February 18, 2002


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Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

Time is on the side of the Maoists

If the attacks in Nepal are any indication, the Maoists are determined to take their war into the heart of Kathmandu.

The Maobadi cult took root in Nepal during Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's first term in office in 1995. No one would have imagined that seven years later he would be imploring parliament to ratify the state of emergency imposed in the country on November 26 last year to fight the Maoists in Nepal's war against terrorism.

Although political parties and the Royal Nepal Army are not all united behind the emergency, it is likely to be extended by another three months until May this year. Political parties are likely to extract their pound of flesh while obliging Deupa.

An emergency proclamation is authorised by the constitution in time of war, external aggression, acute economic depression and armed revolt. Although a situation of internal revolt was unthinkable in the Hindu Himalayan kingdom, several veteran Gurkha soldiers had predicted a Sri Lanka-like situation more than a decade ago.

The Maoist influence and the red flag flutter right across the country. After 7pm Nepal is under a blanket of curfew and war has reached the heart of Kathmandu valley. The ill-equipped, inexperienced and, to some extent, reluctant-to-fight RNA has not been able to put the lid on the Maoists. The economy is badly hit by the drying up of tourism and the levy of new taxes to fund the war.

Chronic instability and failure of governance have made Nepal socio-politically volatile. Eleven governments with six prime ministers rotating in 11 years, presiding over corruption and inefficiency, have discredited the much awaited democracy. With monarchy already tainted, the Maoists' cry, 'we are the future', has found resonance.

The idea of a national government is frequently mooted as a panacea for Nepal's troubles. Besides being impermissible by the constitution, there are not many takers for it except for the four-times former prime minister G P Koirala, who has not stopped playing snakes and ladders. At one stage the Maoists themselves had floated the hot-air balloon of a government of national reconciliation.

For strategic reasons the Maoists appear to have scaled down their political demands. Terminating monarchy is no longer a key issue. Instead, a new constitution is. It is understood that the new monarch, King Gyanendra, has said he is not averse to the formation of a constituent assembly.

The uncanny synchronisation of views between the revolutionaries and the king has not been missed by political pundits in Nepal. But mainstream political parties are unlikely to compromise on the 1990 constitution, which was bequeathed to the people as a gift by the late King Birendra.

In the past, constitutional experts have admitted that the constitution needs to be reviewed in the light of Nepal's experience with constitutional monarchy. There is room for amendment, not least on the location of power in regard to the RNA and the rather delicate balance between monarchy and democracy. It was for this reason that the promulgation of emergency and the mobilisation of the RNA got unnecessarily delayed, tilting the strategic balance in favour of the Maoists. Had the RNA been called out in 1997, as had been recommended, the Maoists would have been contained in the western districts.

Given the need to defend the palace and Kathmandu valley, the 35,000-strong RNA, consisting of seven combat and four support brigades and nearly 50 independent Himal companies, does not have the reach, numbers and mobility to combat the Maoist insurrection that has sprouted right across the 75 districts.

Major General Sadeep Shah, located in Nepalgunj, is in command of a two-brigade force deployed in the Rukum-Rolpa area, which is at the heart of the people's war. Another brigade is located in the east around Hille. Further, the key deficiency facing the RNA is intelligence -- about the Maoist network, terrain and weapon caches.

During the panchayat raj, the RNA had a very good system of monitoring political activists in the country. The last time the RNA undertook a seek-and-destroy mission was in 1975 against the Khampa leader Wangdi, who was felled in the Humla-Jumla district. The RNA's current resources do not permit sustained operations. Three years too late, the RNA is three months on the job without any substantive results. It is going to be a long haul indeed.

The strength and capability of the Maoists is largely indigenous. Their weapons have been looted from the police, some from the army, and their operational skills have been multiplied by their deep insight of targets and support from the local people. The attack last year on the district headquarters of Siangja, 60km south of Pokhara, was a classic guerrilla operation.

An army of 1,500 Maoists, hard-core and sympathisers, surrounded Siangja after dark, cutting off the north-south highway. They chose as their target the chief district officer, the jail, three banks, the land records office and the police station. At midnight, they struck simultaneously at their objectives. All the 13 police personnel were killed, armoury and banks looted, land records burnt and the CDO held captive, later released.

As quietly as they had descended on Siangja, they melted away without any reported loss of fighters. Usually when their cadres are killed, female Maoists behead the dead to remove any traces that may enable possible reprisals against their families.

The aim of the Maoists is the discredit the RNA like they had the police, for their excesses and violations of human rights. The Deuba government gives little information on the day-to-day operations of the RNA, especially about casualties. At least 400 people have been reported killed since the imposition of emergency. Of these, around 200 are Maoists and 100 security personnel.

Time is on the side of the Maoists. For the present, they are lying low with their top leaders having gone underground. Central to their campaign of securing maximum publicity and showing the government and the RNA ineffective and helpless is the targeting of Kathmandu.

India was the first to provide a military assistance package worth Rs 250 million when the RNA was called out. Britain has sent in communication equipment, Land Rovers and de-mining systems. Russia has also given two Mi-17 helicopters. Following US Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent visit to Kathmandu, the RNA is hoping to receive counter-terrorism equipment as well as training in special operations.

The government's main task now is to garner resources to fund the war. Tourism, the mainstay of the economy, has been crippled. First it was the Indian tourists who shied away from Kathmandu following the hijack and the anti-India campaign involving Hrithik Roshan, fuelled by the Maoists and the ISI. The new phase of the war has reduced the inflow of foreigners to a trickle -- just a handful of backpackers.

The defence budget until two years ago was around $50 million against a GDP of $5 billion. Military spending has already trebled and an additional $26 million is being raised from a whole range of new direct and indirect taxes. These measures will hit the ordinary people most. They are already making 'donations' to the Maoists. This double-taxation will play into the hands of the Maoists.

The three main issues keeping the people's war on the boil are unemployment, underdevelopment and corruption. Nearly 500,000 educated youth are entering the job(less) market every year.

Due to the political uncertainty, hardly any socio-economic reforms have been undertaken, though the Deuba government has plans. It has frozen the bank accounts of certain individuals and institutions funding the Maoists. Action to regulate the mushrooming of madrassas and mosques in the Terai and monitoring the activities of the ISI and the Pakistani embassy in Kathmandu also hasn't come a day too soon. The growing nexus between the ISI and the Maoists is no longer a secret.

Nepal's intellectuals and defence experts are giving the Maoists a one-year life span before they are crushed either under their own contradictions or brought to heel by the RNA. For the present, there is no evidence that either scenario is on the horizon. If there is a silver bullet, it is with King Gyanendra.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta

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