October 10, 2009
KATHMANDU, CAPITAL OF QUAGMIRE
When the 2006 Peace Agreement was signed – marking the end of the Maoist armed conflict – it was hoped that Nepal had set a new course for political stability. The largely peaceful process of the 2008 elections reinforced that hope. But the intervening eighteen months have acted as a steady drizzle, dampening Nepalis’ initial optimism.
The primary duty of the Constituent Assembly was to pen a new constitution by May 2010. Insufficient progress has been made to that end. If the CA cannot deliver as promised, and when promised, the legitimacy of the interim government will be thrown into question. And rightly so.
What has the CA been doing with its time? Internecine power struggles between the various political parties have sapped much of the energy that should have been directed elsewhere. Focusing on emotional issues of symbolic importance – the shape of the national flag, for instance – have taken precedence over the far less sexy and more labor-intensive work of knocking out a document, a constitution that would create a foundation and source of the legal authority for a new republic. The 601 members of the CA were elected to be the architects of the framework that would define the powers and duties of the main branches of Nepal’s government. They were not hired as interior decorators.
Writing a constitution, in the best of conditions, is a mammoth undertaking. Emerging from an insurgency that claimed the lives of 16, 278 Nepalis (the death toll was recently adjusted from the original 13,000 killed) is hardly what could be called ideal conditions. In 2008, someone needed to be selected to take the helm and to keep the Constituent Assembly on task – preferably someone who was not easily distracted – a pragmatist, a taskmaster, a clock-watcher.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) was the first man to have the opportunity to steer the CA in the right direction. He did not. He worked very hard and very efficiently to consolidate his party’s power until it blew up in his face with the General Katawal debacle. Instead of returning to his cardinal task of captaining the writing of a constitution, he quit his post to save face. In poker terms, he lost heavily and decided to cash in his remaining chips; he left the table but not the casino.
Left in the lurch, the CA brought in Madhav Kumar Nepal: He became the new Prime Minister in May 2009. He inherited a CA in total disarray and has been working hard ever since to pick up the pieces – not an easy task insomuch as wherever he and his cabinet go, incensed Maoists block them with black flags and intransigent rhetoric. It is true that the Maoists garnered a majority of votes during the elections and they must still play a central role in the writing of the constitution. But they behave as if they received a mandate, which is not the case. They behave as if their reputation is the issue, not the writing of the constitution.
How does the outside world perceive Nepal? The clock ticks, the political deadlock in Kathmandu continues – myopic and petty – while the southern swath of Nepal goes to hell.
SOUTHERN NEPAL, THE NEW KILLING FIELD
What is going on in the rest of the country, particularly in the south, is of growing concern to the international community. The politicos in the Kathmandu Valley should take note of this concern.
In the three years since the 2006 Peace Agreement, terrorist and unlawful activity has dramatically increased with complete impunity and with no end in sight.
To give but one example of the absence of accountability, in September 2007, there were riots in Kapilvastu following the murder of a local Muslim landowner, Mohit Khan. Fourteen people were killed, the town was torched (as were neighboring villages) and thousands were displaced, afraid to return to an area that offered no security. The perpetrators of the riots and murders and arson have never been captured; the government has mounted no impartial investigation. This is the norm in the south. Atrocities occur. Thugs and terrorists walk away unscathed.
Last month, the Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC) published findings that illustrate how bad things really are. In the last two years and ten months, 1,284 deaths and 2,100 abductions have occurred in the Terai. Over 100 new underground armed-groups have come into existence. 90% of the deaths have been attributed to these armed groups. Adding to the general atmosphere of violence, political parties have now formed semi-armed youth wings, perhaps in response to the pre-existing YCL – the youth wing of the Maoists. 10 of the deaths and 336 of the abductions in the Terai in the last three years are attributed to the YCL.
One of the old and better organized armed-groups in the south (established in 2004), is the Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (ATMM), an insurgent outfit fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Madhesis, who make up one-third of Nepal’s population. The leader of ATTM is Jaikrishna Goit. He was once a Maoist leader. Last week, in a secret interview with Anuj Chopra (for Madhesi-United We Stand), Goit insisted that Madhesis had the right to secede from Nepal and form an independent state. When asked how he justified terrorism, murder and extortion to achieve his separatist goals, Goit gave a bizarre response. He cited Gandhi: “’I would rather have people resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should in a cowardly manner remain a hopeless witness to their own dishonor.’” (The provenance of the quote was not cited.) The article continues to explain that, “After the interview, [which was conducted in an undisclosed place in northern India], Mr. Goit crossed back over the porous border into Terai through the flood plains of the monsoon-swollen Koshi river, which is lined with sandbanks and riddles with shifting grasslands.”
This last bit is what most concerns the international community: the ease with which outlaws and terrorists can move undetected between Nepal and India. It’s beginning to look like a very nasty breeding ground.
INDIA’S MISGIVINGS – INSURGENTS AND THE PAKISTANI CONNECTION
There is no doubt that criminal and terrorist movement from Nepal, made possible by its 1800-kilometer border, has forced India to reexamine how it regards its northern neighbor. The steady succession of incidents that have occurred in the last month alone illustrate why they are alarmed.
September 22: Sudhanshu Sudhakar, an ex-soldier of the Indian Army was arrested in northern India for spying for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He was allegedly captured with dossiers on missile designs, locations of Indian Army deployment along the Nepali border, as well as plans for future army deployment to Jammu and Kashmir. Also seized in the arrest were five sim cards and a Nepali mobile phone. Officials claimed that Sudhakar admitted that these were used to contact “Rana”, an ISI operative employed at the Pakistan Embassy in Kathmandu. Apparently Sudhakar was arrested on his way to Kathmandu to brief the ISI representative. The suspect also admitted that he had already visited Nepal twice earlier.
Another September 22 incident: According to Indian Express, the Anti-Terror Squad and Delhi Police had proof that three Indian Mujahideen terrorists, accused of carrying out blasts in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, were currently hiding in Nepal: The three men were allegedly being provided safe haven in Nepal by ISI.
October 1: Indian police captured a Nepali Maoist leader who had escaped from a Nepali prison, “a high security jail in Kanchanpur district of Nepal”, according to Press Trust of India. Twelve other prisoners escaped but have not been captured. Again, the point is that the porous Indo-Nepali border has become a symbol of safe-haven for wanted men.
October 7: Majid Manihar, the alleged kingpin of a counterfeit Indian rupees racket, operating inside southern Nepal, was shot and killed in a hotel in Nepalganj. Manihar’s son had been arrested the previous month in India, with large amounts of fake currency in his possession. The son reportedly revealed Pakistan’s ISI role in the counterfeit operation. Indian authorities assume that it was ISI operatives who assassinated Manihar, fearing that he might cooperate with New Delhi, in an effort to get his son released.
October 8: In the Indian border state of Maharashtra, gunmen ambushed a group of 40 policemen, killing 17 and injuring two. Ashok Chavan, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, accused Nepali Maoists as the culprits. The gun battle lasted for four hours. Several hours later, a “police informer” was beheaded. Maoists will obviously deny any participation and so far no hard evidence has been brought forward to substantiate the accusation. It would seem more likely that Naxalites (Indian Maoists) committed the massacre. Naxalites freely roam Maharashtra and the neighboring district of Chhatisgarh, one of the most lawless states in India. But, again, the point is that the sheer volume of cross-border activity between Nepal and India lends itself to such knee-jerk conclusions. The whole area is out of control. Corruption is so pervasive that impunity has found very fertile soil.
Yesterday, it was announced that India and Nepal would be launching a joint operation along the border area in an effort to reduce crime. The move is to be applauded, but the task is huge and, in the past, Indian-Nepal cooperation has been a dicey dance.
AS INDIA REEVALUATES NEPAL’S POTENTIAL THREAT, CHINA IS FORCED TO REEVALUATE NEPAL’S INSTABILITY.
Many analysts now project that, by 2050, China and India’s combined economic power will dominated the world stage. In the meantime, China and India have become economic competitors and, in some instances, allies. But they also have a long-standing border issue that has remained unresolved and simmering for the last fifty years. India and China regard each other with mutual suspicion. As Nepal’s political instability worsens, its giant neighbors monitor and analyze every move the faltering nation makes. If Nepal should fall into the “failed nation” status, neither giant will simply stand back while the other moves into Nepal under the guise of restoring peace. Apart from its strategic importance, Nepal represents a natural resource that both countries covet. Blue Gold: Except for Brazil, Nepal’s glacier-fed rivers boast the highest potential for hydropower in the world.
The volley of recriminations between India and China is commonplace and Nepal is being dragged into the conflict. Only last week, the Indian government accused China of setting up 24 “Nepal-China study centers” (most of which are located along Nepal’s border with India) as spy centers. Ostensibly, the centers were created to provide Nepalis with a deeper understanding of Chinese customs, language and economical development. India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, accuses the centers of being covers for monitoring Indian security forces. RAW points out that most of the centers’ directors are former PLA officers. Supporters of the Chinese, on the other hand, counter that RAW has been spying in an on Nepal for decades, so who are they to complain?
What is important for Nepal to remember is that, historically, Nepal has served both India and China as a convenient buffer zone. It may be a curse, but it is also a blessing, if Nepal uses this status to its full advantage. Because it is geographically trapped between China and India, tiny Nepal will never be an entirely independent nation. But Nepal can continue to exist as a sovereign state if it is realistic about its own limitation: Its ability to survive is wedded to its ability to maintain neutrality. (Recent attempts, for instance, to “play the China card” against India is foolish and self-destructive.)
In the 21st century, maintaining neutrality is only going to become more challenging. Nepal should prepare itself: assertiveness from India and China is only going to increase as their domination as world powers accelerates in the upcoming decades.
And how can Nepal maintain that precious neutrality? Taking a deep breath would be a good start. Remembering what the goal of the 2008 elections was really about – to create a new constitution that will adequately support the newest of the world’s republics – is paramount.
And then proceed from there. Restore law and order to the south. Encourage a judicial system that can eliminate the prevailing attitude of impunity. Support the well-oiled mechanization of the army instead of trying to bend it to ideological preferences. Engage the southern district with dialogue and programs that will foster security instead of additional armed-groups – thug outfits and gang-bangers posing as political entities. Send a very loud message to would-be terrorists (and the alarmed international community) that Nepal is no longer friendly soil for their nefarious enterprises.
But first, get the constitution written.