Thursday, May 28, 2009

End of a Civil War

The LTTE might be vanquished, but the grievances of the Tamil community remain. 

The death of Vellupillai Prabhakaran signals the end of the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). For nearly three decades since its formation, the LTTE had relentlessly pursued its aim of achieving a separate state (Eelam) to be carved out of the northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka. In the course of its single minded drive to achieve "Eelam", the organisation ruthlessly decimated other militant organisations and voices among the Tamils – many of whom were willing to accept autonomy or federal rights for the Tamils. But by accepting no compromises and by continuing to use tactics such as assassination of perceived "enemies of the cause" and violent retribution, the LTTE brought about its own doom. 

Despite a systematic shelling and bombing campaign that killed or incapacitated thousands of civilians, the Sri Lankan army did not receive anything more than token disapproval or humanitarian appeals from the international community. The Sri Lankan government's ruthless drive to vanquish the "terrorist" LTTE were never halted in the final phase of war by an international community tired of "terror" – a stigma that the LTTE carried for its past actions. The LTTE's own cynical moves to use Tamil civilians as a shield, a fact that was brushed aside by the organisation's propagandists, only alienated them even further in the eyes of the international arbiters such as the United Nations or India. The events leading up to the end of the battle – with the Sri Lankan army's capture of the last remaining areas of the Vanni region under LTTE control, and the killing of the outfit’s senior representatives and leaders – are murky. Questions remain about the way the LTTE leader and founder, Prabhakaran, his family members and the organisation’s political representatives were killed and war crimes by the Sri Lankan army cannot be ruled out. But the general lack of sympathy for the vanquished among the international community is itself a consequence of the LTTE's intransigence in its ways and means. 

Thousands of Tamil civilians now live in "appalling conditions"– as the visiting UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon called them – in internment camps after displacement because of the war. Despite claims by the Lankan government about commitment to "early resettlement", its actions in restricting access to these camps by humanitarian agencies and its callous treatment of the displaced people in the camps in the name of security do not inspire confidence. These actions in tandem with the triumphalism displayed by the Sri Lankan polity would only make one more sceptical about the Lankan government's claims of bringing about a democratic solution to the problems of the Tamil minority after the defeat of the "terrorist" LTTE. A lasting peace after the defeat of the LTTE would remain a chimera if the Sri Lankan polity refuses to acknowledge the plight of the displaced Vanni residents or indeed of the genuine grievances of the Tamil community. 

The LTTE's inflexibility and rejection of any compromise, say a federal solution to the conflict, its dwindling legitimacy internationally and the internal split, with the defection of erstwhile eastern commander, Vinayagamurthy Muralidharan, were ultimately responsible for its defeat. Several moments capture the cynical single-mindedness of the LTTE. It rejected an offer from the ex-president Chandrika Kumaratunga, which provided powers of devolution even greater than what the Thirteenth Amendment in 1987 (that provided for provincial councils) envisaged. After a ceasefire agreement in 2002, the LTTE signalled a willingness to discuss a federal solution, but backed out of peace talks for no valid reason. It also engaged in violent acts in violation of the agreement (something which the Lankan government was also guilty of). It even called for a boycott of elections by the Tamils, an action that helped hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa become the president of the country with the support of other Sinhala chauvinist parties and thus resulted later in the recently concluded violent phase of the civil war. 

The intractable positions taken by the LTTE were partly due to the enthusiastic material and arms support that the organisation received through funding and donations from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora over the years. After the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York, the LTTE, which had been proscribed in 32 nations, found its material support drying up because of tough actions against its sympathisers in many countries where tolerance for support to "terror" outfits became negligible.

Among the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and in the vast diaspora of Sri Lankan Tamils, there is a deep sense of despondency following the defeat of the LTTE. Many of the latter’s sympathisers are still in denial about the death of the LTTE leader. These sympathisers should introspect about the reasons for the bloody end to the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Far from realising the aspirations of the minority Tamils who aimed for self-rule, the LTTE's actions have only resulted in a traumatised Tamil population disaffected both by the "Eelam cause" and with the government ruling from Colombo. 

There remains no excuse now for the Sri Lankan government to avoid addressing the grievances of the Tamils now that the LTTE is vanquished. Anything short of a federal setup that promises political rights for the oppressed Tamil population would only lead to a further festering of the deep wounds from years of marginalisation and alienation of the Tamils. In the provision of relief to the displaced Tamils and in their re-settlement, the international community, through its various humanitarian agencies, must play an important role. Also, the international community must be vigilant and should pressurise the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its promises to arrive at a political solution to the conflict that takes account of its root causes. In the absence of this, the seeds would be sown for another radical organisation – one that would have learnt from the past mistakes of the LTTE – espousing complete separation. 

Draft of an Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Death of a cause

Vellupillai Prabhakaran is dead and officially dead. 

The sequence of events that led to his and his family's death were never relayed coherently by the Sri Lankan government's agencies. That led to widespread suspicion about "cold blooded murder" and others. Adding intrigue was the LTTE's international head suggesting that his leader was alive and well. So what really happened? 

DBS Jeyaraj presents a story on the sequence of events that ultimately led to the LTTE's downfall. It is the best coherent account that I have read so far and it confirms a lot of my own suspicions about what must have transpired. 

I have no sympathy for the LTTE's virulent and megalomaniac leader who led "his" people to the humanitarian catastrophe that was triggered in this round of conflict in the long civil war that has continued with patches of peace for nearly 30 years. He is ultimately responsible for the gory death that he and his followers were subjected to and for the loss of limbs and lives due to the shelling and "hostaging" that the Lankan government and the LTTE respectively indulged in. 

Having said that, the Sri Lankan government's actions in the final waning days of the battle can only be seen as "war crimes", cloaked in the dubious paradigm of "war on terror". It is just that the LTTE indulged in terrorism, in indiscriminate violence and stymied any course correction in the past, that prevents me from outrightly condemning the Lankan government's actions in annihilating the LTTE's leadership.

One only hopes that the supporters of the LTTE come out of denial (of their leaders' and their "Eelam" cause's death) and utilise the sympathy for the suffering of their people in Lanka to bring about a viable political solution. 

For the much traumatised and physically assaulted Sri Lankan Tamil populace, the end of the war is a relief, even as their travails due to displacement, starvation, malnutrition, handicapping, alienation, and other suffering, continues. The Sri Lankan government has to use its legitimate state authority to alleviate most of these through humanitarian relief in co-ordination with the international community. And it has to use it's polity's triumph to bring in much needed structural changes in its nation-state set-up. That has to be the international community's prerogative as well - to turn in some screws and push in some envelopes for a better culmination - atleast a federal rights set-up for the Tamils. 

Anything less and the stage is set for another round of ethno-nationalist mobilisation - this time a newer form of an LTTE that learns from its mistakes in the past but is even more virulent in its single minded determination to attain a Tamil nation of its own. And that means more violence and more suffering. Please, oh Please for the sake of humanity, No!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A decisive mandate

The United Progressive Alliance manages to win emphatically in the 15th Lok Sabha elections despite losing many of its coalition parties before the polls. Yet another spell of years in opposition awaits the Bharatiya Janata Party, while the left suffers its worst defeat in many years.

Belying expectations of a fragmented verdict, the mandate of the 15th Lok Sabha elections has been decisive in favour of the Congress party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The alliance has managed to win 261 seats, with the Congress itself winning 206 seats, its best tally since the 1991 elections when the party had won 244 seats. A mix of local state-level factors and a preference for the UPA alliance nationally can be seen as responsible for the victory, from initial observations. The UPA managed the win defeating not only the Left anchored "Third Front- TF" coalition of regional parties and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) emphatically, but despite the breaking away of several partners (who formed the Fourth front -FF) from the alliance before elections. 

The UPA alliance won the most number of seats in 17 out of 29 (including the National Capital Territory of Delhi) states. Excepting the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa, the performance of the regional and left parties in the Third Front ranged from underwhelming to disastrous. The NDA won overwhelmingly in Bihar, Karnataka and Chattisgarh but was defeated in many a major state by the UPA in direct fights.

Mix of factors for UPA victory

The Congress, in its manifesto as well as during its campaigning emphasised the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Bharat Nirman programme and other social and welfare measures, not to mention th

e farmer loan waiver scheme. From the indications available, this has elicited a favourable response, which has played out well in different states, irrespective of whether the Congress party (or the UPA) has been in power. Also, minorities have voted for the UPA enthusiastically, explaining the wins for the Congress party and its allies in states such as West Bengal, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. The performance of the party in states such as Gujarat - the Congress won 43% of the vote as compared to the 39% it garnered in the 2007 assembly elections– and in Madhya Pradesh – 40% as compared to 32% in the assembly elections in 2008) suggests the resonance of its national agenda.

The broad geographical distribution of mandate for the UPA points toward an undercurrent favouring the Congress party in general, but local issues have also mattered significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the implementation of populist and welfare measures by the state government has meant that the alliance has bee

n victorious for a second consecutive Lok Sabha election. The state assembly elections' results has given a majority mandate for the Congress party.

In the left ruled states, high-handedness in administration, the unpopular industrialisation and subsequent land acquisition drive, and the unity of the opposition in West Bengal, and the perception of inadequate levels of governance by the state government and factionalism in the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala has 

helped the UPA. In Tamil Nadu, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has done particularly well, on the might of its populist schemes while the incidents in northern Sri Lanka have complicated the verdict – resulting in some losses to senior Congress candidates.

The presence of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena has dented the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance and helped the UPA in Maharashtra, while the "honeymoon period" enjoyed by the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Delhi has meant big wins for the party. In Uttarakhand and Punjab, the Congress has managed to defeat the ruling BJP and Shiromani Akali Dal(SAD)-BJP alliance (possibly facing anti-incumbency) respectively, garnering the majority of the votes.

The Congress party's decision to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh after being unable to arrive at a seat-sharing understanding with the Samajwadi Party has also paid unexpected dividends. The Congress party has garnered 21 seats (vote share of 18%)-

 its highest tally for years in the state. While the reasons for this astounding performance would be clearer only after a closer and detailed look at the vote shares in the state, the underwhelming performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) suggests a shift of some of its targeted social base - particularly the upper castes and the Muslims - to the Congress Party. Overall, the Congress party managed to increase its vote share from 26.4% in 2004 to 28.5% in 2009 and a seat increase from 145 to 206.

State wise Seats Tally

(source: Election Commission Web Site)

The BJP thwarted again

The BJP tried to focus on “national security” as its core issue and attempted to make the elections a referendum between personalities pitting its prime ministerial candidate L.K.Advani against the UPA leadership and prime minister Manmohan Singh. The NDA since 2004 had shrunk and the BJP was left only with the Janata Dal- United (JDU), the Shiv Sena the SAD and other minor parties as its allies. The erstwhile NDA allies - the Telugu Desam Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) had all left the NDA citing the communal politics of the BJP. This had made the NDA's prospects dimmer even before the elections and expectedly, the NDA managed a tally of only 159 seats, way behind in second place to the UPA. The BJP's overall tally was reduced to 116 (18.8%) from 138 (22.2%) in 2004. Both the defection of erstwhile partners as well as the reduction in the party's overall vote share is indicative of the lesser resonance of the party's communal Hindutva agenda, which came again to the fore in the run up to the elections.

The BJP managed to win with reduced margins in its strongholds such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, but won handsomely in Chattisgarh and Karnataka. The performance of the JDU was most significant as Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party were trounced badly. It is too early however to suggest that the politics and efficacy of caste alliances in the state has been overcome, as many claim to be the reason for the JDU-BJP alliance which pitched its state government's “development record” as the agenda for the elections.

The Left's worst performance in years

The “third front” - an assorted set of regional parties, and anchored by the Left Front (LF) performed dismally. Though the BJD shrugged off its alliance with the BJP and managed to win the majority of seats both in the Assembly as well as in the Lok Sabha elections in Orissa and the AIADMK managed to improve its tally (from zero previously) in Tamil Nadu, the defeat of the left parties in Kerala, West Bengal and the underwhelming performance of the BSP dragged the TF's tally down. The TF contested directly against the Congress and its allies in most of the states where the front was “viable”.

In West Bengal, the left suffered a historic defeat, polling much fewer votes than in the 2006 Assembly elections and wilting against the united opposition of the Congress and the Trinamul Congress. Reduced to merely 15 seats (43.3%) from a previous tally of 35 (50.7%), the left's loss could be attributed much to its state government's series of policy and governance disasters since 2006 as the opposition fought the elections considering it as a referendum against the long standing Left Front government. Issues such as the land acquisition for industrialisation, high handedness of the administration, minority angst after the Sachar committee findings are the discernible reasons, apart from the fact that the idea of a “third front” did not really appeal to voters. The Lok Sabha election results point to a possible defeat of the left front for the first time in 35 years in the upcoming assembly elections in 2011.

Infighting in the left and governance issues resulted in a UPA victory which was also bolstered by minority support in Kerala. The BSP was not able to replicate its 2007 assembly election performance managing a reduced vote tally, suggesting the non-realisation of the “wider castes and minority support” that the party hoped to garner.

Overall, the idea of the “third front” - an amorphous alliance of motley regional and left parties without a common agenda beyond an anti-Congress, anti-BJP position, was rejected in general by the voters.


The increased tally of the UPA despite the division in “secular votes” because of the presence of the “third front” and the improved performance in the Congress even in BJP strongholds are pointers toward a good conjuncture of local and national issues favouring the UPA. The UPA contested the elections on its national record of initiating programmes such as the NREGA and other social and welfare measures and pitched its state governments' populist record. The BJP failed to inspire confidence in its national security and personality based platform among the electorate, while the alliance of convenience that forged the third front did not materialise in any gains for the parties in it.

Article (Commentary) written for the Economic and Political Weekly

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The UPA triumphs

In what was anticipated to an extent by exit polls (and was not believed by some -including me), the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has managed to win a near majority with the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the 15th Lok Sabha elections. The Congress has nearly won or is leading in 200 seats and the UPA is short of the majority by merely 10-15 seats. 

The victory of the Congress has been particularly helped by strong performances in the states where their primary fight was against the so called "Third Front". In West Bengal and Kerala in particular, the Congress was able to notch a very impressive victory in alliance with the Trinamul Congress and other parties of the UDF respectively. 

The results in West Bengal in particular must be shocking to the Left Front, as this is the lowest tally that the LF has won in a parliamentary election in 40 years. As I am writing this, the tally is near-abouts 15-16 seats, much lower than the 35 the LF won last time and atleast 7-10 seats lower than what was expected to be the seat tally of the ruling front in West Bengal. The bad showing could have been expected from the reverses suffered by the LF in the panchayati and local body elections. But the extent of the losses was something quite un-anticipated. A serious introspection will now be in place in the Left to identify the reasons. The incidents in Nandigram and Singur have surely had a bearing but accentuating this has been a near strong wave of support for the Congress throughout the country. 

The National Election Survey of the CSDS will bring out empirical findings that will establish the reasons for the Congress victory. But my tentative assumptions are the following - a) the Congress' emphasis on its "social" achievements - particularly the National Rural Employee Guarantee Act and how it played out in the states where it was in power and wasn't, and b) the gravitation of minorities and weaker sections toward the party, particularly in states such as Uttar Pradesh where the Congress was marginalised by regional parties overtime. 

Personally, I am upset by the fact that the Left has lost its position as a pivot for articulating concerns of the weaker sections in the parliamenat as it's ability to maneover the numbers on issues is lost in the current configuration as desired by the democratic mandate. While for many who have favoured unbridled and greater emphasis on "reforms" including easier financial flows, privatisation, greater liberalisation,  and even labour reforms, this is music to their ears. The stock market will react favourably and enthusiastically. The upper middle classes, particularly who have not endorsed the "hard" right wing communalism espoused by the BJP will remain enthused. 

But my concern is for those who have lost their jobs and social securities because of the insecurities of the recession environment, or those whose jobs and livelihoods have been affected by contractualisation. If the Congress interprets its victory which was enabled because of its emphasis on welfare measures rather than a plan for more "economic reforms" as a mandate for the kind of economic reforms that the more opulent section of the masses favour, then it will be wrong and undemocratic for it to do so. And I say this even as I am humbled by the verdict vis-a-vis some of my projections (in the earlier post for e.g. in Tamil Nadu). 

The UPA should live upto its self chosen moniker - "Progressive" and not favour monopolisation or cartels or select lobbies of big capital. It has to protect ordinary livelihoods and keep its emphasis on welfare and increasing the purchasing power of the general populace and creating a demand driven growth. It remains to be seen how the Congress party would be able to manage its inclinations to honour the mandate versus the urge to satisfy the purse strings that it is beholden to or is close with. 

As for the BJP, while its loss has not been tremendous in terms of seats (as I write this ..the party's tally seems to have come down by around 10),it is amply clear that the people of India have rejected communalism significantly again. It remains to be seen how the RSS reacts to this consecutive loss of the BJP and as to how its remaining alliance partners such as the Nitish Kumar led JD(U) (who seems to have performed very well winning or leading in nearly 33/40) will want to continue to be associated with the BJP. But those are questions for later. I would want to savour the loss of an increasingly Hindutva spewing and unrepentant BJP whose mascots such as Narendra Modi have still shown no remorse for the gruesome incidents in Gujarat. And I end on a good note with that!

Tamil Nadu exit poll projections.

CNN-IBN and NDTV have come up with interesting theories following their exit polls from the state. The former suggests that there is a strong possibility of a sweep for the DMK led front, while the latter suggests that the swing away from the DMK led front has been garnered more by the DMDK than by the AIADMK led front and thats why the DMK led front will still come out on top. 

V.Venkatesan at Law and Other Things suggests a reason for such a culmination, which for me is surprising. Because every news report from Tamil Nadu tells me that the case is quite in favour of the AIADMK led front vis-a-vis the DMK led front. His theory is that the state voters in TN prefer to reflect their choice differently in national elections than in state elections. And since the AIADMK led front this time did not consist of a big national party in its alliance in contrast to the DMK led front containing the Congress, the vote share of the latter is predicted to be higher. I differ in this assessment qualitatively. 

First of all, the trend for victories has been attributed more to the "conglomeration of alliances" rather than allying with the national party alone. If I remember correctly, the AIADMK was in alliance, not just with the BJP but also with other smaller parties in the state (PMK, MDMK, JP, TRC then) in 1998.  

In 1999, the shift of the PMK and MDMK brought votes to the other alliance (this time the BJP, the DMK, the MDMK and the PMK). Later in the 2001 assembly elections, the front forged by AIADMK along with virtually the entire set of small parties except for the BJP which was in the DMK led front. And the AIADMK swept the polls then. 

Only for this to reverse, cometh 2004 (Lok Sabha), as the both the fronts switched parties again, with the BJP now supporting the AIADMK and all other smaller parties part of the DMK led front, resulting in a greater vote share for the DMK led front. 

Again there has been a switch in 2006 in the assembly elections, but what added intrigue was the presence of the DMDK, complicated things making the DMK only the single largest party with the Congress supporting from outside. 

The presence of the DMDK has meant that the switch of the smaller parties to either front comes with a lesser transfer of vote share to the core votes of the big parties (AIADMK or the DMK). That could explain a smaller transfer of votes (or swing) this time around and the possibility of a sweep is not going to be there in the direction of the "larger" front as has been before except for the 2006 Assembly elections. 

In essence, I don't quite agree with the conclusions of a sweep in the favour of the DMK+. Even if voters have been swayed by the Sri Lankan incidents, the vote should have been the other way around - to the AIADMK led front as the CPI, the PMK and the MDMK were the biggest mobilisers on the issue and the Congress was seen to be inactive vis-a-vis the issue.

So, there is a contradiction in the CNN-IBN's findings, I presume, which explicitly mentions a pro-LTTE position across the state (I doubt if it is indeed a pro-LTTE position in itself- its more likely a pro-Sri Lankan Tamil position). Plus I have serious issues with both the methodology and the % vote share to seat conversion methods used by both channels. But thats for another post. 

Anwyays, there are merely 7 more hours for the tallies to be started and I could have egg on my face. I am sticking my neck out and still predicting a 24-15 margin in favour of the AIADMK+. Lets see.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

On the crisis in Nepal

A crisis has been precipitated in the republic of Nepal. The prime minister Pushpa Kumar "Prachanda" Dahal of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has resigned, following presidential actions rejecting a cabinet decision to remove the Chief of Army Staff, Rukmangad Katuwal from his post. Earlier, the government was reduced to a minority after withdrawal of support from the coalition partner Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). This article will strive to comment on the developments and put things in perspective. 

The Peace accord between various political actors in Nepal in 2005 paved the way for the transformation of the country into a republic. The integration of the Maoists within the political mainstream was the most important step in this culmination, as it were the Maoists who had concretely addressed the demand for the formation of a new republic with a new Constitution to go along with it. Other parties, inevitably fell in line judging the public and civic mood and the currency of the demand. Following this was constituent assembly elections, where the Maoists emerged as the single largest party and eventually after the declaration of a republic, a coalition government involving all major actors except the Nepal Congress was formed. 

Complex Issues

Two of the issues that were seen to be the most complex in the run-up to the writing of the Constitution were the integration of the Maoist armed cadre into the Nepali Army and the resolution of the federal question with all the major actors having varying positions on these issues. Having said that, vis-a-vis the former, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the Nepal government and the Maoists in 2006 laid the scope for control over the Nepali army and on the integration of the Maoist combatants (of the People's Liberation Army - PLA) within the Nepali army (Article 5.1 and sections). A special committee has already been given the task of going about this process, which is still on. Yet Rukmangad Katuwal, seen as a loyal supporter of the erstwhile monarchy, decided to violate this agreement (Article 5.12) by going on for recruitment into the Nepali army, unilaterally extending the tenure of senior army officials and also withdrawing the Nepali army's participation from the National Games because of the PLA's participation. 

Civilian supremacy over the army is a sine qua non in all democracies and the blatant violation of the CPA was not surely going to be condoned by the Maoist led government. The government therefore sought Katuwal's explanation, and his response was that of defiance. Added to these incidents were rumours of a soft coup in the making, engineered by the Army. The government therefore decided to terminate Katuwal's posting, an action that was opposed to by the opposition NC which possibly sees the defiant army chief as a power centre stolidly opposed to the Maoists. As does, the Indian establishment, which sees a formal balance of power that keeps the Maoists in check necessary to continue its hegemony in Nepali affairs and to blunt any growing proximity between the Nepali nation and China strategically.

Unconstitutional actions

Questions have been raised by some commentators as to whether the Maoists acted in the manner that could be construed as"extreme". Prominent Indian analyst on Nepal affairs S.D.Muni, while calling into question the Chief of Army staff's actions, in the same breath suggests that the Maoists' action of removing the CoAS is "extreme". He writes that the CoAS's actions were in violation of the CPA and the civilian government was within its rights to demand an explanation from Katuwal for his actions. But, he stops at that and suggests that the Maoists were immature in removing the CoAS. This writer finds such an argument untenable. For the smooth transition of the infant republic into a Constitutional democracy, feudal remnants such as Katuwal had to be removed, as threats such as "soft coups" and other dangers were imminent and harmful. 

Even more problematic was the Nepali president Ram Baran Yadav's decision to overturn the cabinet's decision to remove the CoAS. The correct constitutional position for the president to take was to reply back to the cabinet to re-think the decision, but the actions by Yadav smacks of yet another violation of correct parliamentary procedure.


The UML found the action to remove the CoAS as non-consensual and has even suggested that the president's actions were necessitated. This writer finds the UML's positions egregious. For one, Katuwal has been in the habit of asserting the Nepali army's "independence" from civilian control, thereby showing no regard to the concept of civilian supremacy over the army. This reminds one of the just overthrown era of monarchy where the army was subordinate only to the royalty and not to the elected civilian government. For the infant republic the continuation of such feudal remnants was untenable and therefore the action by the Maoist led Government cabinet to remove Katuwal from his post was democratic and true to republican ethos. As an analogy one could point out the US head of state whenever elected to power has the prerogative to remove the Army Chief of Staff. 

The UML by not acquiescing to this decision was acting in a sectarian and juvenile manner. One can ask a question as to whose interest the UML was representing when it decided to withdraw support to the government over the issue of removal of the CoAS. The further moves by the UML to try to form a government with the Nepali Congress (strictly on the basis of an anti-Maoist position) and to endorse the president's actions make it amply clear that the UML has lost the plot completely. 

A counter argument could be made that the Maoist, in the name of left unity, could have tried to build a consensus with the UML before the removal of the CoAS. But this argument seems petty because the removal of the CoAS` was a matter of principle, and required no coaxing of the UML to achieve it. It is evident that the UML had other considerations in mind. Was the party pressurised by Indian authorities to go ahead with their folly? Atleast that is what is being alleged by some sections of the Maoists. 

One of the chief grouses that the UML had with the Maoist was that the latter was unable to control and stop the high-handedness exhibited by its youth organisation, the YCL. The YCL has been repeatedly accused and rightly so, of intimidation, violence against UML cadre. This was seen by UML leaders such as senior communist Madhav Kumar Nepal as one of the biggest roadblocks for left unity. To a certain extent these grievances were legitimate. But the action to withdraw support to the Maoist led government when the easiest thing to do for an avowed left party was to act on principle suggests that this action by the UML was cynical and lame.

Indian role

Coming back to the Indian role in this whole issue: the Indian ambassador's moves to pressurise the Nepali polity to retain Katuwal was a blatant expression of interference in Nepali affairs. Any self respecting Nepali, let alone a Maoist or any other leftist politician would have bristled at this interference, which however is part of a long legacy of intrusion in Nepali affairs. No wonder, the Maoists have openly accused the Indian bureaucrats of playing a meddlesome role. For this Indian, the Indian ambassador's actions are even more galling because the Indian establishment had played a positive role in the culmination of Nepal into a republic from a highly unpopular and illegitimate monarchy. 

Is this latest trend of negative influence- direct meddling, scheming with other political parties to push the Maoists into a corner and thereby endangering the peace agreement as well as the constitutional building process,related to the fact that India wants to retain its levers of influence? In other words the current Indian establishment is uncomfortable with the Maoists' stated intent of asserting a sovereign and a truly independent domestic and foreign policy. While, on the other hand during the time when the Left Front supported the Indian government the stated intent was not to meddle with the Nepali polity but to maintain healthy relations with whichever political dispensation which was in power.

This writer after his visit to Nepal just after the constituent assembly elections had warned that a derailment of the republican process of constitutional building and overcoming of some challenges such as the Army-PLA integration could be possible because bad habits such as treating Nepal as part of a geopolitical game between neighboring powers were still in place in the strategic calculuses of India and China. This fear seems to not have been misplaced.

It is imperative that the unconstitutional move of the Nepali president has to be overturned. The independent civil society in Nepal has reacted to the president's moves by demanding a judicial decision on the actions, both by the Nepali president as well as by the CoAS. Prominent civil society activists including Shyam Shrestha, Devender Raj Pandey and Krishna Pahadi who were involved in the anti-monarchy protests in Kathmandu in 2005, have now been arrested for protesting against the president's actions. This suggests that the Maoists have gained sympathy of independent and republican voices in the country. 

What needs to be done

By resigning from government on moral grounds, the Maoists made a gesture that has been appreciated by several sections of the Nepali populace. Even though the performance of the Maoist led government in various spheres of governance has been below expectations, the many challenges before the writing of the Constitution were being whittled down one by one, before the series of actions by Katuwal. 

The Maoists have to realise that the building of the constitution and the regaining of the momentum for the same is an imperative that cannot be foregone. By mobilising public opinion against the actions of the president, the army chief, the erstwhile coaliton partner UML, the Maoists can achieve an overturning of the unconstitutional actions by the chief executive as also convince the other prominent left party, the UML to fall in line on the path of propreity and left unity. The onus is on the UML to take a stance regarding this. Otherwise the party, with its recent history of poor political posturing and incorrect decisions, would be on the path to self-destruction, by having lost its leftist moorings and by opening the possibility of a rupture in its ranks. 

A massive show of public antipathy toward Indian (or for that matter Chinese or American) interference in Nepali political affairs should be re-assuring for the polity to adopt sovereignty and independence as guiding principles as partners in the republican polity and also act as a bulwark against continued meddling of the sort that transpired over the issue of the army chief's removal. In India too, the Indian people and intelligentsia should caution against debilitating actions of the kind that the Indian ambassador indulged in and the Indian establishment must be forced to let the Nepali polity take its own course of actions. Nepal can be a vital conduit for trade between India and China and a cordial relationship with the newly growing up republic is in the best interests of both ordinary Nepalis and ordinary Indians, especially living close to the borders of the country. It makes no sense for the Indian establishment to act in cahoots with feudal remnants in Nepal giving an ostensible reason of "stability". The examples of military over-reach in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the preponderance of the Sri Lankan army in Sri Lanka is enough to caution the Indian state from endorsing a similar denouement in Nepal. And that too, when the popular mood in the country is for a federal democratic republic and where a social revolution is being played out democratically.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tragedy in the Vanni

Tragedy in the Vanni

The Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government push the Tamils of the Vanni to a fate worse than death.

Scores of dead civilians, many limbless survivors, starving and homeless people, makeshift hospitals that have been bombed and “human shields”. These are the images from the military confrontation between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Vanni region in the north-east of the island. The Sri Lankan government’s campaign to destroy the LTTE has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe that was foretold when the military solution was initiated two years ago. The government, however, shows no let-up since it is sensing victory as the LTTE is now confined to a patch of 10 square kilometres adjoining the Indian Ocean. Until earlier this week, the Sri Lankan army was shelling and bombing the territory, while the LTTE used the civilian population as a shield against the military onslaught. Nearly 2,00,000 people have fled the area and are being kept in internment camps in shabby conditions while tens of thousands are hostages in the small area under LTTE control.

Both sides to the conflict, intractable in their military aims, have remained impervious to the human tragedy they have scripted. The LTTE refuses to give up and apart from issuing one unilateral ceasefire declaration earlier this week, which was rejected by the Lankan army, it continues to use the people it professes to fight for as fodder in its military resistance. Despite appeals from the international community, the Sri Lankan government too shows no indication of halting the military campaign to ensure safety of the civilians. The government has been emboldened by the euphoric support it has received from the Sinhala populace and from the Sinhala polity’s refusal to consider any course apart from military action to resolve the ethnic conflict.

The conflict now looms over the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu as well. The Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has suddenly declared its support for an independent “Eelam” and in response, the Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (briefly) went on an “indefinite” hunger strike to demand cessation of hostilities in the island. Eelam, until now restricted to the fringe political sections of the state’s polity, has become an election issue. The government of India responded to the clamour in Tamil Nadu for intervention in Sri Lanka by sending its national security advisor and foreign secretary to Colombo and calling for a truce, but it is evident that the Indian response is not intended to go beyond tokenism. New Delhi perceives the conflict in Sri Lanka from a competitive geopolitical perspective as China is a big supplier of weapons and ammunition to the Sri Lankan government and Beijing is unwilling to pressure the Lankan government to stop its military campaign.

The efforts by the Sri Lankan government to paint the ethnic conflict as a “war on terror” have paid off because of the increasing global animus to all forms of “terror” since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. There had been a crackdown on overt and covert material support to the LTTE in the various countries of the world hosting the Tamil diaspora and this has helped the Sri Lankan government isolate the rebel group and move to the verge of a military victory. The Sri Lankan government led by its president Mahinda Rajapaksa has managed to withstand criticism of its actions by promising a simultaneous political solution to the conflict involving other Tamil representatives, but this too is tokenism as no genuine effort towards a federal devolution seems to be in the offing. The tired tactic of co-option of a few ex-Tamil militants, and the adoption of draconian measures to curb any criticism of the government’s military approach in the media, civil society and the polity belie the promises made by Rajapaksa.

It is evident that a bloodbath is going to happen if the Lankan army continues on its course of wanting to obliterate the LTTE. Will a physically and emotionally traumatised Tamil citizenry really trust a government that promises an undefined political solution after its military victory? The current antipathy in the Sinhala polity towards a federal solution tells the Tamils what is in store after a Sri Lankan army victory. As for the LTTE, its strategy of dragging the remaining thousands of Tamil civilians in their area of control to mutilation and death is genocide of its own kind. It is evident that the LTTE top leadership will continue with its resistance because it fears trials for its past actions such as assassinations and indiscriminate attacks on civilian institutions. But if the LTTE wants to live up to its claim of acting on behalf of the Tamil people of the island, surrender is the only way to prevent more casualties in the Vanni. It would then be up to the international community to drive a just bargain for the Tamils if the Sri Lankan government fails to live up to its words.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly