Nepal: Prachanda in troubled waters

Nepal’s collision with Maoist-led secular democracy after 150-odd years of royal religious rule is now nearing half a year in age with distinctly mixed success, lots of violence and many problems stemming from a party that seems ill-equipped to lead an electorate by consensus.

After more than a decade of guerilla war, in which an estimated 15,000 people died, elections were held last April, with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known by the nom de guerre Prachanda, taking power with a mandate to write a new constitution after sending the king packing. But the logical end to the peace process with the former armed communists is still uncertain. At least one journalist has been murdered and many others have been met with violence.

"Prachanda is really confused about how to perform his role as an administrator in a democratic setup,” a Kathmandu-based political analyst told Asia Sentinel. “He is caught between being the Maoist chairman and the prime minister. He seems to be more interested in a single-party communist dictatorship in Kathmandu than a multiparty democracy. As the head of the government, Prachanda has failed to ensure security for common Nepalis as news related to extra-judicial killings, extortion and abduction pour into the media."

Prachandra is having a hard time engaging with the democratic and social institutions he joined after the overthrow, political observers in Kathmandu say. He has found himself in a long string of unnecessary controversies because of inexperience and intolerance after being sworn in last August. Far too often, the Maoists appear to want to solve problems the same way they came to power – through violence.

The latest controversy erupted over the Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest Hindu shrine in Nepal when, in an abrupt move, the government tried to turf out the working Pujaris, or priests, who are traditionally from India, and to replace them with Nepali Brahmins. A group of Maoists and the members of the Young Communist League, its youth organization, stormed into the temple and vandalized the southern gate, threatening the Indian Pujaris to leave the place.

Although the Supreme Court of Nepal, defying the Communists, directed the temple authorities not to let the newly-appointed Nepali priests perform the rituals and issued an order that the three Indian priests could carry on with the rituals till its final verdict, the Maoists simply ignored the court directions. But, outraged by the assault, the temple management committee under the Pashupati Area Development Trust has now demanded that the President of Nepal be made patron of the body instead of the prime minister, as the king was when the monarchy was in power.

The temple, a UNESCO heritage site, attracts nearly 1 million pilgrims annually, primarily from Nepal and India. The resultant uproar, a huge public outcry, was too hot to handle for Prachanda, who later backed down and reinstated the Indian Brahmins.

Beyond that, the first months have been characterized by the Maoistled government’s failure to draft a constitution for the poverty-stricken country of 27 million people and arrange for a general election within three years. Prachanda finds himself in continuing controversy. He has earned the distrust of the bureaucracy and the Army, saying they were not supportive of him. He has also criticized opposition parties, charging them with for putting hurdles in his way.

Nepali media reported Prachanda as saying, "It is impossible to go for the task (drafting of a new constitution for the federal democratic republic of Nepal) without the support and consensus from the major political parties. If they (the Nepali Congress party) do not support the government, I will resign and go to the people."

Nepali Congress chief Girija Prasad Koirala promptly responded by saying that the Maoist-led government “are not serious about the drafting of the constitution. What they want is only to continue in power and pursue their agendas for a complete tyrannical rule."

Another former premier of Nepal, Sher Bahadur Deuba, also a Nepali Congress leader, dismissed Prachanda's claim that traditional forces were creating trouble, alleging that innocent people were still being killed by Maoists, law and order are deteriorating, and that the price of essential commodities has continued to rise.

In a stinging comment, Deuba told reporters that it is always more difficult to run a government than to kill people as an armed rebel.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister, Bamdev Gautam, a member of the Communist party Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) was supportive, joining Prachanda in criticizing what he called the 'old-fashioned bureaucracy' , which he said created hurdles in running the government. Gautam even criticized his own party leaders as being much too critical, "We should not forget that we are also a part of the coalition government,” he said. “And if the Prachanda-led Maoist government fails, we have also to receive brickbats from the people."

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Nonetheless, Madhav Kumar Nepal, a high-ranking member of Gautam’s party called the first hundred days of the Maoist government a total failure.

Prachanda kicked off another uproar recently by saying there was a need 'to educate people about the positive aspects of violence,’ adding that the peace in Nepal after the political change had been established through the barrel of the gun.

"We should not tell people lies about violence," Prachanda said during a discourse at Kathmandu on December 12. Addressing a seminar of the Progressive Writers' Association, Prachanda argued that 'in order to preserve the existing peace, every Nepali should be trained how to use weapons'. Prachanda clarified that he was making those points as the chairman of his party and not as the premier of Nepal, reiterating that as the head of the government he was committed for the peace process and the drafting of a pro- people constitution.

But his comments on 'the outcome of violence' stirred criticism across the political and media spectrum, with the general secretary of CPN-UML. Jhalanath Khanal said three days later that Prachanda was 'confused whether he is a politician or a rebel,’ with other politicians saying his comments had the potential to derail the peace process and turn Nepal into a failed state.”

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Uma Singh

After the media, particularly the Telegraph Nepal and other publications, accused Prachanda of glorifying violence as a means to empower the people, respected elements of the press have been attacked. Ominously, as many as 15 suspected Maoist cadres invaded the home of a young woman journalist and human rights activist, Uma Singh, on January 12 and hacked her to death. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists claimed that Maoists were involved in the brutal murder. The federation president Dharmendra Jha pointed out that Uma’s father, Ranjit Singh, and elder brother Sanjay had also both been abducted and killed by them some years earlier. Thousands of citizens joined in the funeral procession and all the radio stations in surrounding districts suspended programming to run tributes to the young woman. Four suspects have been arrested.

Earlier Prachanda faced unprecedented hue and cry when activists belonging to his party vandalized a prestigious media group in Kathmandu on December 21. The attack on Himalmedia Pvt Ltd, the publisher of the Nepali language Himal Khabarpatrika, the English weekly Nepali Times, the regional Himal Southasian and Wave, an English magazine, resulted in injuries to reporters and other employees and also considerable damage to property.

An unruly mob of more than 50 Maoists went after the respected Nepali journalist and Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit, although he wasn’t hurt seriously, and threatened to repeat the violence and target other newspapers as well if the media continue publishing articles critical of the Maoists.

The incident was strongly condemned by the media, both national and international, and sociopolitical organizations. The Nepali Journalist Federation protested the acts by leaving the editorial pages of the daily newspapers blank on December 23. They were joined in denouncing the incident by the International Federation of Journalists and Reporters San Frontiers, which said that 'the government must guarantee the right of every voice to be heard by punishing violators and by not allowing its supporters to act with impunity'. Condemnations also poured in from political leaders and human rights groups.

The Prime Minister expressed sadness over the incident and quickly denied that the attackers had any direct relationship with his Maoist party. He also assured that the government would investigate the matter and book those involved in the attack under the law, although he offered up the excuse that 'some immoral agents who might have infiltrated into the Maoist party' were involved instead.

Later the government ordered a probe into the incident of attack on Himalmedia.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently expressed apprehension that the Maoist party might continue 'using arms and violence' to settle political scores. The UN chief, who visited Nepal last year, observed, "The internal debate held during the national gathering (of the Maoists) and some public statements by Maoist leaders also resonated outside the party, giving rise to further questioning of the Maoists' commitment to multi-party democracy and concern that the party has not abandoned its military past."