Nepal’s Dirty Little War: Counterinsurgency and the Fall of a Hindu King
Aditya Adhikari, The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution (Verso, 2014)
On February 1, 2005, Nepal’s Shah King Gyanendra suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament, and assumed direct rule of a Hindu kingdom besieged by Maoist insurgency. Before severing communication lines and posting army personnel to the capital’s newsrooms, the monarch lamented the fissiparous, stunting tendencies of competitive politics. According to Gyanendra, “Nepal’s bitter experience over the past few years tends to show that democracy and progress contradict each other.”
When the King assumed direct rule, the country’s decade-long war had entered a critical stage. A series of battles the previous year had demonstrated the strategic and operational parity of the Nepalese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and The Royal Nepal Army (RNA), despite the arms and training the latter received from foreign powers under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. Civilians continued to bear the brunt of a low-intensity conflict that was fought far outside the laws of war.
The monarch’s gambit was the defining moment in Nepal’s modern political history. Within the country’s three-way power dynamic, the king’s decision was a strategic blunder from which the 240-year-old Shah monarchy would never recover. Just over a year after the royal takeover, the political parties and Maoists toppled the monarch in a people’s movement that paved the way for the formation of a Constituent Assembly and brought the Maoists above ground. In 2008, the former rebels assumed state power via the ballot box, though their government soon came to an abrupt end after an unsuccessful attempt to sack the country’s chief of army staff. More than eight years after the signing of a peace agreement, Nepal remains mired in political instability and is yet to draft a constitution.
In this critical year for Nepal’s political future, Aditya Adhikari’s new book, The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution, is a welcome exploration of the country’s recent history and a key source to make sense of the forces that define the current impasse. The book’s publication comes after a series of releases in 2014 documenting Nepal’s recent political turbulence, including Prashant Jha’s Battles of the New Republic (which deals with the birth pangs of the Republic), Thomas Bell’s Kathmandu (which contains critical revelations regarding British involvement in the war), and the Nepali-language autobiography of General Rookmangud Katawal, the antagonist at the center of the 2009 fall of the Maoist government.
Among this recent surge of historical inquiry, The Bullet and the Ballot Box is a valuable contribution. Adhikari employs a historiographical approach that emphasizes subjective experience of those involved in the conflict to explain how it was possible for Nepal’s Maoists to become the only rebel group in the post-Cold War era to gain state power through protracted “People’s War.” In doing so, the author relies primarily on second-hand sources; however, many of them have never before been available in English.
Central to Adhikari’s text is his analysis of Nepal’s counterinsurgency strategy and the nexus between projected military strength and other non-military factors that act as force multipliers (such as those related to human security, the ethnic composition of the police and army, and these institutions’ position within a wider democratic order). As Adhikari demonstrates, when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched the “People’s War” in February 1996, their ideological appeal was limited, while their decision to wage war was contentious even among committed leftists, many of whom argued that the conditions were not yet ripe for insurrection. Of more practical concern, the Maoists’ fighting capabilities amounted to a handful of homemade weapons and a single, rusty .303 rifle originally gifted by the CIA to Kham rebels fighting Chinese occupation in Tibet.
After the rebels conducted a series of hit-and-run raids on police posts in the mid-hill districts, the state deployed the Nepal Police to counter the threat, viewing the problem as one of law and order rather than internecine war. Though the police possessed knowledge of local topography that rivaled that of the Maoists, the force was hampered by its reliance on single-loading matchlock rifles and a working method steeped in a history of brutal repression. According to the deputy inspector general overseeing the whole of the mid-western region, “terror must be created to control terrorism.”
Between 1996 and 2001, the Maoists were able to extend their influence across much of Nepal’s countryside. Still, talk of the Maoists “controlling” large swathes of the Himalayan kingdom often missed the point. As Adhikari rightly notes, the conceptual shorthand used by reporters and officials to describe the war was symptomatic of a more pervasive lack of understanding of the rebel militia’s tactics and long-term strategy. In the initial years of struggle, the Maoists largely eschewed the direct control of territory, instead establishing remote bases from which security forces could be harassed and propaganda disseminated—strategies well-suited to Nepal’s often inaccessible terrain. When the RNA finally entered the fray in 2002, the extent to which this misunderstanding had permeated official doctrine was made clear.
By any measure, the RNA performed dismally. Its lack of tactical capability and topographical intelligence was accentuated by an inability to understand the ramifications of its total war strategy. As Adhikari notes, “government repression actually increased people’s sympathy towards the Maoists, helping to turn the fledgling armed revolt into a raging insurgency.” Though the Maoists were no less shy in operating outside the strictures of the Geneva Conventions (at times they hacked their opponents to death with hammers and khukuris), they did so in a manner that demonstrated an understanding of the strategic use of force and its political ramifications.
More than tactical and operational weaknesses, the RNA’s greatest hindrance was its relationship to the monarch. After the 1990 transition from the party-less (and authoritarian) panchayat system to multiparty constitutional monarchy, the Army remained tethered to royal power, and was never adequately embedded in the democratic system. A lack of security sector reform meant that when the military was deployed, it remained a symbol of unitary oppression (by a state apparatus that represented the interests of the Kathmandu elite) and ethnic homogeneity, making its excesses akin to those of an external, occupying power. Even as human rights abuses increased sympathy for the Maoists, they unleashed a hardening of ethnic grievance that was then amalgamated (not without resistance) within a Maoist ideology ordinarily dismissive of identity politics.
As Adhikari explains, the failure to initiate security sector reform was symptomatic of a broader malaise. The promise of social reform explicit in 1990 was compromised by an inability to build effective public institutions and provide responsive governance. Social goals were left unfulfilled, and for much of Nepal, democracy looked similar to the panchayat system, only less stable and more corrupt.
For many women, the social goals for which the Maoists strived were long overdue. According to Hsila Yami, a senior rebel leader, between 30 and 50 percent of the PLA’s fighting force was comprised of women, while many more worked in political roles. For those women who joined the Maoist ranks, the rebels symbolized a cultural revolution that promised freedom from the repressive shackles of traditional Hindu society. Though the position of women within the movement came to mirror their status outside of it, the Maoists demonstrated the wisdom of harnessing the productive energies of half the population, and the necessity of a cultural liberation that Nepali feminists continue to struggle for.
For Dalits and Janajati groups—by no means natural allies of the Brahmin-led Maoists—instability provided space to advocate for demands that should have fallen well within the purview of classical liberal thought, though had been largely neglected by Kathmandu’s permanent establishment. The decentralization of Nepal’s unitary state was a key goal of identity-based groups whose rhetoric and demands, at times, reproduced the ethnic chauvinism they sought to supplant. Identity-based claims regarding decentralization and federalism remain the prime issue that defines the country’s mainstream Maoist party, with breakaway factions condemning it as a distraction from class-based agitation.
Adhikari’s carefully crafted, wide-ranging narrative offers a devastating indictment of Nepal’s political structures. As becomes clear, the Hindu monarch compromised the viability of the fledgling democracy, both practically and symbolically. Though constitutional monarchy has the capacity to provide an effective (if grating) form of democratic governance, the system demands the monarchy be resigned to its lot as the earthly figurehead of an order that has been defanged via the assertion of secular, universal rights. In Nepal, discrimination against those excluded from the Hindu worldview was both real and pressing. Likewise, the constitutional powers granted the monarch proved easy prey for Gyanendra’s authoritarian bent.
There is much to celebrate in Adhikari’s focus, method, and delivery. Through compelling accounts of key battles and guerrilla strategy, Adhikari provides insight into aspects of the conflict that deserve greater attention. His focus on human rights—both as ends in themselves, as well as strategic devices able to alter the outcome of conflict—is persuasive and refreshing. Of particular note is the recurrent discussion of transitional justice, an issue that will assume increased importance as the Supreme Court deliberates on the legality of a pro-amnesty Truth and Reconciliation Act, and Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama faces trial in London on charges of torture. Given the trajectory of Adhikari’s analysis, one may well ask whether the prosecution of known war criminals will signify the army’s final integration in the democratic order.
Likewise, Adhikari negotiates deeply polarizing issues with rare ability. Nepal’s “progressives” have too long insisted on a binary reading of state restructuring that fails to engage with a consistent democratic position—that minority rights and inclusive governance is best fostered by a decentralized, de-ethnicized federalism that promotes access to resources across Nepal’s multiple topographic zones. Rather than mischaracterizing legitimate reservations concerning identity-based state restructuring, Adhikari steers clear of unnecessary polemics or caricatures. Though ethnic identity formed an essential tool in articulating grievances and mobilizing popular sentiment against an exclusivist state, it nonetheless provides vexing questions when creating egalitarian, democratic, and inclusive structures.
Still, at times, the generally conciliatory tone of the narrative prevents a clearer understanding of the political and ideological dynamics that underwrote the country’s vast changes. The straight-faced consideration of the extent to which Nepal’s Maoists can be credited with ushering in a republican order is demonstrative. Tensions internal to Nepal’s leftists had long simmered between those who held the monarch as the preeminent bulwark against Indian interference in the country, and those who echoed seminal Nepali Marxist Pushpa Lal, who posited the king’s feudal order as the prime evil afflicting Nepal. Until Gyanendra’s declaration of martial law, an accommodation with the palace—similar to that forged by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and king Norodom Sihanouk—was a key plank of Maoist strategy. By the end of 2004 it was clear that the rebels would be unable to take the capital by force, and rather than emulate the errors of Peru’s erstwhile Shining Path, the necessity of finding a way out became an existential concern that trumped all others.
With the king’s invocation of emergency powers and his vow to destroy the rebels, cooperation with the parliamentary parties became a strategic necessity, as did the rehabilitation of fallen Maoist leader Baburram Bhattarai—an uncompromising republican who, prior to the declaration, had been demoted by the party and languished under house arrest. Though as Adhikari notes, Maoist cadres contributed to the downfall of monarchy through their participation in protest programs and were central in shaping demands for a Constituent Assembly, he fails to adequately credit the moral victory to liberal, democratic voices who had opposed Maoist violence, and, when it mattered most, the monarchy. Whereas Maoist support for the monarchy was a matter of strategy, for those engaged in multiparty politics it was broadly dependent on the extent to which the monarch upheld the gains made by the 1990 Andolan and subsequent democratic transition, however limited these gains were.
These criticisms aside, The Bullet and the Ballot Box is a well-written and engaging account of Nepal’s recent political history. It is both accessible to the lay reader, as well as containing much that is of use to those well-versed in the country’s politics. The book should also be of immense interest to those studying transitional states, civil conflict, security sector reform, and democratization. As Nepal’s political deadlock continues, and former rebels vacillate between their commitment to the “revolutionary mandate” and a significantly diminished electoral mandate, Adhikari’s text is a fitting and vital intervention.
Michael Vurens van Es is a Kathmandu-based journalist. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, and The Diplomat among others.
Photo credit: Nirmal Dulal