UNREST IN NEPAL

Implications For India

By

Lt.Gen.Eric A. Vas [Retd]

 

The Nepalese State had never envisioned a situation when internal security and stability would be so seriously threatened that it would require external assistance to cope with it.  Neither of the two security treaties, one with British Indian in 1923 nor it successor treaty of peace and friendship with India in 1950 catered for such a contingency.  These treaties merely dealt with external aggression.

The Royal Nepal Army [RNA] has the primary role to defend the territorial integrity and independence of its motherland.  Its secondary role is to assist government in the internal security of the country.  The RNA motto decrees that the safety, honour and welfare of King and Country come first, equating the King with country.  The RNA is directly associated with the defence of the Palace and security of the King and Monarchy.

The strength of the RNA is about 60,000.  The Chief of the Army Staff  [COAS] is a four-star general.   The Army is organised into combat brigades composed of infantry battalions.  These are allotted to various regions and are supported by signals, engineer field companies, artillery batteries, medical, supply and transport elements.  In addition to this there is a police force composed of 7,000 armed and 23,000 unarmed men.  The police are under operational command of the RNA.  The RNA was last involved in combat operations against the British in 1814-16 and against Tibet in 1892. Despite changing times, the army is one of the most prestigious professions in Nepal with the best and the brightest youngsters each year vying to get recruited.

Nepal's Constitution stipulates that the RNA will be guided by a National Defence Council [NDC] headed by the Prime Minister; other members are the Defence Minister and the COAS,   Article 119 confers on the King the appointment of the Supreme Commander of the RNA.  Article 118(2) says "His Majesty shall perform the operation and deployment of the RNA on the recommendation of the NDC".  In fact the King exercises full control in these matters and even has the last word in important promotions and postings.

 The Communist Party of Nepal [CPN] was formed in 1949 after the Communist Revolution in China. CPN leaders believed that Nepal, a semi-feudal under-developed mountainous country, is favourable for guerilla warfare and conditions were suitable for a revolution against Nepal's 200-year old reactionary rule. The first pamphlet published by the CPN declared, "the Chinese people became victorious under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the revolution has come right at our doorstep in Nepal.  We must also follow the same course."

Till then, Rana Prime Ministers had hereditarily ruled Nepal. In 1950, India mediated and helped the King to end Rana oligarchy. The last Rana Prime Minister concluded the Treaty of 1950 with India but continued to remain as Prime Minister even under the new set-up in Kathmandu.  The CPN took this opportunity to denounce "Indian hegemonism".   In 1952 the CPN was banned, but this enhanced the Party's appeal as happens with banned movements all over the world.

Parts of West Nepal were never under effective central control and had always enjoyed some autonomy.  Because of that factor and its underdevelopment, poverty and neglect by Kathmandu, West Nepal became the stronghold of the CPN. The appeal of the CPN was widely sensed when, despite its banned status, it figured well in local level elections in 1953.  A candidate of the party became the first mayor of Kathmandu.

In 1960, the King, displeased by the succession of corrupt and inefficient politicians, dissolved the government.  With the aid of the RNA he crushed political opposition and established Panchayat Raj.  This step was hailed by the public and halted the fast rise of the communist movement. Panchayat Raj split the CPN into those who supported the King and those who were uncertain of what to do. In 1978, the CPN reconstituted itself under two outstanding Maoist [also called Maobadi] leaders, Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda. Bhattarai provides the politico-economic rationale of the movement and Prachanda outlines the operational strategy. . 

Panchayat Raj was a success and lasted for 30 years.  When disgruntled politicians and others began agitating for a return to electoral democracy, the King yielded and ordered a general election in 1991.  A host of politicians of mushrooming political parties entered the rural districts to request for votes.   The people responded enthusiastically.  CPN candidates, standing under the cover name United People's Front [UPF], won nine seats in Parliament where they reportedly conducted themselves with dignity.  Unfortunately, other members of the elected government failed to live up to expectations.  The people were shocked to see leaders, who had lived in prison cells during the course of the struggle for the return to democracy, resuming their old dishonest and corrupt practices once they were back in power

In 1994 the CPN [alias UPF] boycotted the elections saying that it had demonstrated it could win elections but was abandoning the democratic path as it knew it would yield nothing.  By this time the CPN had slowly expanded and secretly established cells in the countryside wherever, due to isolation and difficult terrain, Kathmandu's administration was weakest.  Around their cells they organised political and propaganda groups to win popular support and teams of guerrillas to terrorise where propaganda failed.  They took over isolated villages, which became their bases from where they operated a parallel administration and set up recruiting and training camps

To begin with the situation was misinterpreted in Kathmandu as a simple law and order problem.  A demoralised and highly politicised police force was given the mandate to bring the situation under control.  The police were no match for the insurgents who emerged hardened, solidified and equipped with the captured police weapons and communication equipment.  Till 1995, insurgent operations remained on a low key.  By then the movement, which had started with a few .303 rifles and kukris, had spread from 5 districts into nearly all the 75 districts of Nepal and had grown to a strength of about 5,000 trained fighters with a People's Militia of 25,000.  The composition was broad-based and consisted of all classes and castes; nearly 20 percent were females. At least three dozen Indian and British ex-servicemen were actively involved in planning, training and conduct of operations.  Apart from this they had thousands of sympathisers.  Till now the CPN had taken great care to ensure that they did not denigrate the King; a step which was likely to lose them popular support.

The bulk of the insurgents, about 80 per cent, were deployed in West Nepal.  The remaining 20 percent were in Central and East Nepal.  They avoided establishing bases in the Terai because the people there are relatively better off and security forces enjoy greater intelligence and mobility in that region.  However they later showed a readiness to carry out raids into the Terai in support of dissidents.  Insurgents avoided areas where a large number of ex-servicemen reside.  Extortion, donations and loot kept their coffers full and they apparently had no shortage of funds.  They paid their soldiers Rs 2000 per month in cash and jewelry, and the men were extremely motivated

The spark of the overt revolution was lit on 13 February 1996 with the launch of three simultaneously raids on banks and police posts across the country in West, Central and East Nepal. This was followed by minor raids on selected targets in all the 75 districts.  The aim was to cover a broad front so that the Government would not be able to concentrate its efforts and localise the movement.  However insurgents were warned that armed clashes would not take place in cities and large towns; special groups carried out a propaganda campaign in those areas. At the same time the CPN issued a 40-point list of demands, which included one that Nepal be declared a republic.  This was a direct challenge to the monarchy.

By 1999 the political leadership had no illusions that the country was facing a well-organised insurgency.  Preoccupied by their endless game of dirty political one-upmanship, they were nevertheless unable to get their act together and bring about a national consensus on how to deal with the Maoists.  Instead they blamed the Palace for not allowing the use of the RNA to solve the issue.  The King's stand was that a state of emergency should be imposed for the Army to be fully mobilised.  He also knew that unpopular politicians were only interested in using the RNA to keep themselves in power.  He feared that without a clear operational strategy and public support, the hands of his soldiers would be tied and the RNA, with its glorious traditions, wold also meet the same fate as that of the Police.

His Majesty's Government made two attempts to negotiate with the Maoists, the first in 2000 under Prime Minister G.P.Koirala and later more seriously in 2001 through the Sher Bahadur Deuba government, which dealt directly with Bhattarai and Prachanda.  Some of the CPN's 40 demands were incorporated in the reforms of the Deuba Government. But the talks broke down.  The CPN claimed that they had given a great deal, including their demand for a republic and had focussed on just three demands: a constituent assembly, the formation of an interim government and placing the army under civilian control. Their minimum expectation was a constituent assembly but they had got nothing in return.  The Government said that the talks broke down because of the rift between the hawks and doves among the Maoists.

In June 2001 the heir apparent went berserk in the Palace and massacred the King and his family.  The nation had barely recovered from that shock when the Maoists, on 22 November, attacked an armory in the Terai and looted modern automatic weapons and ammunition.  The RNA had now been brought into the conflict.  A state of emergency was imposed on Nepal.  On 17 February 2002, Maoists attacked and overran an army barrack killing 57 soldiers and absconded with their weapons.  On 27 May, the Maoists hoped to repeat their run of success and once again attacked an army post.  This time they suffered a major debacle and lost many men and arms.  After this set back there was a lull in the fighting due to the monsoon rains.

In September 2002 Maoists again resumed the offensive by attacking an army post and killing 60 security personnel.  This string of deadly attacks had resulted in over 7,000 civilian, Maoist, police and military casualties, and reflects the CPN's determination not to be marginalised in any future negotiations.  Currently, security forces control the capital Kathmandu, major towns, most of the Terai and the 75 district headquarters.  In terms of territory, the Maoist diktat runs over a relatively larger area than that of the Government.

The Maoist revolution in Nepal is a homegrown insurgency.  The CPN maintains ties with Indian militant organisations, the United Liberation Front of Assam [ULFA], the People's War Group [PWG] and Maoist Coordination Centre [MCC] in Bihar, UP and Andhra Pradesh. . The newly formed India-based Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia [CCOMPOSA] has also established links with the CPN.  The Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] of Pakistan has a finger in all these pies.

India finds itself in a difficult predicament in Nepal; a question of "do and you are damned- don't do and you are damned".  Maoist leaders complain that India is going all out to help the Government, while for some of the elite of Kathmandu, India is not doing enough to help in bringing back normalcy.  The Nepalese Speaker of the House has once explicitly said that India is harbouring Maoist leaders and it is because of India's non-cooperation that Nepal has had to face so much hardship.

The concept of a greater Nepal, although unrealistic, has always been a touchy issue. Prachanda believes that the revolution has to embrace the seven million Nepalese who live in India and are active in the Akhil Bharatiya Nepal Ekta Samaj [ABNES], which was recently banned by India at the request of Nepal. India has stationed paramilitary forces along the porus1800 km Indo-Nepal border to counter complaints that Maoists are misusing the border for the clandestine movement of explosives and also intercept the movement of ISI personnel crossing over to India from Nepal.

60,000 Nepalese serve in the Indian Army. The Indian Army recruitment camps set up in six different places in Nepal has had to be shifted this year.  Persistent conflict in Nepal could have a direct bearing on Gorkha units, which have traditionally recruited soldiers from the same clans from which the Maoist recruit their rebels. The possibility of family members getting involved in the rebellion cannot be ruled out.

Nepal is at a crossroad.  It is not just a matter of salvaging democracy but ensuring change with continuity and reviving the economy, which is in a shambles. The GDP has been declining from 8 percent in 1990 to 5 percent in 1995 and is now down to less than one percent.  There is a shortfall in almost every area of economic activity- in exports, tourist arrivals and government revenue. 90 percent of development expenditure is likely to get diverted to defence.  The Nepalese are proud of the fact that they have never been colonised.    They value their freedom.  However, all have come to accept that the institutions of state: the constitution, monarchy and democracy need restructuring. But the first priority for Nepal is peace.  Without peace there can not be democracy, no economic development and no future for the Nepalese.

The RNA may be able to curb the insurgents but not the insurgency.  The Maoists also know that they cannot win the People's War with guns alone. They have emerged as liberators after 200 years of Rana misrule and political corruption.  They have shed their Robin Hood image and are now seriously looking for political power.  Realising that the only practical way out of the impasse is unconditional peace talks, the King directed Narayan Singh Pun, a government minister and businessman, to begin secret talks with CPN leaders.  After 90 days of negotiations, which involved frequent trips between the Palace and secret Maoist hideouts, the Government and Maoists have agreed to a cease-fire with effect from 1 February.

The stakes for India in the internal stability of Nepal are high.  Anarchy in Nepal could spill over into India. We must all hope that discredited politicians, the CPN and the monarchy learn to cohabit with and nurture the fledgling Nepalese democracy.