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Updated: December 28, 2009 13:17 IST

Indian signals on Nepal peace process are mixed

Siddharth Varadarajan
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Madhav Kumar Nepal. Photo : Prerana Marasini
THE HINDU Madhav Kumar Nepal. Photo : Prerana Marasini

Prevarication on integration of Maoist combatants into Nepal Army should end

As India welcomes Madhav Kumar Nepal on his fist visit as Prime Minister of the Nepali Republic, its policymakers find themselves grappling with two contradictory impulses.

Having contributed in no small measure to the manner in which the crisis over the unsuccessful sacking of Nepal’s erstwhile army chief unfolded last May, New Delhi feels obligated to send out a strong message of support for the man upon whose shoulders the burden of being Prime Minister fell following the resignation of Maoist leader Prachanda. But India also knows that the current political arrangement — with Maoists in the Opposition and the ruling coalition weighed down by infighting, nepotism and sloth — is unlikely to meet the stipulated May 2010 deadline for the country’s new constitution to be written.

New constitution

Strongly backing Mr. Nepal today, then, makes sense only if it is part of a plan to help his government take the kind of statesmanlike decisions the young republic sorely needs if it is to keep its tryst with destiny.

Nepal’s interim statute provides for an additional six months to finalise the new constitution in the event of a national emergency.

But if elections are delayed, the increasing distrust and bitterness between the Maoists and its two smaller political rivals, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxists-Leninists, could well push politics into free fall. Once that happens, the peace process — under which the Maoist insurgents gave up their armed struggle in exchange for integration into a democratised national army — might well be imperilled.

Having led their parties into electoral defeat last April and refused to allow a new leadership to rectify things organisationally, NC and UML bosses would be quite happy to see the writing of the constitution delayed and elections postponed. A section of the Indian establishment also believes the current stalemate is good, primarily because it thinks this will cause a split in the Maoists. That is why New Delhi, which initially underwrote the peace process, has, of late, been sending negative signals to key stakeholders in Kathmandu on the one issue which lies at the root of the crisis in Nepal: integration.

Combatants waiting for integration

Nearly 20,000 combatants from the People’s Liberation Army have been living unarmed in cantonments for the past three years waiting for integration into Nepal’s army and paramilitary forces.

Six months ago, there was consensus on the principle of integration. The only debate was over whether PLA combatants would enter the Nepal army unitwise or individually. Of course, the Nepal army brass opposed integration and did their best to block it.

That is why the erstwhile Prachanda government made the sacking of General Rookmangad Katawal an issue on which it was prepared to quit. Since then, however, the discourse on integration has become more opaque.

Integration was an essential part of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoists and the government, but senior NC and UML leaders are saying this cannot now happen.

Civilian supremacy

Delaying or preventing integration is a double-edged sword. It keeps Maoist cadres out of the Nepal army but it also prolongs the existence of the PLA as a standalone force. India needs to counsel the Nepal government and brass that an integration process which involves a limited number of PLA soldiers will not alter the “professional” nature of the army.

At the same time, the army itself needs to be democratised to bring its ethos and structures in line with the aspirations of the new republic. And there cannot be any ambiguity in a democracy about the supremacy of a duly elected government.

Enshrining the principle of civilian supremacy in the interim constitution is something no political party can have a serious objection to. And that may well be all that is required to get the Maoists back on board. Once that is done, the process of writing the constitution and integrating the PLA can be pushed simultaneously so that by May 2010 both tasks are over.

Trust deficit between Maoists and India

One obstacle in the way of such a compromise is the huge trust deficit between the Nepali Maoists and the Indian government. The Maoist leadership squandered most of the goodwill it had built up in New Delhi by not delivering on its assurances and promises. And the Indian side also made mistakes. Prachanda and his colleagues need to introspect but India can ill afford to stand on ceremony.

The unravelling of the Nepal peace process may not mean a return of the Maoist insurgency. But it will lead to the fragmentation of Nepal’s polity in ways that will be harmful to India’s interests.

Rather than wait for that to happen, New Delhi must offer all the help it can to enable the Nepali political parties to complete their peace process.

And it can do no better than to stop sending negative or mixed signals on integration.

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