Nepal’s Maoist Movement and Implications for India

Author: Shri Nishchal Nath Pandey

Period: October 2002 - December 2002

Nepal’s Maoist Movement and Implications for India 

Shri Nishchal Nath Pandey

An extreme left ideology in the leftist movement in Nepal has existed for a long time. In fact, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) was established in India in 1949. Mr Ayodhya Singh of the Communist Party of India was a member of the first politburo of the CPN, something quite unusual for a political party, which went on to vehemently denounce "Indian hegemonism" in the years and decades to follow. The seed of discord was planted in 1950 as India mediated the end of the Rana oligarchy. The last Rana Prime Minister concluded a treaty popularly known as the Treaty of 1950 with India and he continued to remain as Prime Minister even under the new set-up in Kathmandu. The treaty has remained an issue of irritation between India and Nepal with all governments in Kathmandu in the last 50 years pledging to amend it. 

With the banning of the CPN in 1952, the party advanced its aura and appeal as it happens with banned movements all over the world. A special focus on establishing camaraderie with other communist parties ensured its permanence and long-term sustainability. The party sent its member of Gandaki zone committee Gauri Bhakta Pradhan for a guerrilla training to China. 

So long as Britain was a dominant power in Tibet, India’s northern border was secure, as it remained a buffer zone. But with China’s suzerainty over Tibet, it ceased to be a buffer. Nepal’s position vis-a-vis India’s strategic concerns came into the fore as a frontier state and whatever little meaning the Himalayan defence walls had in the past was further reduced. The rise of communism in Nepal became possible, as over a hundred years of Rana misrule with its limited social base had kept the soil fertile enough for its rise. To the dismay of everyone, in the first pamphlet published by the party, it declared, "the Chinese people became victorious under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the revolution has come right at our doorstep in Nepal. We must also follow the same course. During the second national congress of the party held in June 1957, the resolution of starting the struggle for a constituent assembly and a republic was approved. The magnetic appeal of the CPN was widely sensed when despite its banned status, it figured well in the first local level elections in 1953. Mr Janak Man BA, a candidate of the party became the first Mayor of Kathmandu. He later also became a Judge of the Kathmandu district court and decided on the famous legal tangle involving Succha Singh, the assassin of Pratap Singh Kairon, the Chief Minister of Punjab. It was the one and only extradition case between Nepal and India. 

The royal takeover of 1960 at the time of the visit of General Thimayya to Nepal altered the entire course of Nepal’s history and halted the fast rise of the communist movement itself. General Secretary of the CPN Dr Keshar Jung Rayamajhi, who was at that time in Moscow issued a statement supporting the King’s move by calling it a "progressive step forward." This created a furore inside the party and during the central plenum held in Darbhanga in India three chief factions emerged: first, in support of the King led by Rayamajhi group; second, in favour of reconvening the dissolved parliament led by Pushpalal; and the third, proposing an election of a constituent assembly led by Mohan Bikram Singh. The third faction held its "unity conference" and declared a communist block of its own in 1978. It is in this party that the current Maoist leaders Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda have their roots. 

It is believed that the CPN (Maoists) had set forth the idea of launching the people’s war in Nepal prior to handing over the well known 40 point demand list to the then government in February 1996. In an interview to the ‘Revolutionary Worker’, Comrade Prachanda had said, "Making the plan for the commencement of the struggle, there was a great debate over how to go to the armed struggle. Then we said that the only process must be a big push, a big leap. Not gradual change." 

The causes behind its expansion from mere five districts to nearly all of the 75 districts of the kingdom can be attributed to a host of factors. Change of 1990 with the end of the Panchayat following the deliberate lapse of trade and transit treaty by the Rajiv Gandhi government in India stirred over expectations among the general population of Nepal. Naturally, like in other emerging democracies, managing a democratic change was an onerous task especially as Nepal is anguished with abject poverty, unemployment, lack of resources and trained manpower, illiteracy and a difficult terrain. It is estimated that nearly three hundred thousand labourers enter the labour market every year. 38 per cent of the Nepalese are currently living under the poverty line. 80 per cent of the children are suffering from malnutrition. Due to the declining agriculture and industrial activities, the economic growth of the country is as low as 0.8 per cent and especially the mid-west region of the country has been neglected by successive regimes. 

As politicians of mushrooming political parties entered the rural districts to request for votes in 1991, Nepalese rural folk had a dream: a dream that was so emotive yet so powerful. Unfortunately, the democratically elected governments failed to live up to the expectations. Nothing was more frustrating than to see the same leaders that had lived in prison cells for as long as 10 years during the course of the struggle for democracy, resorting to lucrative commission dealings, constructing private villas and forgetting the pledge that they had made to the people that brought them to power. Nepal can boast today of being the most vibrant democracy in South Asia with 10 Prime Ministers in 12 years. But despite this revolving door charade of corrupt ministers and officials coming in and going out, serious concerns over Nepal’s style of functioning and its lack of seriousness for ensuring good governance has time and again provoked severe criticism from donors. As the corrupt, dishonest and the despised were continuously rewarded, the Maoists emerged as the liberators. The main point was that the Nepalese began to dream again. 

What had started with a few .303 rifles and khukris has today become a "virtual alternate to the state". Secretly the Maoists established themselves in the country side where due to isolation and difficult terrain, Kathmandu’s unpopular administration was the weakest. They initially organised cells and later established extensive wings of their organisation. Around the cells there were political and propaganda groups to win popular support and teams of guerrillas to terrorise where propaganda failed. They took over isolated villages where they formed their guerrilla bases, operated parallel administration and set up recruiting and training camps. A demoralised, highly politicised police force was given the mandate to bring the situation under control. It further complicated matters. General people were more alienated with the state; the insurgents emerged hardened, solidified and equipped with the captured police weapons and communication equipment. 

With preoccupation in a never-ending game of dirty political one-upmanship, the political leadership failed to bring about a national consensus on the issue. They instead blamed the palace for not allowing the use of the army to curtail the situation. A clear-cut stand of the late King was that a state of emergency be imposed for the army to be mobilised. He perhaps feared that without a clear operational strategy and civil and political support coupled with unpopular political masters that have absolutely no clue to the concepts of national security management, the hands of the soldiers would be tied and the Royal Nepal Army with its glorious tradition would also be meeting the same fate as that of the Nepal Police and the National Intelligence Bureau. The Maoists too were clever enough not to disparage the popular King and open too many fronts at the same time. 

Subsequent to the royal massacre and with the Maoists attacking the army barracks in Dang district in the inner Terai on 22 November 2001 and looting modern automatic weapons and ammunition, the Royal Nepal Army was directly brought into the confrontation. A state of emergency was imposed in the kingdom. On 17 February 2002, they overran another barrack in Achham district and killed 57 soldiers. Although, sporadic incidents had been taking place, only after a gap of nearly seven months they struck hard in September 2002 at the headquarters of Arghakhachi district killing 60 security personnel. 

The strength of the Royal Nepal Army is about sixty thousand and it has an outstanding record of excellence at home and abroad. The Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), a four star General is responsible for looking after the regular affairs of the army with two Lieutenant Generals -the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) looking after operations, intelligence and training and the Chief of Staff (COS) responsible for operations other than war. It is organised as combat brigades, combat support brigades and combat service support brigades. A combat brigade is commanded by a Brigadier General and comprises of infantry battalions and independent infantry companies. Depending upon the geographical region of the kingdom, each combat brigade may have two or three infantry battalions and upto six or more independent infantry companies. The signals, engineer field company, light artillery battery, air defence battery, field ambulance company, transport elements and ordnance elements augment each combat brigade. 

Even with changing times, the army is still one of the most prestigious professions in Nepal with the best and the brightest youngsters each year vying to get recruited. It has been a tradition that one son of almost every affluent family from the Thakuri clan gets into the army. But, it is not that other castes and social groups do not excel in the army. There have been many such stories of success. Today more Generals in the Royal Nepal Army are non-Ranas or non-Shahs. 

Although it may seem that the army actions have not been successful so far, one must judge several crucial factors to assess the situation on the ground in Nepal today. The factors are :-


It is an insurgency with nearly 7000 armed cadres and more than one hundred thousand sympathisers. A difficult terrain, lack of resources, frustration among the rural class and massive unemployment creates problems for the army. Any army, anywhere in the world, is not the cause of the mass uprising, but to resolve the problem; it needs the full backing of the political actors, the civil administration, media and the general public. Without these, the counter-insurgency operations become long and dreary.


The rebels adopt the policy of surprise hit, run and hide in the forest and hit again, always a challenge to the security forces. A powerful country like India has not been able to arrest dacoit Veerappan who is hiding in the jungles. The United States has not been able to kill fugitive Osama Bin Laden who is probably hiding in the caves. This is a full- fledged insurgency in a poor and resource-less country like Nepal and perhaps is going to take some time before a decisive knock can be delivered. Therefore, patience, determination tempered with discretion and steady pressure may wear the insurgents down rather than big hasty operations.


Unfortunately, a militarist approach to security which has been proven wrong on many occasions is being tried in Nepal. Politicians are sending the army to save themselves but are not rectifying their past mistakes. Democracy for them has meant a free ride to fulfill petty selfish purposes without any checks and any safeguards. Until the leaders make corrections and sincerely commit themselves to the socio-economic development of their country, no lasting results can be achieved. The army may be able to curb the insurgents but not the insurgency. For instance, what do the insurgents do once they leave the rebellion? The state has not been able to create additional employment opportunities.

With these factors as a background, the implications for India of a long drawn out conflict in Nepal can be listed out as under :-


The Maoist hit areas in the mid-west of Nepal are the closest by distance to New Delhi than any other existing insurgency in the whole of India. Already, with long-standing conflicts on ethnic, religious and sectarian lines, the last thing India would want is a critical situation to develop right at the top of its head. A sustained conflict in this area may gravely expose the entire Indo-Gangetic plain.


Unfortunately, India has placed itself in a rather difficult predicament in Nepal. For the Maoist leaders, India is going all out to help the Government of Nepal while for the elite of Kathmandu, India is not doing enough to help in bringing back the normalcy. Speaker of the House, moreover, has explicitly said that India is actually harbouring the Maoist leaders and because of the non-cooperation of India, Nepal has had to face so much of hardship. It is this dilemma that is the real challenge. But, this is not the first time that India is positioned in a situation of "do and you are damned -don’t do and you are damned". Ever since 1950, almost every major change inside Nepal has been the result of deterioration of lndo- Nepal relations but remarkably every set-up that emerges in Kathmandu has had difficulty in accommodating Delhi’s concerns and interests.


The first five in the 40-point demand list submitted by Dr Baburam Bhattarai to the government in 1996 are directly linked with India.


Implications for Indo-Nepal border relations are evident. India has already stationed paramilitary forces along 1800 kilometres of the porous border. With the complaints that the Maoists are misusing the border for their motives including clandestine movement of explosives plus increasing number of reports of Inter Services Intelligence Agency of Pakistan (ISI) crossing over to India from Nepal, this unique characteristic of Indo-Nepal traditional relations is already the prime target.


Impact on the Gorkha connection between the two countries is another area where the conflict could have a direct bearing. Gorkha units of the Indian Army have traditionally recruited soldiers from Nepal. As of now there are 60,000 Nepalese serving in the Indian Army including in some sensitive areas. As the Maoist rebels and the soldiers in the Gorkha Regiments are from the same clan, the possibility of family members or even wives of the soldiers getting involved in the rebellion cannot be ruled out. The Indian Army recruitment camps set up at six different places had to be shifted this year. Pension privileges of two retired veterans of the 2/11 Gorkha Rifles have been scrapped for allegedly assisting the rebels.


The People’s War Group (PWG) and the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) were once the source of inspiration for the Maoists. Now it is the other way around. These like-minded groups of South Asia have formed what is called the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia (CCOMPOSA). Cross border relations of these groups could be a major headache in the foreseeable future.


The concept of a greater Nepal although unrealistic has always been a touchy issue. A persistent battle in Nepal could well have spillovers in the area with nearly 10 million Nepalese diaspora.


Nexus between the Bhutanese refugees and the Maoists has not yet been established. But they are one hundred thousand in number, idle and are situated in the seven camps in eastern Nepal’s politically volatile Jhapa district. This bordering district is near the sensitive chicken neck area where a small piece of Indian territory separates the two countries and harbours one of the region’s longest standing conflicts. A handshake between the Maoists and the Bhutanese refugees will clearly mean the entire area literally going up in flames.


A steady growth of "conflict entrepreneurs" on both sides (Maoists and the government) will create a situation in which there will be vested interest groups that will want to sustain the conflict rather than resolve it. If this happens, it will be an un-winnable war with ramifications all around.


A chaotic, messy and politically confused Nepal can never be in the interest of India. Rather a prosperous, stable and friendly Nepal can be an asset for a growing power like India. The turmoil can well be used by those elements that are inimical towards India and want to use the situation for anti-Indian activities.

For Nepal’s future to be stable, truly democratic with prospects of mutually cooperative endeavors with India, certainly Delhi could help Nepal to help itself. 

In the final analysis, therefore, peace is the main agenda of today’s Nepal. Without peace there can not be democracy, no economic development and no future for the Nepalese. 


Shri Nishchal Nath Pandey is Deputy Executive Director of Kathmandu based Institute of Foreign Affairs and a well known Nepali writer on security and international affairs.


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