Interview with Kanak Mani Dixit,

author, co-founder of the South Asia Film Festival and editor of "Himal", one of South Asia's most respected monthly news magazines, based in Kathmandu.

On February 21 Nepal's parliament extended the state of emergency for another three months to late May, giving security forces sweeping extra powers in their fight against Maoist rebels. The decision was taken after the insurgents had staged the bloodiest single attack of their six-year revolt on the preceding weekend. 167 people died then, dozens more have been killed in new attacks after the extension of the emergency. Nepal had declared the emergency in November after the guerrillas fighting to topple the Himalayan kingdom's constitutional monarchy broke a truce with a series of attacks on security posts. More than 2,600 people have died since the start of the rebellion in February 1996.

Gazette: Twelve years ago Nepalis were risking their lives in their struggle against economic misery and corruption and for democracy. This democracy, once granted by the king, has, however, barely delivered on its promises. Six years ago the Maoists took up guns, recently they have launched some of their fiercest attacks, and the Nepali state seems unable to cope with either the insurgency or its root causes. What has gone wrong?

Dixit: Well, not everything has gone wrong, and I am still quite optimistic. We have had less than 12 years of democracy, and remember: This country opened its doors to the outside world only in 1950, till then we were a 17th century feudocracy, and between then and 1990 we only had one and a half years of democracy and decades of an autocratic kingship. The tools that are required for a democracy to function really began to be created only in 1990. So one can think that things have gone terribly wrong if one could have expected better, but we are really in a learning curve. It is a question of reading the glass as half full or half empty. In Nepal we have always been reading it as half empty, particularly in the last year and a half when we have had the royal palace massacre and an upsurge of Maoist attacks. These events tend to be seen in the prism of the earlier vision of Nepal as the Shangri-La, this lovely Himalayan kingdom with its nice people and a pleasant Buddhistic ambiance. I call that the Shangri-La syndrome. If we had not been regarded as a Shangri-La, then perhaps we would be seen as less of a failure now.
But there is no question that parliamentary democracy is not yet working properly in Nepal. Our politicians have been found wanting in their understanding of parliamentary functioning, the parties in parliament have not done justice; the bureaucracy had already become compromised in the panchayat years [a partyless system of councils from the village to the national level, which left the real power with the King] when they became a bunch of yes-men. After democratization this bureaucracy was used by the political parties to their own benefit, which meant that the bureaucrats, too, never lived up to expectations. Academia has been very weak, the path-setting that Nepali scholars should be doing, they have not done, partly because some of the best scholars have become consultants to the development agencies where the pay is at least 30 times more. Our business people have not yet become entrepreneurial, they are still finding it difficult to move from their earlier trading mentality and a good bit of smuggling.
So every arena has failed to live up to everything that it should be doing, the media being the one arena which has progressed relatively further, Nepal's radio is doing very well and so are the print media. But clearly, Nepal could be doing much better. But the fact is, if you look at the landscape of Nepal, we have been slowly building the basis for a democracy in this country. To begin with, Nepal needs to have an economic infrastructure, it has to have a telephone network, a highway network, all these things have been happening. In the social arena, people are now able to speak out, that is the big change in the hills. People are speaking out and questioning, they are no longer submissive, the are challenging the system. The Dalits [untouchabels] are demanding their rights, women are able to demand rights even though they may not be able to get them yet. And everywhere in the villages the lower class groups are talking about their rights. Again, they are often not getting them, but there is a seachange in villages and towns because people have become aware of their rights which they were not before. People are now vocal, and that is a huge advance toward democracy.

People may be vocal, but they clearly don't seem to see much of chance of getting what they are asking for from government and from the mainstream parties.

The Maoist situation certainly has to be seen as a failure of our democracy, because this democracy has not been able to deliver. Nepal now has a mass of youth who are literate but uneducated, and with a new sense of nationalism inculcated in them over the past 30 years. This mass of youth is lying in wait for a fundamentalist ideology to romanticise and carry them along. It could have been some other kind of ideology, in this case it happened to be Maoist.
Yes, it is a failure of democracy and a failure of the imagination among the ruling classes. They were not able to give a vision to the public which would make them feel, O.K. not this decade but next decade we will be better off, I myself might not have a good job, but my children will. At the same time the Maoists have also taken advantage of the fact that the political parties are in disarray, these parties have been fighting each other. The state forces have been weak and incredibly corrupted, the police was never equipped to fight insurgencies in a Himalayan terrain, they were undertrained and underarmed and lacking in motivation. The army, however, was not deployed for a long time, because the powers over the army are divided between the royal palace and the elected government. The army still looks to the royal palace for its guidance and feels it owes its allegiance to the palace. It did not want to be soiled like the police force. The political parties certainly did not inspire the confidence in the army that it would not be misused. So you had the following situation: In the earlier autocratic era not even the whisper of a Maoist action could have been tolerated, it would have been wiped out. In the democratic system, however, with the army not to be used for such a long time, with the police undermotivated and the political parties in disarray, the Maoists got a magnificent chance to spread around.
But the good thing about the Maoists to say is this: There are 29 insurgencies between Nepal and Burma, almost all of them are ethnicity- or identity- or region-based. This is at least class-based, which is a higher level of sophistication. So if you have to choose between insurgencies, I would rather choose a class-based one that an identity-based one, because that implies a larger political motive and purpose. But that having been said, I am of course completely against the use of violence. What the Maoists are trying to do is to use romantic young men and women for the purpose of violent change which would not lead to a country that is better than it is today. The way ahead always lies in slow building up of a society, brick by brick, not by the use of a gun.

A great number of Dalits and other disadvantaged groups clearly don't see this building up happening and still put their trust in the Maoists. Even a lot of intellectuals initially showed sympathy for the Maoists. So obviously the Maoists must have touched a raw nerve in Nepal?

Well, anybody who is down and out would agree with a lot of the demands made of the Maoists. Other than three or four, their demands are what every progressive government should be espousing. Even the government of the day will not deny that there is a need for equity in society and that untouchability should be banished. Lots of people believed that maybe the Maoists could do it, particularly people who have not studied history and questioned whether it has worked anywhere. Many people felt that the state was not responding to their problems and it is very easy at a simple level to agree with what the Maoists are saying. The problem starts when you scratch a little deeper: What kind of state are the Maoists proposing, is that going to solve the problems? I understand why lots of people have sympathies with the Maoists at a superficial level, but does that make you a Maoist? I don't think it does.
Likewise, the intelligentsia and especially the middleclass intelligentsia tend to always be very opportunistic. It is so easy to be politically correct and say, well, yes, the Maoists do have a political point. But then, will you do anything about it yourself? I believe that the press for a while has pandered to the Maoists, again it is an easy way out to say the Maoists have done and said something important. The real issue, however, is how is society going to organize itself in the future to deliver the goods? That is what all of us should really be concerned about. Would the Maoists themselves be able to deliver the goods? I think not, their answer is wrong. But they have given us a warning, this is what is going to happen if you don't deliver.

In its quest for development, Nepal has had the support of the international community. Billions of dollars of development assistance have been poured into the country, and yet, according to reliable analyses, people are worse off today than they were a decade ago. Do you agree with Western analysts who put a lot of the blame on the terribly high levels of corruption in Nepal?

The reason why development has not worked in Nepal is that Nepalis have been inefficient and at times corrupt. But you have to consider this: Ever since Nepal opened to the world and started "developing" in the 1950s, the development agencies have been with us. Donors have been here every minute of Nepal's development decades. So if there is corruption, then the donors have seen it from the inside. When a project is continued for years and years and is not delivering the goods, the fact that you continue with it is also corruption. Any number of projects happened that way. The volume of money is not the main factor, the issue is whether projects are cathalytic in helping Nepalis develop themselves. Sure, there are lots of corrupt people in Nepal and we have to deal with them and expose them. At the same time, the santimonious use of corruption as accusation against Nepalis in general is a way for the donors to cover up the fact that their aid has not been properly disbursed and utilized and also been improperly designed. I suggest donor countries should also look into their own programmes. If the primary culpability lies with the Nepalis themselves, the donors have been guilty of not looking at exactly the kind of projects and programs the country would really need to develop.
One more word about corruption: The high level of corruption among ministers, bureacrats and politicians here is of the worst kind, I think it is criminal and they have to be brought to book. The corruption that happens across he board, among low level people, simply has to do with the low levels of salary. Of course, this corruption is also wrong, but you cannot see how that will change unless the economy improves so that petty bureaucrats start earning enough to at least send their children to a proper school.
The donors don't look at the real reasons for corruption. Why did political parties immediately become corrupt? Because they needed money to run, and they found the sources from private and donor sectors. Then, of course, politicians will not give all the money to the party, but keep some for themselves. So we must tackle the problems where they begin.


Which brings us back to the functioning of Nepali democracy. Now, the country has never had a constituent assembly, which is one of the major demands by the Maoists. Why is it such a taboo to talk about a constituent assembly? Previously, even some mainstream parties had alluded to the need for such an assembly.

That is true. Even the Nepali Congress had decided that there was a need for a constituant assembly long ago. That way, the public would get to choose the kind of parliamentary system it wants. Any society must have a constituent assembly. The question is right now, are the Maoists who are using guns to kill people the right group to ask for it? I think not.
Let me make one point clear. There was state violence in central and west Nepal between 1995 and 1997 which really gave rise to the Maoist momentum. At that time the Kathmandu intelligentsia was very conveniently looking the other way, hoping that the Maoists would be finished off so that we could go back to business as usual. The very same middle class which later tried to be a bit sympathetic to the Maoists were in the beginning quiet and looking away. So there can be no question that it was state insensitivity and state terror in certain districts of Nepal that gave the initial impetus to the Maoists. But since then the Maoists themselves have been guilty of horrendous crimes. The state started the initial terror, the Maoists replied with terror. Therefore I think they are the wrong people to call for a constituent assembly. Of course, it would, in principle, be ideal to have one, but if the mainstream political parties, including the left, say that for the moment we can work with this system, given the present constitution, I will go with them. I would not go with the only group that has taken up the gun to bring about violent revolution.

What are the chances of such a violent Maoist revolution actually taking place? Only a couple of months ago quite a few analysts in Nepal, including some writing for your own magazine, Himal, seemed quite optimistic that the Maoists were losing ground. In November, however, they broke the truce, and since then they have launched a series of extremely fierce attacks. What are the reasons for this renewed upsurge in violence?

Well, there was a debate then. The Maoist bubble seemed to have burst last fall after the Maoist themselves made some strategic errors. They met openly in India which gave a sense that maybe India is supporting them, which is the death for any Nepali political entity. I personally don't think India is supporting them, but that was the way it looked. Then their command and control structures had become overstretched, a lot of bandits had joined the Maoists, extortion started and they began to look much like anybody else. People had originally thought the Maoists might be a group with high morals and a great ideology, but then they saw that these guys were a lot like everybody else - political opportunists. Of course, they do have among themselves some great ideologues and some people with genuine convictions, but lots of others have now joined as well.
So several months back some analysts were arguing that the bubble had burst, while others emphasized that any insurgeny becomes even more dangerous when it starts going downhill, which means that there is intra-insurgent violence and violence with everybody else. So even then I was worried that the hills were going to be more violent for some time to come. However, while it is very hard to predict what will happen, I am sure that in the long run there is no way for the Maoists to get what they want, there will not be a Maoist revolution. But in the short term the Maoists certainly have the possibility of creating a lot of havoc.

Now that the army has been called out of the barracks, what do you expect it to achieve? You have mentioned the danger of just trying to crush the Maoists and then go back to business as usual.

People had expected that the deployment of the army would lead to collapse of the Maoist structure, but it is clear that due to various factors including the terrain of Nepal and the unpreparedness of the army it has not happened, on the contrary, there has been an escalation of violence. The army by its own admittance is in a defensive posture, it has less than 10.000 solders who have to guard 75 district headquarters, the telecommunications as well as other installations. At any rate, there is the great danger for the establishment, the government and the middle class to feel that we will just rush the Maoists to the egde and forget about the problems that they had highlighted, which are real problems. In reacting against the Maoists, the security forces should not go and hound them, but rather give them a safe landing, otherwise they will just continue their activities. The government must remain aware of the reasons why the Maoists surfaced. If we don't resolve the problems and contradictions of Nepali society, another Maoist insurgency will come down the line with even greater force. We need the Maoists to come above ground, but for the moment they are insisting on using the gun and going further underground. It is a very difficult and complex situation.

A number of Nepali analysts have severely criticized the declaration of the emergency. How great is the risk that it poses to the fledgling Nepali democracy?

One did not need the emergency to deploy the army and I dont think it should be renewed many more times. On the other hand, this emergency can be handled. It is essentially a question of not letting go of all our civil liberties, and I think by and large our civil liberties can be fought for even under the emergency. So long as our civil society is alert, I see no reason why we cannot go back to our former democratic situation. I certainly don't see any return to autocracy at this point. But it requires our civil society, our media, our intelligentsia to stand up, and many are not doing that, that is what is worrisome.

How much are Nepalis still affected today by the Royal Palace massacre? Nine months after the event, what would you describe as its major long-term effects?

It was a severe blow on June 1, 2001, in a way it was our own World Trade Centre calamity, what with all the dislocation, the confusion and the possibility of a state collapse. The Nepali king means much more to Nepali society and politics for the moment than other constitutional monarchs do. So when we lost the entire family, a king who had ruled for nearly 30 years, who had been an icon for so long, it was really a very unstable time. But keep this in mind: Contrary to the propaganda of the panchayat years, when it was said that the country would disappear without the king, this has not happened. Nepal as a nation-state is strong enough to survive without a king, even though a kingship is something very good to have, for cultural, political and social reasons. It would be foolish to give it up as a unifying factor in a country of so many diversities.
Of course, I wish that the present kingship will have more credibility over time. Because of the way the massacre happened there are a lot of questions in the minds of the people about 'who done it'. It is important for the present king to extricate himself from that credibility gap, which is not his own doing. He was not involved in the massacre, but the public is unsure and confused, for which it can be forgiven. The intelligentsia, however, cannot be excused for being so conspiracy-ridden. There was a commission that was run by the chief justice and it came out with a report which has witness accounts from that room. Unless proven otherwise, they should be seen as credible evidence. The intelligentsia has the duty to go by evidence, it is very easy to go by conspiracies and it does not require much commitment to be a conspiracy theorist. I believe the evidence given by those in the room when the massacre happened, there were 24 people in the room and nine died. Some of them were close royalty, others distant royalty. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt, until further evidence were to be produced to shake my conviction. Evidence so far points to crown prince Dipendra. Now, why would he do it, why would anyone do something this awful, it is beyond the ken of reasoning. So I will not go into the question of motivation.
Certainly, though, the biggest weakness has been that of parliament. It is sovereign, it should have called a special session and called all the royal witnesses including the present queeen to give evidence and thus provide clarity to the public.
But again the point is: For the size of the tragedy that hit the people, I find it incredible - and it says something about the Nepali nation state - that we have survived it. While the night of June 1 is a tragedy of massive proportions, it also proved the resilience of the Nepali nation state, because when something so drastic happened, every institution of the new Nepali democracy remained standing, Parliament was in place, the prime minister was in his office and still active, the royal Nepal army was in its barracks as it should be, the economy continued to function, so the worst one might have expected did not happen.

What were those worst-case scenarios?

It could have been anything from the collapse of parliamentary democracy to a takeover by the army, by the king or by a foreign power, or total anarchy in the hills, a complete destruction of civil society, killings, anarchy, the spinning off of various tpyes of warlordism. Anything could have happened, but nothing happened. Nepal as a nation state after June 1 is exactly the same as it was before June 1, except that we lost a very critical group of royalty.
It shows, that if we can make this democracy work - which I still believe we can, and not the way the Maoists propose to do it, but the way the civil society thinks about it - then we can show that Nepal is a resilient country and it can deliver.

Kanak Mani Dixit spoke with Brigitte Voykowitsch.

1. März 2002

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