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The bones of democracy

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Nepal’s greatest hopes for lasting peace began recently with the announcement of the interim government and the announcement by the CPN Maoists of its parliamentary membership.

It has been a long journey from the jubilant days of May 2006 and the signing of an historical agreement between the CPN (Maoist) and the Nepalese Government. After 11 years of the Nepalese people’s war, these last few months in Kathmandu had begun to feel like a lifetime in the fast moving times this ancient country has recently been catapulted into.

Indeed, the nation of Nepal is caught in the headlights of the urgent 21st century and the echoing rhetoric of a tangled chorus of ancient voices all jostling to be heard, while its decades-long journey towards democracy encapsulates many South Asian countries’ dilemmas and challenges.


But for Nepalis and Nepal watchers alike, this time peace will be different. From the extreme make over of the country’s leading hard line Maoists (CPN Maoist), and NCP, the current Congress majority government (Nepalese Congress Party) into moderate open hearted constitutionalists, to the Nepalese Army’s agreement to participate in a UN monitored arms registry and troop cantonment, not to mention the submission of royalists, Nepalese politics are undergoing unimaginable reforms.

After decades underground, the CPN Maoists, led by the charismatic Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, are now seeking democratic legitimacy. But tremendous cultural difficulties remain, as contemporary political challenges steadily take shape. With thousands dead and thousands more still missing or displaced by the decades of violence and oppression, issues of citizenship, reparations and rehabilitation will dominate the Nepalese political discussions for many months to come.

Five years ago, when Crown Prince Dipendra pulled out a gun and killed eight members of the Nepalese royal family, he inadvertently began a final process which would effectively end the 238-year reign of the last Hindu monarchy in the world. Dipendra took his own life and in his wake, King Gyanendra assumed the throne, which now faces almost certain abolition after Nepal’s mid-2007 elections are concluded.

But the march of Nepalese history continues in spite of widespread uncertainties. Shortly after the May 2006 peace agreements were reached, the Supreme Court of Nepal quietly ruled to unbuckle Nepal’s historical status as the world’s sole Hindu nation, the mountainside kingdom ruled by King Gyanendra, into a secular democratic state. But much needs remains to be achieved before Nepal’s democracy can begin to benefit its people effectively.

Gripping poverty still rules the shape of most Nepalese citizens’ daily lives. Until recently, with King Gyanendra and his family acting as the nation’s main stockholder, Nepal’s per capita income was among the lowest in South Asia. With its GDP frozen in the dark ages, Nepal’s infrastructure and utility services are frequently paralysed by rolling labour strikes leaving the Nepalese people virtually helpless in an economic grid lock that is likely to persist for some time.

How do you house and re-deploy several generations of guerilla fighters inside the terms of 21st century democracy? Will Nepal’s Maoists, re-branded from their former identity as international terrorists, now democratic participants and parliamentary party strategists in the new interim government, make the journey towards becoming legitimate participants in politics and play a constructive role in the smooth running of the country?


Reports of violent outbreaks of Maoist guerilla-style activity in remote rural districts (most vulnerable to stand over tactics) or collecting “taxes” from tourists on the Annapurna trekking trail, are of little comfort in this anxious climate. Rumours that the King is attempting to manoeuvre old guard royalists towards his cause ripple through the capital even as the new exercise of taxation and duty on the palace’s lavish foreign imports makes weekly headlines.

Indeed, contradictory messages resound. In a move that may also be a form of symbolic resistance in itself, the royal household is yet to collect its quarterly paycheck from the government this season.

Back in the capital, tensions ebb and flow. Maoist cadres roam the streets rattling ancient AK47s, issuing bogus proclamations and threatening strikes and constant fuel shortages - Nepal’s current account with its main supplier Indian Oil is in severe deficit - not to mention the unexpected recent violent uprisings and demands for inclusion in the parliamentary process from the Madashi people in southern Nepal’s Terai district all of which are adding to the newly formed government’s woes.

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Excerpts from this article were first published in Tehelka.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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