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.

No comments: