The Nepalese Revolution

By   |  March 12, 2008

“Correctness and incorrectness of ideological and political line decides everything. If the line is correct, everything will come in its way; if it is wrong, everything will be lost which one had before.”

– Chairman Mao, Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) website

Fragile Peace Process: The Importance of Nepal as a Case-Study in Ethnic Conflict

After a decade of violent clashes between various citizen rebel groups and government forces in Nepal, the warring factions have recently laid down their arms and began a peace process. Under the watchful eye of United Nations monitors that were invited in the summer of 2006 to supervise the process, said parties are participating in what has turned out to be a very lengthy peace negotiation as of March 2007.

Since 1996, over 13,000 people have been killed and thousands more displaced in a bloody war fought by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) and ethnic minority groups in an effort to overthrow the longstanding Nepalese monarchy – the only Hindu monarchy in the world. The Maoists, who take their name from Chairman Mao and his ideals of communist revolution in China, are more than just political revolutionaries: their empowerment of women (over 1/3 of Maoist fighters are women) and ethnic minorities has created a rare unification of social movements. Although this popular party was once banned in Nepal, it was announced in January 2007 under a transitional multi-party government plan that the new 330-seat Nepalese parliament would allocate 25% of these seats to the Maoists. [BBC News, Jan. 2007]

The Nepalese Revolution is a case-study in modern ethnic clashes and class struggles. For thousands of years, the region of Nepal has passed from monarchy to monarchy in a seemingly endless cycle that has repeatedly consisted of ethnic minorities being dominated by a ruling ethnic class. Its national borders do not represent a common cultural identity, although many rebels claim that nationalism played a role in uniting minorities against the most recent Nepalese monarchy.

As academics, we could look infinitely back in time to better understand the socioeconomic history of Nepal, but in this paper I will look at the years immediately preceding the 1996 rebellion, specifically addressing the corrupt democracy that emerged in 1991 and why this corruption lead to chaos and instability. I will also address the cultural and political conditions that existed in this time period that ultimately caused civil strife to give birth to a revolution.

As the Nepalese Revolution is yet unfinished, I found in the course of my research that few academics have written on the topic extensively. Li Onesto, the first journalist allowed to follow and interview the Maoist rebels, which she received fame for in 1999, recently published her interviews and observations into the situation in 2005. Mahendra Lawoti also published a book in 2005 that explores the conditions that lead up to the 1996 declaration of revolt, and analyzes what changes must occur for a future democracy to succeed in Nepal. Although printed before the current peace process started, the work provides valuable insight into the reasons for the conflict and should not go overlooked by any research into Nepal in the near future. I call upon these two works heavily in my paper, as they are some of the only significant books on the subject from recent years; I also call upon various academic articles from journals.

Firstly, I will explore the social conditions that existed in Nepal in the early 1990s by calling upon examples of inequality and lack of representation for Nepal’s ethnic minority groups in respect to the democratic government that was established in 1991. Secondly, I will argue that these conditions persisted throughout the 1990s due to the purposeful exclusion of truly democratic ideals from the constitutional reforms of 1990. I will argue that this democracy failed to bring equality, opportunity, and representation to Nepal’s ethnic minorities; instead, the globalization and empowerment that it brought to Nepalese citizens ultimately provided the rebels with the tools they needed to unite and rally toward a revolution. Lastly, I will address what changes must occur for a stable political and economic climate to survive in the near future, in the hope that the current peace process reaches fruition.

Current Political Situation and the Unification of Ethnic Minorities

After 11 September 2001, the Nepalese government, along with India, labeled the Maoists in Nepal “terrorists.” The United States increasingly began to include Nepal in the context of its newly unleashed “war on terrorism” regardless of the lack of connections it had to any element of said war. A proposal initiated by President George W. Bush for $20 million in aid to Nepal stated:

“We currently do not have direct evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in Nepal, but weak governance has already proved inviting to terrorists, criminals, and intelligence services from surrounding countries … continued instability in Nepal could create the conditions in which terrorists easily could establish operations, especially in remote areas in the far west of the country…” [FY 2002 FOESFJ]

Claims such as this thrust Nepal into the international limelight far too long after the revolution had begun, leaving much of the world confused about the Maoists’ goals. It is interesting to note that even as Western powers, India, and even China have tried to suppress attention on the Maoists’ war, it is undeniable that their alliance has the support of millions of peasants, workers, and civilians in Nepal, and that the Maoists also control most of the Nepalese countryside. [Onesto, p.11, 2005]

Under the so-called constitutional monarchy of 1991, current monarchs have twice assumed executive powers – in 2002 and 2005. In response to the recent Maoist uprisings that have raged through Nepal since 1996, and the alliance of the Maoists with the seven parliamentary parties (SPA) in 2005, King Gyanendra ended his direct rule in April 2006 and parliament was reinstated after the Maoists signed a deal proclaiming an end to the insurgency and establishing a multi-party government. In January 2007, a transitional government was launched in response to these negotiated terms. As of 15 January 2007, Maoists and the SPA serve together in an interim legislature under the new Interim Constitution of Nepal, awaiting elections to a Constituent Assembly; all the king’s powers have been suspended indefinitely.

In February 2007, the People’s Daily newspaper in China reported that the 20 days of unrest that recently spread through Nepal’s Terai plains had cost the nation’s economy some 400 million dollars in losses. [People’s Daily, Feb. 2007] The mostly non-violent movement was lead by the Madhesi ethnic minority group, the second largest rebel group after the Maoists. The report demonstrated the extreme fragility of the transitional government that was initiated in January 2007, and the unwillingness of some rebel groups to engage any longer in the peace process. After more than 6 months of a slow-moving peace negotiation that began in the summer of 2006, the impatience of the involved parties was apparent. The report also showed that division was spreading through the once-united rebels after the Maoist party was awarded seats in Nepal’s transitional parliament in 2006; many ethnic minorities simply didn’t identify with the party and were not satisfied by the landmark concession on the part of the Nepalese government, even though other political groups were few among them.

The Madhesi movement did not lack its own justifications for continued revolution. Even though the ethnic group makes up 31% of Nepal’s population, 4 million of them are still without citizenship certificates, not one of them has been brought into the Royal Nepal Army, and their ethnic Indian origin has repeatedly been cited as an excuse to deny them representation in the government [Shilshi, KOJ, Jan. 2007]. The Madhesi group’s split from the Maoists follows an earlier split of the Kirat Workers Party (KWP) from the Maoists in 2003. As the peace process drags on in 2007, more and more ethnic allies are growing frustrated with the Maoists’ inability to keep their promises of quick-moving reform.

Talk of a second revolution has already become common speech on the streets of Nepal, whose citizens have never known a true long-term stability, and most of whom have lived their entire lives with skepticism of their government. On 13 February 2007, less than a month after the interim government was first launched, over 80,000 communist rebels and their remaining allies gathered in downtown Katmandu to mark the 11th anniversary of their revolt. Maoist leader Prachanda warned of conspiracies to disrupt the peace process for which they fought so long to achieve, in an effort to pressure the government to speed up the delayed negotiations. [IHT, Feb. 2007]

Nepal has been under the control of a hereditary monarchy for most of its history. Brief political experiments in multi-party politics in the 1950s were quickly put to an end in 1959 by then King Mahendra. Since that time, a Nepalese parliament has existed fleetingly for short periods, most recently reappearing in 2006 as part of the negotiated peace agreement between rebels and the government, whereupon Nepal was declared a secular state despite over 80% of its population being Hindu. Semi-democratic politics were introduced in 1991 due to popular protests, yet interestingly, the instability of the nation increased dramatically after this milestone. Over the last few decades, the Maoists increasingly gained popularity with the Nepalese people, who live in great poverty. Over 40 percent of Nepal’s 27 million people are unemployed and, according to World Bank statistics, 30.9 percent of them lived below the poverty line in 2003, making Nepal the world’s 12th poorest country.

“The Maoist insurgency began and grew dramatically because of the inequality and injustice in Nepali society,” states Lawoti. “The opening up of the polity in 1990 increased the awareness of inequalities, as the oppressed people articulated their problems, frustrations, and aspirations. The lack of reforms, however, alienated the marginalized people as it showed that the state and the ruling elite were insensitive to the demands.” [Lawoti, p.13, 2005] When the Maoists rose up in rebellion in 1996, therefore, a very large segment of the population immediately supported them.

Failed Democracy of 1990 and the Popular Cry for Revolution

Maoists were excluded during the drafting and adoption of the 1990 Constitution. From the very inception of the so-called “democracy” of the 1990s, the popular interests of Nepalese citizens were not priorities of Nepal’s government. It should be noted that the Maoists were ready and willing to work with the monarchy toward ideas such as a Constituent Assembly, which went completely ignored by the interim cabinet that approved drafts and revisions of the Constitution. Although the Maoists declared that they would boycott the following 1991 general elections, they in fact did participate and became the third largest parliamentary party, known as the UPFN. But despite their reasonable presence in the Parliament, they continued to be excluded from the governance of the country. Although they did win many local elections, the Constitution rendered local power almost null in the face of majority-controlled Parliament.

By 1996, the UPFN had a list of 40 demands for social reform focused on democratic ideals and popular livelihood, which continued to be ignored by all majority Parliament resolutions. Local-level UPFN officials were often imprisoned and tortured on false claims implicated by the administration, and in 1993 a sitting Member of Parliament (MP) of the UPFN nearly died of police beating. [Thapa and Sijapati, p.67, 2003]

This is not to say that social justice movements were being repressed during this parliamentary government; in fact quite the opposite occurred. National identity and justice dialogues occurred significantly more often post-1991; the problem was that nothing substantive was accomplished in regard to public policies and governance as a result of said movements. Not only so, but the presence of indigenous nationalities (including the large Madhesi ethnic minority) decreased noticeably in the administration after 1991, and parties that held interests in ethnic/caste/gender issues were not able to gain sufficient representational power to make changes demanded by lower-class citizens [Bhattachan, 2003]. Lawoti explains, “The political exclusion of traditionally excluded groups in Nepal continues even after the restoration of democracy in 1990. In fact, for some groups like the indigenous nationalities (Adibasi, Janajati, etc.), political exclusion has increased in the Parliament, cabinet, administration and judiciary after 1990 compared to the autocratic Panchayat years, 1962-90 and the 1959-60 democratic years.” [Lawoti p.19, 2005]

The decreased representation of ethnic minorities in Parliament and the continued frustration of Maoists representatives in raising social issues lead to the unifying of ethnic minority factions with political minority factions, lead by the strongly aligned Maoists. The active discouragement of social and cultural issues prior to 1990 and earlier homogenizing policies of the state contributed to the initial lack of ethnic awareness in the post-democratizing of Nepal, but these issues quickly gained momentum after these minority factions began to unite and hold public dialogues.

A key example of the false pretense of the constitutional reforms of 1990 is that even after democracy was declared, Nepal remained a declared Hindu state; additionally, the king’s title continued to proclaim him the offspring of a Hindu god. Thus, non-Hindus were inherently second-class citizens in this system, as public policy and everyday life remained dominated by Hinduism (even though, as we have observed, the population is made up of many languages, religions, and cultures).

Because of the high number of ethnic minorities in Nepal, it would be difficult and time-consuming to detail each ethnic exclusion trend. However, notable groups such as the Madhesi and Muslims with large minority populations are easily identified examples of this growing parliamentary exclusion. In fact, there is such diversity among Nepal’s population that Lawoti confidently estimates that more than two-thirds of the majority is made up of such marginalized sociocultural groups. He also argues that the increased exclusion since 1990 demonstrates the role of democratic institutions in such exclusion, rather than being an inevitable result of various historical factors. [Lawoti, p.19-20, 2005]

When we take a step back from politics and explore the struggle in the countryside, we see that the Maoists are not without their indiscretions in fighting for justice. One long-standing problem faced by peasants throughout Nepal has been funding their agricultural ventures. Because government policy has always limited certain ethnic regions in regard to investment, some regions felt forced to take extreme measures. Onesto documents one such region by recalling an interview in 1999 from the Gorkha district, a very poor farming region in central Nepal:

“One contradiction the peasants face is with small agricultural banks. They have to pay high interest on loans, and many times the bank ends up taking their land away and they become landless. To solve this problem, we told the peasants not to pay the banks for their loans. We attacked one bank and destroyed all the loans documents, so the peasants were freed from their loans. A second contradiction is between peasants and landlords. We dealt with this by implementing a policy of land to the tiller. Land was seized and distributed to the peasants. The third contradiction faced by the peasants is with individual usurers, who give loans with high interest. This problem was solved by destroying documents for these loans. There are other contradictions as well. For example, in the name of religion, God, and the royal family, the priests and government own property, that they give to peasants to farm on a contract basis – the peasants work the land for wages. The peasants grow a lot on these lands, but don’t get very much. So the Party [Maoists] has led the struggle to seize these lands and distribute them to the peasants. There are also some people who file false claims against the peasants and steal land through the courts and the Party has captured such people and brought them before the masses for public punishment. These people are made to confess their crimes and return the land to the peasants. We have also been able to seize some land from the landlords and distribute it to landless people.” [Onesto, p. 74-75, 2005]

Conclusion: What Must be Done for Democracy to Succeed?

The question remains: why does the case of Nepal matter? Economically, very few nations of the world rely on it significantly. Onesto offers a very pointed view on why Nepal is such a symbolic part of US foreign policy:

“As part of the US quest for world domination, the ‘war on terrorism’ serves as an all-purpose umbrella under which numerous interventions are being justified. The political and ideological program of the Maoists in Nepal clearly has nothing in common with … groups like al-Qaeda. The US, Britain, and other imperialist powers have provided the Nepalese regime with political and military support exactly because they know that a Maoist victory would reverberate throughout the Indian subcontinent and the world. The is a region of extreme instability where a Maoist ‘regime change’ in Nepal could interact in unpredictable ways with the hostility between Pakistan and India, the conflict in Kashmir, relations between India and China, and other guerrilla insurgencies in the region, especially those in India.” [Onesto, p. 228, 2005]

In an era where hard-line communist regimes seem to be dying out in the face of US pressure, Onesto’s theory might be right on. It would seem that the US is in a paradoxical situation; they are currently very interested in spreading democracy around the world, but can’t seem to imagine justifying the actions of any poor peasant rebels that might bear the sickle and hammer on their bandanas. The “war on terrorism” only complicates matters, as we have seen. So then, what conclusion is truly feasible? In the realm of conflict resolution, we must avoid ideals and extremes, but rather address what realistic options exist for the near future, and how to go about them.

Shilshi argues that although the Maoists have always claimed democracy as their primary objective, the time since the 2006 ceasefire has proven otherwise. “In the last ten months or so that they have been wedded to mainstream politics, their attitude towards participatory democracy hardly demonstrates this claim. Unless this attitude changes, the world shall continue to doubt their intentions, and most importantly, Nepal’s democracy shall continue to balance itself precariously on a razor edge.” [Shilshi, KO Journal, 2007]

Even if Shilshi’s skepticism were inaccurate, his underlying point remains true. To have any chance at progress, the Maoists must prove to the international community that participatory democracy involving all ethnic backgrounds and regions is not only possible, but something they will fight for above all else. Moreover, they must prove this to the splintered minority groups that are already losing hope for any form of representation in the interim government that was established in January 2007. Without policy changes on paper, and visible changes on the local level in a nation full of rural peasants, the Maoists’ vision will rapidly fall apart into continued chaos and division.

To overanalyze the solutions to the current instability in Nepal would be a grave mistake on the part of academia. In a country of poor agrarian workers living simple lives, whose common desire is the fundamental wellbeing of their families and property, a realistic solution must focus on the “what” before the “how.”

Lawoti clarifies for us, “The Maoist insurgency has amply demonstrated that the underprivileged in Nepal can mobilize. Nepal cannot anymore afford to ignore other problems that could incite additional types of violent conflicts. The continuation of pervasive ethnic/caste discrimination and inequality and the growing awareness about them could turn violent if the state and dominant group ignore the problems. …The state and society have to eliminate discrimination along ethnic/caste lines and include the different sociocultural groups in the governance of the country.” [Lawoti, p.13, 2005]

Nepal being a traditional and pluralistic society, the participation of different minority groups in governance and decision-making processes becomes an important aspect in this direction, echoes Chaturvedy. A few caste groups currently exercise excessive domination in all important spheres of national life. Hence, it has become imperative that major reforms in political institutions must be carried out – specifically, the proportional inclusion of marginalized ethnic groups in the political process.

“There is a need to initiate radical reform in the state structures towards achieving a more equitable and just society and inclusive democracy. The state should address century old social problems like injustice, inequalities and discriminations based on class, caste, sex, ethnicity and geography. Without abolishing these inhumane pathogenic characteristics of Nepalese society, thinking of a democratic Nepal is meaningless. As the first step to end the old order, the state has to implement a sustainable economic agenda that addresses widespread poverty and massive unemployment, severely skewed resource distribution patterns and centrally controlled planning and a resource allocation system of development. Though an interim parliament is certainly a good beginning, strengthening of democracy depends on the sufficient flexibility and willingness of leaders to work together. The civil society groups, political parties and media have a significant role to play in making certain sense of democratic values and behavior amongst all citizens. If the forces of the country want democracy, they have to become active to create a national consensus showing probity, flexibility and learning from the past weaknesses and avoiding blame and counter blame. There is a need to address the root causes of crises and to develop confidence … The future of democracy in Nepal depends on how the Maoists work on the ground.” [Chaturvedy, SSPC, Jan. 2007]

In a nation that has seen thousands of years of instability, a constantly changing ethnic climate, multiple linguistic and cultural divisions, and extreme poverty, there is no room for special interest extremism. The attempted democracy of 1991 failed in Nepal because of a refusal on the government’s part to make equality and proportionate representation a priority for all ethnic groups and regions. Regardless of the professed political or social systems established by those who hold power in Nepal, the revolution that started in 1996 proved that the masses will unite and rise up if their basic human rights and wellbeing are not being protected by their leaders. A public encouragement of a multicultural atmosphere in Nepal that does not lose a sense of national identity is absolutely essential for the peace process to move forward. The monarchy continues to prove itself an unreliable, immoral, and extremely biased head of government in Nepal, but to call for the complete and immediate disbanding of any historical element of Nepal’s government might throw the country into further chaos. Before the Maoists can solidify domestic and international support for their goals of reformation, they must convince said parties that their interest truly is a balanced, proportional democracy that aims to distribute resources fairly and represent ethnicities and regions justly; in this regard, they might want to stray away from such an extremely communist image as they are perceived now. As these basic elements of democracy stabilize, the infrastructure and wellbeing of Nepal can develop naturally based on public trust of government.

Bibliography

Onesto, Li – Dispatches from the People’s War in Nepal, 2005. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Lawoti, Mahendra – Towards a Democratic Nepal, 2005. Chicago: Insight Press.
Chaturvedy, Rajeev Ranjan – Democracy in Nepal: Issues and Challenges, Jan. 22 2007. New Delhi: Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict.
Shilshi, John S. – Democracy on a Razor Edge, Jan. 2007. Kanga Online Journal.
Thapa, Deepak and Bandita Sijapati – A Kingdom Under Siege: Nepal’s Maoist Insurgency, 2003. Katmandu: The Printhouse.
Bhattachan, Krishna B. – Civil Society and Protection of Diversity in Nepal, 2003. Nepal Tomorrow: Voices and Visions. Katmandu: Koselee Prakashan.
Hutt, Michael – Nepal’s Maoist rebellion, 2004. London: Hurst & Company.
Thapa, Deepak – The Maobadi of Nepal, 2002. State of Nepal. Katmandu: Himal Books.
Varshney, Ashutosh – Is India Becoming More Democratic?, 2000. The Journal of Asian Studies, 59 (1): 3-25.
Khadka, Narayan – Factionalism in the Communist Movement in Nepal, 1995. Pacific Affairs, 68 (1): 55-76.
BBC News – Country Profile: Nepal, 2007.
People’s Daily – Unrest in Nepal cost 400-mln-U.S. dollar loss, Feb. 14 2007.
International Herald Tribune – Thousands of former rebels and supporters rally in Nepal’s capital, Feb. 13 2007.
FY 2002 Foreign Operations Emergency Supplemental Funding Justifications.
World Bank – poverty index report, 2003.

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