Not having been a European colony, Nepal has always been a fascinating subject for Orientalism, perhaps for having retained a mystique and thus the challenge of an unknown. Books explaining what is “really” happening in Nepal find a great market. In 1980, a book written by a group of East Anglia neo-Marxists called Nepal in Crisis: Growth and Stagnation at the Periphery (Piers M Blaikie, John Cameron, David Sedden, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980) created political waves. Thirty years later last week, one of its authors admitted in an interview that their dire predictions were “unduly pessimistic”. This year’s centre-stage has been taken by Nepal in Transition, and one of its main Indian contributors has not even had to wait 30 months for his mea culpa in the blogosphere. While the former book had a theoretical Marxist class basis underlying its analysis, this one seems to be based on deconstructive, post-modern anthropology that rants against undefined “elites” maintaining an exclusionary state even when governments these half dozen years since sidelining the monarchy in Nepal have been led by communists.
This is a volume edited by UN functionaries and Canada’s former ambassador to India and Nepal (David M Malone). Its 14 chapters have been written by nine Nepalis, two Indians and eight Westerners. Of the latter, five are or were associated with the UN or its peacekeeping mission in Nepal that ended in a fiasco. The furore it has left in its unwitting wake in Kathmandu seems to have destroyed the political legitimacy and legacy of Maoist supremo Prachanda and his prime minister Baburam Bhattarai. That, though unintended, is the reason why the book has sold like hot cakes, and will be parsed and commented upon in the years to come. In terms of impact, the chapters in the book divide into two: on the one side would be the chapter by Jawaharlal Nehru University academic and Nepal expert SD Muni (who also doubles as Baburam Bhattarai’s mentor from the latter’s JNU days) and on the other the rest of the authors. Because of who he is and what he reveals in the book, it is Muni versus the rest. Indeed, it is Muni’s revelations that completely undercut the foundations on which all the other chapters premise their analysis. But first let us look at the other chapters.
The Nepali writers are all well known public figures who have served in important government positions or have been prominent opinion writers with in-depth knowledge of the shenanigans of the last decade and a half ’s Nepali politics. In their writings, they provide depth and detail to such an extent that the book would serve as valuable reference for further research even if one disagreed with their interpretations of those events. Particularly noteworthy is Deepak Thapa’s introductory chapter that sets the context of theMaoist insurgency against which the recent political upheavals have occurred. Former finance secretary and minister Devendra Raj Pandey provides the key to understanding how Western donors have acquired such leverage in a faraway Himalayan country. Analysis by journalists such as Aditya Adhikari and Prashanta Jha help readers understand the mind numbing complexity of bewildering political acrobatics Nepal has had to witness in the last half dozen years. Unfortunately most of these chapters seem to have been written in 2009 and 2010, and the subsequent unraveling of the political architecture that culminated in the collapse of the Constituent Assembly after May 2012 means that optimism for a New Nepal that underlies their writing too has unraveled.
The chapters by Western authors, given the vice regal status many of them have enjoyed in Nepal as dispensers of the donor largesse especially for the bounteously endowed “peace industry”, reveal interesting insights. Teresa Whitfield describes in a moment of candour that all external actors were entrepreneurs of the blooming peace industry, ostensibly promoting themselves and their wares rather than the peace process itself. Most argue that what stymied all their efforts were India’s "neuralgia towards international involvement” as well as the dishonesty of Nepali politicians and the ubiquitous but undefined “elites”. Human rights activists Frederick Rawski and Mandira Sharma describe the laughable oversell of the UN commissioner Navaneethem Pillay comparing Nepal’s situation with Rwanda. Most interesting is Ian Martin, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission UNMIN which arrived with much hype and retreated with a whimper after turning a blind eye to Maoist duplicity and making a bad situation even worse. His side of the story is essentially that if only he had been given a bigger mandate by the Security Council could he have done his job, but he could not given India’s resistance, a partisan peace ministry, a flawed Comprehensive Peace Agreement and weak Nepali governments unable to implement agreements. In normal English, it could be called “blaming the victim”.
While the writings of all UN types are full of excuses why they could not do their job, they are also rife with factual errors, very selective use of facts and the filtering out of inconvenient truths as well as the unquestioned acceptance of media propaganda of the day. The first sentence in chapters by both Whitfield and Martin begin by saying that the Nepali peace process was a wholly Nepali-led affair, but then the rest of chapter explains in shameful detail the amazing foreign involvement and their role in it. Catinca Slavu and Martin both make the incredible claim that the attempt by the King’s regime in February 2006 to hold municipal elections three years after party-led governments failed to do so as being “organised against democracy”! They of course fail to mention how the “democratic parties” had given a hit list to the Maoists to assassinate candidates who stood for elections, a claim made by top Maoist leaders subsequently on national TV and print, and to this date not refuted by the parties. The third parliament was dissolved in 2002 not by the King, as these writers repeat mindlessly, but by the infighting of political parties.
They forget what the then functional constitution said about the residual powers of a state and what the head of state had to do when a parliament imploded. This book has been published at a time when the Constituent Assembly has fizzled away and evaporated, and Nepal is back tothe same political situation it was in ten years ago. Only this time, there is no legitimate government nor a constitution; and the rootless institution of the president defined by an amended interim constitution neither has residual powers nor the weight of tradition that the King has but it is expected to act exactly as the King had to in 2002. None of these writers could foresee how such a turn of events would make mulch out of much of their analysis; but what really undercuts their premise is the chapter by SD Muni. It proves what many had long suspected in Kathmandu: India’s deep involvement and “double standards” declaring Maoists terrorists but providing their leaders shelter and patronage in Delhi, using them as leverage against both the parliamentary as well as King’s government in Nepal. Muni’s footnotes between pages 317 and 329 are the most damaging to India’s diplomatic reputation. They show how a section of the Indian establishment led by the intelligence agencies had a covert agenda of removing the King as early as 2002 because of “the complete failure of the monarchy to ensure India’s security and development interests” (footnote 14, page 321). He also writes that around the same time, the Maoists had given in writing assurances to Indian leaders “that they wanted the best of relations with India and would not do anything to harm its critical interests”.
And all this was happening even while Nepal had a functioning parliament and a government led by a democratic Nepali Congress whose prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had begun a fight in earnest against the Maoists. Indeed Muni’s writings show how the intelligence-led part of the Indian establishment was able to undercut the Karan Singh mission that convinced the King to hand over power to the Seven Party Alliance led by Girija Koirala: even as Pranab Mukherjee (then defense minister, now president of India) was pleading on the phone with party leaders to accept the Karan Singh deal, the spooks-led faction was edging the parties not to accept it and to force the King to step down, which is what happened. And even as the BJP-led Indian government had declared Maoists as terrorists, its spooks wing had taken their leadership under its protection and was strangling the Royal Nepal Army by cutting off even normal supplies already on the pipeline. These revelations completely demolish the premise that the other chapters have been built on: that April 2006 was a popular Nepali uprising for inclusiveness.
Why was such a chapter and indeed such a book written at all at a time of such political flux when normal scholarship is reticent to pass any verdict? The answer probably comes from asking who is the intended audience of the book, the answer being the international community? Writing in times of uncertain flux is only for politicians and opinion makers who want to influence the course of events their way, not for cautious scholars who fear that the turn of events can make any analysis irrelevant. In about a year or two since most of these chapters were written, events in Nepal have taken a political turn that has seen the collapse of the basic political architecture of regime change. But the editors and authors did not, could not, anticipate such an eventuality, and must have been motivated either by the wish to be the first to describe the “historic changes” or to take credit for them. Muni seems to fall in the latter category, and in the process has damaged the credibility of Indian diplomacy, which will be seen not as being fed by the country’s intelligence service (as all competent super powers are) but as being led by it.
Nepal in Transition: From People’s War to Fragile Peace
Edited by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Malone, and Suman Pradhan Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2012, 398 pp., Rs 495 (PB) ISBN 978-1-107-00567-9
Courtesy: B I B L I O : S E P T E M B E R - O C T O B E R 2 0 1 2)