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     Volume 4 Issue 19 | October 29, 2004 |

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Between Monarchy
and Maoists

Zafar Sobhan

I recently returned from Kathmandu where I was attending a ten-day workshop on non-traditional sources of conflict. I have never been a fan of parachute journalism -- the practice of dropping into some hot-spot and asking a few cursory questions before writing up one's observations with great elan and authority -- but do think that I saw enough in my twelve days there that a personal account of what I learned about life in Nepal might be useful to readers here in Bangladesh.

The day before I arrived in Kathmandu, the city had been shut down for two days by the Maoists and I was interested to see what kind of atmosphere prevailed in a country that from media accounts essentially seemed to be in the midst of a civil war.

People told me that the bandhs called by the Maoists are obeyed by the general public as no one dares defy them. However, there were no bandhs during the time I was in Kathmandu and things seemed peaceful enough.

True, there were army checkpoints everywhere and I was stopped on a number of occasions. But unlike in Dhaka, I was never made to get out of the car or searched, and the security did not seem much more intrusive than what we face here at home.

I couldn't tell for sure, but it did seem that tourism was light. The hotel at which the workshop was being held was sparsely populated and the crowds at the historical sites and tourist spots seemed to be pretty thin too. One presentation at the workshop estimated that tourism had been cut in half by the insurgency with a cost to the Nepali economy of roughly $200 million.

Some of the foreigners I met spoke of emergency evacuation plans put in place by their embassies, but no one seemed particularly worried and the atmosphere seemed fairly calm.

It should of course be mentioned that this is only Kathmandu that I am speaking of, and that things could be, and by most accounts are, very different outside the city. There are villages in Nepal which are a week's walk from the nearest paved road and so it is easy to see that life in the relatively prosperous Kathmandu valley is hardly representative of life in the country as a whole.

My room-mate for the duration of the work-shop was a Nepali student pursuing his doctoral thesis at JNU in Delhi. He was a very interesting man with a lot of insight into the political situation in the country.

He didn't think much of the Maoists -- indeed I couldn't find a single Nepali who had much good to say about them. But he did see them as legitimate insurgents and didn't like the label "terrorist" to be applied to them.

This, in fact, was the default position of most of the Nepalis I came into contact with -- most made it clear that they did not support either the goals or the means of the Maoists -- but they were hesitant to condemn them outright.

My room-mate, when asked how the Maoists would fare in democratic elections, straight-forwardly told me that they had perpetrated too many atrocities to ever gain the affection of the general public -- but intimated that the situation was complicated and that many of their grievances were legitimate.

He told me that he was interested in establishing a republican form of government in Nepal and told me all about the ethnic conflicts in the country. He was a member of the Madhesi community from the Tarai region of Nepal, and before meeting him I didn't know that 50 per cent of the Nepali population were from the plains and ethnically more similar to North Indians than the hill people who dominate Nepali society and government.

He made the point that the Maoists are just one of many disaffected groups in Nepal and that ethnic, regional, and caste tensions were all simmering beneath the surface. So the problem is not just the Maoists.

The presentations on Nepal that I attended at the work-shop were very interesting and helped fill in a lot of the gaps.

I found one presentation by Prof. Dhruba Kumar, a senior research scholar at Tribhuvan University, to be particularly compelling.

Prof. Kumar made a convincing case that the Maoist insurgency was not a product of marginalisation and deprivation. He pointed out that the Maoists are not active in the least developed regions of Nepal as one would have thought would be the case if the insurgency was a response to poverty and oppression.

He further pointed out that the Maoists came to prominence after the democratic reforms of the 1990s and that had the insurgency been a reaction to marginalisation, destitution, and lack of democracy, that it could have been expected to have happened much earlier.

Prof. Kumar opined that the best way to understand the Maoists is to see them as rebelling against both the monarchy and democracy. He suggests that their marginalisation (which led to their subsequent call to arms) had come at the hands of the other left parties in Nepal and not the state.

Twelve days is hardly any time at all and I don't presume to have gained any great insight into Nepali society or politics in my brief time there.

But you cannot spend some time in Nepal without feeling something for the people of that beautiful country.

On the one hand they are stuck in monarchy that has neglected their needs and aspirations and created a society that is strikingly stratified and unequal -- even for South Asia. I heard horror stories of the crown prince and his drunken excesses, and nobody seems to be looking forward to his ascension to the throne.

On the other hand they are faced with a brutal and bloody insurgency which has long ago decided that it is not interested in winning the hearts and minds of the population, but will achieve its aims through fear and intimidation.

Caught in the middle are the Nepali people -- struggling to get ahead -- with dreams of democracy and self-determination and development and dignity.

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004