The Ongoing Revolution in Nepal

On April 10, 2008, a very special election was held in Nepal. It was an election for representatives to a Constituent Assembly to produce a new constitution and government after a period of protracted crisis in the Himalayan nation. Voter turnout was 63% and the process was pronounced free and fair by international monitors, including former US President Jimmy Carter. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won over a third of the votes. More specifically, the breakdown in seats was as follows:

Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) 37%
Nepali Congress Party 18
Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) 17
Madhesi Janadhikar Forum 9
Terai-Madhesh Loktantrik Party 3
Other (none over 2%) 16

It was a stunning victory for the banned party that had launched a People’s War in 1996, acquired control of 80% of Nepal, then announced unilateral suspension of military action in September 2005. When the highly unpopular monarch, King Gyanendra, declared martial law, dissolved the government, and seized absolute power in February 2005 — ostensibly so that he could lead the fight against the Maoists — his actions prompted the Maoists and the seven mainstream parliamentary parties to negotiate with one another. They produced an agreement on common action against the monarchy that November.

The Maoists ended their ceasefire in January 2006, declaring they needed to defend themselves against government attacks. The following month a Maoist-called strike paralyzed the country. The Maoists suspended attacks on the capital while the political parties organized strikes and demonstrations in April, forcing the king to return power to the prime minister. In June the government agreed to the Maoists’ demand to be included in the government, and in November an agreement was announced whereby the Maoists would end the People’s War, disarm its 37,000 fighters under UN monitoring and confine them to cantonments, join an interim government, and take part in elections for a Constituent Assembly. The interim constitution adopted in early 2007 specified that elections were to take place by last June but these were delayed due in part to the Maoists’ insistence that the assembly abolish the monarchy. The constitution made the prime minister rather than the king the head of state but did not formally abolish the monarchy or proclaim a republic. It stated that during the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly the matter of the “continuation of the monarchy” would be decided by a simple majority vote. On the opening day of the assembly, May 28, the 240-year-old monarchy was indeed abolished by a vote of 560 to 4.

The current constitution pursuant to an earlier agreement with the Maoists declares that a “Nepal Army” will be formed. That effectively renames the 80,000-strong Royal Nepalese Army, confined to barracks as the Maoist army is confined to cantonments, and paves the way for the integration into it of the registered Maoist fighters. This is a key Maoist demand, and major sticking point as officers in the former RNA resist that inclusion. They claim there is no place in a professional army for “ideological” soldiers, although I suspect that royalist ideology prevails in their own ranks. There is the basis here then of a looming confrontation.

The constitution declares overwhelmingly Hindu Nepal, formerly the world’s only “Hindu monarchy,” a secular state. This alarms some in Nepal who regard the Nepali kings as incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, and have already set off bombs expressing their displeasure. It also angers Hindu nationalists in India who are in a position to support Nepali monarchists. A form of Hindu fundamentalism may gather strength in the months to come.

India, the regional hegemon increasingly aligned with a U.S. egging it on to become a “superpower,” poses another threat to the unfolding revolution in Nepal. The Indian government facilitated the talks between the Maoists and the seven parties, and has released the Nepali Maoists detained in its prisons. But it faces a massive Maoist insurgency with longstanding ties to the Nepali revolutionaries, and views the prospect of a Red Nepal serving as a base for regional revolution with understandable trepidation. New Delhi is in a position to exploit ethnic tensions in Nepal, Hindu fundamentalism and Nepalese Army resistance to Maoist integration. The Chinese government (having itself abandoned Maoism decades ago) is unsympathetic to Nepal’s Maoists and would strongly oppose Indian intervention in the Himalayan country wedged between the two giants. Still, Indian intervention can’t be ruled out.

In this context the CPN (M) now forwards political demands to the other parties. It demands the retention of the existing (interim constitution) provision for a two-thirds majority to appoint a prime minister remain. This allows the Maoists, with 37% of the seats, to block the appointment of an opponent. If the assembly changes the rules, as the Nepali Congress Party and the (moderate reform-oriented) Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) propose, it is likely the current Prime Minister Girijia Prasad Koirala will remain at his post. In that case the Maoists, who demand the posts of both prime minister and president as a result of their electoral victory, threaten to quit the government in which they currently hold several ministries.

CPN (M) chairman Prachanda has recently declared, “If they don’t want to give it [government leadership] to us, they can keep it. We’ve no objection.” He’s also said that, “Due to the foolishness of Gyanendra, [a] republic has been established. If the NC and UML also continue demonstrating their foolishness, [a] people‘s republic will be established.” In other words, if the Maoists are denied the power they’ve obtained by a mix of People’s War and the ballot box, they will launch a movement in the streets of Kathmandu that will sweep aside the opposition. The “Prachanda Path” articulated years ago advocates for Nepal a combination of Mao’s People’s War and Russia’s October Revolution. The party states openly that 50,000 young militants are arriving in the city to take part in demonstrations. June could be a climactic month.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

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  1. hp said on June 2nd, 2008 at 9:00am #

    Nepal, welcome to the 21st century.
    Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it, good and hard.