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19th April 1998

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Nepal gets the headache

The emergence and re-emergence of these insurgencies becomes tragically inevitable. In the south of Sri Lanka, in the badlands of Bihar and in the forests of Andra Pradesh, this had been no secret pattern. Nepal too has now joined the list says Kishali Pinto Jayewardene

The small gap toothed Kashmiri boy was en- chanted when I asked by sign language whether I could enter his home, one of the many unbelievably cramped quarters lining the narrow winding streets of Bharatpur, the holy city some distance away from Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.

A wide grin split his face and shooing his curly black mongrel before him, he invited me inside with all the elaborate ceremony of a king granting audience to his subject.

Adjusting my eyes to the gloom, I found immediately that I had become the object of intense curiosity to a group of at least ten persons with the women preferring to regard me with shy smiles from a distance, while the two male elders embarked on a conversation in halting but perfectly intelligible English. Much head wagging accompanied the information that I was from Sri Lanka, but what gave me pause was when the elder of the two, regarding me with grave courtesy, said "You come from a once serene country. Now, it is different. Now, it is all fighting. We too have many lessons to learn from you. God forbid that we should take the same path that your countrymen have taken."

Days later, those softly spoken words remained niggling away at the back of my mind, pushed to the back by all the spectacular beauty that the country, caught in a gentle April spring had to offer. Despite the omnipresent fine clouds of dust that whirl around you in the streets of Kathmandu, the open friendliness of the people and the stunning grandeur of the Himalayas that circle Nepal like a range of stern but benevolent deities all combine towards a feeling of serenity very different to the stress of tension ridden Colombo.

It is easy to believe that James Hilton was inspired to locate his mythical Shangri La here and difficult to take my friendly Kashmiri conversationalist's ominous words seriously. But their impact was brought home all the more glaringly, days later in quite a different place. This time, it was in one of Kathmandu's glitzier pizza parlours somewhat curiously named "Fire and Ice", where a Kanak Dixit, a senior Nepali journalist pondered on his country's future.

"Lessons from history are indeed never learnt in this part of the subcontinent," he ruminated. "It's amazing how we all rush headlong to destruction."

Dixit who edits Himal, a magazine published in Kathmandu but with a significant readership in South Asia had thought the pattern of the emergence and re-emergence of extremist left groups in the South Asian sub continent interesting enough to devote an issue of Himal appropriately titled Red Alert to it late last year.

The magazine contributors, all writers and analysts from the region make the point that managers of leftist insurgencies in South Asia exploit the failure of the state to correct very real social and economic problems but when the movements degenerate into violence rather than organization, they fail in their efforts, and are then crushed by an even more brutal force by the state. However, because those same problems still exist, the emergence and re emergence of these insurgencies become tragically inevitable. In the south of Sri Lanka, in the badlands of Bihar and in the forests of Andra Pradesh, this had been no secret pattern. Nepal too has now joined the list.

Democracy seems indeed to have done Nepal little good. It remains the ninth poorest country in the world by GNP standards, and the percentage of Nepalese living in absolute poverty are actually increasing from an estimated 36% in 1977 to 45% in 1996. Those who have been worst hit are the hill tribes that are comprised of ethnic groups who are exploited and marginalised. It is among them that a movement called the Maobadi has sprung up, ostensibly based on the teachings of Mao. It was thought that the achievement of multi party democracy in 1990 would lead to a lessening of these problems.

The picture painted is of a land where simmering violence is daily becoming more overt. The Maobadi had in fact contested the general elections in 1990 claiming an unexpectedly strong following and emerging as the third largest party in Parliament. However, their participation in conventional politics had been conditional.

"Their position was that if conventional politics does not work, if they cannot address the problems of the ordinary people in this manner, they would denounce it and take to extremist measures. And denounce it, they did, boycotting the 1994 elections and declaring a Peoples War in February 1996," explains Gopal Sivakoti, law lecturer at Tribhuvan University, Nepal's premier institution of higher education.

The conflict has claimed a significant number of lives, conservatively estimated 100 to 150 persons in the past 18 months of armed struggle, a dozen or so targeted as exploiters of the people such as local landlords and representatives of the Government. Maobadi threats made the holding of local level elections held last year well nigh impossible with the complete breakdown of elections in 40 districts. Come the next parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, an increasing headache for the government will be how to conduct national elections in these areas where the Maobadi headed by two shadowy power figures known as Baburam Bahattarai and Pushpan Kamal Dahal hold sway.

"The challenge for us is now to delegitimise the Maoists and their violence, and to present the Nepali people with a credible political alternative," says Sivakoti. The puzzle is also why the government is being more than usually lethargic about the problem

"The Government is not intervening effectively, but are instead killing people in the name of Maobadi," adds Sapna Malla, a public interest lawyer and human rights activist. There have been attempts to revive a hated Public Security Act and an Anti Terrorist Act ostensibly against the Maoists but many Nepalese fear that they would be used against the political opponents of the government.

The game in fact goes on. And the players wear different masks and manoeuvre in different countries but their strategies are the same. Lessons from history are never indeed learnt. So, my Kashmiri friend was right after all. God forbid indeed that Shangri La should travel the same path that a once serendipitous isle has taken with such tragic consequences.

Fighting for democracy

The problems facing this deceptively se- rene kingdom are outlined to me by Mahendra Man Singh, the nephew of Nepal's grand old man of politics Ganesh Man Singh who headed the Nepali Congress Party when King Birendra under immense national pressure gave up absolute rule in 1990 and agreed to convert Nepal into a constitutional monarchy.

The next year, a general election was held and a new constitution was won by the Party. Ganesh Man Singh however refused to accept the position of Prime Minister, saying at age 75 that he was too tired. For the millions of people in his country thereafter, he was simply known as 'sarbamaanya neta' (supreme leader) What followed was however a far cry from his dreams.

Allegations of inept and corrupt political leadership became common, and one Prime Minister followed another. (Nepal has had five Prime ministers since 1990). The present government is a shaky coalition, led by the United Marxist Leninist Party.

Ganesh Man Singh died last year, another Gandhi disillusioned by the party that he had founded (he had formally given up membership in the Nepali Congress Party in 1994, saying that the party had lost both its soul and its sense of morality). Before his death however, he was able to see the formation of an alternative party, a Jana Congress, by his nephew, Mahendra Man Singh and other former Congress party stalwarts. The former does not mince his words when speaking about the failure of Nepal's traditional democratic parties to deliver on effective governance.

"Nepal has been fighting for democracy since the 1930's. Every time we come close to achieving it, we ourselves destroy our chances. The problem is that all our political leaders who have held the reins of power have been self-serving jackasses. Due to their short-sightedness and extreme selfishness, we are faced with problems that daily grow more dangerous," Mahendra Man says.

"We expected so much. As is so often the case, we took too deep a breath and got over oxygenized. When it was found that in reality, nothing much would really change, the option of some of the dissenting groups was to take to violence," he explains wryly.

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