailing feeling within the leaders of the Nepali political parties that the peace process was but an empty, mechanical ritual - one that allowed the Congress and the UML to regroup with India's help, while the rest of the international community served as donors.The focus here has been exclusively on politics, only politics. Yet in this, too, India - like the Congress and the UML - badly miscalculated. What the Nepali people had expected, after the success of the April 2006 movement and the launch of the peace process, was new leadership. Instead, the discredited old leadership - the Koirala clan in the Congress, and the "politics of punditry" mafia in the UML - returned resurgent, with the backing of India.Still, Nepalis were willing to give the establishment politicians a chance. But instead of reforming their parties and making way for fresh new ideas, all they did was to consolidate their hold. The April 2006 - April 2008 period saw dire nonsense-politics: monarchists floating the idea of crowning a "baby king" to save the monarchy; right-wingers in the parties suggesting that the Congress and UML ally with the Nepal army to effect an oxymoronic "democratic coup" against the Maoists.India did more than tolerate this nonsense: it enabled it by patronising the parties' old leadership. Then India went on to defeat this leadership by supporting the political parties newly emerging in the Madhesi (or Terai/Tarai, the southeastern region of Nepal).This is the site of India's most covert involvement in Nepal. Some analysts in New Delhi claim that India's intelligence branches were acting independently, rather than through the ministry of foreign affairs, in funding the establishment of the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party (TMLP) and the Madhesi Janadikhar Forum (MJF, generally called the Forum). Others say that this was part of a foreign-ministry "master-plan". In either case, the Indian government's help towards the founding of these parties is widely acknowledged. Bharat Bhushan points out in Mail Today: that: "New Delhi contributed to the rout of the centrist Nepali Congress by promoting a regional breakaway group consisting of Madhesis who are of Indian ethnic origin from the Terai region. The Terai National Democratic Party, which was created at India's insistence, managed to win a few seats but it cut into the traditional vote bank of the Nepali Congress contributing to an overwhelming Maoist victory in the region."The establishment of the TMLP and the Forum is not, by itself, a negative thing. Like the three other civil-rights movements currently on their way in Nepal (the Janajati, Dalit, and women's-rights movements), the Madhesi-rights movement enjoys very wide grassroots appeal. Its calls - for increased representation through proportional elections, for quotas and reservations, and for federalisation and regional autonomy - all resonate deeply with ordinary Nepalis, who experience Kathmandu as a faraway, and often near-colonial, presence.What differentiates the Madhesi rights movement from the other three is the oppositional strategy it has chosen. Dalits and women remain vastly under-represented both before and after the constituent-assembly election. But the Janajatis (or ethnic nationalities) have gained considerable ground afterwards, as have the Madhesis. (Overall, the Janajatis remain under-represented, upper-caste Madhesis are now over-represented, while lower-caste Madhesis remain under-represented). The crucial difference between these two groups is that while Janajati activists have sought space within the (extremely exclusivist) Congress and UML, the Madhesis have chosen to break away, and to form new parties (the TMLP and the Forum). It remains to be seen which strategy will prove more effective in furthering civil-rights agendas.But this much is sure: the TMLP and Forum will have to reckon with India's involvement in their establishment, and in their future course - just as India will have to reckon with their fierce independence. For there is no guaranteeing that these parties will follow India's dictates in the coming weeks, months and years. These are revolutionary times in Nepal; and it is extremely difficult - for Nepal, let alone for India - to decipher the motivations of the Nepali people, and to anticipate their actions ahead (see Prashant Jha, "Now, To Live the Revolution", Tehelka, 26 April 2008).India's future courseIndeed, India's tendency to treat Nepal casually, as one of its far-flung states, one that it - above the rest of the international community - should have patronage rights over, is unhelpful. In the post-election climate, with the question of India-Nepal relations on the agenda (including the matter of renegotiation of the 1950 peace-and-friendship treaty between the two countries) it is also unsustainable.India now faces three urgent questions.The first is: having helped to land Nepal's peace process in a ditch (by leaving army integration and truth and reconciliation until after the constituent-assembly election), will India now help to salvage it?Even if the answer is positive, who does India envision overseeing army integration? In the days immediately following the 10 April election, India was unequivocal that Unmin should leave now that the election had been held. Yet it looks increasingly unlikely that a range of political forces - the victorious Maoists, the defeated (and wounded) Congress and UML, and the inexperienced new parties of the Madhesh - will, between them, amicably manage such a potentially explosive task, one with far-reaching implications for the future of peace in Nepal. India's own direct involvement in this will be completely unpalatable. It may, as a result, find itself having to reverse its stance on Unmin, which has already laid the groundwork for the kind of meticulous, apolitical bureaucratising that might neutralise the many dangers that come with such an integration.India will also have to reconsider its undervaluing of truth and reconciliation in Nepal. This - including the prosecution of war crimes - is essential to establish the legitimacy of any new military force that might ensue. In this, India may be best served by supporting the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in its work in Nepal.The second urgent question facing India is: having (inadvertently) helped the Maoists to their electoral triumph, will India now help them transform into a democratic party? So far, New Delhi has shown perfect willingness to engage with the Maoists. But what will happen if the Congress or the UML, or a faction of them (the defeated Congress leadership, say) refuses to cooperate? A lobby around Girija Prasad Koirala is already challenging Maoist chairman Prachanda's claim to high office. What will happen if forces ally, instead, with the king or the Nepal army (in the oxymoronic "democratic coup"). What will India do then?The third urgent question facing India is: having already engaged in covert politics in Nepal, will India continue to engage in shadowy, behind-the-scenes meddling in the coming weeks, months and years? If India is the new United States, will Nepal be its new central America?These are dark questions. For now, the mood in Kathmandu is a bit dark. Behind a fa├žade of normalcy, the national elite is deeply anxious about the Maoists' victory. The king - due to be deposed in less than a month - is desperate. The Nepal army's top brass remains defiant. The business community is jittery, and liberals feel endangered. A fightback may be in the offing, a fightback that may amount to nothing much - or may mire the country further in political gridlock, armed conflict, or even a dirty war.Is India prepared to avert these worst-case scenarios, or to help resolve them constructively if they do come to pass? There is still time to rectify past mistakes, and to avert future mistakes. That process might begin with greater transparency, accountability and open discussion.

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