Interview with Kanak Mani Dixit,
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Kanak Mani Dixit spoke with Brigitte Voykowitsch.
1. März 2002
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