Integrating a group of rebels who had waged war against the State's soldiers till a few years ago into the national army is not an easy task. The disbanding of the Maoist rebel fighter groups and beginning the process of their integration into the Nepali army is a significant achievement in the peace process. It is an achievement that has generated a positive mood in the country.
The majority of the one-time combatants have left the camp and gone home, with a small minority of about 3000 cadres being inducted into the army and bound down by a code of conduct which bans any political activity including political debates and discussions. This process has resolved one of the most contentious issues in the peace process.
The major political parties, the Maoists and even the Nepal army leadership had disagreed over the number of former fighters to be inducted into the Nepal army as well as the manner of integration of the former rebels. The continued existence of the former rebel fighter groups had created apprehension and suspicion in the minds of the political parties, who termed them 'a private army'. The suspicions peaked when the former armed cadres were deployed for security purposes at the houses of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and Maoist chief, Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda', till the government sent the cadres back to their camps.
As the former Maoist combatants moved out of their camps and made their journey back to their homes, it created the atmosphere for serious discussions among the major political parties on issues relating to the constitution. With less than five weeks for the deadline of May 27 for preparing a new draft constitution, the positive mood could help in resolving other tangled issues in the constitution-drafting process currently underway in Kathmandu.
Top leaders of the major political parties have met over two days in an attempt to arrive at a consensus, but the discussions were inconclusive. Another round of meetings and discussions are due to be held over the weekend before the constituent assembly meets on April 23.
Integrating the Maoist cadres was one of the provisions of the comprehensive peace agreement signed by the Maoist chief, Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' and the late Girija Prasad Koirala in November 2006 which ended the decade-long insurgency. As part of the peace agreement, about 19,000 armed Maoist cadres had been confined within temporary camps monitored by the United Nations mission in Nepal while their arms were locked up in the custody of the UN mission. Under the verification carried out by the UN, cadres who were minors or late recruits were allowed to go home.
The Nepali Congress, some smaller parties and also the military leadership had resisted the integration till they reached an agreement to constitute a separate directorate of the Nepal army to be headed by senior army officers and staffed by Maoist rebels.
In November 2011, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, the leaders of his party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist agreed to a seven-point agreement. Among other issues, the agreement set out the method of integration of the former fighters. However, further issues cropped up that delayed integration even as the other political parties insisted that there would be no progress on drafting the constitution till this crucial aspect of the peace process was completed.
The combatants have remained in the camps for more than five years as the mainstream political parties and the Maoists have wrangled over the process of integration. The Maoist leadership was reluctant to go ahead with disbanding the former armed cadres while crucial questions regarding the political process had not been resolved. There were differences among the Maoists with the hardline faction within the Maoists, led by their senior vice president Mohan Baidya Kiran, strongly opposed to disbanding the cadres. The tussle among the Maoist leaders had trickled down to the camps where several violent clashes took place.
Former combatants were made the offer of 'voluntary retirement' with a rehabilitation package. Almost 10,000 of the former fighters had chosen to be integrated into the Nepal army. But the seven-point agreement allowed for 6500 cadres to be inducted into the Nepal army under less stringent eligibility rules. Cheques made out to individual combatants were ready to be handed out to the 'retirees' when the former combatants were given one last opportunity to choose between the two options by the Army Integration Special Committee. There was a surprise development -- many of the cadres had a last-minute change of heart and decided to return to civilian life. Less than half of the 6500 limit for integration will now be filled by those choosing to become soldiers of the Nepal army.
With the integral process satisfactorily resolved, the political leadership in Kathmandu has to prepare a draft constitution by the supreme court mandated deadline of May 27. The supreme court has ruled out further extension of the present constituent assembly, which is likely to lead to dissolution of the assembly and fresh elections. The constituent assembly, which was elected in 2008, has had its term extended four times.
It remains to be seen whether Nepal's politicians can take the lessons learnt from the issue of integrating Maoist combatants and reconcile their views on disputed issues that are holding up the drafting of a constitution.