The United States recently applauded the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) on its democratic achievements. It scolded the Maoists to disarm and enter the political arena so as to not establish a single-party system in Nepal (although until recently the United States itself supported the autocratic monarchy). The political parties have urged the rebels to restore the cease-fire in order to move forward with the peace process. However, the Maoists are holding strong at the bargaining table, as the cease-fire deal rests on a vulnerable stand. The Maoists have threatened to end it until the language in the new constitution reflects their demand of completely stripping the monarchy of power and honor.
* NEPAL’S HISTORY OF AUTOCRACY
A true analysis of Nepal’s people’s democratic revolution needs to be situated in a complex history of Nepali politics. As much as the analysis of the recent accomplishments are being characterized as an organic upsurge of the people, the fact remains that Nepali politics of the last 10 years were critical for the civil society to erupt in the way it did.
Firstly, Nepali history has had many bloody palace back-stabbings and takeovers. The Western media packaged the June 2001 massacre as a story from the old-world Himalayan kingdom with protagonist royal brothers, evil queens, and deranged princes. But if one is to read Nepali history, the 2001 massacre only follows a foundation of autocracy and fascism in the royal palace. Nepal’s autocratic history, like that of other poor South Asian nations, has been upheld by the regional powers that see the poor nations in the region as nothing more than their playpens. The support of the palace by India and China (and subsequently the United States) have played a critical part in Nepal’s failed development. It enabled the two royal lineages in Kathmandu (the Shahs and the Ranas) to control most of the country’s operations and in the process built their own familial wealth.
The powerful people’s movement of today arises from a disturbed political context in Nepal that had been incubating for more than a decade. The 1990 revolution was a milestone when the citizenry realized the power of a mass movement. However, critical mistakes of the leaders of the 1990 uprising allowed the current king to dissolve the parliament and maintain control over the army. It also created a highly polarized political situation in the country. While the mainstream political parties were tangled into a tight knot of deceit and corruption, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) mobilized the poor in the countryside, who until then were invisible in Kathmandu politics. In 1996 the CPN-Maoist took it a step further and led an armed insurgency in the countryside.
* POOR FOLKS USED AS PAWNS
Like all armed movements, Nepal’s poor people’s revolution has not been without contradictions and mistakes. Thousands of innocent people have sacrificed their lives, and thousands more have been caught in the middle. Violence, fear, extortions, detentions, mass killings, rape, and murder are part of the vocabulary of the insurgency. Both the Nepali state and the Maoists are guilty of mistakes with both sides having used the poor as pawns.
However, the political ramifications of the communist movement in the countryside must be acknowledged as a major catalyst for the Kathmandu uprising. Specifically, the 12-Point Agreement between the Maoists and the SPA has set the political language and terrain in Nepal. One of the primary demands of the Agreement was the end to the constitutional monarchy and to define Nepal as a secular nation. The rebels have successfully instigated numerous general strikes, creating a precedence of mass organizing in Kathmandu. All of which were essential in organizing millions to keep filling up the streets, and seeing possibilities to enter the royal palace.
Until the spring revolution, the city and the country had been experiencing a political face-off: on one hand there was the borderline fascistic antics of the monarchy, while on the other, idealistic but perhaps not sustainable strength of the countryside rebellion. This created opportune moments for the political parties to organize, propelling the civil society to realize they had nothing to lose but their chains and make history. The Kathmandu elite ideologically disagreed with the Maoist revolution, but saw the need for a radical change in the country. A severe dichotomy existed in the country, it was either follow the path of radical change or continue to be silenced by the palace.
Nepal’s splintered identity, perhaps for the first time in history, was united on a sense of urgency and people from all walks of life chose change rather than docility. And most importantly, the mass media, locally and internationally, supported the people. This was instrumental in sustaining the huge numbers of people on the street. Despite the monarchy’s attempt to cut off telephone lines, people organized by sending mass text messages. It was truly 21st-century organizing.
Today, Kathmandu is calm again and there is a sense of real possibilities. A new constitution will be written, and already the old language of Nepal’s identity is being discarded. The army is no longer royalty, and Hinduism has finally been abandoned as a source of governance. But the question now is how will Nepal engage with the newly founded democratic government? The foreign-aid community is ecstatic that the political parties have joined the rest of the “free” world. How will the political parties, who are not only up against the forces of contemporary democratic governance but are also pressured by communist ideologies of the Maoists, juggle the two contradictory forces? What will Nepal’s economic policy look like when both India and China are awaiting with their arms crossed to get the green light to continue invading the local economy? Fundamentally, what remains to be seen is how the SPA will hold up to the free market while bowing to Prachanda Path, the ideology of the CPN-Maoist.
Reecha Upadhyay works as the communications and development associate at Urban Agenda. She is a graduate of the New School University’s International Affairs program and has worked in Nepal, India, and Thailand. This commentary was first published in SAMAR.