Concerned over a coup

AT LONG last, the Indian government has just made public its decision to suspend arms supply to Nepal in view of King Gyanendra’s coup and imposition of a state of emergency. The decision was made and implemented three weeks ago, but, strangely, not publicised. Even though the government doesn’t say until when the embargo will last-it’s under "constant review"-, the announcement puts a welcome end to much ambivalence, vacillation and temporising in New Delhi.

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sun 27 Feb 2005, 8:59 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:12 PM

The announcement comes simultaneously with the suspension of military and economic aid by the United States and Britain (which earlier withdrew their ambassadors in concert with India), and other countries such as Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland, as well as condemnation of the King’s usurpation of absolute power the world over, including by Amnesty International (which, remarkably was allowed to hold a Press briefing on Nepal in New Delhi — something the Indian government hasn’t permitted for decades).

Internal pressure too has mounted on King Gyanendra as the Maoist-imposed economic blockade begins to bite: Prices are rising, fuel and medicine are in short supply and factory production is down by 50 per cent. Despite draconian restrictions, political protests are growing.

However, neither the strong international response nor the internal pressure has moved the Palace to adopt a more sober stand. It persists with strict censorship, a ban on all criticism of the security forces, "made directly or indirectly", detention of political leaders of all hues, and severe restrictions on the movement of people.

The profound irrationality of the anti-democratic coup has unfolded with a vengeance over the past three weeks. The royal takeover lacked justification in the first place. Gyanendra cited Prime Minister Deuba’s failure to hold early elections as the rationale for it. But he has imposed a blanket three-year ban on domestic politics!

Now, even the illusion that the King might have some cards up his sleeve-like a discreet line to the Maoists or some bright young advisers-stands shattered. He has appointed discredited or corrupt old men to key positions, including a commission against corruption, which, many Nepalis fear, will be used to victimise political leaders and grab their property.

The King probably had some tacit support for the coup from China, which described it as Nepal’s "internal matter". (Ten days earlier, Gyanendra had closed down the Dalai Lama’s Nepal offices.) But this is unlikely to last or see him through his troubles. He has removed the buffer between the Palace and an increasingly restive population. Now, he won’t have the luxury of blaming political parties for the nation’s growing problems. Gyanendra’s actions are aggravating Nepal’s multiple crises of governability and eroding his own credibility. He is spurring Nepal’s parliamentary parties and the Maoists to jointly demand restoration of democratic freedoms. The opposition is becoming coherent.

Since the dismissal of the first Deuba government in 2002, Nepal’s mainstream politicians have increasingly demanded a new quasi-republican Constitution. They include leaders from the two factions of the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party (United Marxist-Leninist), Ekta Mashal, and Sadbhavana Party. The King greatly underestimates the pro-democracy sentiment prevalent amongst the people. The Nepalis have tasted freedom for 15 years. They prefer multi-party democracy to monarchy. A survey by Tribhuvan University shows that 62 per cent of Nepalis say "democracy is always preferable to any other form of government." Seventyeight per cent favour a limited monarchy or its abolition. Even more important, 91 per cent of Nepalis want either a new Constitution or amendments to the existing Constitution.

Given a choice between absolutist Palace rule and a rickety, fractious democracy, popular sentiment seems inclined to the latter. Most political parties are moving towards demanding a Constituent Assembly. If this gathers support, the future of the Shah dynasty could be in jeopardy. The Royal coup could soon unravel chaotically.

This will have unpleasant consequences for the whole of South Asia. That’s why the King must be dissuaded from his misadventure and told to release political leaders and restore representative multi-party government.

India has a unique role to play here. India and Nepal have innumerable family links and an open border with free movement of people and goods. Nepalis can join India’s armed forces — where over 30,000 of them serve-and rise to the highest levels. They can also join India’s civil services.

Most Nepalis would like India to exert more pressure on the King to restore freedom. But India must also pay heed to other sensibilities. The Nepalis resent India’s perceived past political "interference", its proposals for construction of dams on common rivers, and its blockade of their country in 1989. They keep their clocks 15 minutes apart from Indian Standard Time-a sign of independence!

India has to balance two principles: support for democracy on terms acceptable to the Nepalis, and the least possible interference in the affairs of a neighbour. India can best balance these by taking the next step: stopping aid to the government (but not NGOs delivering services to the people).

In recent years, India supplied Rs 3,750 million worth of arms to Nepal, including helicopters, landmines, etc. which are liable to be used against civilians as well as insurgents. One reason for this is New Delhi’s fear that Nepali Maoists would forge links with Indian Naxalites. This preoccupation was especially strong under the Vajpayee-Advani dispensation.

The fear is largely baseless. The Maoists and Naxalites have different ideologies, support base and methods. The strongest Naxal activity is in Indian states far away from Nepal.

India must oppose a military solution to the Maoist insurgency. The 78,000-strong RNA has proved incapable of defeating it. It’s easy enough to condemn the Maoists for their deplorably violent methods. But they are not terrorists. They have support in the countryside, which is a cesspool of un-addressed grievances and unredeemed injustices.

These must be addressed through land reform, minimum needs programmes in health and education, and a serious drive against corruption. India must encourage this even as it presses for the restoration of freedom and democracy.

Praful Bidwai is a widely published Indian commentator

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