Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

A lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India

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

25 April
The Hindu

A lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India

Siddharth Varadarajan

While the Maoists have earned applause around the world for their stunning victory in Nepal’s Constituent Assembly elections, spare a thought for the two defeated establishment parties — the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) — whose wisdom, statesmanship and political courage helped a powerful rebel group come down from the mountains and enter power through the ballot box.

Things need not have been this way. When King Gyanendra began asserting his authority from 2002, his alibi was the failure of successive governments to defeat the Maoist insurgency. After six years of armed struggle, the People’s Liberation Army and the ‘Royal’ Nepal Army had fought each other to a standstill. Each side was capable of staging punishing strikes on the other but in strategic terms, an impasse had set in which could have dragged on for years. While Gyanendra chose to press for an outright military victory, the Maoists sought to break out of this stalemate by opening a political front of struggle. On their part, the NC and the UML found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. To the extent to which they rejected the Maoists’ demands and use of violence, a section of their leadership found the King’s call for a fight to the finish appealing. But another section also knew that the violence of the Maoists was not merely nihilistic and that the rebels’ demands enjoyed support amongst the poor and marginalised. If some way could be found to get the Maoists to enter the political arena, they argued, not only would this help to bring peace to Nepal but a new power equation might get established which could further the struggle against autocratic monarchy.

Until February 2005, the dominant section of the NC and the UML leadership continued to work closely with the palace. But after the king’s putsch, collaboration with the monarchy was no longer tenable. Slowly but surely, the centre of gravity within these two establishment parties began to move in the direction of peace negotiations with the Maoists. With the assistance of Nepali civil society leaders, an atmosphere of trust and confidence between the parties was built up, grounded in the twin objectives of peace and constitutional reform. Had they wanted, the NC and the UML could still have dragged their feet. They could have refused to deal with the Maoists, whom they blamed for attacking their cadres. But leaders like Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Kumar Nepal had the courage to place the future of the country above their partisan concerns. With the backing of India, they entered into a major understanding with the Maoists in November 2005. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Cynics will argue that these parties would have chosen not to enter into an agreement if they had known in advance that the Maoists would win the elections. No doubt the NC and the UML expected to triumph and have been a little churlish in defeat by refusing to join a Maoist-led coalition. But these parties also knew that bringing the Maoists in as an electoral force necessarily meant diluting their own share of power. And it was this willingness to pay a political price for the establishment of peace that makes the Nepali parties a breed apart.

Is there a lesson in this entire process for India? Writing in the Indian Express on Tuesday, the former head of the Research & Analysis Wing, P.K. Hormis Tharakan, said “the greatest advantage the government of India can hope to gain from the Maoist victory in Nepal is that it would have a demonstration effect on the Maoists in India.” Nobody who wants peace in India will disagree. Mr. Tharakan does not say so but it is obvious that as in Nepal, the Indian Maoists and security forces have entered a holding pattern. Each side’s capacity to inflict pain on the other may be growing but a knockout punch is out of the question. And yet, neither the government nor the Maoists are willing to explore other ways of pursuing their core objectives.

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. For the past three years, the Chhattisgarh government has been financing and arming a private vigilante death squad known as Salwa Judum (SJ), whose terror tactics have led to the forced displacement of tens of thousands of tribals from their homes. The Special Police Officers (SPOs), often minors, who form the core of SJ are accompanied by paramilitary forces and the police. Their modus operandi consists of forcing villages suspected of being sympathetic to the Maoists to relocate to strategic hamlets on the main road. Villagers who resist are attacked and killed, their huts and property looted and destroyed. Several independent inquiries — the most recent of which was by the National Commission for Child Rights — have confirmed the violation of human rights on a massive scale, including sexual violence. In Kota Nendra village, for example, during the course of an SJ attack in 2006, not only was a three-month-old burnt alive (his mother gave up eating and died soon after of grief) but other children were shot while bathing at the borewell and in the village pond.

Though the SJ is an initiative of the ruling BJP in the State, it has the full backing of the Congress at the Centre. In a recent appearance before the Supreme Court — which is hearing a PIL urging the disbanding of the vigilante squads — the Centre’s counsel actually argued that the government was forced to rely on civilian SPOs because the regular police were (allegedly) too scared to take on the Maoists. It is bad enough that the establishment insists on pursuing a purely military solution. But when it arms and dispatches untrained civilians to commit crimes, this makes the government, as the Chief Justice of India noted on March 31, guilty of abetment.

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. And it is the people, mostly tribals, who are paying the price for the folly of others.

In Nepal, the peace process worked because civil society activists helped create an enabling atmosphere in favour of peace and justice. The PIL against Salwa Judum in the Supreme Court is so important precisely because it aims to strengthen the rule of law. In India, however, the natural inclination of the establishment is to look upon all criticism of official policy with suspicion. Thus, the Chhattisgarh government has chosen to accuse the petitioners — who include a former Secretary to the Government of India, two senior academics and a former MLA — of acting on behalf of the naxalites.

Last year, the widely respected medic and human rights defender, Binayak Sen, who had documented some of the excesses of the Salwa Judum, was arrested under the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act, which criminalises dissent. One year on, he is still in jail. In the newspaper article cited above, the former R&AW chief has questioned the wisdom of using anti-terror laws against individuals who might otherwise be in a position to mediate with rebel groups. He didn’t name any victims but Dr. Sen — who has just been named as the recipient of the prestigious Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights — is perhaps someone he had in mind. Another example is Lachit Bordoloi, the Assamese journalist and writer, who actually helped the government establish contact with the underground United Liberation front of Asom (ULFA). Last February, he was inexplicably arrested and charged under the draconian National Security Act.

If the Indian establishment really wants Maoists to follow the path of their Nepali comrades, it should listen to what the UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal has to say. I asked him in Kathmandu recently whether he had any advice for India on dealing with the Maoists. Though still smarting from his electoral defeat, he said the government should address the underlying problems of the poor and create the space for the naxalites to come forward for dialogue. “This will be less costly for the country and people than trying to deal with them militarily.” Is anyone in New Delhi listening?

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One comment on “A lesson in statecraft, from Nepal to India

  1. Anonymous
    April 25, 2008

    Siddharth this rejoinder comes courtesy Nitn Pai who runs the fine blog acorn.nationalinterest.in. It is not meant as much for your readers (who have a plethora of sources to draw from) as much as it is for you, who apart from a few tracts and pamphlets, and of The Hindu itself, seem to read nothing else. I am surprised at your lack of understanding of the elements of the Indian situation in this context. I have developed a simple rule to get to the core of your concerns in such matters. If you are screaming about anything in a situation that involves thugs and the Indian state, it is because that is a matter that affects the thugs adversely. So in the case of Salva Judum you are criticisng it because it is bd for the Maoist thugs. And it is because it frees the common people of the Maoist yoke and provides them the support of the state. It is a tactic that works very well. It should be pursued weith vigour until the Maoists and Naxals are eliminated. Cheers!<>A lesson in statecraft, for Mr VaradarajanNepal 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.<>

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This entry was posted on April 25, 2008 by in Human Rights, Indian Politics, Nepal.

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