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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Nepal’s Democratic Upsurge

Previous movements had narrow purpose since they largely aimed at liberalization of the regime, writes DEV RAJ DAHAL, but the current one demanded the structural transformation of the public sphere.

These are extraordinary times in Kathmandu. For the first time in the country’s modern history, monarchy has become truly powerless, at least until a Constituent Assembly election decides the fate of the 250-year institution.

The Nepali parliament, dissolved about four years ago following non-stop political wrangling, and reinstated by King Gyanendra on April 24 this year in an effort to quell massive street protests, has restored the claim of the public to political will and sovereignty.

But what is remarkable about the May 18 announcement of the House of Representatives is that it goes far beyond the traditional notions of democracy that Nepalis were accustomed to in the past. The House proclaimed itself as a “sovereign” and “supreme” body, removed the King as Supreme Commander of the Army, put the army under its control, declared the country as secular state, dissolved rajparishad, the royal privy council, made massive cut in the power and privileges of the king, including the right to decide the heir to the Nepali throne.

The radical declaration marks the super structural changes of historical proportion within which the destiny of all Nepalis may take a new turn. The structural trappings are enormous. This has made the politics of Constituent Assembly (CA) open-ended.

The critical questions that remain unanswered are: Can the incumbent political class liberate itself from its immediate history of failure and adapt to the changed historical situation? Or as usual it will dissolve rule of law into politics and get away with a culture of impunity? How can Nepali citizens collectively share and safeguard their sovereignty-- both internal and external-- in the face of vast poverty and inequalities of wealth and power and create new opportunities for interest mediation required by the values of democracy, social justice and peace?

Nature of the Movement
Millions of Nepalis, defiant in spirit and resentful of the royal regime, violated even curfews or shoot-at-sight orders, and joined the 19-day (April 6-24) movement, which had politicized the everyday life of citizens and stimulated them for collective action. Updated reports said 21 persons were killed and 5,000 wounded in the movement organized by mainstream parties— the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA), the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist)— and civil society groups.

King Gyanendra’s move to restore the parliament that he dissolved on May 22, 2002 mollified the 19-day (April 6-24) civil uprising against his regime and brought a tectonic power-shift in the nation’s politics.

The April movement expressed the will of citizens to legislate, both in form and in substance, and limited the action of those in power through civil disobedience, opposition, and resistance. The actors of the movement utilized the universal legitimacy of democracy, human rights and peace, the power of information revolution to widen and deepen the political awakening of citizens about their fundamental human rights. The civil society, which constituted communicative processes of a myriad of networks, institutions, solidarities and social movements of citizens, was also at the forefront of the movement. The news media bristled with powerful political messages that sponsored serious doubts about the legitimacy of the royal governance. Politics came to the center stage as the adherents of the movement began to see historical parallels between the country’s past and current democratic struggles. As a result, the movement expanded, subsuming the movement of various subsidiary identities.

Nonetheless, on quite a few grounds, the April movement was radically different from the shades of historical revolts of 1950, 1979 and 1990.

First, unlike earlier political movements which were largely ideological, urban-based and elitist in nature, it covered the entire length and breadth of the country. It stimulated the participation of all sections of citizens transcending the differences of their geographical, ideological, social, economic and other group interests, thus binding them together into a solidarity and common identity.

The 16 years of multi-party exercise in the country had expanded the base of critical mass of elites in every sub-society and ignited their aspirations for freedom, rights and social opportunities. The SPA-CPN (Maoist) twelve-point pact on November 20, 2005 in New Delhi to jointly oppose the Royal coup installed on February 1, 2005 not only challenged the conventional division of politics between left and right but also provided essential synergy to the movement politics. This pact received added impetus on March 19, 2006 when both set of actors decided to intensify their movement for democracy, peace, forward-looking reforms and national independence.

Second, an unlikely alliance formed the core of the movement. Political leadership fused the decade-old rural insurgency of CPN (Maoist) and massive display of peaceful urban protest program of political parties and civil society groups. The strategy of CPN (Maoist) to encircle Kathmandu with rural areas and the imposition of a series of blockades of or against Kathmandu and district headquarters had disrupted the governmental processes and weakened its access, authority and efficacy before the eyes of public. To facilitate peaceful demonstration the CPN (Maoist) supported four-day general strike of SPA, suspended armed operation in the Valley and intensified frontal attacks in various parts of the country.

The attack by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Malangwa was severe. The attack left dozens of security personnel dead, several wounded and set free 125 prisoners from the jail. On April 3 CPN (M) announced indefinite, unilateral cessation of armed activities in the valley to facilitate peaceful movement for democracy and to expose suppression on “peaceful demonstrations in the capital under the pretext of countering Maoist infiltration.” On April 9 Maoist leader Prachanda, issuing a statement, declared his program to support and give continuity to the movement.

Prachanda’s agenda involved: a) defy the curfew, repression and prohibitory order of the government for the success of the political movement; b) remove all statues of former kings which remain as a symbol of feudalism; c) take out all the signboards in the name of royal government and replace with Nepal government; d)support and encourage the articulation of local people’s struggle for republicanism; e) mobilize people for not paying any tax and levy to the royal government and take people’s action against the middle men and supporters of feudalism; and f) control major highways through People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Third, the movement proved that old political leadership remained far behind the spontaneous process of mass socialization, mass awareness and mass mobilization by a more unified universe of youth. Popular communication arts— varied music, slogans, dances, display of cartoon, recitation of poems, speeches and colorful flags—made the arena of the movement highly theatrical and helped attract not only activists but also children, women, disabled and ordinary public. Previous movements had narrow purpose as they were largely aimed at the liberalization of political regime while the current one demanded the structural transformation of public sphere in order to make the state and polity inclusive of social and cultural diversity and complexity.

Fourth, the movement received tremendous support and participation of Nepali diasporas, global civil society and the international community. The international pressure helped to quicken the movement, and its outcome. In that, the recent movement was unlike the previous movements, often protracted and very costly in terms of resources and lives of citizens. Thus, the movement swiftly inflicted the political and institutional failures of regime.

The Central Political Dynamics
On the recommendation of the SPA, the King appointed octogenarian Nepali Congress (NC) President G.P. Koirala as Prime Minister. This event has opened the possibility to solve Nepal’s deep-rooted constitutional and political crisis as it gave the fractious SPA leadership a crucial task to facilitate another democratic transition--the first being heralded in 1950 that abolished a century old hereditary Rana regime, the second one in 1979 that culminated into a referendum on the monocratic Panchayat system which opened Panchayat to democratic competition, and the third one in 1990 that abolished Panchayat system and restored multi-party democracy.

All the previous democratic transitions suffered breakdown within a decade because the political processes remained a tortuous one, critical mass remained divided and leadership of the then political class cohabited with the ancient regime thus leaving the promise of social transformation in tatters. Similarly, patronage politics roiled the unity among political class.

Currently, however, parliamentary political class forged an alliance with the revolutionary force--CPN (Maoist) against the Royal regime. Their demands for social transformation involve a secular state, right to self-determination and self-governance. They also seek guarantee on the special rights of Dalits and women, revolutionary land reforms, independent national economic policy, strong opposition to foreign interference, scientific and people-friendly education system and employment.

During the phase of democratic breakdown, the critical mass of civil society helped sustain the ideals of democracy and modernity. It is the same mass that exerted pressures on political leadership for accepting the CPN (Maoist)’s demand for a CA, assuming that it is a precondition to hook CPN (Maoist) into democracy, human rights, peace and competitive politics. The emergence of a new line of thinking in the CPN (Maoist) and their endorsement of democratic movement facilitated the SPA-Maoist rapprochement.

The tasks ahead for the new political leadership are monumental: formation of full-fledged cabinet, supervision of ceasefire to facilitate a peace dialogue with the CPN (Maoists), management of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the warring sides, formation of an interim government including the CPN (Maoist) to hold election for the CA and undertake major structural reforms to satisfy the legitimate aspiration of diverse citizens. The SPA and CPN (Maoist) have already agreed on a four-point roadmap – a reinstated parliament deciding elections to the CA, an agenda to implement the 12-point agreement with the Maoists, an interim government officially inviting the Maoists for discussions and the parliament taking legislative steps to undo the laws adopted by King Gyanendra after his coup d’ état.

Due to fractious nature of SPA from moderate NC to radical left United People’s Front, with their intractable ideological, policy and personality differences, it has already become very difficult to consensually form the government and define the nature of CA. Civil society, leftist political parties and CPN (Maoist) are opting for a restructuring of the state while moderate leaders prefer to legislate glacial change. Moderate parties do not have dynamic perception of the future. Nor do they have concrete policies to affect the course of events as most of the initiatives are originating from the CPN (Maoist). The future of monarchy depends on its adaptation to the crosscurrents of politics and its ability to adapt with the moderate forces.

At the moment, leaders of each political party are claiming their sole credit for the success of mass movement. Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a prominent human rights activist, however, expressed his ire, “it was civil society who convinced people to take part in the movement when the masses were critical of the parties for their past mistakes. But, right after victory, the parties have started ignoring the people’s strength.” He also blamed the SPA leaders for deliberately ignoring the strength and contribution of the CPN (Maoist) in making the people’s movement a success. Civil society groups have played a critical role in raising the public awareness and popular mobilization, but political parties provided required institutional framework and direction.

NC leader Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat pointed another critical challenge: “The biggest issue in the future will be the disarmament of the Maoists. They need to be disarmed before the CA elections.” Shailaja Acharya, another leader from the same party warned, “Opting for a CA would cause bloodbath in the country.” Youth wings of various political parties, however, articulate the language of rights and intergenerational justice as they were the main locomotives of the mass movement.

To exert pressure on the newly restored parliament for an unconditional CA and to secure the release of all rebel leaders and cadres in Nepal and India, the CPN (Maoist) has begun to organize open public meetings and rallies in various parts of the country including Kathmandu before their terrorist tags were removed. The Gandak regional bureau chief of the Maoists, Tank Mani, warned that the Maoists would remain “peaceful as long as the SPA follows the agenda of a CA. If they leave it, they will launch an armed struggle.”

Similarly, ethnic and indigenous people, Dalit organizations and civil society have appealed to the people to join a program to encircle Singh Durbar, the principal secretariat, and pressurize parliamentarians to undertake forward-looking reforms. The CPN (Maoist) wants the election to a CA to bring the nation’s marginalized groups in the political mainstream which will be difficult for many patronage-based, clientalist and personality-oriented parties to fully accept as they were comfortable with the winner-takes-all electoral game and the socioeconomic status quo. Nepal’s main difficulties with the democratization spring from the historical legacy of feudalism in the state, political parties and civil society, widespread poverty, illiteracy, exclusionary development and pre-political orientation of elites.

The questions being debated in the public about restructuring the state (unitary versus federal state), ethnic, cultural, linguistic and regional autonomy as well as economic, political and social reform policies is likely to spawn sharp polarization between moderate and radical political parties and politicize the already radicalized public sphere. On April 25, Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) said that the royal proclamation to restore the House was only a partial achievement of the people’s movement. It said, “None of the demands of indigenous nationalities including their rights of ethnicity, language and culture, self-determination and autonomy has been addressed by this proclamation.” The general secretary of NEFIN Dr. Om Gurung asserted, “We don’t believe that our concerns will be addressed by the reinstated parliament.”

The important political agenda articulated by various political parties now are: promulgation of an interim constitution, giving a complete shape to the Upper House of Parliament, reinstating local self-governing bodies, opening the door for CA elections, compensating victims, initiating basic structural reforms, etc.

The main problem is how to hold the CA election when the security situation has drastically deteriorated and people are driven by aspiration-fueled politics and ideology. Unlike the SPA, which is seeking moderation and stability of the political process, the CPN (Maoist) is fighting a class warfare at the local and national levels against what it calls “comprador class” and is assuring the people that only radical reforms can bring peace, social justice and inclusive democracy.

In other words, unless a widely-acceptable political framework is well-placed, political bickering, indiscipline, law and order problems and slackness in service delivery will continue.

A New Social Contract
The CPN (Maoist) has argued that a new social contract is essential to unify the already torn state between what it calls “old” and “new” regime and move from the state of lawlessness to the law of contract and justice for all including the oppressed, Dalits, women and Madhesi people. Only then the state can be enabled to act as a conciliator of diverse interests and become neutral to class.

In November 2005, the CPN (Maoist) accepted a “bourgeoisie democracy” for the medium-term in exchange for the assurance of an interim government, a CA elections to draft a new constitution and forward-looking reforms. It made public the Compilation of Law 2060 and Directives of People’s Government 2060, but labeled the SPA’s endorsement of the king’s decision to restore the parliament a “historical blunder” and “betrayal” of the twelve-point agreement committed under the influence of “imperialists and expansionists.”

On April 27, it announced a three-month long ceasefire to express the party’s commitment to peace and encourage the parliamentary forces to announce elections for CA so that they can open the door for a democratic republic in the future. Maoist ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai affirmed that they will accept the outcome of the CA elections but not accept the constitutional King and the “bureaucratic capitalist class” dominating the state. Probably, he sensed that its acceptance can provoke the wrath of radical faction within the party and alienate their supporters in ethnic groups and civil society.

Another major challenge is the management of the ceasefire, release of over thousand of Maoists from jails, and more importantly, holding a CA election in a free and fair manner. The 12-point SPA-Maoist understanding envisages the deployment of the UN or any other reliable international supervision to monitor a ceasefire and subsequent CA elections.

The dispute resolution mechanism on this matter has not been worked out yet. The RNA Chief, Pyar Jung Thapa, during his interview with CNN said that after due understanding with the Maoists and upon the renouncement of violence, Maoist rebels can be inducted in the RNA rank. Prachanda, however, states that his forces will merge only with the “democratic elements” in the RNA. What would happen if the Maoists win the CA election? This has evoked the concern of domestic and international forces given the de facto territorial control CPN (Maoist) holds in most of the rural areas of Nepal and the government and major political parties’ activities are confined to urban areas and Kathmandu.

Another risk is that the CA elections might polarize the SPA as each element of the alliance is gripped by an internal power struggle and they have not consensually defined the parameters of the CA as to how the CA members become the true representatives of the nation’s social diversity.

On May 13 Prachanda put several preconditions for a peace talk: dissolution of parliament, scrapping of present constitution, restructuring of the army, drafting of an interim constitution, and formation of an interim government. His party warned that if the SPA went against the twelve-point pact, it will lead another revolt against the government. Despite such threats, peace talks between the Maoists and the government have resumed.

International Community
The international community played a major role in the democratic transition by exerting pressure on the Royal government. They did this via withholding arms supplies, curtailing aid, issuing statements on the violation of human rights and extending cooperation to political parties and civil society fighting for democracy, human rights and peace.

India, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Switzerland, the USA, China and Japan had advised the king to reconcile with the political parties and restore human rights and democracy. But, India’s engagement was pivotal in encouraging direct contacts between the SPA and the Maoists and in brokering the deal between political parties and the king for political transition.

On April 17, Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh held discussions with the cabinet members including the chiefs of the army, navy and air force about Nepal’s situation and sent senior Congress politician Karan Singh to Kathmandu as a Special Envoy. Singh met political leaders of various political parties and the king on April 19-20 and suggested the need for a political dialogue between the constitutional forces of Nepal to overcome the crisis.

The Indian envoy said, “A solution to the problems of Nepal has to be found by the people of Nepal themselves through a political settlement and India is ready to support all efforts towards this end. India’s role at this stage is to be standing ready to support all such efforts.”

Backed by the USA and the UK, India expressed its readiness to renounce its two-pillar theory - constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy - by announcing that it will abide by the decision of Nepali people.

On April 27, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) urged the Indian government to boldly stand for a democratic transformation in Nepal. The CPI(M) said that the Indian government should not seek to coordinate its policy towards Nepal with the US, which is concerned with isolating the Maoists by using the king and the armed forces. Sitaram Yechuri, CPI(M)’s leader, who mediated the agreement between the SPA and the CPN (Maoist) in New Delhi, visited Nepal on April 28 with the goal of finding a way to facilitate the democratic process.

India is putting pressure on the Maoists to agree to renounce violence and enter into democratic politics. Yechuri said, “Any third party involvement would not be necessary if there was mutual trust between the government and the Maoists. The resolution of the Maoist problem will cast a constructive effect in the whole region.”

The United States stated on April 27 that a CA initiated by the parliament could be an excellent avenue for the Maoists to join the political mainstream and peacefully help to address Nepal’s problems. However, to participate in any elections, the insurgents must first lay down their arms and renounce violence. The US Ambassador to Nepal, James F. Moriarty, said that his government is looking forward to working with the people’s government and to resuming visa and other services suspended recently due to security reasons. The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, arrived on May 2 to take stock of the political situation.

Similarly, Norwegian Minister for Development, Erik Solheim, during his recent consultations with political leaders, said, “Norway has no intention to play a role of a mediator between the government and Maoists, but we, as a part of the international community, are ready to help in Nepal’s peace endeavor.

Welcoming the political change in Nepal, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated, “reinstatement of parliament and unilateral ceasefire by the Maoists have paved the way to finding a political solution to the Maoist conflict and addressing underlying causes of violence.” On May 6, Samuel Tamrat, the UN Department for Political Affairs, arrived Kathmandu to review the situation and “help build on those positive developments, towards a negotiated solution to the country’s instability.”

An Arduous Process Ahead
The firm partnership between the SPA and CPN (Maoist) propelled the April mass revolt and helped reintroduce democracy. But, the institutionalization of democracy in the context of scandalous poverty and radicalized mass is an arduous process.

It requires, first, a political consensus on the rules of the game, second, constitutionalization of political class, and finally, the construction of citizenship so that multiple identities of citizens can be subsumed into a common national identity and their various rights can be realized. In the present context of diversity and conflict, this is the way to legitimize the state and polity.

Also, the anti-intellectual culture deeply rooted in Nepal’s political leadership has imposed obstacles to both rational planning of society and the modernization of its political culture. This trend needs to be inverted.

As this movement generated revolutionary expectation of citizens, the future challenge for the political leadership is to consolidate democratic gains through constitutional and institutional arrangements. How are they going to address the concerns and legitimate interests of Janajatis, Adibasis, Dalits, women and the marginalized people?

Resolution of decade-old Maoist insurgency and building peace are by no means small tasks. Similarly, social democratization of mainstream political parties and civil society groups will remain equally important focus of political discourse. It requires competence—social, economic and political—to make politics a public good to be equally shared by all Nepalis. It also requires an understanding of the benefit of distribution and decentralization of power and resources through legitimate means.

Given the highly personalized nature of political institutions and the leaders’ relentless pursuit of the monopoly of power, taxation and loyalty of people, there are real challenges for the current political leadership. How are they going to reconcile with the emerging historical realities? How can they be able to address the concerns of diverse citizens in the CA and give them a sense of common national identity when their classical game of jockeying for power and seeking rents for themselves and their clients continues? When do the political leadership assume responsibility for the consequences of the goals and means they implement?

The main challenge for them will be to craft a social contract acceptable to all, and to inspire a common sense of nationhood and start the peace-building process. Abolition of a culture of impunity that continues to plague the society is a precondition for the consolidation of democracy.

Mr. Dev Raj Dahal is the head of the Nepal branch of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a German foundation working in the area of political education and international understanding. He can be reached at

Posted by Editor on June 4, 2006 2:18 PM