ONE OF THE LAST UNRESOLVED ISSUES of the peace process that followed Nepal’s bloody 10-year civil war was the status of the 19,000 fighters in the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who had been confined to makeshift rural cantonments after the signing of the 2006 peace accord. The PLA combatants were to be rehabilitated and some integrated into the ranks of the Nepalese Army, a process that had been delayed until last November, when nearly half of the former combatants chose to join the national army, a number that clearly exceeded expectations.
On 10 April, during a meeting of the Army Integration Special Committee (AISC), a cross-party mechanism set up in October 2008 that was tasked with determining the future of the Maoist combatants, the fate of the PLA took a sharp turn. The chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as ‘Prachanda’, had proposed to hand over control of the Maoist cantonments to the army. Subsequently, the Maoist-led government mobilised the army to manage the 3,129 former combatants (reduced from 9,705 when 6,576 chose the Voluntary Retirement Scheme) awaiting integration into the army, and 15 cantonments under the protection of the United Nations Mission in Nepal. Prachanda’s decision was hailed by the international community and Nepal’s political parties as “historic”: it had effectively ended the “one nation, two armies” problem, a negotiator with the Nepali Congress said. But it deepened an ongoing conflict within the Maoist party, with leaders of the party’s radical faction, including senior vice-chairman and ideologue Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’, condemning the move as a betrayal of the revolution that could be seen as no less than “surrendering to former enemies”. “This is disarmament of the People’s Liberation Army,” CP Gajurel, the faction’s most vocal leader, said. “This is not integration—it is recruitment.” Indeed, the decision was taken amid reports of clashes among PLA combatants who had set fire to two vehicles in a cantonment. Word of a virtual breakdown of the already tottering chain of command reached Prachanda, prompting him and other Maoist leaders to put the brakes on the decision to allow the army to move in.
The process had been halted the day it began—10 April—at the request of the Maoists leadership after clashes broke out inside the cantonments when the army entered to scoop up the estimated 3,000 weapons still in the possession of the former combatants; but the handing over was restarted on 12 April and concluded on 19 April.
Opposition from the radical faction was nothing new—in fact, it was generally expected. But the incident also laid bare the widening rift between Nepal’s former rebels; the largest political party in Nepal has become a divided house. The radical faction, which accuses the establishment leaders of deviating from their stated goal and “becoming reformist”, is still pushing to establish a communist regime with what they call a “people’s dictatorship”.
The two factions have created parallel party structures at all levels. They have separate central party offices, committees and independent programmes—and some of the leaders are not even on speaking terms. The mainstream faction, led jointly by Prachanda and party vice-chairman and current Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, still commands the loyalty of the majority of the party cadre. But the hardliners enjoy the backing of the disadvantaged and marginalised lot: the injured former fighters, the relatives of the missing and the families of the party’s ‘martyrs’. Baidya’s supporters have reportedly been critical of the “bourgeois lifestyles” of the mainstream leaders and the birth of a “nouveau riche” within the party.
Baidya can apparently count on the loyalty of a third of the 240 Maoist members of the 601-seat sansad (Constituent Assembly), and a third of the 147 members of the Central Committee. Even if there is a split within the UCPN(M), observers expect it not to be before the term of the current Constituent Assembly expires on 27 May.
Back when the “people’s war” was launched in the Spring of 1996, Prachanda had been at the helm. Bhattarai at the time was an eminent political figure. Similarly, Baidya was more of an ideologue, and played the role of a guardian—in fact, he served as a longtime mentor to Prachanda.
The bloodless coup of 1 February 2005 by Gyanendra Shah was a watershed moment for the insurgents; an unpopular king, he made for a fitting target for them. The war had reached an equilibrium and the Maoists realised their limitations: they were incapable of militarily capturing the capital Kathmandu. As the stalemate with the Nepalese Army became a reality—backed by countries including the UK, the US and India—Bhattarai floated the idea of joining hands with the parliamentary forces, who had been sidelined by the king.
But when the Maoist leaders met to discuss the party’s future in October 2005 in the northwestern hill village of Chunbang, both Baidya and Gajurel, were conspicuously absent. The party then decided to forge an alliance with parliamentary parties against the 240-year-old monarchy, with the goal of realising a federal democratic republic of Nepal. As it turned out, Baidya and Gajurel had both been behind bars in India after having been arrested for being suspected terrorists.
The Indian intelligence agencies, which have played a key role in every regime change in Nepal, mediated a deal between the Maoists and the parliamentary parties that paved the way for the mass protests of 2006 that forced the king to step down. When Baidya and Gajurel arrived back in Nepal in 2007, both the country and their party had been completely transformed. In Kathmandu, the duo attended the first meeting of the Central Committee and opposed the pacifist argument put forward at the Chunbang meeting. “Bhattarai and Prachanda had argued that the Chunbang line was a tactical shift, not a strategic one. It was sold as a step to reach the goal of new democracy. But it ended up being a strategic move,” said Mani Thapa ‘Anukul, the leader of the Maoist splinter group, Revolutionary Left Wing.
The political differences reached a crescendo when, a year ago, Prachanda, disappointing his former mentor, allied with Bhattarai. Sudheer Sharma, editor of the leading daily, Kantipur, who has extensively covered the Maoists, characterised vice-chairman Bhattarai’s line as a “bourgeois revolution”. He said Prachanda, who used to vacillate between the two vice-chairmen, has now cemented his ties with Bhattarai, distancing and even alienating Baidya. “Baidya had groomed Prachanda and mentored him,” he said. “When Prachanda came out of his shadow, Baidya was concerned. But himself an introverted man, who clung to classical Marxist dogma, he couldn’t do anything.”
Thapa, once a central leader of the UCPN(M), agreed: “Prachanda can’t survive without either of them. He needs Baidya for the ideological ground and Bhattarai for political and economic programmes. His entire political career has relied on careful manoeuvring of the relations with the two.” But those days seem to be over. Despite their often rocky relations Prachanda and Bhattarai have consolidated power, especially after Bhattari was elected as prime minister in August last year.
Though the radical faction has the support of the cadres who have been sidelined by the establishment, the leaders of the faction themselves have divergent views. Baidya reportedly claimed that, if anything, it will be the mainstream faction that splits off, and that he intends to struggle within the party, whereas the influential youth leader, Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’, has emphasised the need for armed revolt. And then there are those whose views are less ideological. “Gajurel’s rant against Prachanda has its root in his personal enmity,” Sharma said. “Back in the days when Baidya elevated Prachanda to general secretary, Gajurel was also an aspirant for the post.... a handful of leaders have joined the radicals because they are dissatisfied with the mainstream for not appointing them in major ministries.” Indeed, part of the reason the senior leaders of the radical faction decided not to join the Bhattarai government when it was formed in August last year was a dissatisfaction with the ministerial portfolio, in which Gajurel was supposed to be foreign minister.
Thapa thinks that the Maoists have already split, and that only a formal announcement is due. “This sort of coexistence, where two factions with opposing views on every issue on the table, is rarely found elsewhere,” he said. “They have delayed it so as not to be labelled as against the peace process and anti-constitution.” Indeed, after the deployment of Nepalese Army soldiers into the cantonments, which effectively ended the long-delayed peace process, the radical faction has shifted its attention to the constitution . According to Sharma, they will almost certainly reject the constitution, which, given the differences among parties, is likely to be unappealing to the country’s diverse ethnic and regional groups. “They might even argue that they were betrayed by the establishment faction,” Sharma said.
Many believe that Nepal’s next battle will be fought over the country’s ethnic fault lines. The radical faction has already forged an alliance with other radical left parties, ethnic groups demanding greater political recognition and the regional groups from the country’s restive Tarai plains.
If the mainstream Maoists fail to deliver growth and to improve the life of common people, the mounting disillusionment will create fertile ground for yet another armed struggle. Nearly every political change in Nepal has created a new class of elites. Since the 1950s, when Nepal broke the yoke of the century-old Rana oligarchy, ‘the revolution’ has remained a half-finished project.
Nepal’s future hinges on the Maoist establishment’s ability to deliver on the promises of reform and economic growth. “Prachanda and Bhattarai believe that if Nepal can attract investment from India and China for big projects in areas such as hydropower, then the high level of economic growth is achievable,” Sharma said. If not, the radical faction is likely to sow the seeds of another revolution.