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South Asia Peace Initiative

K.V. Rajan: A Peace Initiative of Another Kind

The tiny kingdom of Nepal, nestling at the foot of Mount Everest, has caught the attention of the world by the manner in which it has been trying, for more than a decade, to grapple with an ideologically anachronistic, often brutally violent, and increasingly worrying (for many in Nepal and much of the outside world) extremist left-wing insurgency.

The Maoist insurgency in Nepal has raised many questions. Some at least would have a degree of relevance to other nations aspiring for peace, democracy and economic progress. It has been said that there is no such thing as a perfect democracy; democracy is an utopia where the perennial challenge is how to manage the inevitable disappointments, frustrations, grievances, and resentments of those who feel that they deserve a bigger share of the cake.

Is a democratic state left with any other option but to deal with such a threat by the use of force? When it seems to be failing, is a dose of authoritarianism by the state and police justified? Is Maoist violence itself justified when there is proven mal-governance, corruption, and insensitivity in the parliamentary system leading to exclusion, marginalization, deprivation, and human rights abuse on a massive, institutional scale? Is there any point (as the Washington Times recently questioned about peace deals with Nepal’s Maoists) in trying to sign a peace treaty with violent, ideologically motivated groups which believe in armed confrontation to bring about their definition of change?

And, was the Universal Peace Federation right in investing so much hope, energy, and resources in an open-ended peace initiative in Nepal which pitched “irresistible force” (faith) against an apparently “immovable object” (the Maoists)?

I vividly recall the moment when we—a small group from the UPF including Robert Kittel, Ursula Amala McLackland, Ek Nath Dhakal, then leader of UPF-Nepal (now an Honorable Member of Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly), and myself—first discussed, on the margin of an International Leadership Conference in Seoul, Korea in March 2005, UPF’s growing success in Nepal despite the great political turbulence sweeping that country.

Ek Nath and I had the same thought almost simultaneously: the UPF message must be urgently applied to ease political tensions and end the growing violence in Nepal. We agreed to launch a series of conferences devoted to common challenges to peace and development in the South Asian region, deliberately inviting leaders from all the political parties with whom I had closely worked as India’s Ambassador to Nepal, in the hope that the existing trust and communication deficit could be eased progressively in a positive and politically neutral environment. We had no illusions about the complexities of the task that lay ahead. The situation looked hopeless then, and there appeared to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

There was complete paralysis in governance in Nepal because of a three-way confrontation between the monarchy, the seven “democratic” political parties (Seven-Party Alliance) and the Maoist insurgency. The King had assumed absolute powers and was having a confrontation with democracy even as his Army tried unsuccessfully to take on the Maoists.

Participants at the first conferences consisted of representatives from parties close to the palace as well as the Seven-Party Alliance; the Maoists, considered political untouchables, were not invited. There was no point in talking to them, so the conventional wisdom went, since their commitment to the ideology of installing a people’s republic through class struggle did not leave any room for negotiation or compromise.

The UPF message of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and living for the sake of others was thus heard with interest and attention but also some skepticism—these lofty ideals must have seemed to be somewhat far removed from the reality of the situation in Nepal, marked by tremendous tension, bitterness, and hatred, with conflicts being reported regularly in different parts of the country. As one senior Nepalese politicians told me, shaking his head in disbelief, “Why are you walking in where angels fear to tread?” the subtext in this being, “Don’t do this. It will fail. It will discredit you as an organization, however well meaning you might be.”

But the UPF persisted in its efforts: between July 2005 and the time of writing, more than eight major peace conferences have been organized; each has been more meaningful, more significant than the earlier one. In addition, as the book chronicles, there were dozens of other activities, high-profile visits, service projects, education, and youth mobilization programs.

I recall a chance remark I made in one of the earlier conferences, suggesting that since all the parties—the King, political parties, and the Maoists had made mistakes, it was better to avoid finger-pointing and go for unconditional talks. I was surprised the following morning to see that this innocuous statement was a front-page headline in all the papers! Similarly, a resolution passed unanimously at the next conference in which we urged that direct communication should be established with the Maoists and expressed some appreciation for their social and economic agenda seemed to make a much bigger impact than we had imagined.

On another occasion, after UPF had launched a “Movement for the Underprivileged” in partnership with Indian and Nepalese companies to empower poor families, a high-level UPF team called on the senior Maoist leaders, Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, in their heavily guarded office. I explained that one of the purposes of SAPI was to make people realize that Maoists were not “the other”—no demons but normal human beings. Bhattarai interjected appreciatively, “actually, better than normal human beings.”

When the concept of “One Family Under God” was explained, with a caveat that we invited even those who might not believe in God to commit themselves to the idea that “We are one family,” Prachanda said, “This is a very interesting principle. We have followed a different path so far, but we believe in the same principle. Our methods have so far been different. But after the election, you will see … we would like to work closely with the UPF.”

In order to make the army and government comfortable, we brought in one of India’s top police officers and a human rights expert to discuss human rights issues in the widest perspective and frankly acknowledge the mistakes and learning process India had to go through in tackling its own insurgencies.

I have no doubt in my mind that what was at that time an inclusive approach towards the Maoists encouraged them to participate in our next few conferences at a fairly high level and for their leaders to receive us in their highly guarded and rarely visited offices. The Maoists seemed anxious to reassure us and through us, the civil society and political leaders attending our meetings, about their benign intentions in regard to building a peaceful and prosperous Nepal. As for the political establishment, the government, and the Army, there was a genuine desire to end the conflict but also a basic resentment that the outside world was oversimplifying the situation to the respective disadvantage of each, and therefore a willingness to state their points of view in a “neutral” environment.

Thus, there was a remarkable “quality” in the cross-party participation in UPF’s various activities. The spontaneous reception that was given to Father and Mother Moon on their extraordinarily successful visits (all political parties and the Maoists actually decided to suspend a strike which had paralyzed the country for a day, out of deference to Father Moon) speaks volumes for the respect in which they are held.

A series of developments occurred between 2005 and 2009, at times deeply disappointing, at other moments defying the most daringly optimistic expectations, culminating in the end of the insurgency, the “mainstreaming” of the Maoists in a multiparty democratic framework, a comprehensive peace agreement, the holding of elections to a Constituent Assembly, and the emergence of a democratically elected coalition with the Maoists heading it.

In the process, the country that the world used to know as Nepal transformed its fundamental identity. The world’s only Hindu kingdom officially ceased to be “Hindu” and, with the abolition of the monarchy by a formal decision of the Constituent Assembly, became a federal, democratic republic. Even hard-boiled diplomatic observers were struck by the pace, fundamental nature, and apparent irreversibility of these positive changes, and some frankly described it as something of a “miracle.” For some at least in the UPF family, there is a temptation to say, “and thereby hangs a tale!”

The holding of the April 10, 2008 election to the Constituent Assembly was itself undoubtedly an achievement for Nepal and opened up the possibility of creating a new, inclusive democratic Nepal. The results were most unexpected—even by the Maoists. Not entirely free and fair but undoubtedly credible, they represented a mandate for change: the Maoists won an emphatic victory, although they were short of a simple majority.

Most old leaders from mainstream parties were defeated. The monarchy was also rejected—leaders and parties standing for even a ceremonial role for it were defeated. New power centers emerged: communities which had traditionally been excluded, suppressed, or marginalized were suddenly thrown into the power structure. The Constituent Assembly was the most inclusive body in the history of Nepal, indeed anywhere in South Asia. The downtrodden Dalits (“untouchables” in the caste system of the subcontinent now) had more than 50 Parliamentarians; women had nearly 200 (one third of the Constituent Assembly’s total membership).

The Maoists were quick to claim that they had a mandate from the people for effecting change. But once in government, they had to confront the difficult task of delivering on several fronts. The onus was on them to create a sense of trust and confidence in their intentions, by ending the tactics of violence, intimidation, brinksmanship, and aggressive rhetoric which had admittedly been a cause of their success so far. The resentment and bitterness created among other parties had to be healed by a demonstration of Maoist moderation, accommodation of diverging views, and respect for the need for consensus on all important issues. Translating the objective of federation—an aspiration towards which they had contributed immensely during the insurgency—into reality was bound to be a difficult and divisive exercise.

In fact, the Maoists did little to reassure the world about their real intentions. They shifted their goalposts every now and then. Even when they were in government, they frequently indulged in brinksmanship, threatening to pull out of the government when one or other of their demands was not met, usually managing to have their way until May 2009, when the other parties (backed by public opinion and most of the international community) refused to go along with the Maoist decision to sack the Army Chief in what was clearly an attempt to assert control over the security sector. They have also tried to explain away, occasionally even to justify, the intimidation and violence being in indulged by their cadres and the much feared youth front, the Youth Communist League.

Overall, sad to say, there is a culture of impunity and violence in Nepal today. The much touted “New Nepal” is currently a republic of uncertainty, and may well become republic of fear. The absence of trust between political leaders and parties; political opportunism, shifting alliances, absence of leaders with vision and stature is compounded by the poor institutional underpinnings—a politicized bureaucracy, demoralized police, disliked army, and partisan media. The Maoists are now on the streets. Bandhs (shutdowns) and strikes organized by different revolutionary ethnic group affiliated with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists have become a virtual reality. Parliamentary proceedings have stopped. The country, by common description of the Nepalese themselves, is falling into chaos.

So, was the UPF initiative in organizing the SAPIs worth the energy and effort, when the peace process is already so frayed within a few months of the historic Constituent Assembly elections? The basic question, “Can Maoists change their DNA?” is difficult to answer one way or the other. The jury is still out. Many of their actions and statements do not inspire confidence that they have decisively given up violence and intimidation. On present evidence, it seems that they may have changed their strategy and tactics, but not their ideological goals.

Many experts believe that for the Maoists, with their confrontation with the Army unable to produce a positive outcome, the peace process was simply a means to abolish the monarchy and overcome international hostility after 9/11. Prachanda acknowledged as much when he said he “did not foresee the possibility of capturing the state power at the center through armed revolution alone.” But it was amply clear that abandoning armed struggle in favor of “competitive politics” was at best a tactical move.

Maoist leaders themselves emphasize that their present success is due to “fusion of ballot and bullet” and insist that they have not abandoned armed struggle. There is no regret for past violence, and present violence is easily rationalized. The highly publicized video recording which surfaced in May 2009, showing Prachanda addressing his cadres in January 2008 and bragging about how the Maoists had successfully duped the international community and the Nepalese people on a whole range of issues in order to get into a peace process which they intended to undermine from within, has come as grim confirmation to many about the real Maoist agenda. It would be easy to be shocked into concluding that the UPF and others who worked hard to bring the Maoists into the mainstream were naïve and have been thoroughly hoodwinked.

Yet it must be acknowledged that there have been major shifts in Maoist strategy in the past few years; their commitment to multiparty democracy may be tenuous and their declared intent to give up violence insincere, but the debate within the movement between the pragmatists and hardliners appears to be genuine. If so, there is merit in persevering in the hope that the pragmatists will ultimately prevail. The Maoists are without doubt at the heart of Nepal’s crisis of governance; yet they are also an indispensable part of the solution.

It is also important to underline that the reasons for the present political impasse do not entirely lie with the Maoists. The peace process was based on political expediency for all the parties, not on any deeply felt convergence in terms of national objectives. For the established parties, who had comprehensively underachieved in the 12 years of democracy between 1990 and 2002, it was an opportunity to return to power despite popular disenchantment with them.

Thus, leaders of the so called mainstream parties—the non-Maoists—need to understand that at this critical juncture in their nation’s history, the obsession with power—an understandable and necessary element in normal times in any multiparty democracy—must take a back seat to the real priority of the day, which is to consolidate the peace process and write the Constitution in time. This will not be possible without a sense of service and if need be, sacrifice on the part of every key Nepalese leader—a plea which is in the subtext of every UPF conference in Nepal.

Nearly two years after the second people’s movement in Nepal’s history, the Jana Andolan II as the Nepalis term it,  which forced the monarchy out and ushered in a people’s federal democratic (and secular) republic, the mood in Nepal is one of deep anxiety for the future. The hope and euphoria which swept across the country as a ceasefire agreement was signed and a time-bound peace process announced have given way to a sense of hopelessness as a combination of spreading violence and non-existent governance challenges security in most parts of Nepal.

There is fairly widespread concern that unless present trends are managed and decisively reversed, future generations of Nepalese may well wonder how Nepal’s political parties, including the Maoists, could have squandered a unique opportunity to end the country’s long socio-economic-political crisis. As things stand, prospects for smooth governance, the peace process, writing of the new Constitution within the stipulated period of two years, do not look bright. The likely future scenario may well be a façade of democracy and collapsing governance, together with a breakdown of law and order.

Nepal is crying out for leadership with vision, governance, with sensitivity, an environment free of violence and instability. It also needs a minimum of trust between various groups who were until recently fighting each other—principally the Army and the Maoists—but who now simply have to work together in order to create a new Nepal. The UPF must lead international efforts to create that kind of conducive environment through new peace initiatives. The road map must naturally be a combination of idealism and realism.

The idealism has a lot to do with faith in the essential nationalistic instincts of the Maoists. After all, much of the good that has happened in Nepal in the recent past—the end of the monarchy, the start of a process to replace a feudal power structure with something more inclusive, more democratic, more responsive to the common man’s aspirations from governance—has been due to the Maoist struggle for change, which was essentially embraced by the electorate in the April 2008 elections. But it has also to do with faith in other political leaders, in the Army which must gracefully adjust to change, and in the ability of Nepalese civil society to empower itself with a sense of responsibility.

The realism has to do with the facts that the Constituent Assembly has a life of 24 to 30 months; that the Maoists are not a monolithic organization, they have their pragmatists and hardliners; and that the pragmatists will see the current situation as a historic opportunity to cooperate in the framing of a new Constitution and keeping the peace. Whether the Maoists are in government or not, it is they who will get the credit if the Constituent Assembly delivers a good Constitution in peaceful conditions, and they—along with other politicians who failed to rise to the occasion—will be blamed and reviled by future generations for having squandered a historic opportunity if they do not.

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