December 28, 2000



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Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Trouble in the world's last Shangrila

It was on and then off. Hopes of a rapprochement with the Maoists was shortlived. After two years of inconclusive and indecisive moves to initiate talks with the extreme Left Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) waging a Maobadi Jana Sangharsh (People's War) against monarchy and constitution, the government finally succeeded in breaking the ice.

As dramatic as it was surprising, the window of opportunity opened last month when Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudyal met the Maoist Central Committee member, Ravindra Shreshtha as a prelude to an official dialogue. But the window closed immediately after an inconclusive end to talks when Maoist leaders claimed they had been brought there under duress.

Since the insurgency started in the far west of Nepal in September 1995, and spread rapidly throughout the kingdom, no government has been able to determine whether it is simply a law and order problem, or more seriously, the alienation of the poor and underprivileged due to the dismal performance of the mainstream political parties following the restoration of democracy in 1990.

Who would have thought even five years ago, that the world's last Shangrila ruled directly till recently by the reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, would force simple village folk into turning revolutionaries following the teachings of Guzman's Shining Path guerillas in Peru. Some of the worshippers of the God King are now demanding the abolition of monarchy.

For many years graffiti denouncing both the partyless and multiparty systems in Nepal has been on the wall. Disillusionment with the ruling elite -- Brahmins, Chetris and Newars -- of the lower castes and tribes called Jan Jattis has been growing. A Nepalese Army veteran had predicted, in the late eighties, a Sri Lanka-type ethnic conflict in Nepal.

It is a strange coincidence that the hotbed of the present insurgency is centered in the erstwhile state of Magrat -- consisting of Nepal's largest ethnic group, the Magars, now part of Jan Jatti and a separate Magar movement -- extending from Tanhu to Rolpa districts, once part of the Gurkha kingdom ruled by King Prithvinarayan Shah. He too, waged a war against Kathmandu and united Nepal. The Rapti zone, one of the least developed areas of west Nepal, is the epicenter of the Maoist struggle for political and economic reforms. According to them Parliament is a sham: like displaying a goat's head but selling chicken.

Not many people realise that communists have ruled Nepal independently and in a powersharing arrangement. The fount of the communist movement is Jhapa, in the east, where the Marxist Leninists started the Jhapa movement in 1971 in harmony with the Naxalites next door. The movement though suppressed by the Panchayat regime was not eliminated. Vast tracts of the east have communist sympathisers.

By the late 1970s at the time of the students' movement against the Panchayat regime, the communists had regained their preeminence and controlled several districts in the east. For a full three days in 1979, Kathmandu was cut off from the east.

If the East was once the stronghold of the Marxist Leninists, today it is the Maoists whose writ runs in much of the west. The rebels number about 800 hardcore, including females with thousands of local supporters. They do not possess any sophisticated weapons like mortars and machine guns. With just a few automatic rifles, crude guns, plastic explosives and petrol bombs, they have terrorised more than half of the country's 75 districts.

Nepalese say their headquarter is in India -- either in Lucknow or Gorakhpur -- and they have links with the Peoples' War Group in UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. Recently there were reports of arms being helidropped for the Maoists but no one has been able to nail the source of external support.

Nearly 1600 -- about 100 policemen, 60 Maoists and remainder civilians -- have lost their lives in the insurgency. Maobadi tactics are a mix of terror and more terror: extortion, assassination, abduction, bomb blasts, raids and attacks. They have looted banks, raided prisons, overrun police posts and district headquarters and even bombed the premises of government and police officials.

Their most spectacular attack was wiping out a 30-man police post in Rolpa last month. A typical terror and siege operation is surrounding the police post by flame-throwing rebels till panic would lead to exhaustion of ammunition and spirit.

Last year, on one day alone, rebels carried out 25 attacks which included demolishing a police post in Rukum. Recently they wiped out two police posts at Dolpa and Kalikot with allegations that the army refused to come to their help.

Their strategy is army lai na chhu, police lai na chhod (don't touch the army, don't leave the police). The police have been unable to cope with the insurgency. They were promised new military hardware including hand grenades and a fresh package of training but most of it has not materialised.

The police is low in morale and military capability. An armed police trained by the army is being raised to deal with the Maoists. Achyut Kharel, Inspector General of Police, was forced to resign amid speculation that the army was at last being mobilised.

Three years ago, a similar report had surfaced in Kathmandu. Three brigades of the army under Maj Gen Prajwala Rana (now the army chief) were earmarked for anti-Maoist operations. Apparently, there was no political consensus on their employment.

The truth is different. The cerebral Gen Dharam Pal Thapa, the then army chief, was strongly opposed to the idea. The last occasion when the army was used was against the Tibetan Khampas in the mid 1970s. Otherwise, not since the Gurkhas fought the British in 1846 has the army been used on Nepalese soil.

Another reason for dithering over the use of the army is the known objection by King Birendra who is also the supreme commander of the fiercely loyal army. According to Article 118 of the constitution, operational deployment of the army is the responsibility of His Majesty but on the advice of the National Defence Council (NDC). At least one of the country's 12 infantry brigades is always deployed in the Narayanhitti Palace.

The rumour mill in Kathmandu allege a member of the royal family is involved in the Maoist insurgency. The idea being to discredit democracy and revive monarchy. Some Nepalese see a foreign hand in the conspiracy to destabilise Nepal. One government official has linked the insurgency to future developments in Tibet. Besides these creative explanations on the cause and effect of insurgency, divisions within the ruling Nepali Congress have needlessly delayed choosing between negotiations and/or use of military force.

Prime Minister G P Koirala nominated rival and former prime minister S B Deuba to head a committee to bring the Maoists around to the negotiating table. Just when Deuba seemed to be succeeding, Koirala pulled the rug from under his feet and let Poudyal stage the coup of establishing contact with the rebels. Koirala also sent tough signals to the Maoists -- talk peace or face the army. He appointed new home and defence secretaries as well as an inspector general of police.

Further, he reconstituted the NDC, the country's highest body for making security policy. Its statutory composition includes the prime minister, defence minister and army chief. Previously since the prime minister was also his own defence minister, there was often a tie in voting. That is how Dharam Pal stalled the use of the army in 1998.

Koirala has got out of the jam by giving the defence portfolio to his finance minister Mahesh Acharya. This has broken the impasse over using the army and giving Koirala greater flexibility in dealing with the Maoists, provided His Majesty accepts the advice.

Former Prime Minister K P Bhattarai on a recent visit to Delhi told this writer that the king, and only the king, can mobilise the army against Maoists. Koirala has said the constitution is non negotiable though he is open to discussing political and economic reforms as demanded by the Maoists.

The king holds the cards. Till he gives the go-ahead for using the army, the Maoists are unlikely to give up violence and the government unable to come up with an adequate politico-military response.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

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