Twinkle Twinkle Red star
Twinkle Twinkle Red star
Integrating the Maoists into the mainstream and sensitively tackling issues of the marginalised, especially the Madhesis, will be the two most important challenges in the days ahead
Prashant Jha Kathmandu
Nepal’s political landscape has become more confusing and challenging, but as usual, retains exciting possibilities. The Tarai, the country’s southern plains bordering India, where an alienated populace is fighting for their fundamental rights, continues to be in turmoil with proliferation of actors, multiple fautlines and increasing violence. The Maoists, after having displayed remarkable political acumen in deciding to enter mainstream politics, have withdrawn from the interim government, though, importantly, not from the peace process.
For the first time, Kathmandu has seen serial blasts, a reflection that the dismal public security situation is not merely restricted to the hinterland. And strikingly, the conservative Nepali Congress (NC) has decided to turn republican, much to the disappointment of the man in the Naraynhiti Palace, but almost certainly paving the way for abolition of monarchy sooner than later.
The Madhesis, who speak plains languages, share extensive kinship and cultural ties with people across the border in India. They constitute 33 per cent of Nepal’s population and they are fighting a battle for identity and representation. That is, identity-based politics has picked up in the Tarai.
A genuine movement for rights and equality took place in the early part of the year but a fragmented Madhesi leadership was unable to sustain the momentum and bargain effectively with the State for their rights. The interim regime in Kathmandu made the right noises about inclusion but remained insensitive, did not implement promises and resorted to divide and rule tactics to weaken the Madhesi movement.
This has created multiple fautlines, some of which came fore in a recent outbreak of political and communal violence in the central Tarai district of Kapilvastu which borders UP. For one, there is massive trust deficit between the State and the Madhesi population which believes that the ruling ‘hill elite’ does not want to share power and be inclusive. There is competition for political space between the Maoists and Madhesi groups who share a tense and antagonistic relationship. This is because most Madhesi leaders are former Maoists who accuse the ‘reds’ of having betrayed the Madhesi agenda.
There is also competition, often violent, among the innumerable Madhesi groups themselves. Add to this a growing ethnic divide and increasing tensions between people of hill-origin, Pahadis, who live in the Tarai, and the Madhesis, and the scenario becomes tenuous and tense.
On September 16, Mohid Khan, a viscerally anti-Maoist Madhesi Muslim leader, who headed vigilante groups in the past, was shot dead by unknown assailants who happened to be Pahadis. His supporters suspected the Maoists. This sparked off clashes between the political rivals, as well as between Pahadis and Madhesis, besides creating possibility of a Hindu-Muslim spat. More than 30 people died and several thousands were displaced, showing the fragile nature of Tarai politics.
Kapilvastu is symbolic of the absence of the ‘State’ and administrative machinery, and the political vacuum in the Tarai where mainstream parties have lost out; but the newer Madhesi outfits have not gained. There has been unprecedented rise in violence, with 22 armed groups operating in the Tarai, most of them criminal outfits who have no political core but use the plank of identity chauvinism. Unless Kathmandu sensitively tackles core Madhesi grievances as well as rampant lawlessness, and Madhesi moderate forces take politics in their hands, the Tarai promises to destabilise Nepal’s politics, besides having an impact on neighbouring Bihar and UP across the open border.
But Kathmandu politicians have little time for serious events and loss of lives in the south of the country. They have been busy engaging in the politics of brinksmanship.
The decision of the Maoists to quit the government is seen by most as a move designed to derail the constituent assembly elections, given that it comes barely three months before the scheduled November polls. The Maoists know they will fare miserably in the polls, and thus have decided not to participate unless the political situation changes. Nothing could have been more ironical, given that the demand for such an assembly was effectively raised and put on the national stage by the former rebels themselves.
They have now imposed two preconditions — immediate declaration of a republic and a fully proportional representation based electoral system — which goes against their past agreement with the other parties. Instead of focusing on campaigning and preparing for elections, this shift in goalposts has meant that efforts of all sides are now concentrated on saving the peace process instead.
The crisis of confidence in the Maoist camp and their limited mass-base stems from several factors, but not all of them are of their own making. For one, their support-base was over-rated. There was a fairly high degree of violence and coercion involved during the ‘People’s War’ led by the Maoists. As the Maoists came into the mainstream, they continued, but to a lesser extent, their intimidation tactics. At the same time, the opening of democratic space meant that common people and other political groups could assert themselves. The inability of the Maoists to transform completely into a democratic force, accept competitive politics, and instead continue some war-like ways, has led to a decline in their support.
Crucially, those who supported the Maoists have become disenchanted. The ethnic groups and Madhesis feel that the former rebels compromised excessively on issues related to marginalised communities; the radicalised cadre started feeling that they had little to show in terms of revolutionary changes despite waging a decade-old ‘armed struggle’, facing sacrifices and repression, and then giving up the gun.
In the process of grappling with the pulls and pressures of other parties and international community, the Maoist leadership underestimated the intensity of this feeling and made tactical blunders. This was especially true when the Maoists, instead of supporting the Madhesi movement, asked the government to suppress it and claimed that they had first raised these issues which were later taken over by upstarts.
Seeing the Maoists in a spot, all other forces, in a display of myopic politics and petty one-upmanship, decided to put even more pressure on the Maoists. They did little to deliver on promises of security, sector reform, leaving the fate of 30,000 Maoist ‘soldiers’ living in cantonments in miserable conditions hanging in balance. They encouraged alliances of anti-Maoist forces at the national and domestic level.
All this only emboldened those within the Maoists who had been arguing that the former rebels should step out of government, assume the role of the opposition, and get back to some of their core issues like formation of the republic and a fair electoral system, and if necessary, push elections for a more conducive time. This line won the support of most delegates in the party plenum and formed the backdrop of the recent Maoist decision to walk out of government.
But all is not lost yet. The Maoists have not withdrawn from the peace process. A compromise is possible. With the NC decision to go for a republic, there is a possibility that the eight parties will, either in the form of a joint statement or a resolution in the interim Parliament, commit themselves to a republic in the future, to be endorsed by the constituent assembly. This will need to be accompanied by behind-the-scene assurances to the Maoists that a certain number of seats will be left for them, and be safe for their candidates.
Elections in November are looking difficult at the moment and it might be postponed for a later date yet again. But that does not necessarily mean the peace process is over if the political class is willing to compromise and the eight-party alliance can remain intact.
Integrating the Maoists into the mainstream and sensitively tackling issues of the marginalised people, especially the Madhesis, will be the two most important challenges in the days ahead. Whether Nepal successfully transforms into a genuine democracy will depend on how politicians and civil society grapple with these issues.
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