Whither Nepal?

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Faced with an explosion of pro-democracy strikes and mass demonstrations, Nepal’s King Gyanendra was forced to reinstate parliament last week.

Gyanendra had abolished parliament in October 2002 and seized absolute control in February 2005, but his attempts to regain his grip through repression last month only sparked further rebellion.

On April 28, the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) convened the reopened parliament with promises to collaborate with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) to end a civil war that has claimed 13,000 lives since 1996.  In a unanimous vote last weekend, the parliament called for elections to a Constituent Assembly that would decide the fate of the monarchy and write a new constitution.

Where the struggle is headed next remains to be seen, but the masses of Nepali people who paralyzed the country with demonstrations and strikes have shown that they won’t be satisfied with half-measures and vague promises.

The morning after a pale and haggard Gyanendra on April 24 announced his decision to restore parliament, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the capital of Kathmandu to celebrate the return of democracy — but also to send a clear message.  According to The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, banners outside the home of the new prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party, read, “Leaders beware” and “We want a constituent assembly.”

A few days later, on the eve of the reopening of parliament, some 100,000 gathered to listen to SPA leaders — and demand that there be no compromise on the demand for a new, democratic constitution.  Leaders of SPA — including the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist, the SPA’s second-largest party, and those
who had defended the monarchy in the past, like Sher Bahadur Deuba — promised that they “would not be deceived” by the king this time around.

The next day, as the parliament convened, thousands protested at the gates, demanding an end to the monarchy.  According to Reuters, Lekha Nath Neupane, the leader of the CPN-M student wing, who has an arrest warrant against him, spoke to a crowd gathered only 500 yards from the king’s palace.

Neupane said the Maoist rebels’ ceasefire wasn’t permanent.  “We are engaged in a revolution for peace,” he said, “but if necessary we can pick up guns and bombs again.”

The movement’s ongoing defiance of the king and opposition politicians alike is rooted in its mass character — and in a long history of betrayals by Nepal’s elite.

Police and protesters clashed throughout April, as Kathmandu remained shut down by a general strike that began on April 6.  Sixteen protesters were killed and thousands injured by live and rubber bullets used by police and the Royal Nepali Army.

But the deadly violence failed to dampen a struggle that has deep support across the nation.  As Tapan Basu of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights reported during the protests, “Hundreds of thousands of people are disregarding the curfew, shoot-at-sight orders, killing, bludgeoning, torture and imprisonment to defy the monarchic tyranny and to demand true democracy and the rule of law.”

Baburam Bhattarai of the CPN-M wrote in a letter to a leading Nepali-language newspaper that the “active and self-motivated” participation of the poor, unemployed youth, women, indigenous people, oppressed castes, and workers has been unprecedented.

The movement to dethrone the monarchy is tied to decades of neglect of the rural poor.  As Binaya Subedi, a Nepali-American professor, described it, “The whole idea of development from the 1960s never made it to the rural areas or outside of Kathmandu.  This includes not having schools or hospitals or any form of public institutions in rural areas.  Only the elite in government profited from the development process.”

This helps explain why rural areas in Nepal became strongholds of the Maoist rebels, often completely beyond the control of the government’s control.

The CPN-M’s “People’s War,” launched in 1996 after an earlier failed attempt to win a Constituent Assembly, answered the frustration of the poor by targeting the Nepali elite and their international backers.  The rebels have looted the houses of moneylenders, destroyed the offices of multinational corporations, “liberated” areas from the Nepali police, and set up locally elected governments.

Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of human rights abuses.  But the government, in the name of counter-insurgency, painted all opposition as “Maoist” and hunted down dissenters, adding to the anger of the countryside against the king.

The U.S. and India, Nepal’s giant neighbor, have used the rhetoric of defending democracy in Nepal while actually holding to the principle of maintaining “stability,” even at the expense of democracy.

Under the cover of the “war on terror,” the U.S. has given $20 million to Nepal to fight the CPN-M, which is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.  In 2002, Congress approved $12 million to train the Royal Nepali Army to fight the Maoists, and it provided 5,000 M-16 rifles.  In 2003, the U.S. held joint training exercises with the Nepali Army.

Given its concerns about China and its own homegrown Maoists, India has long maintained close military and political ties to the Nepali king.  India provided weapons, equipment, helicopters, and training to the Nepali Army for fighting the rebels.

The U.S. and India stopped aid to Gyanendra after his February 2005 declaration of an emergency and seizure of power.  The king’s jailing of opposition leaders, unionists, and students and his complete censorship of the media were a bit too embarrassing.

But now that a revolution has forced the king to respect the democratic demands of Nepalis, the U.S. and India are eager to see a compromise, in which a constitutional monarch coexists with a parliament.  And U.S. officials insist — against the SPA’s own accord with the Maoists — that the rebels should only be part of elections for a constituent assembly if they disarm first.

What happens in Nepal in the coming months will depend on a number of questions.  Will the SPA fracture now that it is back in the seat of power?  Will the CPN-M disarm and/or participate in elections for the Constituent Assembly?  Will the army — currently answerable only to the king and trained in fighting guerillas — be ruled by a parliament that collaborates with the Maoists?  How will Nepali people react to these developments?

What we know for certain is that the people have demonstrated their power, and they’re not about to give it up.  As Bhattarai put it, “There has been no revolution in history by following the old constitution and laws, and it is not going to happen in Nepal.”

Pranav Jani Pranav Jani is Assistant Professor of English at Ohio State University, specializing in Postcolonial Studies.  His articles on postcolonial literature and society and Marxist theory have appeared in Historical Materialism; Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies; A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Thought in English; and Samar: South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection.  He also serves as an editor for the new DesiLit Magazine for South Asian writing: www.desilit.org/magazine.html.  Pranav is an active member of the International Socialist Organization in Columbus, Ohio, and has contributed to International Socialist Review and Socialist Worker.  He can be reached at jani.4@osu.edu.  This article will also appear in Socialist Worker this week (May 5 issue).