Saturday, 23 May 2009

India’s Nepal Policy Needs an Urgent Course Correction

Nepal is in turmoil yet again. The current crisis started off when Nepalese Army Chief Gen. Katawal fiercely resisted the integration of Nepal’s Maoist rebels into the Nepalese Army and was sacked by the then Prime Minister, Pushpa Kumar Dahal, more popularly known by his nom de guerre ‘Prachanda’. President Ram Baran Yadav overturned Prachanda’s decision and reinstated Gen. Katawal. This decision caused Prachanda to step down from the Prime Minister’s post.

The coalition government headed by Prachanda consisted of his own party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), the Communist Party of Nepal-United (CPN-U), the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party. After the 2008 elections, it had taken Prachanda almost four months to cobble together a functional coalition government. Currently Madhav Kumar Nepal who heads the UML (which has 103 seats) has come forward to form a similar coalition government. The Nepal Congress party (which has 110 seats) is to be the main partner in this coalition. However, even after Madhav Nepal assumes power, the current crisis will be far from over.

For those who aren’t entirely up to date with the violent power struggles that have been going on in Nepal since the mid-nineties, the facts in brief are as follows. Until 1990 Nepal was an absolute monarchy. It’s ruler Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Yadav was a popular leader though he consistently maintained that Nepal, the poorest country in South Asia, could not afford to be democratic. Educated at St. Joseph’s School, Darjeeling, Eton and Harvard, Birendra managed to keep Nepal on friendly terms with both India and China and got concessions from both, playing one against the other. A growing pro-democracy movement forced Birenda to switch Nepal to a constitutional monarchy in November 1990. Elections were held and a Parliament with limited powers came into being.

In 1996, Maoist rebels started a violent agitation for overthrow of the monarchy and social reform on socialist lines.

On 1 June 2001, Birendra and most of his family were murdered by Crown Prince Dipendra, who finally turned the gun on himself. Dipendra was comatose but alive for three days, during which time he was King. Dipendra was succeeded by his father’s younger brother Gyanendra. Neither charismatic, nor popular, Gyanendra made things easy for the Maoist rebels. Many Nepalese thought (and still think) that Gyanendra and his son Paras had a hand in the killing of Birendra and his family.

Gyanendra did not get along with the Parliament and between 2002 and 2005, he dismissed three Prime Ministers. Finally in February 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the elected Parliament and assumed absolute power. This forced Nepal’s main moderate political parties, the Nepal Congress and the UML to start negotiating with the Maoists. Some of the negotiations took place in India with the Indian government’s approval. In November 2005, a coalition of seven political parties reached an understanding with the Maoists for overthrowing the King. In April 2006, King Gyanendra was forced to reinstate parliament and relinquish political power. A month later, the Parliament stripped the King of all powers, reducing his role to a ceremonial one. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in November 2006 between the Maoists and the Government of Nepal. One of the main terms of the CPA is that the Maoist forces will be integrated into the Nepalese army.

When elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in April 2008, the Nepal Congress and the UML, decided to not have a tie-up or alliance with the Maoists’ political party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M) since no one really expected the Maoists to do well. The CPN-M surprised everyone and ended up winning around 30% of the votes, which gave them 220 of the 575 elected seats, more seats than any other party. They were nominated for 9 additional seats by the Council of Ministers, giving them a total of 229 of the 601 seats overall. The leader of the UML, Madhav Kumar Nepal, now poised to be Prime Minister, was defeated by an unknown CPN (M) candidate.

In Nepal, the principle of proportional representation is applied for many parliamentary seats. The CPN-M would have got even more seats than they actually did if the first-past-the-post rule was followed for all seats. However, the Maoists have only themselves to blame since they had insisted on proportional representation for many of the parliamentary seats since they did expect to garner so many votes.

On 28 May 2008, the Nepal’s Constituent Assembly voted to abolish the monarchy by an overwhelming majority of 560 out of 564. Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Yadav became a private citizen.

In January 2009, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) became the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) after merging with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre-Masal).

In the midst of all this, Indo-Nepal relations have been on a roller-coaster ride. When King Birendra held the reins of power, India and Nepal had good relations on the whole. Though Nepal did play India and China against each other, Nepal was closer to India than to China. In 1989, when Birendra was still an absolute monarch, Nepal sought to send a message to India by importing weapons from China. Until then, Nepal got all its arms supplies from India. In retaliation, India imposed an embargo on Indian goods entering Nepal which caused the Nepalese economy to almost grind to a halt. The embargo was lifted after Nepal promised to not to buy arms from China, India had taught Nepal a lesson, but it was the beginning of serious anti-India sentiment among Nepalese.

When the pro-democracy movement started off in Nepal in the late 1980s, the world’s largest democracy India stood by the King rather than with the pro-democracy activists. Until Gyanendra came to power and even for a while after that, India’s support for the monarchy remained rock solid. By that time, the Maoists were in full battle cry and the relatively peaceful pro-democracy movement led by the pro-India Nepal Congress and other moderate parties like the CPN-U and the UML was largely restricted to the big cities.

India’s pro-monarchy stand was to a great extent motivated by concerns about the Maoists’ alliances with Indian Naxalities and other insurgents. Further, certain sections of India’s political elite wanted Nepal to continue as the world’s only Hindu Kingdom. In April 2006, India sent an envoy, Karan Singh, to Kathmandu on a mission to persuade the moderate political parties like the UML and the Nepal Congress to retain the monarchy. This was a big mistake. Not only was the mission unsuccessful, it also earned India the ire of Nepal’s Maoists and their supporters.

From the time of their inception, no one has accused the Maoists of being too friendly towards India. Declaring India to be as much an enemy as King Gyanendra, the Maoists attacked Indian businesses as part of their campaign to capture power. During the days of their insurgency, the Maoists demanded the abrogation of the 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. They wanted to put an end to the recruitment of Nepalese Gurkhas by India and the UK. They wanted to close down the open border between India and Nepal and regulate it. Most importantly they wanted to cancel the 1996 Mahakali agreement between India and Nepal for the sharing of water and developing the Mahakali/Sarda river.

However, after the Maoists came to power in 2008, they did not carry out any of their threats. Nevertheless, Nepal grew closer to China though it did take pains to not offend India. Prachanda’s first official trip was to China, just a day after he assumed power. The first official visit to India took place only three months later. There was no doubt that with the Maoists in power, China would get priority over India. As if to dispel any doubts, Prachanda’s government has consistently crushed all anti-Chinese protests by Tibetans living in Nepal.

There is no love lost between the 60,000 strong Nepalese Army and the Maoists. Having fought each other for over ten years, both forces were confined to the barracks after the CPA was signed. Most Nepalese army officers, including its chief Gen Katawal were trained in Indian military academies and are staunchly pro-monarchy. As mentioned earlier, integrating the Maoist forces, said to number around 20,000, into the Nepalese army is one of the cornerstones of the CPA. However, Nepalese army officers are understandably uncomfortable with this idea. Gen. Katawal has always been dead set against the idea though his number two in the army, Lt Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka, is not against it.

It must be said to the Maoists credit that even after the CPN-M came to power, there has been no witch hunt against the army officers who led the fight against the Maoists. Even though Gen. Katawal had publicly opposed the CPN-M’s integration plan, Prachanda had not tried to remove him. However, the Nepalese army started a recruitment drive which irked the Maoists. Gen. Katawal also reinstated eight retired Brigadier Generals and ignored a few specific instructions given by the cabinet for integrating the Maoists into the Nepalese army.

On 3 May 2009 Prachanda’s cabinet exercised its prerogative and fired Gen. Katawal even though Gen. Katawal was only three months away from his retirement. One reason advanced for the dismissal is that Gen. Katawal’s second-in-command in the army, Lt Gen. Khadka, who does not oppose integration, has only a few weeks to retire and would, in the normal course, retire prior to Gen. Katawal. By removing Gen. Katawal, the Maoists could put Lt General Khadka at the helm of affairs and later extend his tenure. If Gen. Katawal was not removed, Lt General Khadka would retire before Gen. Katawal did and Lt. Gen. Chhatra Man Singh Gurung would have succeeded Gen. Katawal. Lt. Gen. Gurung is an officer in the traditional mould and opposes integration with the Maoists.

After Gen. Katawal was fired, India interceded on his behalf, a fact that hasn’t gone down well with Nepalese in general and the Maoists in particular. To use an analogy, in 1998, India’s Naval chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked by the Vajpayee government for reasons that can be argued to be unfair and unjust. Could the then Indian President K. R. Narayanan have reinstated Admiral Bhagwat on the ground that Admiral Bhagwat was unjustly sacked? After all, K. R. Narayanan was technically the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian armed forces. The answer is a resounding ‘No!’ In a parliamentary form of government, the cabinet has the prerogative to sack the head of the any of the wings of the armed forces. The President’s powers are very much nominal and in my opinion, the Nepal’s President Ram Baran Yadav did not have the right or authority to reinstate Gen. Katawal. However, reinstate he did and Prachanda stepped down as Prime Minister.

Is the integration of the Maoists into the Nepalese army something to be feared by democratic Nepalese? Is it likely to turn the army into a Maoist force? Will an integrated Nepalese army function as a tool of the Maoists and help them secure even more power?

In my opinion, the answer to all these questions is another ‘No!’. The Nepalese army is sixty thousand strong and the Maoists number only around twenty thousand. It is also possible that the number of Maoist fighters is less than twenty thousand since Prachanda may have inflated the number of men under his command to twenty thousand at the time the CPA was signed (in order to enhance his negotiating power). In any event, when twenty thousand (at the most) Maoists merge into a force that is sixty thousand strong, the chances are that the Maoists lose some of their Maoism rather than the other way around.

Further, keeping twenty thousand Maoist fighters confined to their barracks for more than two years is not a very good idea. The Maoist fighters were promised integration into the Nepalese army when the CPA was signed. If the Nepalese government and army are unwilling to fulfil their part of the bargain, why should the Maoists do their bit? At the end of the day, the Maoist fighters are young men who want to get on with life. Most of them are incapable of anything other than soldiering having spent a big part of their young lives fighting the Nepalese army. Giving them a uniform, a weapon and a monthly salary is much more likely to keep them out of trouble than keeping them disgruntled and confined to their barracks with nothing much to do.

The Maoists have repeatedly stated that they do no intend to return to violence. At no stage has Prachanda or the CPN(M) threatened to take up arms once again. It must be said that the Maoists do not have the support of the entire population of Nepal. There are still many Nepalese who would like the King to return and Nepal to be a Hindu kingdom. However, such people are in a minority. To a neutral observer, it would seem that the majority of the people would like a peaceful democracy.

It is not entirely clear if and to what extend Madhav Kumar Nepal will push for integrating the Maoists into the Nepalese army. Even though Nepalese political parties made their peace with the Maoists many years ago, they have not wholeheartedly welcomed integration. It is very unlikely that the new government will push for integration half as vehemently as Prachanda’s CPN (M) led coalition did. It is also unclear as to what stance the UML and Nepal Congress will take towards Gen, Katawal, a man who defied civil authority once and got away with it.

India, which has its own Maoist/Naxalite problem and has been worried about links which Nepal’s Maoists might have with India’s Naxals and other insurgents, has a vested interest in getting the Maoists in Nepal to settle down for good in peace. In my opinion, the best way would be to ensure that Nepal’s Maoists are peacefully integrated into the Nepalese army. Blindly supporting Nepal’s army brass and non-Maoist parties as they oppose integration would be yet another foreign policy mistake for India vis-à-vis Nepal.


Sandy said...

Hi Vinod
I am regular reader of ur blog and I must say its awesome. I just wanted to know where do u read all this stuff. I mean any particular sources like website or books, etc. It wud b nice if u cud share them with me.

And plz carry on posting such gr8 informative posts.


Winnowed said...

Sandy, thank you for your very flattering comment. I have always enjoyed politics and history and do read as many books as possible for these topics. Nepal is a topic of particular interest to me. I did not rely on any particular book or website in order to write this article. However, I regularly read the following Nepal specific newsites:,,,

Carkey said...

Awesome to see such a well read and understood article from an outsider. Its a wonderful piece and as a Nepali, I must say, I agree with most of your analysis.

Winnowed said...

Thanks a lot Carkey. That's a terrific compliment from a native-Nepali.