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The State Engages with the Maoists – Finally

The ‘Maoist’ insurgency in Nepal is now in its seventh year, but it caught Western attention essentially after the June 1, 2001, regicide at Kathmandu, which suddenly brought this Himalayan nation under the international media microscope. It was, however, after a singularly ill-timed incident on November 23, 2001, when the rebels executed their first attack on an Army garrison in the Dang district, that the spectre of imminent collapse of governance was suspected to be hovering over the country. There were apprehensions of a siege of Kathmandu, and of a widening anarchy that would eventually consume the infant democracy that had struggled with growing disorder during the twelve years of its existence. Such prophecies of doom persist even today, after more than six months of a bloody counter-terrorism campaign led by the Army, and at least some Western observers still speak of the possibilities of the emergence of an "Afghanistan in the Himalayas."

These fears are exaggerated. There is a crisis in Nepal; without doubt, a very serious one. Over 3,500 lives have already been lost to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M)-led insurgency, an estimated half of these during just the past six months of the declared Emergency in the country, and the economic costs of the violence have been disastrous in one of the most underdeveloped countries of the world. But in the enormous bloodshed of Nepal’s present, the one fact that is constantly forgotten is that the Maoist’s rose, over a period of six years, without any significant opposition or coherent policy of containment or counter-terrorist response from the state. Indeed, in incident after incident, they slaughtered poorly equipped policemen in remote police stations – at times with the Army standing by at close quarters – with complete impunity, even as political parties and factions played them against each other in their bid to retain or secure power; and as political commentators romanticised their violence as an expression of the real, if inchoate, aspirations of ‘the people’. Nepal’s Army, which has seen no action – other than brief tenures of some of its personnel on UN Peacekeeping assignments – for over 70 years, had worked out a perfect modus vivendi with the extremists. The Maoists never targeted military personnel or infrastructure; and the Army insisted that ‘civil violence’ was not its concern. The police, armed, at best, with World War II vintage bolt-action .303 rifles, poorly trained, widely dispersed across undermanned police stations, were thus assigned the exclusive ‘responsibility’ of countering the Maoist onslaught, and, in the process, became the preferred targets for the most dramatic of rebel actions, and frequent victims of extraordinary brutality. With no real resistance on the part of the state and its agencies, and substantial collusion, or at least licence to act, from the mainstream political parties, the Maoists acquired immense power of disruption, with their calls for demonstrations and violence often resulting in nationwide paralysis – extending clearly into Kathmandu – for days at end.

But the military capabilities of the rebels, and the actual strength of their support base, had never been tested. It is only after Emergency was declared on November 26, 2001, and the Army entered the conflict for the first time, that these factors are actually being tested. Indeed, when these measure were announced, and the military campaign commenced, there were, once again, dire predictions of the possibilities of a mass uprising being provoked by military action, and negative assessments of the Royal Nepal Army’s (RNA) counter-terrorism capabilities.

Such assessments underestimated the power of a disciplined military force. Despite its lack of battlefield experience, the RNA has taken the fight far away from Kathmandu, and into the Maoist strongholds, pushing the rebels deeper and deeper into the hills. Their success has, of course, not been without its own ambiguities. Though no reliable data is available, independent estimates suggest that the Army has suffered at least as many casualties as it has inflicted. There are also allegations of excessive use of force, and many of the casualties the Army has inflicted have been civilians ‘caught in the cross fire’, as well as a large number of sympathisers or lower order followers of the Maoists, leaving the hard core of the committed fighting cadre substantially intact. And the Maoists have been eager to demonstrate their surviving strength, sweeping down the mountainsides to attack isolated Army posts to devastating effect. At least two major incidents of this kind have taken place in the past months, the first in mid-February in the Accham district, some 450 kilometres from Kathmandu, where the district headquarters, the Mangalsen Army barracks and the Saphenbagar Airport were attacked. Close to a hundred government troops are believed to have lost their lives in this operation, with at least as many from the rebel forces falling in the counter-offensive. Then again, on May 7, 2002, wave upon wave of insurgents descended on a military camp at Gaam in the Maoist heartland Rolpa district, 300 kilometres west of Kathmandu, inflicting at least 70 fatalities on the government forces.

The Gaam attack forced significant tactical revisions on the RNA, which withdrew its forces from this station and another base at Thawang, to concentrate its troops at Libang, the largest garrison in Rolpa. This strategic withdrawal implies that the pattern of military campaigns across the theatre of conflict would tend to follow the periodic movement of strong Army columns into rebel concentrations, short engagements, and a subsequent withdrawal of the Army to its reinforced garrisons, leaving large swathes of territory to the depredations of the rebels for extended periods of time. This promises a long drawn out conflict in Nepal, as the Maoists would also tend to attack and withdraw or disperse after sharp guerrilla and terrorist actions, and to avoid head-on engagements with strong military forces, except at moments and under circumstances of their own choosing.

There is, however, little by way of alternative to this pattern of engagement. The 52,000 strong RNA may appear to be a strong force to ‘deal with’ an insurgency with a few thousand fighting cadres – but most of its men are tied down to static duties and the protection of critical, national and economic infrastructure, leaving less than an estimated 10,000 men for counter-terrorism operations. This yields an operational ratio that is far from optimal for a dispersed counter-insurgency campaign, where the initiative is largely with the rebels, and where intelligence inputs are often poor and always inadequate. Another 25,000 man para-military force is also currently being raised for the counter-terrorism campaign, but this programme is still at an incipient stage, and just about a thousand police personnel have been trained by the Army to handle counter-insurgency operations since 1999.

The past months of the conflict have, however, exposed wide gaps in the Maoists’ strengths as well. A great deal of their ‘mass support’ has been exposed as have been coerced, and people are increasingly fed up of the extreme brutality of the rebels’ actions, as well as the extortion to which they have been constantly subjected. In the past, at least some proportion of the extorted monies did flow back to the community in terms of relief and developmental programmes executed by the Maoist ‘administration’. While the extortion has now increased, all such benefits have dried up in the rising tides of violence since November last. There are also widespread reports of efforts at coercive recruitment by the Maoists, and this has resulted in a massive migration, particularly of the youth, from areas of the conflict to roadhead settlements, or towards the capital, as well as out of the country.

In the meanwhile, the perversity of politics persists. As the extension of the Emergency was to come up for discussion in Parliament later this week, cracks appeared in the ruling Nepali Congress on this issue, with former Prime Minister and present Party President Girija Prasad Koirala insisting that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was pushing the motion under pressure from the Army, and without the Party’s approval. With the danger of the motion being defeated by his own party, Deuba evaded the vote in Parliament, advising a dissolution of Parliament on May 23, 2002. King Gyanendra dissolved Parliament the same day, and ordered a mid-term election on November 13, 2002. Deuba will continue in office till the elections. The Emergency proposal can now either be passed by the National Assembly, the Upper House of Parliament, or simply be promulgated by the government for another three months. The current period of the Emergency comes to an end on Saturday 25, 2002, and passage through the National Assembly is fraught with a number of procedural difficulties, and may also fail for lack of support.

There have also been periodic and contradictory offers of resumption of negotiations from the Maoists, though the Deuba government has declared that no such talks can talk place unless the rebels lay down arms and renounce violence.

Most significantly, however, the responses of the Nepalese state have been systemic and institutional. The leadership has not been seduced, in its moment of crisis, by the idea of establishing a ‘good’ dictatorship to see them through the ‘difficult period’ after which democracy can be restored at a ‘suitable time’ – a proclivity that is in frequent evidence in other parts of South Asia. The Maoists have, moreover, chosen to escalate the conflict at a time and in an international climate, when there is little tolerance for the extremes of violence to which they are inclined, or for the political ideology they project. A number of countries, including the United States, Britain and neighbouring India, have pledged economic and military assistance to Nepal’s war against terror. The conflict will, nevertheless, be protracted, but the Maoists are doomed by their very excesses to eventual failure and political oblivion.

(Edited version published in Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services, May 23, 2002.)





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