Nepal’s journey from war to peace

A new book looks at Himalayan nation’s decades of political change and difficult transition from monarchy to democracy.

Jha believes that Maoists will have to do some serious soul-searching [Photo courtesy: Aleph Books]

Nepal’s transformation from a monarchy to a democracy and a secular state came after a decade-long civil war between Maoist fighters and government forces.

The coming together of Maoists and seven main political parties in 2006 against the monarchy was the turning point that eventually forced the then king Gyanendra out of power two years later.

Prashanth Jha, whose book Battles of a New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal was released last month, told Al Jazeera that the public debate after last November’s elections now revolves around future political process and reconciliation.

Jha writes in the book that if the new constituent assembly does not get its act together and write the Himalayan nation’s new constitution soon, then they could see a comeback of the old forces.

Al Jazeera’s Umika Pidaparthy spoke to Jha who witnessed the historic change as a journalist.

Al Jazeera: What is the big takeaway you hope for people to get from this book, besides Nepal’s complicated political history?

Prashant Jha: I would hope that readers see how in the last decade of the 20th century when the obituary of communism had been written a far-left insurgency managed to rise up and become a definitive force in the country’s politics. How did the Maoists, who many would dismiss as an anachronism, became so powerful? The book also deals with themes of politics of identity, exclusion, transformation of a radical armed outfit into a political party, and how smaller countries have to navigate extremely complex geopolitics.

AJ: The book starts with a pivotal point in history when King Gyanendra suspended the constitution in 2005 and sacked the prime minister. Do you think the monarchy would have survived if this path was not taken or was its demise inevitable from the get-go?

Jha: I don’t think the demise was inevitable. While there were processes, there was a generational transformation, the old structures of power which the monarchy had rested on, those were collapsing. I think the monarchy could have survived if it had remained strictly constitutional and strictly ceremonial. As soon as it intervened in direct politics, I think the obituary of the monarchy was written.

Nepal moves towards new constitution

AJ: Was it difficult to achieve a balance when writing about Maoists especially about the radical or sometimes violent measures they took?

Jha: Well, it is always difficult to write about such issues. I have tried to critically look at them. I have very clearly said the role of violence in their rise cannot be underestimated. But I have had sympathies for their vision. The Maoists had been deepening Nepali democracy. If it was not for the Maoists, Nepal would not have become a republic. This transition from a Hindu to a secular state and from a unitary to a potential federal state comes also because Maoists deserve a large part of the credit for these transition projects. And I think [Maoists leaders] Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, about whom I write extensively in the book, present a remarkable story of a political partnership which has lasted for over 20 years now. And I don’t know how long it will last but it is a remarkable partnership to see. Two different people leading a far left movement at a time when communism was declared dead!

AJ: Was the abolition of the monarchy and changing Nepal into a secular state done in haste?

Jha: I would disagree with that because Nepal has been stuck in a long process of transition since 1951. A constituent assembly was promised to the people of Nepal way back in 1951. It was only in 2008 that finally a constituent assembly was elected. For 30 years the Nepali people fought against a monarchy and once again in 2002 or in 2005 we saw the monarchy taking over. So each time the Nepali people tried to give monarchy a chance to remain within constitutional limits, the monarch did not stick to that commitment. I would disagree that it was hasty and in fact, I would say that it was high time the monarchy went.

AJ: Can you speak on the peace process especially the rehabilitation of Maoist combatants?

Jha: You know one of the key elements of the Nepali peace process was the fact that, as you said, the combatants of the People’s Liberation Army [Maoist] would be integrated and rehabilitated. But this process took a very long time. Five, six years there were arduous negotiations about how they would be integrated and how many would be integrated. We saw what was one of the stark political ironies that it was finally a Maoist government who had to tell the Nepal army to go into PLA camp to seize them from a rebellion, who had to tell the Nepal army to go into PLA camps to stop the brewing discontent among the Maoist combatants which could well have resulted in a mutiny.

Indian role has to be welcomed. But I think it is best if it does not get too enmeshed in local politics. I hope the new government in Delhi resists the urge to micromanage the politics of a neighbouring country.

by Prashanth Jha

AJ: The peace process was successfully implemented by the Maoists. What is the future of reconciliation?

Jha: This is a complex question. Nepal has passed the Truth and Reconciliation Bill that has drawn criticism from international human rights organisations for being too kind on the perpetrators, for not taking into account concerns of the victims and not taking into account questions of justice. On the other hand, those who have pushed this bill, including the political parties, argue that there was a conflict and there must be a truth-telling. But the parties and the army – perhaps because all of them would be implicated in some manner – are keen that this does not become an exercise in revenge and vindictiveness, and want to downplay the element of justice. What we have seen in the Nepali debate is this tension in the public discourse between the question of peace and justice. I know these are not contradictory principles, and both go together, but this is how it has come to play out in the political realm.

AJ: Why did Maoists lose the November elections and what is their future?

Jha: I think there were several reasons. One of the primary reasons was that the politics they delivered was hardly different from the political culture of the 1990s that was dented by political instability, factionalism, and corruption. There were factional fights within the Maoists. Prachanda kept vacillating and there was another more radical extremist, the faction led by Mohan Bidya Kiran, who eventually split from the party. So, that organisationally damaged them as well.
What is the future, very difficult to tell, I think it will depend on how the current ruling coalition under Nepali Congress (NC) and United Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist perform? If the NC and UML perform badly in government and make a lot of mistakes, then the Maoists have a chance of coming back. But the Maoists will have to do some serious soul-searching.

AJ: Do you think the new constituent assembly will be able to write a new constitution?

Jha: I wish I knew. The one lesson of Nepali politics is you don’t make any predictions. I will say that, Nepali politicians are tired. People want the constitution process done. The levels of polarisation this time are less compared to the first constituent assembly [dominated by the Maoists]. The political class also knows that if they fail to deliver this time, their entire credibility would be gone. They also know that if the constitution is not delivered, the forces who lost out in 2006 – the king, the old royalist forces – will try to make a comeback.

There has been no peace dividend for citizens in terms of economic opportunities leading to disillusionment and anger. But overall, I think historians will look back at this period and marvel at the extent of transformation in such quick time.

by Prashanth Jha

AJ: How will the inauguration of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India impact India-Nepal relations?

Jha: My take is that is that it is too early to tell. Modi, in the last 13 years as the chief minister of Gujarat, I don’t remember him making any public pronouncements on Nepal. What I do know is that in the first meeting Modi had with Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who attended his swearing-in, I am told by sources who attended the meeting that the Indian side led by Modi raised mainly three issues: 1- Push for quick writing of Nepali constitution; 2 – Hydropower, cooperation and development, and 3 – India’s security concerns in Nepal.

So if we just go by the tone and tenor of one conversation that has happened between the Indian side and the Nepali side post-change in government, there is no push for any Hindutva agenda yet.

AJ: Do you think the new Indian government will tighten its reins over Nepal’s affairs and over the Maoists?

Jha: As you have seen in the book, I have mixed feelings about India’s role and there are many times I have welcomed India’s role. There are times when I have criticised it. I think when it comes to values like freedom, supporting the movement for democracy like India did in 2005 and 2006, Indian role has to be welcomed. But I think it is best if it does not get too enmeshed in local politics. I hope the new government in Delhi resists the urge to micromanage the politics of a neighbouring country.

AJ: If you had to describe the transformation of Nepal from a kingdom to a republic in a few sentences, how would you do it?

Jha: That is a difficult question. I would say it is historic, it is a remarkable political transformation from monarchy to republic, from war to peace, from Hinduism to a secular state, from unitary to a potentially federal state. From an army which was under the king’s rule to an army under civilian government in principle – from an exclusivist nationalism to a sense of citizenship. But it is a process riddled with tensions and day to day squabbling among leaders; there has been no peace dividend for citizens in terms of economic opportunities leading to disillusionment and anger. But overall, I think historians will look back at this period and marvel at the extent of transformation in such quick time.

Follow Umika Pidaparthy on Twitter: @UmikaP

Source: Al Jazeera