August 29, 2004
Nepal: A State Under Seige

The recent week-long blockade of the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu by the rebels of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), marks yet another crisis point for the Himalayan kingdom.

The rebels, who have since 1996 avowedly followed Mao’s strategy of capturing the countryside and waiting for the capital to fall, seemed to be testing the waters for an eventual strike on the capital when they announced a month-long ban on vehicles entering or leaving the capital. If successful, a month-long blockade of the capital city, which is estimated to have supplies only for 2-3 weeks, would have forced the government to its knees in the battle of attrition that the two sides have been fighting for the last three years.

While the blockade was successful, when evaluated in terms of the effect it had on traffic on the highway there was virtually no traffic for a week, even though there was no enforcing Maoist presence on the highways outside the city, it fell far short of its stated aims. Popular opinion, as well as international pressure, seemed to have played their part in the climbdown after only a week of the blockade. The Maoists had ostensibly called for the blockade in order to force the government to order an inquiry into the circumstances of the death of one of their activists, to force compensation to the relatives of those killed in several police operations and to disclose the whereabouts of others who had been detained for questioning by the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). While they did win concessions on the third issue, claims such as those by local Maoist leaders that the intention was “to provoke the people of the capital to launch an urban uprising” have been rendered hollow. In fact, the only significant protests held in the capital were those by people protesting the blockade and the rising prices of essential supplies.

While the blockade was yet another demonstration of muscle by the rebels, it also demonstrated their lack of overwhelming support among the populace. The lack of panic buying and stocking up of supplies in Kathmandu is a measure of the apathy among the people, who have lost confidence in any of the actors claiming to represent their interests the king, the coalition government, and the Maoists. The rebels now seem more amenable to accepting the longstanding offer of talks by the govt. Comments by several ministers in the coalition govt., including those belonging to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML, who are ideologically the closest to the CPNM, indicate that the groundwork has been laid for another round of talks between the govt. and the rebels. The understanding is that all issues are open for discussion, including the core topic of election of a constituent assembly, within the agreed framework of a constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy, both of which are against the avowed goals of the CPNM ( The next few weeks should show some movement and pronouncements from the govt. and Comrade Prachanda, leader of the armed wing of the CPNM, on the possibility of the rebels coming to the table.

If previous instances are anything to go by, winning trust will be hard. The last ceasefire broke down exactly one year ago, on Aug 27 2003, after the rebels dismissed the government’s counter-proposals to the Maoists’ 40-point Memorandum as `cosmetic’ and renewed their ambushes on the RNA. This, despite the government’s acceptance of the Maoist’s demand for a roundtable conference, an interim govt., and restriction of the RNA to within 5 miles of barracks. The subsequent violence that erupted made it clear that the rebels had made full use of the ceasefire period by restocking on arms and supplies, and spreading their area of influence from about a dozen districts out of Nepal’s 75, to well over 20. It remains to be seen whether the removal of the last major outstanding demand of the rebels  discussion of the election of a new Constituent Assembly will induce the rebels to come to the table.

Power games aside, the blockade was one more burden on the long-suffering Nepalese economy. Ever since Nepal became a multi-party democracy in 1991, successive governments have distinguished themselves only in the degree of corruption, factionalism and ineptitude. The last 12 years have seen more than 12 governments, leading to widespread disenchantment with the political process and providing perfect conditions for the ideology of the Maoists to take root in the rural hinterland.

The Monarchy
Unfortunately, the one factor that would have been ordinarily looked upon for stability  the monarchy, is now seen suspiciously by a majority of the populace. King Gyanendra came to the throne after the horrific tragedy of June 2001, when Crown Prince Dipendra killed nine members of his family, including his parents King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, before turning his gun on himself. Subsequent explanations of the tragedy were confusing and conflicting, resulting in a loss of confidence in the monarchy. King Gyanendra has had several business interests in Kathmandu, usually with Indian backers, a fact that historically arouses suspicion in Nepal, with some justification given India’s record in bilateral trade. His record has not excited confidence. Within four months of his ascension, he dismissed the popularly-elected government, citing their ineptitude in dealing with the rebels, declared a state of emergency and made himself the absolute and only power center in Nepal. He pressed into service the RNA in dealing with the rebels; previous governments had preferred to treat the Maoist rebellion as a law and order problem arising out of disaffection and disenchantment among unemployed youth who found the Maoist ideology appealing. The resulting brutality and atrocities committed by RNA on suspected Maoist supporters in villages has had the effect of further polarizing the rural areas, and further erosion of support for the monarchy and government. Subsequently, the King has invited prominent politicians to form a government, even though Parliament stands dissolved. Thus, the legitimacy of the power dispensation in the country remains questionable.

The King has further contributed to the erosion of grassroots democracy by not renewing the tenure of elected officials at the village level in 2002, when the scheduled elections were postponed indefinitely citing the law and order situation. Local government does not exist the King has appointed civil servants as one-man Panchayats to take care of village issues. Thus, the power vacuum extends all the way down from the capital to the villages. Villagers do not know who to turn to get official work done.

It is in such a situation that the Maoists stepped in, and started levying taxes on the villages in their control. Estimates of the number of districts under their control, where they have set up a parallel government, range from 7 to 30 out of the 75 districts in Nepal. Village Development Council (VDC) offices have been systematically razed, with only about half of the 3913 buildings remaining. About 150 VDC level functionaries have been killed and 30 abducted (source: Spotlight magazine). The four months of 2003 following the breakdown of the ceasefire alone saw 2,105 people killed in action. Early this year, the Maoists demonstrated their ability to carry out operations in the plains and cities, away from their hilly rural strongholds, when they destroyed government offices, including communications depots, army barracks, and district administrative offices. The economy has nosedived, with tourism, the main source of revenue, weakening to US Dept of State advisories about the situation. Estimated of tourism revenue lost in the recent blockade alone range up to $5 million. Unemployment is above 10%, and 38% of the population now lives below the poverty line. In 2002, the economy shrank by 0.6%. Almost half the development projects are funded by foreign aid, and the situation has led to statements threatening re-evaluation, especially by European donors.

India and Nepal
With the political parties in disarray, unable to force the King to submit to their call for fresh elections, and the RNA and the Maoists fighting themselves into a stalemate where neither can deliver the knockout punch, it is incumbent on India, as an interested party, to intervene. Indian policy regarding the rebels has so far been restricted to half-hearted attempts at denying them safe haven in Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, regions where it has never effectively dealt with its own Naxalites. It is only in the 1990s that India has consciously adopted a lower profile and somewhat hands-off policy towards Nepal. Historical suspicion of India necessitates that any measures India takes be low profile. Past bilateral measures have been heavy-handed, and fit in with the general image of India trying to be a Great Power pursuing hegemony in its own sphere of influence. These include the trade and economic embargo imposed on Nepal in 1990, unilateral construction of a barrage on a river deemed to be the border, and subsequent signing of the Mahakali treaty on sharing of river waters. Water resources of Nepal, harnessing them for power, and the jockeying for position by various countries, including India, for development of these resources when the Nepal government throws the power industry open for investment is an issue by itself about which a lot can be written. A detailed account of the Tanakpur barrage issue can be found at

In response to the blockade, despite the distinct chill in relations between the monarchy and the Indian govt., the Manmohan Singh governmnent airlifted 34 mine-clearing trucks to Kathmandu to counter the blockade along the major arterial highways, should violence break out. This has been the clearest signal so far that India is not prepared to let the Nepalese state fall to a Maoist revolution. However, this needs to be backed up by pressure on the other elements of the triangle. India needs to make it clear that the status quo is not acceptable, that political parties need to come to a consensus on the path to reform and other issues such as ethnic representation, and that the King needs to ensure a return to multiparty democracy instead of concentrating power in the throne.

Other grievances that India needs to address in a fair manner include the problem of Bhutanese refugees (under a 1949 pact, India guides Bhutanese foreign policy), the Mahakali and Tanakpur water-sharing issues, demarcation of borders through pillars to stop encroachment from the Indian side, and the regulation of movement through the long porous border, which is a major issue used by the Maoists to whip up anti-Indian hysteria.

For its efforts to be met without skepticism and suspicion by the Nepali populace, India needs to do a fundamental rethink on its relations with other SAARC countries. India has historically viewed Nepal through the narrow prism of its threat perception regarding China, and has sought to maintain a close (some say too close) economic and military relationship. The security aspect became even more paramount after the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu, with India imposing a temporary ban on all flights to Kathmandu, a measure that would be expected to significantly hurt a landlocked country situated high in the tallest mountain range in the world. Trade laws have been lopsided in favour of India, with objections being met with the argument that millions of Nepalese are supported through employment in India.

Of late, the economic promise of Nepal’s fast flowing rivers have been a greater consideration than security. Currently only 1% of the hydel power potential of Nepal’s rivers has been estimated to be tapped. The economic liberalization and disinvestments reforms of the early 90s that India pushed for, in order to have access to the Nepali market, have not resulted in any improvement in the quality of life for the average (rural) Nepali, and have arguably widened economic disparity. Without the creation of prosperity, other issues such as migration of labour, and attendant ethnic conflict such as those currently seen in India’s Northeast, will be hard to prevent. Instead of a shortsighted approach that seeks to maximize economic advantage for its own public-sector companies, India needs to realize that it has a huge stake in the economic advancement of its neighbours, and pursue policies that are seen to be driven by mutual interest.


Besides being a Mechanical Engineer trying to get out of graduate school, Vinod Srinivasan is a volunteer with AID and a community theater activist.

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