This week it will be 26 years since the Maoists took up arms against the state, and 16 years since the war ended. Sher Bahadur Deuba was prime minister in 1996, just as he is now in an uneasy governing coalition with his erstwhile Maoist enemies.
The war lasted ten years, leaving 17,000 dead. Unlike previous years, preparations for ‘People’s War Day’ on 13 February are muted. This is to be expected — the warring sides are now not just the state, but are members of the same governing coalition.
Today, both Deuba and his Maoist coalition partner Pushpa Kamal Dahal want to brush the dirty business of war under the carpet. Two commissions set up to investigate war crimes are as good as defunct. Neither side wants to rake up the past, and hope that time will help erase memories of atrocities.
Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai presented Deuba with a 40-point ultimatum a day before Valentine’s on 13 February 1996. But even before the deadline ran out, guerrillas led by Nanda Kishore Pun and Barsha Man Pun attacked a police post in Rolpa district.
Nanda Kishore Pun is now Nepal’s vice-president, Barsha Man Pun has been minister several times and just returned after medical treatment in China. He may have been convicted of war crimes, but Agni Sapkota is Speaker of Parliament. Guerrilla commander Janardan Sharma is Finance Minister in the coalition government.
In 1996, Deuba was too busy extinguishing a rebellion within his Nepali Congress party (sound familiar?) to respond to the spreading Maoist insurgency. When the police did react, it was with such indiscriminate violence that it the Maoists had no trouble with recruitment.
Despite the 1990 transition to constitutional monarchy and the short-lived euphoria of democracy, the Maoists felt this would not end feudalism. They believed that it was only possible to end the ‘structural violence’ of the state by taking up arms against it. They faithfully followed the ‘protracted armed struggle’ tactics of Mao, who himself was a disciple of Sun Tzu.
They chose a remote and inaccessible region of the country where state neglect, inequity and social injustice were entrenched. But objective conditions for revolt were so ripe, the state’s response so ham-handed, that the insurgency spread like wildfire.
The Maoists wanted to topple parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, and were backed by forces inside and outside Nepal with the same goal. Emboldened by early gains, the Maoists used the momentum of the royal palace massacre of 1 June 2001 to take on the Royal Nepal Army a year later. The level of violence and casualties escalated – an average of 35 Nepalis were being killed every day at the hands of fellow-Nepalis.
King Gyanendra’s ill-advised coup of 2005 backfired, and people came out on to the streets. Their demands were peace and democracy, in that order. A military stalemate on the ground, war weariness, and lobbying by external peacemakers led to a ceasefire.
In the 16 years since, Nepal has gone from war to peace, from monarchy to republic, from Hindu state to secularism, but not much else has changed. Despite a progressive Constitution, social exclusion and injustice prevail, there is chronic instability, impunity, lack of accountability and governance failure.
For those who still remember the horrors of war, the sacrifices have been squandered. Nepal is back to where it was in 1996 and even the political protagonists are the same people. In an election year, there is a move to rollback federalism, secularism and even monarchy. History is once more repeating itself as a farce.
Ever since the Shaktikhor tapes in which he boasted on candid camera to have hoodwinked the United Nations by inflating his party’s militia strength so he could pocket more compensation from the state, Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been known for playing to the gallery.
The ongoing political tug-o-war over the US-supported Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project has further exposed Dahal. The fact that he had co-signed (with Deuba) a letter to the MCC secretariat in Washington DC assuring it that he needed a few more months to build a consensus within the coalition for ratification by Parliament was diametrically opposite of what he was saying in public against the MCC.
The political fallout has been damaging for PKD, even those sympathetic to his cause have taken him to task. Cartoonists and social media are having a field-day lampooning him. But Dahal has built such widespread public opinion against the project that he is now trying to portray himself as a staunch nationalist who stood up to American imperialism.
Dahal had two chances to serve as prime minister, and Bhattarai once. The two have fallen out long since, with Bhattarai now also threatening to split off from the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) because he cannot get along with another former Maoist Upendra Yadav.
PKD’s Maoist party is now a shadow of its former fearsome self. Most of his staunchest comrades have abandoned him. Many may not even remember 13 February.