Baburam Bhattarai: Post-Conflict Restructuring

This is a speech that Dr. Baburam Bhattarai recently gave at the National University of Singapore on “Post-Confict Restructuring”. In his speech Bhattarai articulates in a very clear and thoughtful manner his position on the largest problems being faced in Nepal today and it is not difficult to see, whether one agrees with him or not, that Bhattarai has spent a considerable amount of time thinking these issues through (although his discussion of the army-PLA seems to be a lot vaguer than other sections of his talk). In his talk Bhattarai restates many of his well-known positions on first the way forward, i.e. that any return to the armed struggle or a ‘people’s revolt’ would be disastrous and that the only way forward would be the peaceful promulgation of a constitution through compromise with the other parties; and second that India is not an enemy of Nepal per se, but that there needed to be a reorganization of the relationship between India and Nepal especially in light of the rise of China in the region which shifts Nepal away from the role as a “buffer state”.

What I did interesting are his comments on democracy in Nepal to be incredibly interesting as it seems that Bhattarai has shifted somewhat from his earlier position of multi-party competition within a socialist state (effectively a democratic process that would effectively ban all comprador and feudal parties), and seems to have replaced it with a more conventional social democratic vision although, as Bhattarai notes, adapted for Nepalese conditions that attempt to develop structures that would enable greater electoral participation by the masses in the organs of power (this could be an interesting way to revive the village-level people’s governments). Furthermore, Bhattarai seems to want to strike a balance between federalism that allows for greater rights to ethnic minorities, linguistic groups etc on the one hand and oppose any separatist movements on the other. The other aspect of the talk that I found interesting was his economic plans which seem to resemble in many ways the Great Leap Forward economic program for the countryside. For example the emphasis on radical land reform and modernization (not sure whether they will encourage the development of farm-sized industrial production though), and the emphasis on the communes for economic production. However, it is odd that Bhattarai seems to overlook the economic tasks in the urban centres.

Excerpted from Maoist Vice Chairman Baburam Bhattarai’s speech at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS), on March 25, 2011

The conflict or social class struggle in Nepal so far has been the fight of the overwhelming majority of  people subjected to class, nationality, regional, gender and caste oppression by a feudal, autocratic, unitary state system backed by internal and external retrograde forces. In other words, the struggle is for complete democratisation of society, economy and polity of the country. Hence post-conflict peace and development can be achieved only by total restructuring of all existing political, economic, social, cultural and international relations on a democratic basis.

a) Democratic restructuring:

The most fundamental and perhaps the most important question in the current peace process in Nepal is that of finding a mutually acceptable model of democratic system of the state to be institutionalised through the CA. The traditional parliamentary forces and Maoist communist revolutionaries had joined hands since the 12-Point Understanding to abolish the monarchy and introduce a democratic state system through an elected CA. There was a basic agreement on the process of institutionalising democracy, but not on the content or form of democracy. As is well known, the bourgeois democratic forces subscribe to liberal democracy, whereas the communist revolutionaries aspire for people’s democracy or socialist democracy. This great ideological-political divide is so deep-rooted in Nepal that the prolonged impasse in the constitution drafting process in the CA basically hinges on this.

There is general agreement in the Maoist radical democratic camp that principal impediments to social progress in  present-day Nepal are the feudal remnants in different spheres of society, economy and state. Hence the UCPN (Maoist) has identified its principal immediate task as the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Furthermore, the party has already declared its commitment to multi-party competitive politics, periodic elections, freedom of press and assembly, rule of law, human rights, etc, which are considered inalienable features of liberal democracy. The party’s only insistence has been that this political democracy should be grounded on concomitant democracy on economic, social and cultural fronts so that the basic masses of workers, peasants, women, dalits and people of oppressed nationalities and regions, too, can avail the real fruits of democracy. For this, certain specific measures to ensure the real participation of the basic masses of people in the state organs should be enshrined in the very constitution. As A.D. Benoit has rightly said, “The highest measure of democracy is neither the ‘extent of freedom’ nor the ‘extent of equality’, but rather the highest measure of participation”. Similarly, fundamental rights to education, health, employment, food security, shelter, etc., should be guaranteed to every citizen by the constitution.

The liberal democratic camp led by the Nepali Congress, however, has so far not exhibited much ingenuity and flexibility to develop a realistic model of democracy suited to the specific conditions of the country, apart from harping on the traditional model of parliamentary democracy of the Westminister type. The prolonged deadlock over the form of governance, whether the presidential or the prime ministerial system, is its direct manifestation. Since both sides have more or less unified understanding about the need to sweep away all feudal remnants and complete the democratic revolution, it would be prudent to unitedly develop a transitional model of democracy incorporating the positive features of both liberal and socialist/people’s democracy.

b) Federal restructuring:

Though Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-regional, multi-religious and multi-cultural country, it has been ruled by a unitary and centralised state system dominated by the hill Arya-Khas nationality with Kathmandu as the centre of power. The Maoist People’s War, the United People’s Movement, the Madhesi Movement and various Nationality Movements in different periods of time had federal restructuring of the state as a common agenda. Federal restructuring of the state, therefore, should be an important component of overall restructuring of Nepal in the post-conflict phase.

Even if there is general consensus in the country about the need for restructuring the current unitary state along federal lines, there are divergent views and positions on the modality of federalism. The traditional parliamentary democratic parties are still dragging their feet on the issue of federal restructuring. There is a distinct polarisation between the UCPN (Maoist), Madhesis parties and other janajati parties, on the one hand, and the parliamentary democratic parties, on the other, on this crucial issue, which threatens to wreck the whole constitution-making process. As there are multiple nationalities within the country, like the Madhesis and others, and there are regions with their own distinct identity, like the far-western Seti-Mahakali and Karnali regions, the basis of federalism should be the national and regional identity with adequate autonomy. Accordingly, UCPN (Maoist) has proposed 12 federal units, but has remained somewhat flexible on the number of units.

There is a need to be cautious and guard against two extreme positions on the question of federalism. While, on the one hand, the parliamentary democratic parties are virtually against federalism by denying national, regional or linguistic identity of oppressed nationalities and regions, some of the Madhesi and other janajati parties, on the other, over-emphasise the ethnic identity and border on separatism while talking of federalism. Both of these are erroneous and extremely dangerous positions, which unwittingly feed on each other to wreck the federal restructuring of the state and the ultimate constitution-making process. Also, Special Rights to compensate for past oppression against women, dalits and Muslims have to be enshrined in the new constitution.

c) Restructuring of security sector:

Security forces, including the army, paramilitary and police, are indispensable and the most important component of any state system. Hence, any democratic restructuring of the state is unthinkable without the accompanying restructuring of the security sector, principally the security forces.

There are two aspects of restructuring of the security sector in the post-conflict context of Nepal. One is the democratisation of the traditional Nepal Army (NA) and the other is the integration and rehabilitation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to the CPA.

After the successful anti-monarchy democratic movement of April 2006, a special provision was inserted ‘to democratise’ the NA in the CPA signed in November 2006. This was also incorporated in the Interim Constitution, 2006. By ‘democratisation’ it was meant “to fix the appropriate size, to create democratic structure, to introduce national and inclusive character and to train it with the values of democracy and human rights.” It was a calculated move to restructure the entire security forces so that the Army may not be used against the people and democracy as was done in the past. Unfortunately no tangible progress has been made to democratise the NA so far, and rather the leadership of the parliamentary parties are vying with each other to pamper the NA in its original form.

Another cardinal question is the integration and rehabilitation of the PLA. If making of the new constitution through the CA is the most important political dimension of the peace process then the integration and rehabilitation of the PLA is an equally, if not more, important military dimension of the peace process. One cannot be completed without the other. Unfortunately the progress on the PLA front has been glacial. There have been irresponsible remarks from the leaders of parliamentary parties, including the concerned Ministers, against the spirit of integration, as if it is equivalent of individual recruitment into the security forces. As the PLA was politically victorious and not defeated militarily, we have to devise our own indigenous modality of its integration into the security forces.

Among the various options proposed by the UCPN (Maoist) are: the creation of a separate force, or a mixed force with matching numbers from other forces, or integration into different security forces including the NA, Armed Police Force and the civilian Nepal Police. Whatever modality is followed, there is no alternative to integration of the PLA. If it is not handled correctly, it could prove the ultimate flash point for the breakdown of the peace process. Restructuring of the security sector also entails the formulation of an overall security policy of the country to suit the new democratic restructuring internally and to keep up with the changing security dynamics externally.

Restructuring the economy

The ultimate objective cause of any social or political conflict is the economy. The 10 years of armed conflict was fuelled by rampant poverty, unemployment, inequality and dependency. It is, therefore, imperative that the prevailing semi-feudal and semi-colonial socio-economic formation be restructured progressively. Transformation of the traditional agriculture sector into a modern industrial sector should top the agenda of economic restructuring. A radical land-reform programme with judicious redistribution of land and promotion of modern farming systems should be implemented. Promotion of cooperatives among small producers should ensure reasonable growth with substantial social equity. The next focus should be a campaign of national industrialisation based on the principle of public-private partnership. The current Kathmandu-centric development model must be reversed to make maximum utilisation of local resources and potentials. Also, Nepal should follow a strategy of taking maximum advantage of the rapid economic development of both China and India. Only through a strategy of rapid economic restructuring and development can the democratic change be sustained and institutionalised. Democracy amidst rampant poverty, unemployment and inequality will be ever susceptible to revert to autocracy.

 Restructuring of international relations

The internal dynamics of Nepal have been largely conditioned by external dynamics, particularly that of India. Because of its sensitive geo-strategic position between two giant neighbours, it has attracted disproportionate attention from international power centres.

Now with democratic transition in Nepal and the rapid growth trajectory pursued by both India and China, the traditional notion of an inanimate and static ‘buffer zone’ may be discarded in favour of a vibrant bridge between the two neighbours. This calls for change of old perceptions on the part of both Nepal and its immediate neighbours. Though China and the US both have some strategic interests in Nepal, it is India that has larger interests, both in strategic and economic sense. Hence relations with India demand more careful consideration and restructuring to suit the mutual interests in the new context.

First of all, the historically developed dominance-dependence relationship with India needs to be restructured in favour of an equal and mutually beneficial relation. With the economic might India has acquired and the democratic transition Nepal has undergone in recent times, it is no longer necessary and prudent for India to try to maintain its influence in Nepal through force. Also, a democratic Nepal is the best bet for safeguarding genuine Indian interests here. UCPN (Maoist) being the largest political formation should be in a better position to assure India of this. Unfortunately the relations between the UCPN (Maoist) leadership and India have further soured to the detriment of both in recent times. However, as India has played a very significant role in promoting the current peace and democratic process and peace, stability, democracy and prosperity in Nepal will ultimately benefit India, it is in the enlightened self-interest of India to assist the current peace process reach a successful conclusion. The dominant public perception that the Indian establishment may not be very happy with the emergence of the Maoist forces as leading political actors in the neighbourhood has helped neither side. As long as the Maoists play by the rules of the game as defined in the CPA and other agreements and contribute to promote stability with change and prosperity, it may be better for India to encourage, rather than to stall, the peace process, irrespective of whoever is at the helm in Nepal. On the Maoist side, it may be more prudent to try to restructure the relationionship with India for mutual benefit through political and diplomatic means than to choose the path of confrontation.

Nepal’s relationship with China has remained more or less frictionless over a long period of time. However, with the emergence of China as a global economic and military power and recent democratic changes in Nepal, it is quite natural for China to try to expand its influence south of the Himalayas, especially for safeguarding the security of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This may lead to an increased rivalry between India and China to keep Nepal under their area of influence. As the US, the sole superpower of the world, too, may try to maintain its strategic hold in this sensitive geo-strategic zone, there may ensure a triangular contention between international power centres for supremacy over Nepal. But geographically, economically, socially and culturally, India enjoys a distinct advantage vis-à-vis its other rivals in the country. In this context, it is imperative for Nepal to restructure its foreign policy according to the changing dynamics in the region and especially maintain objective and balanced relations with its immediate neighbours. Any policy of courting one neighbour at the cost of the other may be counter-productive for the country’s national interests.

The prospects

The current political deadlock in Nepal can end one of two ways.

In the first scenario, the traditional parliamentary democratic forces led by the Nepali Congress and backed by the international status-quoist forces, may defeat the proletarian democratic forces led by the UCPN (Maoist) and impose the traditional bourgeois democratic system. Though this probability cannot be ruled out, it is unlikely on two counts. On the one hand, it cannot fulfill the objective necessity of progressive restructuring of the Nepali state, society and economy for which the masses of the people have struggled for more than six decades, and the other, the political balance of forces in Nepal over the past decades has decisively taken a left turn, which has been clearly manifested in the CA elections as more than 62 percent of seats were won by left candidates. As for the probability of a Maoist revolutionary takeover at the cost of the parliamentary forces, the existing internal military balance and international situation do not favour this and it can be safely ruled out for the moment, though there are occasional reports of an impending ‘people’s revolt’ led by the UCPN (Maoist).

The second scenario would be a new historical compromise between the two contending political forces, i.e. parliamentary democrats and Maoist revolutionaries, to take the peace process to a successful conclusion and make a new constitution through the CA to restructure the state, society and economy. Given the current stage of development of the Nepali society transiting from feudalism to capitalism and the prevailing balance of political forces both internally and externally, this is a historical necessity and the most sensible political move on both sides. Of course, the agreement should be for progressive restructuring of state, society and economy, and not for maintaining the status quo. For this, the UCPN (Maoist) and the Nepali Congress should take the lead of the respective camps overcoming the serious trust deficit on both sides at the moment, which needs to be backed by international actors, particularly India and China. Agreement on basic content of the new constitution, including a suitable model of democracy, federal restructuring of the state, form of governance etc, and the modality of army integration, should form the cornerstone of the new political understanding.

The third and the most undesirable prospect would be the breakdown of the peace process and the constitution-making process and relapse of the country into a new phase of armed confrontation. The scenario would be the most alarming as it is likely to trigger a regional conflict with involvement of the immediate neighbours, India and China, and also other international power centres, for example, Afghanistan. This needs to be avoided at any cost. Otherwise we may be cursed by history. As George Santayana had rightly said, “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.”

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