Shifting the goalposts

By Sandhya Jain
Published February 19th 2007 in The Pioneer

The stoning of King Gyanendra's cavalcade on the auspicious occasion of Shivaratri, supposedly by egalitarian Hindu devotees objecting to the custom of royal precedence, suggests growing Maoist fears that the forthcoming election to the Constituent Assembly may not give them a winning mandate. Reports from Nepal indicate that the institution of monarchy continues to exert a mesmeric influence over ordinary people in the Himalayan kingdom, and the prospect of its abolition may be eroding the Maoist grip over popular imagination.

Certainly the ground reality has changed sharply since the so-called peace accord gave Maoists almost a third of the seats in the interim Parliament. Despite such a precipitous political tilt in their favour, Comrade Prachanda has not felt confident of surrendering arms as per the accord, and wishes to join the interim Cabinet without adhering to his part of the bargain. His people are now claiming that they see no need to fulfil any precondition set by the Government, and are threatening to 'delay' the June election unless immediately accommodated in the interim Cabinet. Government sources are dismayed at the delay in arms surrender and legitimately fear that arms may play a role in the forthcoming election.

During a visit to New Delhi last week, Nepali Congress leader Sujata Koirala complained that the Maoists have gone "out of control" and are an obstacle to her country's transition to a full-fledged democracy. She claimed the Maoists have resiled from all promises, have not surrendered all arms or returned lands seized previously. Indeed, she said, the Maoist cadre is still threatening the people, the police and even foreign diplomats. Even former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has charged the Maoists of breaking their promise to return seized public property; he fears this could affect the Constituent Assembly election (The Rising Nepal, February 8, 2007).

Although Ms Koirala was too polite to express dissatisfaction with the UN's handling of the arms issue, in the light of India's sad experience with the UN mission on the Indo-Pak border, I can only surmise that a devious international game is afoot to give an unrepresentative bunch of thugs the control of this strategically vital nation. Not surprisingly, Ms Koirala, who is known for her political candour, has asked India to perceive the Nepal situation as a "fire in the neighbourhood", and take appropriate action before it engulfs us in turn. Given the grim situation in States battling Naxalite violence, not to mention ISI presence in both countries, the warning is apt. It remains to be seen if it has been well received; it is not clear which UPA leaders she succeeded in meeting during her stay.

Ms Koirala revealed that Nepal's greatest problem is law and order and that Home Minister KP Sitaula is widely perceived as being 'too friendly' with the Maoists, and hence unable to act decisively against them. She took public opinion by surprise when she defied her father, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, and openly demanded Mr Sitaula's resignation on the issue of the Terai violence. It appears that many political parties in Kathmandu are waking up to the reality of the 'coup' that has gifted the Maoists a major share of the interim Parliament, without any proven ability to truly represent the people. With arms surrender inadequate, and suspicions about UN collusion with the Christian leadership of the Maoists rampant (even if unstated), the constituents of the Seven-Party Alliance have found a heaven-sent escape route in the Terai flare-up.

The trouble in Terai broke out unexpectedly on January 19 this year, when the escort of Maoist leader Ram Karki shot at and killed Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum activist Ramesh Kumar Mahato in Lahan district. The situation deteriorated when the Maoists seized the dead body and forced the family of the deceased to immediately cremate the body. The resultant public anger boiled for three weeks, taking at least 38 lives and leaving several injured in police action, before a truce was called.

This brought international spotlight on the Terai's gross under-representation and forced Prachanda to agree to a draft Bill to amend the interim Constitution. Once approved by the interim Parliament, Articles 134 and 154 of the interim Constitution will be amended to provide a federal state structure and new constituencies in the Terai, as also additional seats for proportional representation according to the percentage of population growth. It is thus envisaged that 20 constituencies will be added in Terai and four in the hill regions. An additional 20 seats will be increased for proportional representation.

According to The Kathmandu Post, this means that the 20 southern districts, which comprise 48.4 per cent of the population, will receive 49 per cent seats in the Constituent Assembly. The remaining 51 per cent seats will be divided among the 55 hilly and Himalayan districts, which constitute 51.6 per cent of the population. This appears to be an equitable distribution, and it is to be hoped that the aged and sick Prime Minister will be able to execute the delimitation exercise properly.

Political empowerment of the aggrieved and anti-Maoist Madhesis, however, is unlikely to go down well with Prachanda, who is again busy shifting the goalposts, violating the spirit and substance of the November 21, 2006, accord. Indeed, less than a month after declaring peace, Maoist goons had resorted to large-scale violence and intimation in Kathmandu on December 18, 2006, to force the Government to cancel the appointment of Ambassadors to 14 countries, including India. Now they are trying to muscle their way into the interim Cabinet without surrendering arms.

Given their unreliable nature, the original seven parties of the interim Government would do well to seize the political initiative, rather than let Prachanda dictate the national agenda. The SPA should dissociate from the plan to abolish the monarchy, and emphasise a truly federal polity. It should support retention of Hindu supremacy in the Himalayan kingdom, with safeguards against fraudulent conversions currently being pushed among border and marginal communities; already a major portion of Nepal's Buddhist community has been converted to Christianity in the past few years. The SPA should also call upon the Nepal Army to ensure free and fair elections in June, as it is virtually certain that the UN will fail to control the murderous People's Liberation Army.