King Gyanendra’s government may be forgiven for shrugging off the unilateral truce declared by the Maoist rebels in Kathmandu Valley. With the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA)’s much-hyped “massive showdown” with the palace looming, Maoist supremo Prachanda has decided to take the peace route to the Nepalese capital.
During their decade-old “People’s War,” the Maoists have succeeded in mounting daring attacks on district capitals and inflicting heavy blows on the state. However, they have lacked the ability to hold on to their “conquests” even for a few hours. So much for the rebels being in control of 80 percent of Nepal.
Prachanda evidently recognizes the futility of triumphalism as long as Kathmandu valley remains out of bounds. The Shining Path, the Maoist organization in Peru from which the Nepalese rebels draw inspiration, was thought to have been in control of 95 percent of the Andean nation. Once Comrade Gonzalo was in the grip of the Peruvian security forces and found himself paraded in a cage, the Maoists there lost their luminosity.
Instead, Prachanda has decided to rally behind the SPA in an effort to foment the overdue urban insurrection that would catapult him to power. The Maoists’ latest unilateral ceasefire is clearly aimed at absolving their organization of responsibility for any outbreak of violence.
The peace route has worked well for the rebels. Last week, Maoists bombed a high-school test center in western Nepal, injuring teachers and students. The rebels came out with a statement clarifying that such attacks were not part of their movement.
Earlier this year, the Maoists gave an explicit pledge to Ian Martin, the top UN human rights monitor in Nepal, that they would not physically attack candidates standing in the municipal polls the royal regime was organizing as part of its three-year roadmap to democracy. The Maoists actually killed two leading candidates and injured others. Martin saw no reason to hold the Maoists to their pledge, but that’s a different story.
The SPA is either unaware of the rebel ploy or is totally consumed by hatred of the palace for having exposed the hollowness of the multiparty democracy the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninists crafted at the instigation of their Indian mentors.
The royal regime has branded the upcoming protests as a Maoist-driven campaign and has vowed to repulse this challenge to its authority. The rebels’ ceasefire is unlikely to change the government’s stand because it can see through the rebels’ deceit. During the last unilateral ceasefire, the Maoists continued with much of their terrorist activities – murder, kidnappings, extortion, etc. If they desisted from high-profile attacks on government installations, it was merely to rearm and reorganize. The rebels had used the two previous peace processes – in 2003 and 2001 – to prepare for a deadlier spree of murder and mayhem.
Undoubtedly, the Maoists will attempt to foment unrest on streets of Kathmandu. An upsurge of rebel-instigated violence under the cover of the SPA’s “peaceful” protests would certainly prompt a matching government response. How that would play out remains to be seen.
The wild card is obviously the valley’s influential Newar community. Their participation – or lack of it – will determine which side comes out on top in the days ahead. Ever since the first phase of King Gyanendra’s takeover on October 4, 2002, the mainstream opposition’s agitation has gone through different forms. It hasn’t been able to acquire enough firepower to intimidate the palace. Why?
A principle reason is that Newars – who were at the forefront of the protests in 1990 – aren’t too thrilled about what the SPA or the Maoists have to offer. Sixteen years ago, it was the Nirgun Sthapits and Soviet Man Shresthas – children of Kathmandu valley’s native population – who fell to the cause of democracy. For a brief period, the Newar-dominated old quarters of Patan became an autonomous republic. Most Newars seemed ready to avenge everything starting from what they saw as Prithvi Narayan Shah’s blood-drenched conquest of the valley over two centuries earlier.
Significantly, Newars became among the first people to be disenchanted with the new democratic leadership. The wife and son of Ganesh Man Singh, the supreme leader of the 1990 protests, had made enough of their own mark on the democracy movement to qualify as election candidates. However, they became the first victims of the cabal of higher-caste members ascendant in the Nepali Congress. Marshal Julum Shakya, that youthful face of anti-Panchayat defiance, had already been edged out. Singh was portrayed by his peers as a grumpy malcontent carrying virulent strains of communalism. Even the worst enemies of the man knew those attributes to be untrue.
Despite all the ideological symbolism involved in the face-off between interim prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai of the Nepali Congress and general secretary Madan Bhandari of the Unified Marxist Leninists, the election was merely a harbinger of the caste-hierarchy-based haughtiness of the new political class.
With great rapidity, people from outside the valley became candidates in Kathmandu. At one level, the comrades in the UML appeared more deserving of the honor. Many Brahmins and Kshatris had married into the Newar families they were renting rooms from during their years underground. That intricate family network shielded most from the clutches of Panchayat totalitarians. Once the light of democracy shone, it became clear that the comrades already had wives and children in the eastern hills and plains. The Nepals, Pokharels, Bajgains and Pants weren’t the crop of leaders too many Newars expected to emerge in the capital from the Panchayat debris.
The Maoists aren’t that different on this score. The organization is top heavy with people from the higher castes, while the foot soldiers come from ethnically disadvantaged groups like Magars. The first thing Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai – both born into the priestly Brahmin caste – did after patching up their own differences was to expel Rabindra Shrestha, a prominent Newar in the rebel movement.