Nepal Politics in Choppy Waters
Nepal Politics in Choppy Waters
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia

Nepal Politics in Choppy Waters

There are good grounds for mutual suspicion on both sides of the divide.

While India is preoccupied with elections, Nepal risks throwing away the chance of peace that its own successful polls delivered just a year ago.

The immediate crisis stems from the Maoists' attempt to oust army chief General Rookmangud Katwal for disobeying government orders, a controversial move opposed even by their own coalition partners.

President Ram Baran Yadav countermanded the sacking, arguing that he has the right to accept or reject government decisions - a step which prompted Prime Minister Prachanda to resign in protest at what he called the president's " unconstitutional and undemocratic" effort to establish himself as a parallel power centre.

Prachanda also pulled no punches in railing against foreign intervention in the dispute, a clear reference to Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood's energetic efforts to rally support for the army's " sanctity". This is more than just an unseemly spat: the fragile consensus on which Nepal's peace process was built is close to falling apart and the country now faces a constitutional crisis. The tussle over the army chief is symptomatic of a wider collapse in trust and a bitter struggle for the future of the country. The Maoists feel they were blocked at every turn in government while their opponents fear they are trying to subvert state institutions in preparation for a seizure of power. There are good reasons for mutual suspicions on both sides.

In such circumstances, military issues are inherently touchy. So were the Maoists right to try to give Katwal the boot? Legally, it is indeed the government's prerogative and the president ( who is from the opposition Nepali Congress) is constitutionally bound to act on the government's advice. Politically, however, it was a risky gamble - and one that further inflamed already dangerously heated disputes. The timing looked self- serving and led some to cry conspiracy. In picking such a deliberate fight the Maoists appeared to be thumbing their nose at the idea of rebuilding cross- party consensus. By going it alone they snubbed their own partners and suggested they have little patience for building agreement on sensitive issues.

More seriously, they have yet to dispel doubts over their commitment to competitive politics.

For the established elites - a broad category ranging from the palace- nurtured generals to their erstwhile foes in the democratic parties - the post- election period has been unsettling and alarming. With Maoist leaders regularly threatening a return to revolt and their cadres still using violence, can they be trusted with leadership of two armies? While their own PLA remains in cantonments, many see their move against Katwal as an attempt to neutralise the one remaining obstacle to total power.

Still, the Maoists have good reason to be upset with the military, and its behaviour should worry any democrat. The army has been assiduously briefing against the government. With a nonetoo- subtle nod to Indian concerns, a recent presentation to foreign defence attachés warned that "the stated aim of the Maoist Party still appears to be to establish a totalitarian regime, which could prove a firm base for revolutionaries with regional implications".

Citing the Maoists' preference for a presidential system of government as "an indication of their dictatorial intent", the army urged that "united democratic alliance led resistance from all sectors combined with international pressure is required to counter NCP(M)'s hegemonic advance." Yes, the army has been playing politics, and with a perhaps reckless brazenness. General Katwal is no newcomer to the game.

Under the thin veil of a penname, he softened up opinion for Gyanendra's successive power-grabs in the pages of the Kathmandu press. Shortly before the October 2002 dismissal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, he argued that "enlightened despotism is preferable to chaotic democracy; the masses require protection from themselves".

Two weeks before the surprise February 2005 royal coup, his remarkably prescient piece was titled "Support for King's initiative". Under such leadership, the army's further encroachment onto political territory is not surprising. But it is a sad comment on the state of Nepal's politics that the generals have been far more diligent in opposing the Maoists than the parties entrusted with that task. In response to the Maoist draft constitution, the Nepali Congress only managed to present the constituent assembly with a short letter outlining basic principles.

The army, in contrast, submitted - unprompted and supposedly in top secrecy - two weighty volumes on national security policy and " fundamental national policy", covering everything from protecting the country's genepool to enhancing agricultural productivity. For good measure it threw in a detailed set of constitutional recommendations, including a demand that the current commitment to army " democratisation" be revoked, and that there be fresh referenda on issues long since decided and written into the interim constitution, from federalism to secularism.

The Nepali Congress has now seen its dream of forcing the Maoists out of government come true. This is an attractive short- term solution for those who feel the Maoists need to be taught a lesson. But does any alternative government have a plan for running the country and seeing the peace process to a lasting resolution? Ill- thoughtout strategies could invite chaos and exacerbate the conflict that threatens the whole peace process.

The Maoists have a blocking vote in the constituent assembly and retain a formidable mobilisational capacity. They won't go back to the jungle but they're more than ready to take to the streets and paralyse any new administration. Most importantly, they may be anathema to Kathmandu's chattering classes but they clearly command significant public support: in recent by- elections they added another seat to their tally even as the capital's media had written them off. Prachanda's strongly worded but dignified resignation address was a claim to the moral high ground - and a fierce rejection of foreign interference - that may resonate with ordinary citizens.

In contrast, the other major parties have done little to reengage with voters, rebuild their weakened local networks and offer convincing alternative platforms. Opposing the Maoists was easy but delivering in government will be much more challenging. Any coalition cobbled together to outnumber the party which holds 40 per cent of constituent assembly seats will be fractious at best, riven by divergent politics and personal interests. A coherent approach to rebuilding a working environment for consensual constitution- writing is hard to envisage in the short- term.

As positions have polarised, many have forgotten the essence of the deal that ended the conflict. Neither the state nor the Maoists surrendered: they signed a peace agreement which reflected the balance of forces at the end of a bloody, decade- long war. Maoist fighters would be rehabilitated and integrated - including into the Nepalese Army; the army itself would be brought under democratic control, made more inclusive and right- sized. There has been no meaningful progress on any of these core issues.

Frustration within the Maoist army now threatens to turn into rejectionism.

More gung- ho anti- Maoists seem to believe they could succeed with a " Sri Lanka- style" no- holds barred military campaign or at least rein them in with a " Bangladesh- style" militarybacked government. Neither option is attractive or likely to succeed. 
The remaining chance to achieve a stable peace depends on draining the high drama from political confrontations and getting to grips with some unglamorous basics. Managing the post- conflict transition was never going to be easy - and neither the Maoists nor their rivals were ready to digest their unexpected electoral victory.

Building mutual confidence required constant dialogue at national and local levels. But inter- party committees only functioned sporadically. Holding parties to their commitments ( and the Maoists have been egregious in their flouting of many) called for functional, neutral monitoring. But no monitoring bodies were ever established.

Salvaging the peace process will require cool heads and hard graft. Almost one hundred regular meetings of a PLA- Nepalese Army- UN joint committee have helped ensure the military ceasefire has held perfectly. A similar approach could draw some of the poison from contentious issues like the return of property seized during the conflict.

Whether General Katwal stays or goes, what Nepal desperately needs is public security, basic governance and effective policing.

Indian interests are clearly at stake in Nepal - and it is willingness to defend them doggedly and publicly. But if New Delhi's stalwart defence of General Katwal is meant to encourage stability, it is misconceived.

Propping up the army as a political tool has only added fuel to the fire. Ensuring it sticks to its mandate while helping to build structures for meaningful civilian control - such as a functional ministry of defence - would be the best guard against dangerous politicisation under governments of any colour.

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.


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