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June - July 2006


Political News

Triumph of People Power: Nepal

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely ” so said Lord Acton, an English political philosopher, more than a century ago. Lord Acton’s statement has been proved right, time and time again, by the actions of certain kings, dictators and autocratic rulers over the years.

King Gyanendra of Nepal is one such ruler in this honour list to prove its relevance in the starkest possible terms. It all happened before our eyes, seen on the world’s TV Channels. It is beyond belief that in this day and age when Democracy is the King, King Gyanendra dared to dismiss an elected Parliament on grounds of personal whims and assume absolute power and corrupt it absolutely too. He also proved to the world that absolute power not only corrupts absolutely, it also falls absolutely.

Gyanendra was crowned the King of Nepal after his predecessor King Birendra and members of his close family were assassinated within the Narayanhiti Palace by a member of the Royal Family in strange and unexplained circumstances. The grapevine has produced many colourful conspiracy theories, some of them have even pointed a finger at the present incumbent in the Royal Palace although most people in Nepal are sceptical about such allegations.

One of the most daunting tasks that the newly enthroned King inherited was the Maoist rebellion. Led by an elusive character called Prachanda, translated into English from Nepali it means The Terrible, the Maoist rebellion spread like wildfire into the countryside during the last decade. Gradually the conflict turned extremely violent and murderous. The death toll has been estimated to be over 12,500.

The Maoists in Nepal and the People’s War Group in India are kindred movements believing in armed struggle waged against the state. The PWG are also known as Maoists. They have together established what has come to be known as The Red Corridor stretching from Kathmandu to Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh running through Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. It is said that in parts of the countryside where the PWG are in control, the writ of the Government does not run. The PWG are known to collect taxes and run their own administration in these strips of territories. The roll call of killings is almost a daily phenomenon. The Government of India sees the Maoist menace as a law and order issue and not a socio-economic problem which should be solved through rapid development with great urgency.

The Maoists rebels have consistently made claims that their struggle was against the primeval poverty in rural Nepal and the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia and certainly one of the poorest in the world. Much like the Government of India, the King of Nepal also saw the rebellion as a law and order problem and ordered tough security measures to fight the Maoist terror.

As the King mobilised his forces to fight the Maoists he found Parliament as a source of obstruction and went on to dissolve it in 2002. In February 2005 he took a step further and the dismissed the Prime Minister and his cabinet, assuming absolute powers in his own hands. The King ran the government with the help of a council of un-elected aids. Their reputation was poor and the people were not prepared to accept them as their rulers. The political parties taking note of the mood of the people called street demonstrations, which soon assumed the size of a revolution.
Traditionally the people of Nepal treated their King as God but the popular mood had change. The people wanted Gyanendra no more. They wanted a republican form of democracy.

On April 4, 2006, a 7 party alliance led by the Nepali Congress, joined among others by the Communist Party of Nepal and supported by the Maoists, started a protest movement. The street protests gradually increased in strength and on the 19th day their numbers soared anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000. In the narrow streets of Kathmandu such a multitude of people looked like a revolution, which by any yardstick it certainly was one. It came to be known as Nepal’s biggest pro-democracy movement ever. The predominantly republican mood of the street protesters became the most important hallmark of the movement. The leaders of the revolution planned that they would storm the Narayanhiti Palace on April 24 and force the King to abdicate.
Taking note of the nasty turn of events and before the masses of the people charged into the Royal Palace, King Gyanendra went on the TV and addressed the nation on April 24 and declared that he had decided to hand over power to the 7 party alliance and invited them to choose a leader who will be the Prime Minister. He announced that Parliament kept in suspended animation since 2002 would be re-convened on April 28, 2006.

The triumph of people-power in Nepal was now complete. There were joyous celebrations all over the country.

Parliament - a 205 member House of Representatives - was reconvened on April 28, 2006 but because Girija Prashad Koirala, 84, unanimously elected by the 7 party alliance to serve as the Prime Minister for the fifth time since 1959, was not well and could not take his oath of office, the brief session was adjourned to reconvene on April 30, 2006. Parliament in a brief working session adopted a resolution, which is a landmark in the history of Nepal. It said that a Constituent Assembly would soon be formed and a new Constitution for Nepal would be drafted and adopted.
The Maoists after initial hesitation, taking note of the mood of the nation, agreed to fall in line with the 7 party alliance when the latter took the stand in Parliament favouring a Constituent Assembly which will frame a new Constitution. The Maoists’ want the removal of the King and declaring Nepal a republican democracy. Creating some sort of history, they declared a three-month cease-fire. If the Maoists find the 7 party alliance falling short of their expectations, they will not hesitate to withdraw their cease-fire and start their armed struggle once again.

Nepal is the world’s only Hindu country having close cultural connections and trade relations with India. It lies sandwiched between the landmass of India and China. New Delhi has a vital security interest in Kathmandu. That everybody recognises. But India’s problem is its excessively cautious Ministry of External Affairs. When faced with extremely serious challenges in Nepal it has almost always unfailingly jilted by the bug of nervousness and utter lack of vision. Two examples would illustrate what I mean exactly.

1 ) When India became independent in August 1947, the ruler of Nepal was King Tribhuvan. Feeling exposed to China and nervous that Beijing may one day take over Nepal by marching in the foot soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, he wrote a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru India’s Prime Minister offering to accede to and become an integral part of India. Nehru spurned the offer and wanted Nepal to remain a sovereign independent nation acting as a buffer between India and China. Needless to say King Tribhuban was not a happy person. But he had no alternative but to accept the Indian Prime Minister’s position. I believe India’s security interests were not well served by this decision.

2 ) When the pro-democracy movement had reached its high noon in the streets of Kathmandu in mid-April 2006 the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh belatedly sent his personal envoy Dr Karan Singh, formerly Maharaja of Kashmir to Kathmandu with a plan to bring order out of the chaos in Nepal. As one Maharaja was talking to another Maharaja, Karan Singh trying to save Gyanendra from losing his job, India seemed to have turned a blind eye to the mood of the half a million seething angry mass of humanity agitating outside the Royal Palace. Having lost 15 young men in clashes with the police they were burning effigies of the King Gyanendra and wanted his head. The good thing was that India at least realised quickly enough that it was siding with the wrong side of the revolution. Promptly and thankfully New Delhi declared that it was on the side of the democratic forces in the country which saved the situation for India.

It is only to be hoped that India’s foreign policy establishment gets real serious about Nepal and helps its fast track economic development and alleviate the sufferings of its people from the burdens of their poverty.

The Royal Nepalese Army has traditionally been seen as close to the Royal family who have for long acted as its patron. To quote a media report “ The absence of concrete intelligence information had led the RNA to attack villages indiscriminately leading to excesses that fed into the pro-monarchy image”. The need to tighten the intelligence gathering mechanism for the security forces of Nepal can not be over-emphasised.

The strong republican sentiment of the revolution has come as a challenge to the RNA. It has to change with the changing times and transform itself as pro-people. The Indian Army Chief General J.J. Singh’s advice – as reported in an authoritative despatch - came in handy for the RNA Chief General Pyar Jung Thapa. At the former’s suggestion General Thapa came out with a statement that the RNA will serve any government in power and was supportive of the people. Meanwhile India is prepared to resume military supplies to Nepal, stopped during the protest movement after a request is received to that effect. India will increase the intake of Nepalese officers from its Armed Forces several folds for military training in India and also help in setting up a military academy in Nepal.

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