Nepal's expanding insurgency

A CRATER by the side of the road, patches of blood, hastily abandoned footwear and bits of burnt clothing showed where the Maoist insurgents had left their lethal calling card minutes earlier — an explosive device buried under a red hammer-and-sickle flag.

A woman was killed and three others, including a girl, were wounded when they stepped on the explosive, planted on a village road straddling the Indian border, less than 20 km from the town of Nepalganj in western Nepal.

At the hospital, relatives grieved silently as doctors stitched up the survivors. "I came out because I could not bear the sight of all that blood," said the mother of Manju Gharum, the 12-year-old girl who took the impact of the explosion on her face.

Nepal is in the grip of a violent insurgency by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) that has grown rapidly since it was launched in 1996. It now affects 73 out of 75 districts in the country. Nearly 10,000 people have been killed and much infrastructure has been destroyed. It has thrown the work of government into disarray in almost all of western Nepal.

At a clandestine location a few km from the site of the explosion, a regional Maoist leader told The Hindu that his party, banned by Nepal and on the United States Government's terror watch list, had achieved a "balance" with the security forces and was now preparing for a "strategic offensive."

"A people's war"

"We have total backing from Nepalis, because we are fighting a people's war for freedom. Our cadres and militias are everywhere," said the leader, who identified himself only by his nom de guerre Feroze Alam.

He said the Maoists were fighting the "conspiracy between the King and the political parties" to exploit and suppress the people of Nepal by keeping them in poverty and ignorance.

Rural Nepal's appalling backwardness and poverty gives resonance to the Maoist cry of economic and social justice. With its population of 23 million, Nepal ranks 143 out of 175 countries on the UNDP Human Development Index and fares poorly on several indicators compared to other South Asian countries.

Analysts also trace the roots of the insurgency to the political instability in Kathmandu and moves by the two main parties — the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist Leninist (UML) — to corner all the political space after 1990. Heavy-handed police action against the Maoists in 1998 won it more cadres and sympathisers.

The Maoists' violent methods have lost it many initial supporters. They have destroyed roads, bridges and schools. They have set off bombs in crowded places and have killed and maimed people who have refused to support them or are identified with the Government.

In hundreds of villages, Government representatives have fled. The Government has also pulled out police from rural areas to guard the towns, leaving villages to defend themselves.

The Maoists do not have absolute control of territory but have strongholds where they run courts and collect "taxes." They are armed mostly with weapons stolen from the army.

A senior official of the 70-000 strong Royal Nepal Army (RNA), who did not want to be named, said the security forces could enter any district, including Rolpa and Rukum, two strongholds of the Maoists in western Nepal.

But they do not have a permanent presence in the affected areas. Although India, the U.S. and Britain have given the RNA considerable quantities of weapons and training, a Kathmandu-based diplomat said the RNA "lacked the capacity" to build intelligence and carry out offensives.

From behind sandbagged barricades, the security forces and police guard only the towns and the east-west highway, the country's lifeline. But Maoists have carried out attacks even in such tightly guarded places. In recent weeks, they killed the mayors of two towns. Even the capital, Kathmandu, has not been immune to bomb attacks and killings.

The Indian and Nepali Governments suspect the Maoists have links with similar groups in India, including the People's War in Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Communist Centre of India in Bihar. Maoist literature speaks of creating a "compact revolutionary zone" stretching from northern Andhra Pradesh through central and eastern India to Nepal.

The common belief in Nepal is that the CPN-M leader, Prachanda, and his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, live in India. Indian diplomats in Nepal said New Delhi had no knowledge of their whereabouts.

Mr. Alam said the Maoists had "lakhs" of cadres. The RNA official estimated the number of trained Maoist fighters to be around 6,000, but said there may be ten times that number who could be mobilised into a crude fighting force.

A Nepali journalist who recently visited a Maoist military training camp for 500 cadres in Rukum said it did not appear to be a permanent set-up. The cadres, both men and women, held police .303 rifles and army SLRs (self-loading rifles).

The Maoists' "minimum" pre-condition for talks, Mr. Alam said, was a Government commitment to elections for a Constituent Assembly. The Maoists have a list of 40 demands, the foremost of which is the abolition of the constitutional monarchy that replaced the absolute monarchy in 1990, and the establishment of a republic.

Political parties fear that conceding elections to a Constituent Assembly may prove suicidal because the insurgents, who are present all over Nepal, could easily influence the results.

Deuba Ministry stand

The new Sher Bahadur Deuba Government has said it is prepared for "maximum flexibility" in accommodating the Maoist demands but has also declared the constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy non-negotiable.

It wants the Maoists to renounce violence and commit themselves to the multi-party democracy before talks.

The Nepal Government declared a ceasefire and held talks with the Maoists twice, in 2001 and 2003. Both ended in failure and renewed violence. The second time, the talks are reported to have broken down on the specific demand for a Constituent Assembly.

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