All posts by prashantjha

Forging a Nepal for all its peoples

As the constitutional endgame approaches, Nepal is witnessing its most fierce and polarised political debate since the process to transform the state began with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. Strikingly, it is not a battle between political parties, but different social groups.

This is the battle over the nature of federalism, the boundaries of future states, and the names and number of provinces. The issue of state restructuring perhaps resonates most among ordinary citizens, especially those belonging to communities excluded from the power structure due to their ethnic, caste, regional and religious identities. It is a battle that has been fought in Constituent Assembly (CA) committees, the State Restructuring Commission, and in the past week, on the streets. Continue reading Forging a Nepal for all its peoples

On the India hand in Nepal

In an interview with this writer for The Hindu newspaper last week, Maoist chairman Prachanda explained the sudden decision to send the Nepal Army to the cantonments, revealed the possible meeting points on constitutional issues, said that he would have no objection to an NC-led government promulgating the constitution, and declared his personal ambition of wanting “5-10 years” to “implement his vision”. But the bit that has drawn the most attention here in Kathmandu is his public acknowledgment of India’s role in Nepal’s political transformation—from the 12-point agreement, to the CA elections, to the declaration of republic and the progress in the peace process.

Expectedly, ultra-nationalist websites have latched onto this as proof of Prachanda’s “subservience”; right wing stalwarts have the “We told you so” smug look about how they were right all along that this was an external plot. In a different context, there has also been commentary projecting India’s current phase of engagement with the Maoist as somewhat opposed to the Nepali people’s aspirations for peace and democracy.

It would be useful to look at the several issues enmeshed here separately, based on the evidence currently available. Continue reading On the India hand in Nepal

The Final Countdown in Nepal

Five years after a peace accord marked the end of a decade long civil war, Nepal’s political transformation has entered its final phase.

On May 27, 2012, the term of the Constituent Assembly — extended four times beyond its original two-year term — will expire. And this time, politicians will not find it easy to give the CA another lease of life due to a judicial stricture. The Supreme Court (SC) has declared that the current extension is final, and if the constitution is not promulgated, there should be another election or referendum. There is also rising popular pressure to wrap up the prolonged transition, which has been accompanied by abysmal service delivery.

That gives the political forces less than three months to wrap up the peace process and write a constitution. Together, this will shape the nature of Nepal’s political institutions and security apparatus. Continue reading The Final Countdown in Nepal

Nepal – The Nostalgia for 1990

Kanak Mani Dixit’s efforts to portray 1990s as blissful, and Maoists to solely blame for all of Nepal’s ills, is revisionist history, facts be damned. Dixit’s rejoinder (‘The perils of executive presidency’, Jan 5) to my column (‘A question of form’, Jan 4) reveals fundamental differences in how we see recent Nepali history. The gist of Dixit’s rather simplistic world view is that the 1990s were wonderful and the Maoists destroyed it and are all evil. Let us examine this in more detail.

The 1990s

The 1990 constitution opened up Nepali society; it guaranteed fundamental freedoms and allowed groups to organise themselves at all levels; and economic policies pursued then led to the creation of a bigger middle class.

But there were two fundamental drawbacks of that period, which is what led to its eventual breakdown. Continue reading Nepal – The Nostalgia for 1990

Understanding the Nepali Revolution: Baburam Bhattarai

(Nepal’s Prime Minister, Dr BABURAM BHATTARAI, visited India in his first bilateral trip since taking office, in the third week of October. Bhattarai spoke at the Jawaharlal University, Delhi, where he had earned his PhD from the Centre for Study of Regional Development, about the political evolution in Nepal, particularly after the 1990 and 2006 movements as seen through the prism of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

Before beginning his substantive speech, he declared, “I am what I am because of JNU,” amidst thundering applause and cries of Lal Salaam.

The full text of the speech, provided to Kafila by his office, is being posted below for the record.)  Continue reading Understanding the Nepali Revolution: Baburam Bhattarai

Bhutan’s cautious tryst with democracy

Bhutan’s shift to plural politics remains carefully calibrated, but the emergence of a relatively free press and democratic institutions are important achievements. An account from Thimpu

Political changes in Bhutan over the past five years — the introduction of a ‘democratic constitution,’ the retreat by the fourth King and the coronation of his son, elections to Parliament which now has both a ruling and an opposition party, and governance being the prerogative of the elected government — have triggered two opposite reactions generally. One school has hailed the vision of the Bhutanese monarchy and its act of ‘renunciation,’ and has declared the ‘democracy story’ to be a success. Many others dismiss the transition as being a ‘farce,’ claiming that the King still calls the shots and that Bhutan remains a tight autocracy. Continue reading Bhutan’s cautious tryst with democracy

‘We are aware of India’s interests’: Jhalanath Khanal

Interview with Nepal Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal.

After seven months of living with a caretaker government, Nepal’s Parliament on February 3 elected Jhalanath Khanal, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), as the Prime Minister, with the support of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). He spoke to Prashant Jha at the prime ministerial residence in Kathmandu on February 10. Excerpts, as first published in The Hindu:

What’ll be your priorities?

My first priority is to complete the ongoing peace process. Second, my aim is to help complete the Constitution-writing process. Third, I’ll strengthen the institutions of governance, improve law and order, and guarantee security to the common citizens. Fourth, my focus will be on taking the country towards an economic revolution through development, reconstruction and socio-economic transformation.

Your predecessors had similar priorities, and had pledged to complete the peace and constitutional process. What’s different about your government? Continue reading ‘We are aware of India’s interests’: Jhalanath Khanal

Maoist dilemmas in Nepal

Exactly four years after a peace accord the end of Nepal’s civil war, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is going through a deep existential crisis. This was most starkly reflected in the separate political documents presented by chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, senior vice-chairman Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’, and another vice-chairman and ideologue Dr Baburam Bhattarai at an extended party meeting in Palungtar of Gorkha district last week. Almost 6,000 delegates – including 1200 Maoist combatants from UN-monitored cantonments – reviewed the party’s achievements and failures after entering the peace process, and discussed the future ‘political line’ the party should adopt. Continue reading Maoist dilemmas in Nepal

India and the Kantipur Saga

New Delhi is ranged against not only Nepal’s biggest political party but also its largest media house.

First published in The Hindu, 2 September 2010

The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu is in the middle of a controversy. It stands accused, yet again, of ‘gross interference’ and ‘attacking press freedom in another country’, and faces censure from a parliamentary committee, politicians across the spectrum, and civil society groups. Last week, sections of the media, including Kantipur television which is a part of the larger Kantipur group, reported that a product of Dabur Nepal was substandard and contained harmful substances. On August 27, the embassy said, “Indian joint ventures have informed the embassy they have been approached by such media houses for advertisement and are being threatened with negative publicity if those requests are not met.” It termed the news reports as ‘baseless adverse publicity against products of such ventures’ and said such allegations in the past had proven to be false.

Organisations representing media owners, which included the Kantipur publisher, immediately condemned the statement, said media is free to choose its content, and cautioned the embassy to ‘respect diplomatic norms and values of press freedom’. The embassy reacted again, saying the statement by media organisations would have been more credible if backed by a condemnation of unethical practices adopted in eliciting advertising revenue from Indian joint ventures. Since then, the Parliament’s international relations and human rights committee has instructed the government to seek a clarification from the Indian envoy for the embassy’s statements and termed it as blatant interference in free press.

Continue reading India and the Kantipur Saga

Tactical Retreat?

The Maoist ‘postponement’ of the general strike has drawn diverse reactions. Ruling parties have projected it as a victory of democracy, constitutionalism, and law and a massive defeat for the Maoist ‘politics of blackmail’. Sections of the media and civil society that had urged the Maoists to pull back feel it is a result of popular pressure exerted by the peace rally on Friday morning. And while some Moist leaders and cadre are reported to be confused, demoralized, and angry at the leadership for letting go, others are hopeful that this will pave the way for an agreement on peace and constitution.

The responses are naturally shaped by one’s own location on the political spectrum. But what it ignores is that there is a complex set of factors that led to the Maoist decision. The non-Maoist euphoria also glosses over the fact that the strike was not the problem; it was only a symptom of the problem. And while the strike is off for now, those underlying issues remain unresolved.

The Maoists made four miscalculations. Continue reading Tactical Retreat?

The City Turns Red – Kathmandu on May Day

When Maoist Newa state in charge Hitman Sakya asked the assembled crowd at Khula Manch to silently honor martyrs, the moment turned somber. The leaders stood with their heads down on the stage, and on the ground, all one could see were thousands and thousands of fists raised up. There was pin-drop silence.

A bit later, members of the Maoist cultural wing sang and danced. The lyrics were deeply political, hitting out at the NC, UML and India, projecting the Maoists as the only people’s party, and wooing the security forces by showing uniformed personnel shaking hands with Maoists ‘to build a new Nepal’. The crowd was enthralled. Continue reading The City Turns Red – Kathmandu on May Day

Kathmandu Siege – They Are Here

Kathmandu’s elites cannot seem to understand who these people are. But talk to the cab driver, waiter, vegetable seller, small shopkeeper, slum dweller or construction worker and you will get an idea of who may dominate the streets from Saturday.
There has been coercion in the process of mobilisation. But the Maoists have essentially tapped into the three core contradictions of Nepali society – ethnicity, class, and space (Kathmandu versus the rest). They have deployed their cadres; capitalised on the rage of those on the periphery; and channelised popular discontent against inflation, power cuts, corruption and insecurity, for which Madhav Nepal has been projected as solely responsible. Continue reading Kathmandu Siege – They Are Here

Koirala’s death robs Nepali politics of its centre

Girija Prasad Koirala’s death on Saturday afternoon marks the end of an era in not only Nepali but also sub-continental politics. As a warrior for democracy over six decades, a five-time Prime Minister and architect of the ongoing peace process with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Koirala was an integral part of Nepal’s modern political history. But he has passed away at a time when the task of institutionalising the democracy he fought for remains incomplete.

G.P. Koirala, or GPK, was born in Bihar in 1925, where his father, Krishna Prasad Koirala, was in exile for defying the autocratic clan-based Rana regime. His father believed that Nepal could not be free of despotic Rana rule as long as their patrons, the British, ruled India. G.P. Koirala’s elder brother, B.P. Koirala (also known as BP), was imprisoned in the Quit India Movement. In early 1947, Nepali exiles in India and Kathmandu-based dissenters formed the Nepali National Congress. Continue reading Koirala’s death robs Nepali politics of its centre

“Twenty million out of twenty-seven million Nepalis are with the Maoists”: Interview with Prachanda

(This interview of Pushpa Kamal Dahal by me appeared in the Nepali Times a few days ago, along with another report.)

A conversation with Maoist supremo Prachanda this week not only brought out the party’s new line, but also offered a glimpse into his analysis of current politics and future strategy.

The root of the problem, according to Prachanda, is that the 12-point understanding was ‘tactical’ for everyone who signed the agreement. “The other side felt they could get us into the mainstream and weaken us. We thought we could use the process to create a new mainstream, which would include political competition.” Neither side got what they wanted, entirely. This paradox has forced the parties to make a more fundamental strategic choice. “This was inevitable and we are now heading for a crisis climax.”

The army issue is key. Neither side feels it lost the war. Prachanda concedes that no one won the war in material terms, but believes the Maoists won the war politically. “It was the then Royal Nepalese Army’s mandate and goal to protect the monarchy and block a republic,” he says. “They failed, and the PLA played a big part in bringing about this change.” The way forward for these “recognised and legitimate” outfits, he says, is “sticking to the peace accord, democratising the army and professionalising the PLA.” Continue reading “Twenty million out of twenty-seven million Nepalis are with the Maoists”: Interview with Prachanda

Uncanny parallels between Beg’s and Shah’s deaths

This is a guest post by Akhilesh Upadhyay

The gruesome murder on Sunday of media entrepreneur Jamim Shah, 47, has brought back chilling memories of June 29, 1998. On that day, Mirza Dilshad Beg, a sitting lawmaker, was gunned down outside his home in Siphal, Kathmandu. It was a dark night and the hillside neighbourhood looked darker still due to load-shedding, when we (reporters and photographers from Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post) arrived at the scene, soon after the 9.30 hit-and-run incident.

The newsroom had received a tip-off from a local who had heard what he suspected were gun-shots. It was an innocent world in many ways. Nepalis were still unfamiliar with sounds of bombs and gun-shots, the Maoist-waged “people’s war” was still in its infancy, violent deaths still shook everybody, and political assassination was unheard of. But what shocked the Nepalis most was how ugly games from powerful external forces could play out in Nepal, as it watched haplessly. The incident also gave many of us in the newsroom a first-hand lesson on forces which operate from behind the scene. Two of the theories that made the rounds then clearly pointed at the cross-border nature of the operation; the third one was that Beg’s death had to do with “family problems,” which turned out to be false. Continue reading Uncanny parallels between Beg’s and Shah’s deaths

Drop A Beat, Turn Up My Symphony

This is a guest post by John Bevan

Nearly half the 8 million population of Haiti, (the size of Wales, Belize and El Salvador— seems that was one of the standard sizes for countries at the time) lived in the Capital Port-au-Prince.  So the elimination of the Capital approximates to the loss of half the country’s entire infrastructure, limited as it was.  The loss of many of its intellectuals and elected politicians, few enough in the first place, given the brain-drain northwards, with some third of Haitians living in the US, adds to the knock the country has taken.

In 2006, the main Port-au-Prince daily proudly lead with the story- “Haiti there at World Cup Final”- referring not to their football team but Wyclef  Jean who sang a duet with Shakira before the France-Italy final in Berlin.  Wyclef boosted the image and self-image of Haitians a few years earlier when he won a Grammy for the 1996 Fugees album, The Score, and accepted it while wearing a Haitian flag, Haitians still being at the bottom of the pile of all US immigrant groups.  He rarely appears on videos without the flag somewhere about his body. Continue reading Drop A Beat, Turn Up My Symphony

Complicating the ‘Naxalite’ debate

(An edited version of this piece appeared as the cover story in Himal Southasian in December 2007. The report is based on travels across Andhra to Bihar in October of the same year. At a time when most of the media is pushing the same binaries we must avoid, this may help in conveying the enormous complexity of the issue. Some facts may be outdated, and Kafila readers will be more familiar with certain issues like Salwa Judum than this reporter, but the broad argument may still have some relevance. I will follow this up with posts on the Nepali process and Indian Naxalites.)

A people’s movement. The greatest internal security challenge. Struggle for the rights of the poor, tribals, Dalits, landless. Compact Revolutionary Zone with influence in almost 200 districts. A socio economic problem rooted in exploitation and idealism. A law and order threat . True people’s democracy. A criminal, authoritarian and opportunistic outfit. The revolution will smash the Indian state. The Maoists are ants and can be crushed anytime .

Neat black and white portrayals have come to characterise one of the most complex stories of our times. The Naxal as the saviour and the state as the oppressor. The state as protector and Naxal as the villain. Numbers and scale of action act as the judge of Maoist spread and activity. 1608 incidents of Naxalite violence and 677 people killed in 2005; 1509 incidents and 678 killed in 2006; 249 persons killed till June 2007. Continue reading Complicating the ‘Naxalite’ debate

Engaging Nepal: some difficult questions

India can continue to let its suspicion of the Maoists be the over-riding objective of its Nepal policy or seek to play a pro-active role in engineering the kind of consensus it has done since 2005.

First published in The Hindu yesterday.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao arrives in Kathmandu on her maiden visit today, at a time when Nepal is grappling with its most serious and prolonged political crisis since the peace process began. India has to make certain difficult policy choices, reconcile the contradictions between its stated aims and actions, determine whether it remains committed to the process it helped facilitate, and use its leverage accordingly.

The fragile Madhav Nepal-led ruling coalition faces a severe crisis of legitimacy and a belligerent Maoist opposition. The Maoists have boycotted the legislature-parliament, paralysing government business to the extent that the budget has not yet been passed. They have demanded a house discussion on President Ram Baran Yadav’s “unconstitutional action” over-riding the Maoist government’s decision to sack the then Army Chief General Rukmangad Katawal in early May — a demand rejected by the other parties in government who see no wrong in what the President did. The Maoists have also launched a street movement, with the slogan of instituting “civilian supremacy” and a “Maoist-led national government.” Continue reading Engaging Nepal: some difficult questions

Anger Aftermath: ‘Encounter’ killings escalate in the Tarai

On Sunday night, around 10.30 pm, Chandrashekhar – a leader of the Madhes Rashtriya Janatantrik Party (MRJP), Revolutionary – called me up. An old acquaintance who had shifted from social activism to the armed movement, he was committed to the cause of Madhesi autonomy.

He was panic-stricken, and said, “Our chairman, Ram Narayan alias Manager Mahato, was arrested by Jaynagar police in Bihar this afternoon. They have just handed him over to a Siraha police team, which came to pick him up. We want to spread the news because they may kill him.” Continue reading Anger Aftermath: ‘Encounter’ killings escalate in the Tarai

‘Either we finish what we started, or get finished’

The most dangerous and worrying feature in the last two weeks is the resurgence of visceral anti-Maoist politics.

The line between the liberals and right wing has suddenly blurred and they are united in their hatred of the former rebels. The Kathmandu middle class, a part of which gave the benefit of doubt to the Maoists in the polls, had to cough up concessions under Baburam Bhattarai’s fiscal regime. With the recent video revelations, they have veered away even further. The urban lower middle class suffered during eight months of misgovernance with price rise, and collapse of services and is hoping the next government may provide some relief.

The army establishment has reasserted itself and is actively hatching plans to undermine Maoists. Most of the press, with ownership and editorial staff affiliated to ‘mainstream’ parties’, is toeing the NC-UML line. And erstwhile sympathisers in the Indian establishment are now sick of what they see as Maoist duplicity – the recent rediscovery of the ‘nationalist’ rhetoric has put them off further. Continue reading ‘Either we finish what we started, or get finished’

The resignation aftermath

This entire crisis complicates politics for the simple reason that no side feels that it has lost. Don’t mistake this for a win-win situation. It is a situation where all sides are smug, their ambitions are stoked, and they are even more unwilling to make any concessions.

This has actually been a problem right since the 12 point deal. The king got dumped. But besides that, no actor has had to relent on their fundamental interests and give concessions.

The army, after a temporary cooling-off period, was rehabilitated and its privileges were protected. For GP Koirala, April 2006 was a moment to take over the state apparatus and keep the seat warm for his daughter, while protecting the interests of the NC class base. The Maoists saw the entire process, and the polls, as a tactical victory on way to state control.

In the last fortnight, this tenuous situation has only got more retrenched. The NA’s political role and links and divisions within may have got totally exposed. But the top brass feels they have won a huge victory and will be even less amenable to civilian control. The Maoists may not have succeeded in throwing out Katawal, but they feel they have won a moral victory by resigning and are complacent that the political stalemate cannot be resolved without them. UML and MJF think this is their chance to lead the government. And NC is already thrilled at the money that will come with the ministries. Continue reading The resignation aftermath