The land locked Himalayan kingdom of Nepal has a territory of 57,000 square miles and a population of 26 million. Sandwiched between the Tibetan plateau and the densely populated Gangetic plains of India, it marks the southern boundary of the Chinese sphere in Central Asia. Roughly 75% of the country is mountainous with 8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world located there. Nepal represents the interstice between the Tibetan and the Indic cultural realms.
And yet today, it is a kingdom in profound crisis. The Maoists have been in revolt since 1996. The civil conflict led to the death of 12,000 persons and the displacement of 100,000. The insurgents control vast swathes of territory where the administration's writ no longer runs. They derive their strength from the acute poverty in Nepal, one of the ten poorest countries in the world. At least 40% live below the official poverty line. Nepal's per capita income is US$ 260, one fourth that of Sri Lanka.
The skewed distribution of land ownership, the repressive social order where class and caste often coincide, the King's dissolution of the legislature in 2002, his sacking of an all-party Government in February, 2005, and the fractured party system that failed to deliver economic development led to the emergence of the Maoists.
There appears to be a crisis of vision on all sides. The monarchy is also to blame. If only King Gyanendra had learnt the Thai and Spanish lessons where the kings Bhumibol Adulyadej and Juan Carlos had assumed the role of constitutional monarch to facilitate national unity, democracy and the continuation of the monarchy.
The Nepali Congress and the Nepal Communist Party - United Marxist Leninist now call for the overthrow of the Monarchy, a cry echoed by the Maoists. While the Monarchy has clearly failed to provide leadership to the country, it still commands a modicum of respect amongst sections of the population. It emotive and symbolic value in national cohesion should never be underestimated. Nepal, after all, is a fractured terrain with a multi-ethnic population that has little in common, except for the shared poverty, its rich Hindu-Buddhist civilizational inheritance and the institution of the monarchy.
The Maoist strategy, much like the People's Liberation Army of China in 1949, the JVP in Sri Lanka in 1970, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1974 and the Sandero Luminoso in Peru in the 1980s draws from the disenfranchisement of the poor. The rebels attempt to control the countryside, encircle the cities, destroy Government institutions and install a revolutionary peasant regime through a violent "people's war". The Maoists uphold a stridently anti-Indian foreign policy.
The developments in Nepal profoundly impact on the Indian heartland. The Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, particularly its eastern districts, Bihar, Jharkhand and the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh share the same patterns of grinding poverty, administrative mismanagement, demagogic politics and the emergence of violent Maoist groups. The talk of a Maoist corridor between Nepal and Telengana can not be entirely dismissed. The crisis in Nepal will profoundly affect India's external security and domestic stability in its regions of localized poverty. Nepal adjoins the Gangetic heartland of India, far more than Kashmir does.
India needs to focus on the crisis on its northern door step. The Ministry of External Affairs appears unable to conceptualize and implement a far reaching foreign policy that would protect India's northern flank. The likes of Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India - Marxist Leninist do not help by their ideological ultimatums that restrict the foreign policy options of the ruling coalition in New Delhi.
The restoration of multi-party democracy in Nepal is imperative, if the Maoists are to be sidelined. There is a petition currently before the Nepali Supreme Court calling for judicial intervention to restore the legislature. The revival of the political process will constitute a first step, albeit a tenuous one, to restore stability. Nepal's best bet would be representative democracy and a constitutional monarchy. It would otherwise be transformed into a cauldron of regional instability.
Thinking ahead, it might not hurt to conceptualize Nepal's own development in terms of the extended region. Nepal, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal could perhaps be viewed as an integrated economic unit. Once far reaching land reform is introduced, the development of hydropower, coal and iron, the switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, private investment in manufacturing and access to the sea can transform a bleak and desolate landscape of caste-based politics and impoverished economies to a prosperous future.
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