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‘India has always been unpredictable’: Kapil Shreshtha talks Nepal civil war

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Kapil Shrestha is a professor of Political Science and a human rights activist. He is also Chairperson of University Professors Association, Nepal. Shrestha got his early education in Nepal, went to India and Philippines for higher studies, and did his PhD from the US.

He comes from a middle class family and has been a political activist from 1990. Shrestha is the author of a number of books and has been contributing articles to various newspapers. He was one of the founding members of the National Commission of Human Rights. Shrestha was one of the prominent figures who worked to bring an end to the 16-year old civil war in Nepal in which about 16,000 people lost their lives.

I caught up with Shrestha in Nepal on the occasion of a conference on human rights situation in the region. Among other things, he spoke about the political crisis in Nepal that erupted in 2008 after the President of Nepal came in direct confrontation with the Maoist leadership that had won the elections of the Constituent Assembly that year.

Don’t you see a conspiracy against democracy being hatched after the Prime Minister’s advice was ignored by the President and a General with a controversial human rights record was made Commander in Chief of Nepal’s army?

I don’t think so. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala had offered to honourably retire these army officers who were accused of human rights violations but Prachanda said no. Prachanda could have pressurized the Prime Minister to do that but he did not. He would not speak and when he became Prime Minister he did not speak a word, even when that person was made C-in-C.

We are against the continuation of that General but democracy means due processes of law. You cannot violate the due processes of law to remove somebody. This political coalition in Nepal was possible because of this consensus between lots of groups with a diverse political outlook. It was a great achievement. No party, no political party in Nepal is in a position to impose its terms. So Prachanda gave an opportunity for the right wing elements to stage a comeback and democratic forces have been weakened to some extent.

Are you member of the committee that is drafting the constitution parliamentary form of government or a mix between the two?

There is also a disagreement over whether it should be a federation. These are all critical questions. So far, political parties lack the political will and recourses. There are reports of corruption about them. As you know, the civil society in Nepal is very strong. We have told politicians and constitution-makers that look, we are not going to spare that.

We have equally contributed to this democratic process. So we are keeping our finger crossed. But we are afraid our hopes, our optimism is gradually and quickly turning into despair and anger.

What will happen if the constitution is not passed?

The present interim constitution has put a mandatory obligation that it should be ready by May 28th, 2010. You cannot amend it because it is a sacred commitment the political parties and leaders have made to the people. So, if you fail to draft the constitution within that period that would be breach of law.

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The sacred commitment to the people would result into multiple crises. The people should not be subject to the whims and idiosyncrasies of unscrupulous politicians. There will be a vacuum if that happens. However, it does not mean that there is going to be a rebellion.

Don’t you think that vacuum will be filled by autocratic and anti-democratic forces?

No, it is not going to be in the foreseeable future because there is an unprecedented awareness among the most marginalized section of the people. People excluded in the past have become assertive and conscious about their rights.

As human rights activist, how do you look at this situation? Are you against the promotion of a military man whose hands are tainted with human rights violations?

No. As a human rights activist, I am against the promotion and supporting anybody with a bad human rights record. As a democracy, we should abide by the rule of law. Democracy cannot function like an autocracy. So the leaders and political parties should not be given liberty to violate the due process. When you violate the due process it strengthens undemocratic forces. So that goal could have been achieved democratically that Prachanda tried to achieve undemocratically, this was our only disagreement.

The agreement says that Maoist forces would be integrated into the national Nepali army. It has not been done so far?

Agreement does not say that Maoist forces would be integrated into the Nepali army. It stated that both the parties will strive for the integration of Maoist army and the modus operandi of this integration had to be worked out. Why Maoists are interested in army only, don’t we need school teachers, don’t we need health workers, don’t we need farmers. We need youth motivators. We need good university graduates. Human rights activists are opposed to this kind of state.

Human rights workers cannot go for militarization of society. Army should be drastically reduced. Maoists, the eligible ones, should be integrated in the security sector. Most of the Maoists are very young and lack education and if they go to military it is going to put them in the lower cadre. The state should give priority to the education and professional training. And then after two to three years they can be enlisted in the army as junior officers.

If the stalemate continues what will be the outcome? Maoist cannot be wished away.

Definitely, there is no wishing away Maoists. Maoists have been an important element of political transition and change. And Maoist leaders must be under tremendous pressure because they have their radical army, extremist wing.

Prachanda defiantly represents the moderate wing that understands the geo-political compulsions of Nepal. People like Prachanda and Babu Ram realise that going back to the jungle again is impossible now. So, I think other political parties should not create such a situation where the moderates within the Maoists are weakened. If they fail to form consensus, the extremists will benefit.

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When did you realise that Maoists could be brought into larger democratic agenda. How were you able to convince them?

It was after King Gyanendra started to destroy one democratic institution after another. Some sections of Maoists did not oppose democracy. The difference was in the interpretation and we conveyed this message to the leaders of political parties. Initially, the political parties thought we were more close to Maoists which we were not. We were not opposed to their objectives; we were opposed to their means — acts of violence and torture, extortion and militarization.

India always played a very important role in Nepal, and then there is China and the US. How do you look at their role?

India’s role has always been very unpredictable. India has always been paradoxical. It has at times supported the status quo, supported atrocities in the past and has also supported the popular movements. But India’s politicians and diplomats’ perception is mainly influenced by their conventional British mindset. The dominant, colonial, big-brotherly attitude is very much there. On the other hand, our political parties have sought support from India. And when they are not supported by India, then India bashing become their popular game. China’s role in Nepal has not been very appreciable, especially regarding the activities of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. It should understand that Nepal is an independent country. Nepal is much more democratic. The US looks at Nepal with an Indian perspective. The US has accepted India as regional policemen.

Do you think the US would like to see Maoists in power in Nepal?

As long as Maoists would not comply with the basic norms of democracy and liberal democracy.

Do you think the US and India are committed to democracy in Nepal?

They have their international compulsions as well because they would like to get other benefits than democracy. They want to have a proxy state in Nepal which will do all these difficult jobs, all kinds of bargaining on behalf of India. Being a global super power, the US has global interests but it does not have direct interest in Nepal.

This interview was originally published in The News on Sunday

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