Reviewed by Jakob Steiner
Two recent books on Nepal provide deep insight into the country’s political history
WHEN last October I looked for the barber in the small Nepali town of Syabru Bensi — just less than three weeks after I had already gone to see him — he had vanished. His ramshackle stall was locked up, and only now, without any light and no one inside, did I realise what a dilapidated place it was. I went to talk to our host for the night and she confirmed that he had gone back to his home-land India or was looking for a job elsewhere in the country. Rent prices had risen exorbitantly recently as more and more people were hoping to tap into the tourist business, and were building hotels on their land. The barber had given up a couple of days prior; he couldn’t afford it anymore.
Syabru Bensi has always been located on an important connecting road between the Tibetan highlands and Nepal, and many ethnic Tibetans moving between both countries would come through this town. Only during the very recent years, however, did the town grow significantly as it is located at the entry point to one of the three major trekking routes in the country. On a table next to us Western tourists were increasingly concerned about the Wi-Fi router that did not provide them the necessary internet speed to stay up to date on their iPads while having dinner — internet had reached the town only at the beginning of 2014. They, and many like them, were however largely oblivious to this rapid change or at least of its societal consequences.
Our host was more concerned. The people who manage to get a cut of their share from the tourist business are less affected since they travel to Kathmandu regularly and can buy their goods directly there. But many locals still live off traditional jobs and agriculture, and they suffer the most from a lack of goods and services provided locally, including schools and hospitals.
To foreigners coming to Nepal, the country is often perceived through a narrow lens: Kathmandu and Pokhara are viewed as urban museums, and further north, in the rural mountainside, where people live simple lives, are seen as friendly hosts. In Pakistan, a country that sees far fewer foreigners, some are at least familiar with names of politicians, parties and figures of the civil society. Even though characters like Malala Yousafzai, Imran Khan or Benazir Bhutto may be known only superficially to outsiders, many will be able to put them into some sort of context. Asking a foreigner about the president, prime minister or major parties of the country will be far less likely to be successful in Nepal.
While in Pakistan many make the news due to a conflict in the country that gets worldwide attention, Nepal’s very recent history hasn’t been a smooth ride either. A country stepping from monarchy into democracy, gripped by a bloody civil war and sandwiched by two Asian superpowers, India and China, which are trying to influence the country’s political direction (for geo-strategic reasons and due to their interest in her main natural resource, water), Nepal provides ample opportunity for gripping stories on its political development.
Pakistan has recently seen some excellent publications that shed light on the country’s current politics and society, but they are largely skewed towards the urban parts of the country, and limited to that of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Few people are familiar with how important local politics are, what influences decisions of voters outside those urban hubs, and what happens off-stage, outside of PTI jalsas and PML-N press conferences.
While one can do away with this ignorance for tourists who have a negligible impact on Nepal’s development, a substantial lack of understanding within the community of aid agencies and organisa-tions that shape the country’s infrastructure and politics is gravely problematic. While in Pakistan more than 10 per cent of the government’s expenditures come from foreign aid, it is nearly 20 per cent in Nepal.
Two excellent writers from Nepal, who, despite their young age, have shown great acumen as journalists in the country’s newspaper landscape, have now made sure that in terms of readily accessible knowledge to outsiders, Nepal is ahead.
Prashant Jha (Battles of the New Republic) and Aditya Adhikari (The Bullet and the Ballot Box) both have deep insight into the political machinations of the country and have attempted to shed light on its recent 25 years. They don’t claim to draw a complete picture but both have given space to individual details and personal accounts of how they experienced important developments. Read together they provide deep insight into the country’s mechanics: both for people familiar with the country’s history and society, as well as for complete newcomers.
While books on Nepal in English were often centred on Kathmandu or on an account of a single remote mountainous area, Jha and Adhikari do justice to a much larger scope of the country’s society. And that is no easy feat considering that Nepal comprises a very diverse landscape and population, ranging from the highest point in the world to just 90m above the sea with a horizontal distance from north to south of 150 km. Based in Delhi for some years, Jha has good insights that provide a clear picture of India’s involvement — through diplomats as well as RAW — in Nepal’s politics. Travelling regularly between the countries at decisive moments, he manages to provide the view from both sides on important developments. He does so also by revealing stories told to him by contacts on both sides of the border, such as an encounter between the Nepali prime minister’s principal secretary, Hari Sharma, and the Indian prime minister’s security advisor, Brajesh Mishra:
“Sharma narrated to me years later that he had, at another time, posed a question to Mishra when Nepal’s commitment to India’s security interests was being questioned, ‘How many bodies came to your village after the Kargil war?’ Mishra kept silent, and Sharma added, ‘Four came to my village. Six came to Foreign Minister Chakra Bastola’s village. Nepalis have paid with their blood for India’s security. Please don’t question us’.” Such accounts lighten up a book which is otherwise laden with a large number of names of persons and parties, and quickly changing political alliances. As there is a lack of a list of the main actors or a graphical overview of the different alliances, someone unfamiliar with these networks up front can easily get lost.
Focusing on the Delhi-Kathmandu axis, Jha does not forget that apart from meetings between those in power in the capitals, politics in a democratic country are shaped by the population, and then often also by those who are readily ignored: national minorities in rural areas. His numerous accounts of Nepal’s southern Terai provide a slowly developing insight into the multifaceted challenge lying at the base of democratic politics in the country. The low-lying area is inhabited by Hindi-speaking Madhesis who have a close link to India and have historically been overlooked in the national governments. Lobbying for better representation and antagonising the population from the higher areas, they in turn overlook the local indigenous Tharus, who agree in principle with a struggle for more political attention but are unwilling to join it under the banner of Madhesi autonomy.
A dispute carried out along the lines of ethnicity is to some degree exploited by one of the main players in Nepal’s recent history: the Maoists. Jha paints a ‘complex’ relationship between the Maoists and the Madhesis, with examples of brawls between different politicians and incidents, like the shooting of a Madhesi youth by a Maoist that made little news elsewhere but was a decisive instance of the rebels’ limited success to obtain the unquestioned support of ethnic minorities of the country. “The rebels had entered the eastern plains late in the war, only after consolidating their base areas in the middle and far Western hills. The party had attracted some ideologies […], who agreed with the thesis of ‘internal colonialism’ of the Terai. But the foot soldiers in the plains […] did not hesitate to loot, bully and kill in the name of revolution, thus alienating citizens.”
Indeed, the existence of Maoists is one of the political aspects of the country that are known to some. However, with a biased framing of these rebels in the West, they are largely portrayed as a rural guerilla force with no political acumen.
Once, while I was moving from one of the highest glaciers down-valley together with one porter in his 50s, he told me how he used to work with the Maoists. It sounded like assembling explosive devices was to him a job just like carrying sensors for scientists up a mountain would be. He said he had his share of excitement and did not want to return to it. Considering the limited prospects for work in these remote areas, the motivation to join a rebel force can probably be appreciated better. The modern parallel of voting with one’s feet would be the younger porters in our group, all in their early 20s, who (once the phone networks start to work again) eagerly check whether their passports and visas have arrived so that they can finally leave for the Gulf for work.
Labour migration from Nepal to the Gulf is another issue often highlighted in the foreign press. While some may critique such an omission, it’s a sign of quality the authors do not transgress into such a topic in their books. Sticking to the topics they know so well leaves them space to provide the reader with both general historical overviews as well as insights from numerous interviews over many years.
While Jha focuses on Terai, the southern part of Nepal, it is Adhikari who unravels the country’s history from the other direction, from the north — spatially, as well as in terms of power hierarchies. He initially discusses the less influential rural poor, who were often marginalised by the central government and who eventually provide the important popular support that initially helped the Maoist party consolidate its power. At the same time he describes how the Maoists’ elites, often in exile in India, developed politically under the influence of Beijing but mostly Delhi. Adhikari traces the formation of both, the political arm of the Maoists that emerged due to political discontent with the ruling parties, and its rebel faction in the north-western regions of the country far from Kathmandu.
When in the 1980s India built a barrage just south of Nepal a debate on water rights ensued. Many Nepalis felt that the ruling government was selling out the country to its powerful southern neighbour. “In the Maoists view, the Mahakali Treaty was just another in a long list of agreements […], which had reduced Nepal to an Indian semi-colony. They held that while the democratic transition of 1990 had weakened the monarchy and the feudal system to some extent, it had also led to an increase in Indian dominance”.
Adhikari describes how the geopolitics that emerged at that time formed the convictions of the Maoist’s main politicians — intellectuals who were responsible for the development of the party as an important player in the country’s politics, and who are, to some extent, still active today.
The leaders of the rebel arm, on the other hand, were more concerned with how to attack the state effectively. By only striking the government, such as its affiliated police force, and making sure not to enrage the much more powerful army that was more closely allied with the king, the rebels exploited the rift between these two sections of the state, and managed to single out the weaker component. “By assaulting only the police and avoiding engagement with the army, the Maoists indicated that their principal enemy at that time was the Nepali Congress and the parliamentary system, not the monarchy.”
By expelling the police from the countryside the Maoists controlled more and more land, and at the same time ensured that the parliamentary system in Kathmandu was further weakened by a si-multaneously strengthened army and monarchy.
Less entangled in political networks and power centres, Adhikari’s book benefits greatly from exciting accounts of the guerilla war, and hence reads much more lightly. And while Jha focuses more on how Maoists fared in the country’s challenges with federalism and diverse ethnicities, Adhikari argues that the party heads were struggling to decide on the most suitable partner to turn to or antagonise — the king, India, or other parties — to reach their goal and had to revise their choices repeatedly.
As fast as the Maoists rose to power — they swept the elections in 2008 — they had to realise just as quickly that doing politics in the capital is not the same thing as fighting an irregular war in the hills and playing the opposition from exile in India. Some of the tactics and developments Adhikari describes for Nepali politics will ring all too familiar to Pakistanis. The quick rise and fall of the Mut-thida Majlis-i-Amal in the then NWFP would be just one small example.
Both Jha and Adhikari refrain from ending their books with bold claims about Nepal’s future. They conclude with bringing the very recent political debates from 2014 into context and this way provide the reader the chance to immediately move from the books into the daily news on the country.
While the civil war ended in 2006, the Maoists, who have since made their entry into the government, have seen a crushing defeat at the end of 2013 and are today grappling with that rout. Since then, the government has tried and failed to set up a new constitution, growing unstable from the years of a sometimes bloody, sometimes solely political, conflict over the country’s path.
Battles of the New Republic and The Bullet and the Box provide the ideal basis to follow Nepal’s contemporary politics in an informed manner, and if the future developments will read only as half as excitingly as these accounts of the recent years, they will be worth following. There is, after all, hope for Nepal; as Jha, who ends his book on Nepal deciding on a new constitution, puts it: “Few countries get the chance to draft their own social contract. Nepal’s Constituent Assembly provides precisely that opportunity. This time we must not squander it.”
The reviewer lives and works in Switzerland, and has worked in Nepal for the last two years researching glaciers on the border of China.
Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal (POLITICS) By Prashant Jha Aleph Book Company, India ISBN 9789382277996 384pp.
The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution (POLITICS) By Aditya Adhikari Verso Books, New York ISBN 9781781685648 326pp.