Debate: Suhas Chakma and Kanak Mani Dixit

Article One

Krishna’s call

(Suhas Chakma on The Kathmandu Post, 20 April 2011)

India’s Foreign Minister SM Krishna is visiting Nepal from April 20-22. Considering that the deadline for the constitution is on May 28, Krishna has quite a difficult task ahead. Officially, India denies any interference in the internal affairs of Nepal but in practice, interference by its officials is common knowledge in Kathmandu.

Since the Maoists were purged from power in May 2009, India’s policy has been guided by its singular aim to keep them out of the government at any cost. Since no political formation without the Maoists could enjoy a two-thirds majority in the parliament, no substantive progress could be made. The Maoists, for their part, have not helped matters by resorting to rhetoric that Indian officials consider them “anti-Indian”.

In the last two years, India’s Nepal policy seems to have been adrift. What Nepal required was the attention of Indian political leaders. But the Indian leaders left it to the bureaucrats, who in the last two years have been presenting the situation in Nepal as hunky-dory, to handle Nepal-related issues. Foreign Minister SM Krishna, who is considered a light-weight in the Indian establishment, failed to make any impact during his first Nepal visit in January 2010. Heavyweights like Home Minister P Chidambaram and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had their cups full. Sonia Gandhi’s focus remains on forming a simple majority government under the Indian National Congress; PM Manmohan Singh, at best, has been tentative on Nepal. In an acknowledgement of limitations of National Security Advisor (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon to resolve the Nepal crisis, Singh had dispatched Shyam Saran as his Special Envoy to Nepal in August 2010. But Saran, who himself was a contender for NSA, did not have the full brief. In the event, he stated the obvious—India would not object if the Maoists could prove their majority in the house.

India has engaged with the Nepali politicians who were already following New Delhi’s official line, with Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai the only exception to this rule. However, Bhattarai’s credentials have become increasingly vulnerable as the radical elements in the Maoists seem to be gaining the upper hand. He could not even serve as India’s interlocutor with the Maoists.

India has failed to use its experience with peace accords. It signed substantives peace accords with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in 1985 and with the Mizo National Front (MNF) in 1986. Following these accords, the AASU leaders re-christened themselves as leaders of the Assam Gana Parishad and went straight from their hostel rooms at the Guwahati University to ministerial houses. The Congress, in a show of largesse, allowed MNF Chief Laldenga to become Chief Minister of Mizoram, but the MNF successfully formed the government on many occasions following elections. The AGP and MNF were as corrupt as, if not more than, other political parties. There is no reason to believe that the Nepali Maoists would have been an exception: allegations of corruption and abuse of power by the Maoists abounded when they were purged from power in May 2009. Further, across the country, India has been recruiting former insurgents into the security forces while it has been opposing the same with regards to the PLA in Nepal.

India’s reaction to the Nepali Maoists is reminiscent of its disastrous counter-insurgency policies of the 1980s. After the AGP came to power in Assam, India’s then Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau trained and armed the Bodo youths to counter the AGP. After two decades, the AGP remains a mainstream political party while the Bodos continue to wage war for a separate state even after the creation of the Bodo Territorial Council in 1993.

India, in a way, has only strengthened the Nepali Maoists in the short term. The Maoists remain the only party that is unlikely to suffer from anti-incumbency or charges that invariably come with power: corruption.

Indian officials, it appears, have also failed to understand the communist movements of the 21st century. Communism no longer appeals to the mainstream communities. Even China has not remained a communist country in the classical sense. In the 21st century, the Maoist movements in Asia have found strong support only amongst the indigenous cultural communities of the Philippines, the Janjatis of Nepal and the Adivasis of India. It is not that these communities believe in Maoism, but impoverishment and denial of rights provide fertile ground for the spread of Mao’s ideology. The Nepali Maoists played the master-stroke by declaring 14 autonomous states in December 2009 with a devastating impact—the non-Maoists Janjati organisations demanding autonomy were virtually decimated.

Foreign Minister Krishna now has a chance to start India’s course correction on Nepal. It must not overplay the fear of Chinese influence in Nepal under the helm of the Maoists. Apart from the Himalayas, the Chinese will take decades, if not centuries, to challenge the strong linguistic-religious-cultural relations between India and Nepal. China’s primary concern remains Tibet; its displeasure over the appointment of Lhar Kyal Lama as the State Finance Minister makes this amply clear.

India’s options are otherwise limited. It could help formation of a government that can adopt a constitution by May 28 and undertake further necessary measures. But any new extension of the Constituent Assembly will call into question the legitimacy of its members. And in the event of an election without the Constitution, the declaration of 14 autonomous states and the perceived victimhood of the Maoists could prove critical when people get out to vote. The rule by a president with an Indian-sounding surname, Yadav, is not an option for India. If India pushes this line, it might well be interpreted as an extension of Indian hegemony.

First and the foremost, Foreign Minister SM Krishna must assess the impact of allowing bureaucrats to run policies on Nepal that require decisive political interventions. India ought to realise that no one will come forward to clear up the mess it creates.


Response One

Rum progressivism
(Kanak Mani Dixit on The Kathmandu Post, 24 April 2011)

In responding to Suhas Chakma’s opinion article (“Krishna’s call,” April 20, Page 6), an initial clarification: that it is quite appropriate for a non-Nepali to comment on the political affairs of Nepal. Especially when universal values such as non-violence, human rights and pluralism are concerned, there can be no nationalistic barrier to the presentation of analysis. The only expectation is that the analyst exercise due diligence and apply the same high standards as he would for his own society.

In his article, the director of the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights does not deal with human or civil rights. His is a critique of New Delhi’s interventionist policy towards Kathmandu, but Chakma seems perfectly happy if that interference were to favour the UCPN (Maoist). It is right and proper for an activist to speak for the underdog, but the Maoists are by now very much part of the political establishment of Nepal, more than capable of running their own show.

It is galling that the writer does not recognise the agency of the Nepali polity to select its own government, clearly buying Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s line that India is the sole arbiter of Nepal’s destiny—the nokar-prabhu relationship that the latter broadcasts. The writer seems unconcerned

by the ‘revolt’ agenda passed by the Maoists at their sixth plenum in November; and that the Maoist private army remains intact in the cantonments. Similarly, he seems not to recognise the party’s inability to build trust with the others because of its street action, attempts to buy votes at a crore per MP, cohabit with the ex-royalty as required, and so on.

Of course New Delhi is a player in Nepali politics, and this unfortunate situation has mainly to do with the weakness of Kathmandu’s bickering players. This condition has to be reversed, but the UCPN (Maoist) seems to be the wrong choice for the campaign. The Maoist leaders would switch off their anti-India ultra-nationalist campaign at the blink of an eye and convert to an obedient vassal if they were to just get a wink and a nod. From his vantage, Chakma would do Kathmandu readers a favour if he told us what the Maoists leaders were doing in safe-houses in India while their cadre fought in Nepal, and whether that has any bearing on the party’s future strategy and tactics.

Twice in his piece, Chakma suggests that the Maoist-led government was ‘purged’ in May 2009. He does seem to know something more than the rest of us about the reason for the resignation of Dahal as prime minister, in which case he should come clean. The rest of us are still trying to understand that hasty decision to leave government during ‘the commander-in-chief episode’ when there was no demand for it—most likely the chairman resigned as a result of an internal power struggle within his party. As for the intra-party matters, Chakma is dismissive of Baburam Bhattarai but is a week late in his analysis. In the shifting sands of Nepal’s transitional politics, Chairman Dahal has apparently left the embrace of the so-called radicals and moved in with Bhattarai.

In truth, Chakma wants New Delhi to take matters into its own hands when it comes to the Nepali peace process, and India should rely on its experience with the Bodo, the Asamiya and the Mizo insurgencies. Is the writer suggesting that the Indian establishment, with all the security agencies at its command, treat Nepal’s post-conflict scenario as an internal security matter? Continuing this line of thought is the suggestion that India deal with Nepal through its home minister, finance minister and national security advisor rather than through the “lightweight” foreign minister. Mr Chakma, would it not be better for the Indian authorities and civil society to learn from the peace process of Nepal?

On one point, the article cannot be faulted, that Nepal policy should be taken out of the hands of Indian bureaucrats. However, this cannot be through a show of Indian magnanimity. It is the Nepali political players who should aim high, and today we sorely miss the leaders of the stature of ‘BP’ and ‘GP’ and ‘KP’, who had direct contact with India’s leaders going back to the Independence generation.

Chakma writes approvingly of the transformation of the communist movement around the world, away from class warfare and speaking for “indigenous cultural communities”. In this connection, he is in thrall of the “master-stroke” of the UCPN (Maoist) declaring of 14 provinces, seemingly unconcerned about what ethnically defined federal units may do to inter-community relations in Nepal.

Amidst the uncertainties of the constitution-writing deadline, the writer sees the possibility of President Ram Baran Yadav taking drastic action with India’s backing. He warns that anything done by “a president with an Indian-sounding surname” would be interpreted as an extension of Indian hegemony. This is insensitive towards Nepal’s sovereign space, the first president of the republic, the spread of cross-border communities in South Asia, and the place of the Madhesi community in the Nepali realm.

Whether one is based in Maharajganj, Kensington or Vasant Kunj, the genuine progressive seeks the advance of the poorest and the most marginalised through democratic politics, non-violence, economic growth, inclusion and equity. Gullibility without accountability in the face of demagoguery, when it holds the potential of hurting lives, must be rejected.


Response Two

The Maoist bogey
(Suhas Chakma on The Kathmandu Post, 20 April 2011)

In his recent piece (“Rum Positivism,” April 25, Page 6) Kanak Mani Dixit attacked both me and the organisation I represent. For Dixit, I appear to be both a Maoist sympathiser and a colonialist. Sadly I am not the first: Dixit has accused many others of similar sympathies. For Dixit, the United Nations, as an institution and including the General Secretary’s representatives, are Maoist sympathisers. Jhala Nath Khanal, the elected PM of Nepal, is actually a Trojan horse for Maoist ambition. So are most of the leaders of the Citizen’s Movement that led the Jana Andolan. And when the international community does not listen to Dixit, they too are angrily accused of gullibly towing the lines of the extreme left.

But if Dixit reads what I have written on Nepal he will see that I have held a consistent position: “past experience demonstrates that the exclusion of any one of the major three parties from power makes governing Nepal impossible” (“Saran’s brief,” Aug. 5, Page 6). I remain unable to see how seeking political consensus to pass a new constitution (when consensus has proved to be the only means forward) makes me a Maoist.

There are disappointing insinuations that I have overlooked Maoist violence. Two months after the Maoists declared the second phase of the “People’s War” after attacking Aathbiscot Police Station in Rukum district and Halori Police Station in Rolpa district on Feb. 13, 1996, I was one of the first to visit Rolpa and Dang districts from April 12-22, 1996 and denounce Maoist abuses after my return. The current organisation I am associated with has consistently denounced Maoist abuses from that time.

There is also a saddening attempt to portray me as an Indian colonialist. Dixit states that I am “perfectly happy if [Indian] interference were to favour the UCPN (Maoist)” and I am seeking to treat “Nepal’s post-conflict scenario as an internal [Indian] security matter”. Again, this seems to miss my point. In discussing Indian examples I was seeking to expose India’s double standards in its dealings with Nepal. It is more than a little odd that India opposes integration of the PLA in Nepal, while integrating its own insurgents into the Indian security forces, as it is currently proposing to do with the United Liberation Front of Assam.

Dixit and I can surely agree that India’s role, whatever semantics one uses, interference or cooperation, is nothing new. Since independence, India has had a role in the political processes of Nepal. Certainly, Nepalis will have lessons to offer to India, Indians and the rest of the world if the peace process can be taken to its logical conclusion. Until then, Indian experiences may be useful.

Finally, Dixit suggests that I am “unconcerned about what ethnically defined federal units may do to inter-community relations in Nepal”. Yet, in the same piece he asserts that the “genuine progressive seeks the advance of the poorest and the most marginalised through democratic politics, non-violence, economic growth, inclusion and equity”.

My point is this: if the politics of “democracy, non-violence, economic growth, inclusion and equity” fail to fulfil aspirations on federalism, then there are plenty of examples of violent South Asian uprisings that are highly suggestive of Nepal’s future, if the calls for federalism are not answered.

Federalism is a political reality in Nepal. Federalism is central to the Maoist’s vote bank politics. It is at the core of identity politics of the Mahdesis and Janjati groups. The issue has nothing to do with my concern or otherwise for ‘inter-ethnic relations’; the challenge, surely, is how to address it.

Just like federalism, the Maoists too are a reality. The Maoists are central to the current peace process as the largest, Mr Dixit please note, elected party and a signatory to the Comprehensive Peace Accord. I remain unable to understand the logic behind excluding the party you are attempting to bring into the political mainstream, not least when they hold sufficient seats to derail any agreement.

The problem for me is that so many of Dixit’s arguments against the Maoists can be made with equal vigour against the traditionally mainstream parties. Prof. SD Muni noted this in his critique of a recent article by Dixit on the new Jhala Nath Khanal-led government. Dixit had suggested that this new government was undemocratic (“Khanal the Trojan,” Nepali Times, Feb. 11, 2011). He contrasted this with an assertion about the very democratic Madhav Kumar Nepal government. Yet, Dixit did not satisfactorily explain what makes the unelected Nepal democratic and the elected Khanal undemocratic. Dixit then argued that the Maoists should not be allowed to hold the Home Ministry—an unusual condition in any democratic process. Dixit suggested that they shouldn’t be allowed to hold the office as they will abuse their power. But no explanation is offered on how this abuse differs from any other party. Is Dixit really willing to suggest Nepali Congress’s Khum Bahadur Khadka’s time at the Home Ministry was a period of good governance and accountability? Khadka takes us to the core of Prof Muni’s argument: as much as you try “we cannot allocate different values to different people and forces when the conduct is similar”.

The core problem is that Dixit appears unwilling or unable to accept that the 1990 settlement is finished. Nostalgia for a time that no longer exists and probably never did appears to have clouded his vision. He sees the red of Maoism everywhere. His widely broadcast views are of course influential, but sadly they appear to be helping hardliners on both sides. This is something I know he would not want.


Response Three

The illusion of exclusion
(Kanak Mani Dixit on The Kathmandu Post, 2 May 2011)

Allow me to respond to Suhas Chakma’s reaction (“Maoist bogey”, April 28, Page 6) to my earlier critique of his article in the Post. In essence, Chakma is indignant that the UCPN (Maoist) has been forcibly kept out of power, ‘excluded’ in his words. This indignation is uncalled for. Firstly, the writer might recall that the Maoist did form a majority government which everyone accepted, which fell after nine months due to self-inflicted wounds in May 2009. Secondly, while in government and thereafter, the Maoists reneged on their commitment under the peace agreement to disband their fighting force. Why should the parliamentary parties have supported a Maoist-led government when the latter cheated on peace? In late January 2011, when the Maoist side seemed willing to agree on the cantonments, Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal almost became prime minister with the acquiescence of all the other parties. That would prove that there is no ‘conspiracy of exclusion’.

Chakma is clearly more interested in the appearance of democracy than its practice. He seeks to remind me of the straight win of the Maoist party in the April 2008 elections. He forgets that that was not a democratic exercise by a long shot, with the parliamentary parties not allowed to campaign in much of the countryside, voters burdened with a party that had its own private army, and election day intimidation. Chakma should know that the political class of Nepal accepted that election by regarding it as a part of the peace process. But under no circumstance should the writing of the constitution be regarded as part of the peace process; the cantonments must be disbanded under the integration/rehabilitation formula.

The writer needs to understand that the simple reason the Maoists were not able to form a government after 2009 till recently was that they could not garner a majority of 301 in Parliament. And that was because the party could not build trust, what with its formal agenda of revolt, nationwide closures, vote purchases and all manner of intimidation. Amidst all this, Chakma seems to believe that the Maoist party will convert into a democratic, civilian party out of its good heart, and he would remonstrate against those who wish to challenge the party to transform.

Chakma states baldly that I am anti-United Nations, and seems to harbour the belief that the late un-lamented UNMIN represents the UN as a whole. Much was expected of UNMIN, but it failed to live up to the high expectations of the very individuals (this writer included) who worked to bring the Mission to Nepal. I do not see why Nepalis should hesitate to criticise the Mission for its acts and omissions which so clearly retarded our peace process. Criticism of UNMIN can attach to its parent organisation, the Department of Political Affairs in New York, but should not tarnish the rest of the UN Secretariat, nor the UNDP, UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, FAO, UN Women, and other agencies. The departure of the transitory UNMIN on January 15 was necessary even to help restore faith of the citizenry on the UN.

Chakma challenges the democratic credentials of the Madhav Kumar Nepal government, willingly forgetting that it was formed under a constitutional, parliamentary process. As for the Jhala Nath Khanal government, one does not question its legality but certainly does raise the matter of the ethics of the ‘secret’ seven point deal which elevated Prime Minister Khanal to Singha Durbar. This deal sought to let the Maoists off the hook on the peace process. Chakma would deny my right as a citizen to demand that a party with a private army and a revolt agenda not be allocated the Home Ministry portfolio, which includes command over the police forces.

Chakma declares with an air of finality, “The core problem is that Dixit appears unwilling or unable to accept that the 1990 settlement is finished.” He needs to explain further, because 1990 was when Nepal finally became an open society. That was the year of our transformation into a liberal democracy, which allowed our society to move towards participatory development, social transformation and economic progress.


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