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India's U-turn for a despot
Praful Bidwai
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May 05, 2005

Did India lose in two days in Jakarta the tremendous goodwill it earned over three months in Nepal, by agreeing to meet King Gyanendra and resume the arms supply it blocked since the Royal usurpation of power of February 1? India is certainly in serious danger of doing so.

The king quickly publicised the Indian offer and gloated that 'We have got assurances that (the arms supplies) will continue.' This gave New Delhi an opportunity to go public about the king's 'roadmap' for restoring democracy and thus hold his feet to the fire. India squandered that chance and revealed utter confusion in its Nepal policy. This looks especially stark after the arrests of former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and others.

Whether or not India's weapons offer is conditional, and whether or not it is limited to releasing a consignment already in the pipeline, a shift has doubtless occurred in New Delhi's stance. It has been in the making for many weeks and became apparent at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva last month, when India, with the United States and Britain, blocked a worthy and tough resolution reprimanding Nepal and appointing a special rapporteur. The 'troika' offered the king an escape route under a mild procedure only asking for 'technical cooperation' (Agenda Item 19).

India seems to have diluted its principled stand against the royal takeover for four reasons.

First, there is the hyped-up fear in New Delhi that Nepali Maoists would infiltrate into India, aggravating the Naxalite problem.

Second, the king pleaded that the Royal Nepal Army is running out of the ammunition it badly needs to control the insurgents.

Third, there was the fear -- especially after the Chinese foreign minister's recent visit to Kathmandu -- that China and Pakistan would occupy the space of influence vacated by India.

And fourth, problems of mutual concern like water, environment and economic development would persist if India continued with its strong stand against the coup.

Remarkably, none of these considerations has anything to do with Nepali realities: most of the 3,000 prisoners taken under the coup continue to be detained; draconian operations remain in force, including Tora Bora-style helicopter attacks that kill more civilians than insurgents; the media remains stifled by censorship.

On the very day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] met the king, the royal government plucked out from a plane three Nepalis, including a former supreme court justice and the Bar Association president, who were leaving Kathmandu to attend a conference in New Delhi.

Fears about the 'Maoist factor' are, to put it mildly, exaggerated. The Naxalite movement is indigenous. Less than a fifth of the 175 districts affected by it are anywhere near Nepal. Indian arms are likely to be used by the RNA to grossly repressive ends. Between February 17 and 23, the RNA conducted a massacre in Kapilavastu district and then flogged the dead bodies in front of television cameras in the presence of Nepali ministers.

India should not worry much about China and Pakistan becoming Nepal's substitute arms-suppliers. Pakistan is playing a small game, and has no major influence in Kathmandu. Neither Pakistan, nor more importantly China, would like to lose the greater benefits of peace with India for tiny potential gains in Nepal.

India and China could well have issued a joint statement appealing for Nepal's re-democratisation during Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Delhi. This chance was missed. Finally, issues of India-Nepal bilateral concern would best be resolved if there is a representative regime in Kathmandu.

However, the weightiest reason why India should not dilute its stand against the King's usurpation of power is the Nepal situation itself. The coup has aggravated the crisis of governability and the monarchy has discredited itself. Nepal's political parties were thrown into disarray after the king unleashed a wave of repression.

But now, they are recouping and planning to launch a focused agitation for the restitution of multi-party democracy. At a convention in Delhi on April 23, all major parties but one pledged themselves to a Republican order. As a minimum demand, they all agreed on a constituent assembly.

The Nepali people have tasted democracy for 15 years and won't be easily cowed down by the king. Nepal's politicians may not be South Asia's most competent, coherent or clean leaders. But as Nepali editor and commentator Kanak Mani Dixit says, 'they do shine when compared to the monarchy's 30 years of misrule' until 1990.

Since the RNA's Unified Command took over under the monarchy in November 2001, Nepal has accelerated its march towards state failure. All its institutions, including the judiciary, are in trouble. The state's writ doesn't run in 70 percent of the territory. The law courts don't function in the 19 hill districts. The number of police stations has decreased from 1,500 to 350. The healthcare system has collapsed. Growth has come to a standstill.

Since the coup, the number of people being killed daily has risen almost three-fold. The number of 'disappeared' persons is now 1,619, according to the Human Rights Commission. More than half of the budget of the country, 42 per cent of whose people live below subsistence, is financed by external aid.

The king's takeover had little to do with 'safeguarding democracy' or even fighting the insurgency. Rather, it was a reaction to the decentralisation and redistribution of power that has occurred under parliamentary democracy. Power has increasingly devolved to regional groups and ethnic minorities outside the Kathmandu valley.

As Dixit says, a 'doubling of the rural roads network, spread of telecommunications, and the opening up of overseas employment' has made Nepalis more 'confident in challenging authority.' The royal coup was a reaction to this momentum towards democratisation -- a desperate attempt to roll it back. It was profoundly reactionary.

The king has acquired a new instrument of coercion through the high-powered Commission on Corruption Control, which is being used to intimidate and harass political leaders, dissidents, even judges. Community radio, in which Nepal is a world leader, is being destroyed. King Gyanendra's record thoroughly falsifies the grandiose promises he has made, including that of restoring normalcy in 100 days. He has done his utmost to promote the interests of a narrow rapacious elite that thrives on the people's poverty. Just before leaving for Jakarta, he passed on his mantle to his dreaded son Paras in a special ceremony organised by the World Hindu Federation.

Opposing the king does not amount to strengthening the Maoists. Indeed, it can encourage long overdue reform, including land reform, and further decentralisation. The Maoists' methods can be criticised, but not their political platform -- a representative, radicalised, democracy. Their violence fades into insignificance beside the excesses of the RNA, which is responsible for a majority of the 11,000 people killed since 1996.

India, with the US and Britain, did great harm to the cause of Nepali democracy and pluralism a year ago, when it sent its ambassador (present Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran) to persuade a multi-party 'Anti-Regression' initiative to call off a major agitation for restoring multi-party rule. The agitation might have pre-empted the coup. It is India's moral and political responsibility to rectify this blunder.

India must now revise its standard formulation emphasising the 'twin pillars' -- constitutional monarchy, and multi-party democracy. She must squarely side with the popular forces fighting for democracy. The king is a despot. He has shown no intention of reforming his ways. Even if he lifts the emergency, he is unlikely to release prisoners, bring errant soldiers to book, restore media freedom, or install a broad-based multi-party government. The issue of lifting the emergency is a red herring.

It is not good enough that Nepal return to the pre-February status quo. It must go further. India has been seen as a bulwark of support by the Nepali people. It must not let them down by legitimising the King's authoritarian rule.

A larger issue arises. What role should India as an aspirant to Great Power status and a Security Council seat play? This cannot be separated from India's potential contribution to making the world, especially its neighbourhood, a better place. India must help South Asia become a more open, democratic, plural, just and equitable society at peace with itself.

Leadership is not only about economic clout, military muscle or political power. It is about the purposes of power. These will be legitimate only if they promote universal principles and values. Taking one-fourth of humanity, which lives in South Asia, out of poverty and backwardness undoubtedly constitutes a universal good. India must contribute to it.

The case for doing so in Nepal is all the greater considering India's special relationship with it, the 1,700 km-long open border, their citizens' right of residence and work in each other's countries, as well as historic ties of culture. A failing State and a deeply convulsed, troubled and disintegrating society in Nepal cannot be in India's interest. The king is the surest guarantee of disaster. He must be opposed -- on principle and in practice.

Praful Bidwai

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