Baburam Bhattarai’s tilted bridge

How Nepal might see relations with India

During an interaction in March this year, Baburam Bhattarai, now prime minister of Nepal, made some points that should interest observers of international relations.

(These were made before he became prime minister and might indicate his personal thoughts and inclinations.)

– Nepal sees itself as being located in between South Asia and East Asia. It is now engaged in a democratic restructuring of social, cultural and international relations.

– Nepal wishes to become a bridge between India and China. For reasons of history, culture and geography this bridge will be a “tilted bridge”, inclined towards South Asia. That said, Nepal seeks an “objective and balanced relationship” with its neighbours and is not “courting” one or the other.

(He also made two points which I interpret as being designed to coerce India into getting over its reluctance to support a Maoist-led government)

– While Maoists will not be able to take over Nepal given the internal balance, a “people’s revolt” cannot be ruled out of the constitutional processes remain suspended, and if the Maoists are denied the share of power that they won at the elections.

– If the political process breaks down, a relapse of armed conflict could make Nepal like another Afghanistan, which would draw in regional and international powers.

Friday Squib: A poet and a revolutionary

But then…

So what if you are one of the top leaders of one of India’s largest underground Maoist party. You still need to get in touch with the wife. In an interview with Romita and Aveek Datta, Mint‘s intrepid reporters, Communist Party of India (Maoist) politburo member Koteshwar Rao says:

My wife Maina is now at Dandakaranya—she is in charge of a group in Bastar (district of Chhattisgarh). We met in Hyderabad when I was state secretary (of Andhra Pradesh) and she was a comrade. The last time we met was two years ago. We communicate through letters—use of mobile phones has been banned by our central committee. I write poems to her and make sure the Indian postal department delivers them to her. I wrote poems after the landmine attack on Buddhbabu’s convoy and also on the day somebody hurled a shoe at (George) Bush. [Mint]

Now before female readers of this blog start forwarding this to their significant others, they should also know that in the very next breath, Mr Rao says that he doesn’t have kids, because “the leadership expects the women in our party to undergo sterilization after marriage.” His interviewers didn’t ask him why vasectomies were not similarly expected of the men in the party. Especially after the comrade declared that his party works for “women’s liberation”.

General Katawal stays

Prachanda’s actions isolate the Maoists

The question of the induction of the Maoist insurgents into the Nepalese army—a force they spent a decade fighting—has boiled over into, what else, a crisis.

Pushpa Kamal “Prachanda” Dahal, the Maoist prime minister, would like them to be absorbed immediately. Others, not least the army chief, thinks otherwise. That’s why the army chose to fill its vacancies with 2800 vacancies instead of absorbing Mr Dahal’s Maoist militants. While it is necessary to work out arrangements to employ the 23,000 Maoist militants, the army correctly argues that the one-time rebels must be “de-mobilised, rehabilitated and reintegrated” before they can join the national army. [See Damakant Jayshi’s op-ed]

On the surface it appears ‘reasonable’ for the prime minister to have the authority to sack the army chief. But it is important to note that Nepal is under an interim constitutional dispensation, with stability and indeed legitimacy depending on the tenous balance of political power among the main players. Mr Dahal’s decision to sack the army chief was unilateral and didn’t have the support of the other parties represented in his cabinet. President Ram Baran Yadav’s decision to overrule the prime minister on this matter leaves the Maoists isolated on the matter. [more on Republica and on Globespotting, TOI diplomatic editor Indrani Bagchi’s new blog]

So Mr Dahal might have to consume the humble momo on this one. Perhaps a face-saving formula can be found—the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal, has after all only three more months in command. If this doesn’t happen, Nepal will go into a deeper, more violent crisis. We’ll know after the fierce one speaks.

Fierce vs Ray

Nepal’s Maoists splinter along predictable lines

Over at mesocosm Aditya Adhikari has cogent analysis of the factional disputes among Nepal’s Maoists.

(Prachanda), the Maoist chairman is facing the greatest threat to his leadership at a time when his party has gained the strongest position ever. According to conventional narrative, the Prachanda faction wishes to institutionalize the federal democratic republic line (by continuing the peace process, drafting the new constitution, and engaging in multi-party democracy) whereas the Kiran faction wishes to take immediate steps towards one-party dictatorship of the proletariat.

While Prachanda seeks to increase his party’s influence by gradual penetration into all aspects of society, Kiran desires a more extreme revolt that will immediately subjugate the enemy and bring the Maoists uncontested power. His faction is ambivalent towards the Maoists’ entry into government. They recognize that this potentially enables them to use the state for the purposes of the revolution. But they also realise that prolonged exposure to the daily workings of government will make it increasingly difficult to stage the crucial armed revolt necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat.[mesocosm]

You should read the whole thing.

Socialising assets, privatising liabilities

What do you with a problem like Gyanendra?

From Nepal comes news of an royal billing dispute. After doing away with the monarchy and nationalising many of the royal assets—including the main royal palace—the government of the new republic wants King Gyanendra to cough up payment for the electricity the royal family used while he was still the monarch.

Oh, it is quite likely that Mr Gyanendra has a lot of private wealth arising from his numerous business ventures, but that’s not the point. Billing him for the electricity he used after stepping down is fine. The question is whether the financial liabilities he accumulated during the period he was the monarch can be turned into his personal liabilities now, when his royal assets have already been nationalised.

Lest you wonder—yes, the Maoists are in power. Going after the former monarch is the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope. Big landowners would be next. And rich businessmen might follow.

Defending Salwa Judum

Has anyone articulated how the citizen’s militia will be disbanded?

Prakash Singh, a distinguished police officer and a member of an expert group set up by the Planning Commission to study the Naxalite problem, dissents from the group’s conclusions and argues that the Salwa Judum was a “spontaneous movement expressing the resentment of the tribals against the Naxalites’ interference with their social customs, cultural practices and economic interests.”

Mr Singh, who is both the author of a book on the Naxalite movement and has tirelessly pushed police reforms since his retirement, is a credible commentator. His opinion must be taken seriously.

This blog, however, disagrees with his view. Individuals bearing arms for self-defence, or even isolated village defence committees in remote areas are one thing: organising these units into a larger corporate entity, or indeed a “movement”, is quite another. Organisations once formed develop a life and interests of their own, and are almost impossible to wind down and demobilise, especially if they are outside the formal control of the state. As Mr Singh himself admits (Salwa Judum’s) “camps should have been wound up within a year or two and the tribals encouraged to go back to their villages. That unfortunately did not happen.”

Mr Singh has a point when he argues that Salwa Judum is a useful instrument in the fight against the Naxalite insurgency. But in the medium- to long-term, it is likely to create additional problems, whether or not the Naxalites are defeated.

A lesson in statecraft, for Mr Varadarajan

Nepal is Nepal, and India is, well, India

“If the Indian Maoists have something to learn from their Nepali comrades,” Siddharth Varadarajan argues, “the same is true of the Indian establishment as well. While Nepal’s erstwhile ruling parties are building peace with their Maoists, India is stuck with the disastrous Salwa Judum.”

Now the use of Salwa Judum by Chattisgarh is wrong, and is the most obvious indicator of the UPA government’s failure to develop a cohesive strategy towards subduing the Naxalite movement. But it is also important to remember that Salwa Judum is a relatively new phenomenon (India’s Naxalites have been around for almost four decades) and is restricted to just one state. So to equate India’s long war against the Naxalite movement is more misinformation than analysis. Mr Varadarajan ignores the anti-Naxalite strategies adopted in other states and at other times. For instance, under Chandrababu Naidu’s chief-ministership, the Andhra Pradesh police almost broke the Naxalites’ back. That advantage was lost not because the use of force by state authorities didn’t work. It was lost because the Congress Party decided to lower the heat and attempt negotiations. The Maoists used the opportunity to regroup and before long, returned to their armed struggle.

But what of Mr Varadarajan’s lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India? Well, he argues

“If the Indian establishment wants the Maoists to give up their armed struggle and take part in elections like their Nepali comrades, it will have to rely on more than political osmosis. For the Nepali ‘model’ is not just about the Maoists adapting creatively to changes in the national and international arena; it is equally about the ‘bourgeois’ parties there demonstrating a degree of statesmanship that has so far been completely absent in their counterparts south of the border.

Indeed, so backward is our political culture in relation to Nepal’s that instead of seeking ways of peacefully ending the naxalite insurgency, the Government of India has actually fuelled a new civil war.

In Nepal, the political parties and the Maoist rebels realised that the civil war in their country would not be resolved militarily. The king was the only one who failed to recognise this reality and paid the price for his folly. In India, however, despite the military stalemate which prevails, both the establishment and the Maoists continue to believe in the supremacy of arms.” [The Hindu]

Mr Varadarajan, like some other people who write in the opinion pages of the Hindu betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the Indian state. He fails to understand the fundamental difference between legitimacy of a democratic republic and that of a sometimes-absolute, sometimes-constitutional monarchy. Even if one were to ignore the immense differences in the state’s hard capacity—in the ability to muster up economic and military resources—the government of India enjoys a moral strength (of course, the Naxalites and their apologists will deny this) that no government of Nepal ever had. [See There are alternatives to Naxalism]

In other words, unlike Nepal, the Indian state won’t simply lie down and surrender. Here Mr Varadarajan would do well to learn some lessons from Indian history: in the end, it is the insurgents who cry Momma. The second lesson for Mr Varadarajan is that the democratic nature of the Indian state allows these militarily defeated insurgents to honourably enter mainstream politics.

Indeed, Mr Varadarajan might discover the ultimate lesson of statecraft were he to examine how Nepal’s Maoists came to power. Narratives of Indian pusillanimity apart, does he really believe that Pushpa Kumar Dahal would be so close to political power, and legitimacy, if the ‘Indian establishment’ hadn’t allowed it?

It is not as if negotiations haven’t been tried in India. They have. That they have not led to the Naxalites dropping dogmatic armed struggle and entering mainstream politics tells you where the problem lies. It is understandable that Mr Varadarajan is heady with vicarious triumphalism due to the success of Nepal’s Maoists. He should restrict himself to savouring the moment. As for lessons in statecraft, there’s a lot that Maoists—on either side of the India-Nepal border—have to learn.

Prachanda’s learning curve

New dogs, old tricks

Some commentators have characterised the electoral performance of the Maoists in Nepal’s constituent assembly elections as catching India by surprise. That’s not entirely incorrect. Though polls have a tendency to get pundits wrong, election results surprised most people, including the Maoists themselves.

Does this mean India should be more worried about its relations with Nepal?

Not quite. Once Comrade Prachanda becomes President or Prime Minister Pushpa Kumar Dahal and comes to grips with the reality of running a state—as opposed to running a revolution—he will realise that he has about as much policy flexibility as his predecessors.

He has already declared that Nepal would maintain “equal distance from India and China”. He also uttered phrases like “historical relationship with India”, “open borders” and developing “closer ties”. The phrases might well have been uttered for diplomatic purposes…but it might well be that the Maoists have come to understand that “equal distance” on a two-dimensional map is quite different from equal distance in three dimensional reality. High Himalayas are very three-dimensional.

For India, the main issue is having to handle a new government in Kathmandu that must learn the ropes of governance while coming to terms with the gap between a revolutionary Communism and mundane reality. In the domain of international relations, it is quite possible that the new government would do things to show that there is a new show in town, and that it has other friends, and pose for its domestic constituency. While it might well be necessary to indulge them a little, Indian and Nepali interests will both be best served if Messrs Dahal & Co’s learning curve is short.

On arming citizens to fight insurgents

The battle in the Supreme Court

The correct way to challenge dubious government policies is to take them to court. So the citizens who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against the Chattisgarh government’s use of an armed militia to take on the Naxalites did the right thing.

The case is still in progress, but the court’s early comments—well publicised by the media—were noteworthy.

“The allegation is that the state is arming private persons. You can deploy as many police personnel or armed forces to tackle the menace. But, if private persons, so armed by the state government, kill other persons, then the state is also liable to be prosecuted for abetting murder” [TOI]

The court is on the right track. Armed militias like Salwa Judum are not only unconstitutional but actually inimical to internal security. They should go.

The government’s defence has been injudicious so far: it was wholly unnecessary to bring in the bogey of an adverse judgement undermining the strategy of using village defence committees (VDCs) in terrorist/insurgent affected areas. For there is a difference between VDCs and armed militias.

The difference lies both in orientation and organisation. VDCs are about empowering citizens to defend themselves and their properties. They are localised units, small in size and with limited capability. Salwa Judum on the other hand has offensive capabilities, an organisational structure with paid cadres and covers large areas. VDCs are more akin to security guards than to armed militias. The government’s counsel would do well not to conflate Salwa Judum with VDCs. (And ensure that VDCs don’t become Salwa Judums)

According to the government, the allegations against Salwa Judum are overstated. That may well be true. It is likely that the court will appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate into the allegations. Yet, it would be far more prudent for the state to conduct ‘flag operations’, demonstrating that the state is capable of delivering governance. For whether the state cedes ground to Salwa Judum or to the Naxalites, it is the state that loses.

Enter the hatchet man

The Hindu returns to mislead, obfuscate and yes, bat for Beijing

As expected, the The Hindu has published an entirely one-sided editorial supporting Beijing and condemning the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. Why it took so long to come might not even be a mystery, in this age of instantaneous international communications, considering that Beijing decided to go on the media offensive after an initial period of censorship and silence. Now that The Hindu should take a pro-Beijing editorial line is acceptable, even if it is extremely disagreeable.

What is especially flagrant about the newspaper’s recent coverage is an insidious, misleading and grossly flawed attempt to cast China’s repression of Tibet favourably in comparison to various political conflicts in India.

If you go by western media reports, the propaganda of the so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’…Tibet is in the throes of a mass democratic uprising against Han Chinese communist rule…The reality is that the riot that broke out in Lhasa on March 14 and claimed a confirmed toll of 22 lives involved violent, ransacking mobs, including 300 militant monks from the Drepung Monastery, who marched in tandem with a foiled ‘March to Tibet’ by groups of monks across the border in India…There was violence also in Tibetan ethnic areas in the adjacent provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, which, according to official estimates, took an injury toll of more than 700. [The Hindu]

There’s intellectual dishonesty right from the start. The editorial begins by conflating the uprising with non-violent protests and implies that because there was violence, reports of an uprising are mere propaganda. The earliest international media reports, filed by The Economist’s James Miles, who ‘just happened to be in Lhasa‘ reported violence. Acknowledging this, the Dalai Lama himself has gone to the extreme of threatening to step down if violence continued. The fact that the protests turned violent is not disputed. What the The Hindu needs to explain is that if the Tibetan protests were not for freedom then what were they for? Surely, the violent, ransacking mobs were not out on the streets protesting against inflation!
Continue reading Enter the hatchet man