Dirty war smoulders on rooftop of the world

Himalayan 'People's War'
May 20, 2005

The crisis in Nepal makes the topic of this book as timely now as when most of its chapters were delivered as papers at a conference in London in November 2002. Casualties have continued to mount (the death toll is about 11,000) as have the number "disappeared" by the security forces, and the insurgency has also been the main factor behind the return of full political power to the royal palace.

A month before the London conference, King Gyanendra sacked the elected Government and took indirect control himself. In February this year, he took power fully into his own hands, arresting politicians and censoring the media.

The insurgency has been fuelled by poverty, casteism and police brutality but - as Saubhagya Shah argues in his chapter - this is not the full explanation behind the rebel actions. Other factors have been vital to the Maoists' success and most of them have been identified by at least one of the book's contributors.

Shah believes that India nurtured the rebellion to render the Government in Kathmandu weak and pliable. Indian support has been crucial for previous opposition movements in Nepal; during the 2001 ceasefire India did at least tolerate the presence of Maoist supremo Prachanda. But the rebels did not need government backing to run a support network within India's own Nepalese community: if New Delhi controlled everything happening on its own territory, low-level Maoist insurgencies would not still be affecting large areas of eastern India. Rather than making a decision to aid the Nepalese Maoists, the Indian Government may simply have preferred not to invest security resources in controlling them so long as they seemed not to threaten India's own interests.

The Maoists have been helped much more by the rivalry between other domestic forces. In particular, the 1990 settlement left the army effectively under the king rather than the elected Government and this ensured that the insurgents did not have to face the full power of the state until they chose to attack the army in autumn 2001. In most other countries, the army would have been called in as soon as the police were unable to maintain their positions in the rebel heartland, a point reached in Nepal by summer 1999.

Although Shah puts the blame entirely on party politicians' reluctance to use the army, other contributors such as Krishna Hachhethu, Pratyoush Onta and Hari Roka, are right to argue that "the palace" was initially glad to see the Maoists weaken the Nepali Congress Government. Over the past 50 years, the monarchy has made a habit of using its more radical ideological opponents against others viewed as more immediately dangerous.

At village level, Sarah Schneiderman and Mark Turin saw members of the small and impoverished Thangmi minority respond eagerly to a Maoist message presented more in class than in ethnic terms. Elsewhere, researchers have reported a greater stress on ethnicity and the exploitation of existing factions within village society. The difference probably reflects Maoist skill in tailoring their message to different audiences: the Magars, among whom the they built their earliest support base, are a large enough group for the offer of an autonomous region to seem plausible. But the Thangmi, one among a patchwork of minorities in their area, are more naturally treated as members of a wider underclass.

Most reports, such as Judith Pettigrew's chapter, suggest that the rebels have relied more on an efficient network of informants and enforcers than on mass support. Many of the policies that they advocate are similar to those of the Nepalese left as a whole, but while these do enjoy widespread popularity, Maoist tactics do not. Villagers generally regard the rebels and the security force as unwelcome intruders, although the rebels' more precisely targeted violence may be preferable to the often random use of fire power by the security forces.

Without strong allegiance to either side, the majority obey whoever they are most afraid of. Thus Maoist coercion is effective over most of the country but, since Gyanendra's crackdown in February, their strike calls have had little effect in the Kathmandu Valley. If agreement is reached for elections to be held, many Nepalese will simply vote to align with the likely winner. This is the key reason why the Government is resisting the Maoists' demand for a constituent assembly. Because the Maoists have been demanding it for so long, to grant a constituent assembly would be a signal that the Maoists were truly setting the agenda.

Unless there is determined outside pressure on both parties, the most likely scenario is a continuing stalemate. The contradiction between ethnic demands and classic Marxist principles, and also dissension among the leaders, are a problem for the rebels but have yet to produce a serious split in the party. By the same token, the royal regime will probably prove more resilient than many people think. Although Gyanendra was foolish to pick a fight with the political parties and jeopardise his relations with his main international supporters, he may be right to assume that India, the US and the UK will back him in the end if the alternative seems to be a Maoist victory, which would boost the morale of the insurrectionary left in India and elsewhere. But if the king wishes to do more than just continue a holding operation, he needs to mend his fences with Nepal's other non-Maoist forces.

In the meantime, Michael Hutt's collection will remain an indispensable guide to the complexities of an intractable conflict.

John Whelpton is an independent scholar and the author of A History of Nepal .

Himalayan 'People's War': Nepal's Maoist Rebellion

Editor - Michael Hutt
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 322
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 1 85065 722 X

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