If the earthquake in April was not enough, Nepalis are now suffering the catastrophe of the blockade imposed by India and enforced by agitating Madhesi parties in the central and eastern Tarai.
Retired Assistant Secretary General at the UN and one of the most senior Nepalis in the international civil service, Kul Chandra Gautam
, takes a retrospective look at events in Nepal’s recent history leading up to this crisis in his book Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake
. In a brilliant counter-narrative, Gautam destroys the dominant discourse that eulogises the Maoist war
as a natural and inevitable uprising of the oppressed, arguing instead that the conflict cut short Nepal’s march towards democracy and development.
He argues that the Maoist movement used grievances of the oppressed and the marginalised to launch a power grab, and in doing so derailed democratic consolidation and state-building at a crucial point in our history -- pushing the country into a needless and ruinous war and disempowering the state. Gautam challenges the root causes theory for the Maoist war and argues that it was more an instrument for state capture than a genuine desire to liberate the oppressed who in reality have been the biggest victims of the violence
More significantly, he argues that the Maoist war established political violence as a legitimate instrument to gain power and institutionalised the culture of impunity with repercussions far into the future. Indeed, in many ways, our current problems are tied to our uncritical acceptance of the use of violence by the Maoists and our inability to challenge them on their decision to bypass legal, constitutional and democratic means to achieve political goals and setting a dangerous precedent for other political groups. The Maoists chose to wage guerilla warfare against a young democracy that was only beginning to free itself from the shackles of an autocratic monarchy.
Lost in Transition:
Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake
By Kul Chandra Gautam
Paperback: Rs 675
Hardbound: Rs 950
At a time when the state should be building institutions, ours was embroiled in fighting an insurgency. In essence, that has been the story of the Nepali state post democracy: a continued fight for survival with domestic and external forces while never having the opportunity to consolidate and strengthen itself. This continued erosion of state capacity, abetted by glorification of destabilising forces, militant rhetoric and political adventurism is what is at the source of our problems. Moving forward from this mayhem, Gautam argues will require discarding all outdated, parochial and extremist ideologies, embracing democratic values and prioritising economic development , inclusion and good governance.
This book is also notable for its strong and detailed criticism of the international community’s role in Nepal’s peace process, in particular its willingness to compromise on accepted principles of human rights, rule of law and democracy in Nepal to appease radical factions. Gautam fiercely criticises the internationals for coddling the Maoists and ethnic extremists, and for falling to their doublespeak.
He describes how UNMIN
misreported events in Nepal with its visible bias for the Maoists
despite frequent breaches of the CPA, how UNMIN treated Maoists at par with the state while displaying a complete distrust of democratic parties. Gautam notes how Ian Martin and Karin Landgrin’s disdain for NC and UML as ‘thoroughly corrupt, Bahun-led, status-quoists parties’ while considering Maoists to be the exception to the rule, reminded him of King Gyanendra and his father Mahendra’s dislike for democratic parties, both of whom ended up suspending democracy and ruling as absolute monarchs.
This book is a refreshing change from the established discourse on Nepal shaped by a narrow group of elite, English-speaking writers who fail to look beyond empty sloganeering and rhetoric. Their division of Nepalis into monolithic categories of us vs them, ‘progressive’ vs ‘regressive’, ‘Pahades’ vs ‘Madhesis’ and ‘Hill Bahun Chettri’ vs the ‘rest’ ignores the complex and contradictory realities of Nepali society. For international experts that parachute into Nepal, this is a convenient framework to work with, one that fits nicely with their worldviews, but does little to explain our issues, let alone find solutions. Gautam’s book is a must-read for an understanding of contemporary Nepal without the dogma of radical posturing.
Lost in Transition
attempts to dig deeper and presents a more nuanced and sensible understanding of our problems with clear and detailed way-forwards. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, it is a tremendously hopeful book, laying in concrete terms a roadmap with which Nepal can prosper and achieve stability. The epilogue discusses the Indian blockade and what Nepal can do to initiate negotiations and secure its interests against larger and hostile neighbours.
What carries the book beyond its rigour is its sincerity and impassionate defense of democratic values and principles. With an earnestness that comes from his humble beginnings in Gulmi, Gautam speaks of an identity that binds all Nepalis, a pursuit of shared prosperity for themselves and their children. And it is this desire to leave a better Nepal behind for future generations, that resonates throughout the book.
About the Author
Mr. Kul Chandra Gautam, a former senior official of the United Nations, is a distinguished diplomat and development professional. Currently, he serves on the Boards of several international and national organisations, charitable foundations and public private partnerships. Previously, he served as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was then the highest ranking Nepali in the UN system. In a career spanning over three decades, he served in senior managerial and leadership positions with UNICEF in several countries and continents.
In 2010-11, Mr. Gautam served as Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Nepal on International Affairs and the Peace Process. He is active in Nepal’s civil society in promoting human rights, socioeconomic development, peace, democracy and good governance. Internationally, he continues to be active in consultations on the UN’s sustainable development goals, particularly in areas ofchild rights, global health, basic education and human development.
About the Book
Nepal is a land of spectacular natural beauty and abundant natural resources, in a strategic geographic location between China and India, with their large and vibrant economies. With such favourable assets and the tremendous goodwill of the international community, Nepal ought to have a galloping economy and a prosperous society. Yet, it remains mired in poverty and is considered one of the world’s least developed countries.
What holds Nepal’s economy back? And what would it take to unleash its development potential? This book tries to address these issues from the perspective of a Nepali development professional with extensive experience in international development.
From his perch at the United Nations, Kul Chandra Gautam followed the political and socioeconomic developments in his home country with a mixture of great hope and deep anxiety. He rejoiced at Nepal’s good progress in achieving many of the Millennium Development Goals, such as drastically reducing maternal and child mortality, eradicating and controlling certain deadly diseases, promoting basic education and women’s empowerment. But he was chagrined by the fratricidal Maoist insurgency that derailed Nepal’s nascent democracy and bourgeoning economy.
Gautam offers a candid critique of what ails Nepal’s politics and economy, and how to rebuild the country from the ruins of the prolonged Maoist mayhem and the mega earthquake of 2015. He calls for an end to Nepal’s seemingly endless political transition and shifting the nation’s focus to economic development and social progress.
Excerpts from Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake
Kofi Annan on Madi incident
Although Nepal was not a high priority among the many international crises Secretary-General Kofi Annan had to deal with, he did occasionally show some interest and concern. Among other occasions, I vividly remember meeting him at a reception on 6 June 2005. Earlier that day the UN had issued a press statement expressing deep concern about the Maoist attack the previous day (5 June 2005) on a public passenger bus in Madi in Chitwan district where a large number of innocent passengers were killed and mutilated. Although it was one of many brutal and barbaric acts committed by the Maoists against innocent civilians, I had thought that the UN press statement was probably one of those many pro-forma routine statements that are issued in the name of the Secretary-General, which the UN leader might not even personally know about.
But to my surprise, that evening in a crowded reception hall at the UN, Kofi Annan walked past many dignitaries and came towards me in one corner and whispered, “Kul, I am so shocked and saddened to learn about the Maoist attack on a civilian passenger bus in Nepal yesterday. What is the matter with these Maoists?” I briefly shared with him my take on the situation in Nepal, and was happy to know that he had a genuine concern for Nepal.
I also had several discussions with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Sergio Vieira de Mello, a brilliant Brazilian diplomat whom I had known well when he served as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and later as UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor. Sergio had been very impressed by the Nepali peacekeepers in East Timor, and was very empathetic about Nepal. I discussed with him if he might help facilitate a peace process in Nepal linking it with issues of human rights, and he was very interested. But he was then assigned as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Iraq and was tragically killed in the terrorist attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.
…I personally agreed with a statement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that there was no military solution to the conflict. But seeing the failure of various initiatives by Nepali civil society activists as well as international NGOs, and European governments e.g. Switzerland and Norway, very mixed messages coming from India, and rather timid efforts of the UN, I decided to speak up and advocate for a stronger, more proactive role for the UN.
Federalism Not Universal Norm
Highly exaggerated claims are made on the virtues and vices of federalism by its proponents and detractors in Nepal. Proponents present federalism – especially its identity-based variety – as the solution to all of Nepal’s ills. In particular, it is claimed or assumed that federalism is an antidote to the widely acknowledged discrimination and injustice against many of Nepal’s historically deprived and marginalised communities. The anti-federalists, on the other hand, fear federalism leading to disintegration of Nepal.
I happen to think that federalism is neither a grave threat to Nepal’s national unity and integrity as its detractors fear, nor a panacea for all our social ills, political exclusion and economic inequity, as its true believers proclaim.
Let us be clear that, unlike democracy, human rights, nonviolence and pluralism, federalism is not a universal value or norm, but a political choice. So, support or opposition to it must not be treated as inherently progressive or regressive view, but a pragmatic and strategic political choice. Perfectly intelligent, reasonable and progressive thinkers can justifiably take a position in favour of federalism or against it, or for differing models of federalism.
However, in Nepal’s highly polarised political discourse, it was unfortunate that the debate degenerated to simplistically categorise people as supporters of change or of status quo based on their views on federalism, or types of federalism. The Maoists, some Madhesis and Janajati activists tended to make sweeping remarks that all critics and opponents of their favoured model of federalism are inherently feudal, elitist and status quoist. Curiously, some Western diplomats and academics seemed to buy this simplistic characterisation. The truth is more complex than this simple black and white stereotyping.
Federalism is one approach among many, to structure a state and to respond to its people’s aspirations. Of the nearly 200 sovereign states in the world only a small minority – about two dozens – have adopted some kind of federal model. If federalism were such a great model and a harbinger of an inclusive and prosperous society, many more countries would have chosen that model. And among those countries that have chosen the federal model, there are as many examples of success as failures, especially in developing countries. Understandably, Nepali political activists and academics tend to cite selective examples that suit their preference.
Spurning King Gyanendra’s Offer
When I was still at the UN, and met visiting Nepali political leaders in New York or during my visits to Kathmandu, some of them used to ask me if/when I planned to return to Nepal, and some even invited me to join their party or government in senior positions. I always said that while I was interested in contributing to Nepal’s development, I was not interested in joining any political party or serving in the government.
An interesting episode happened on 8 October 2002. I was at a Dasain party at the residence of the Nepali Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Ambassador Murari Raj Sharma. I returned to my apartment late at night and went straight to bed. Around 3am in the morning, when I was fast asleep, a telephone call woke me up. At the other end of the phone was a somewhat familiar voice from Nepal. The caller was Mr. Prabhakar Rana, one of King Gyanendra’s close advisors and a business partner.
Rana said that he was calling me with an urgent message from His Majesty King Gyanendra to inquire if I would be ready to accept an important ministerial position in a new cabinet which the King was about to appoint soon. I was quite surprised and puzzled because it was something completely unexpected. I asked Rana if he had not called me by mistake as I was not a political person, and did not have any political ambitions. Furthermore, the King and I had never met before and I presumed the King would not know what my interests and capabilities were.
Rana said that although the King had not personally met me, he knew much about me – my good international reputation, diplomatic skills, professional competence and clean image. The fact that I did not have a political background or baggage was actually a plus point from the King’s point of view, and that was partly why he had deliberately wished to approach me. The King had just fired Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba the previous week, charging him of incompetence. He was looking for some competent personalities with a clean image – swachchha chhavi bhayek? vyakti – and apparently I fit the profile perfectly.
I told Rana that I was very flattered by His Majesty’s high regard for me and felt honoured that he was offering me a high position in his cabinet to serve the nation. However, politics was not really my cup of tea, and having been away from Nepal for many decades, I was not familiar with how things get done in the Nepali political and administrative milieu. So I might not be able to meet the King’s expectations or the high standards of performance that I expect of myself.
“The End of the CPA”
In a private email to me on 28 August 2010, with the provocative subject tag “The end of the CPA”, Ian Martin posed the question: “Dear Kul, Have India, the NA and the caretaker Government gone completely mad?”
He complained that the Nepal Army had been consistently acting in bad faith against the spirit of AMMAA and CPA and that “a caretaker government with limited legitimacy, not even speaking for the whole of one side of the peace process, was now proposing to unilaterally abrogate the CPA/AMMAA, under external influence and that of an army out of any civilian control”.
He said that the Security Council was going to have to consider the UN role in a peace agreement with implications for UN credibility anywhere. As neither the caretaker government nor the UN can revise the AMMAA without consensus including the Maoists, nor can the UN monitor on any other basis, it was his view that the only proper UN response to a request to do so would be to suspend all monitoring pending discussions with a new government. That would mean no monitoring of the cantonments or weapons in the meantime.
Martin went on to say that: “This is going to discredit the caretaker government and the NA in New York, and – as a private citizen – I shall do what I can to ensure that this is the case.”
I was stunned by such statement from a seasoned diplomat, although expressed in a private communication. In a long and polite response, I told Martin that I found his judgment of “India, the NA and the caretaker Government gone completely mad” rather sweeping. I said that I knew he was too intelligent to imply by such statement that only the Maoists continued to remain sane, sensible and progressive. But his sweeping statement saying “Now a caretaker government with limited legitimacy... out of any civilian control”, made me wonder how open-minded he was.
Quoting his resolve, in his own words – as a private citizen – to do whatever he could to discredit the caretaker government and NA, I said that sounded to me like the view of a partisan activist, even if he had the best of intentions, as he saw it, for the good of the Nepali people.
Deception and Delusion of International Community
Disillusioned by the inefficiency and corruption of other political parties, some donors as well as Nepalis found the progressive rhetoric of the Maoists attractive enough to give them the benefit of doubt. What the donors did not seem to realise was that radical change for the Maoists actually meant “kramabhangat?”, a concept implying how it was necessary and perfectly justifiable to destroy and disrupt all existing norms, systems, institutions and rules of the game, to promote what the Maoists defined as their pro-people agenda.
I was happy to note that the final version of the Utstein donor paper “Peace through Development” took account of many of my suggestions and was much more balanced and thoughtful than the rather naïve original version. But the original draft was an alarming example of the surprising naïveté and gullibility of the Western donor community.
Yet another example of the Western donors’ naïveté and inexcusable indifference was during the Indian trade blockade of Nepal in September-November 2015. The donors saw firsthand the huge humanitarian crisis
caused by disruption of essential supplies, especially fuel, across the India-Nepal border that greatly hampered health, education and other basic services for millions of people, and directly impacted many donor supported post-earthquake relief and reconstruction activities. But they did not dare to denounce India’s callous unilateral action or directly appeal to it to lift its blockade even on humanitarian grounds, not to speak of the violation of the letter and spirit of many international treaties and conventions by India against a hapless landlocked neighbour.
Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly the real politik of the Western donors not wanting to offend India. But the other part was their desire to be seen as supportive of the protesting Madhesi and Tharu groups who couched their “andolan” as a fight against discriminatory and unjust provisions in Nepal’s new Constitution. It is true that Nepal’s Constitution has one discriminatory provision in terms of equal right to confer citizenship in the name of mother or father – which many of us feel must be amended. However, the principal demand of the protesting Madhesi and Tharu groups was not about this issue but about demarcation of the borders of federal provinces in southern Nepal. That subject is not a matter of any international norms but one of political negotiations and compromise, and hence inappropriate for India or other countries to express their preference on.
Unsent Letter to Prachanda
In June 2005, I had a kidney transplant in New York. As I was recuperating from the aftermath of the major surgery, I was following the news of the intensifying civil war in Nepal which was causing huge loss of life and destruction of infrastructure. I was very sad and worried for Nepal’s future. At times, I felt more worried about Nepal’s health and future than my own.
Although I was a UN official, and had to remain neutral and uninvolved in my country’s political affairs, I had started voicing my views, in a non-partisan manner, both publicly and privately. I was quite critical of the government of the day, the parliamentary political parties, the Royal Nepal Army and King Gyanendra for mishandling the conflict. But I saw the Maoist rebels as a greater longer-term threat to Nepal than all other political players.
So during my convalescence from kidney transplant, I decided to write a long personal letter to the Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” with an appeal to him and the leadership of the CPN (Maoist) to spare Nepal from needless tragedy, and to redeem some aspects of the Maoist progressive agenda.
When I consulted a few Nepali friends, they suggested that I should send the letter in Nepali so it would be more widely read and better understood. Indeed, two of my good Nepali friends, Anup Pahari and Girija Gautam, helped translate an early draft of the letter which I had written in English.
As I was bedridden, it took a long time for me to finish my long letter. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Nepal seemed to be changing. News came that an expanded Central Committee meeting of the CPN (Maoist) in Chunwang in September 2005 had taken some important decisions, which offered some hope for a negotiated solution to the conflict. Sensing that the contents of my letter and my sentiments might hopefully be overtaken by some positive developments on the ground, I never finalised and dispatched my letter to Prachanda.
In retrospect, I feel that even all these years later, some of the messages and sentiments contained in my original unsent letter to Prachanda are still relevant and might be of some historical value. Hence I reproduce below the full text of the original unsent letter without any modification. It should be noted that while the letter was addressed to Prachanda and CPN (Maoist), it also contained two annexes, one reflecting my views of the then King and the monarchy, and the other containing suggestions for the then parliamentary political parties. I added these annexes, after informally sharing the draft letter with UN-DPA’s Tamrat Samuel who suggested that it might be worthwhile for me to write similar letters to the King and the parliamentary political parties.
Needless to say, the letter and the annexes should be read keeping in mind the realities and context of 2005 rather than the current situation of Nepal as it has evolved.
“Noble ends need noble means”
Nepali Times: Your book goes against the dominant narrative that the Maoists are a force for change. Aren’t you being unfair in your negative assessment of the Maoist movement in Nepal?
Kul Chandra Gautam:
Yes, the Maoists have certainly been a force for change
. But much of the change they advocate has been negative – glorification of so-called revolutionary violence, inciting people to destroy democratic institutions, fomenting communal discord
, disrupting children’s education
-- all in pursuit of a globally failed and discredited ideology. The Maoists raised issues of entrenched inequity, injustice, discrimination and exploitation in Nepali society, as I write in my book, but the solutions they proposed were mostly arbitrary, coercive, divisive, violent and undemocratic. The solutions required kangaroo courts, physical threats, and even elimination of opponents or those who disagreed with them. The book documents how the many progressive-sounding slogans used by the Maoists were deeply deceptive and concludes that, on balance, the so-called people’s war was perhaps 10 per cent blessing and 90 per cent curse for the people of Nepal.
You are critical of the role of international community, particularly the UN in Nepal’s constitution-building and peace process. But you were among the first people to propose a UN involvement.
I remain a strong believer of the UN and enlightened multilateralism in international relations. I am proud of my advocacy for UN’s support for Nepal’s peace process, consolidation of democracy, development and human rights. Indeed, the UN played a very constructive role in highlighting and preventing violations of human rights by both government security forces and by the Maoists in the early years of the peace process. The presence of UNMIN was very reassuring to the people of Nepal that the Comprehensive Peace Accord would be honoured by all sides, and that the UN would be an honest broker if the parties to the conflict violated it.
The UN and other international donors to Nepal were keen to ensure the protection and promotion of the rights of the poor, vulnerable and historically marginalised. I strongly share and support this laudable objective. Where many of my former UN colleagues and European donors and diplomats erred was in their inability to distinguish between progressive-sounding slogans
of certain groups like the Maoists and activists of various ethnic and regional groups whose analysis was often convincing, but whose policy prescriptions were deeply flawed. Many Western diplomats were swayed by the views of some articulate columnists, writers and analysts who presented Nepali society as sharply divided between progressive and regressive camps. Naturally, they wanted to be on the side of the so-called progressives and gave them undue benefit of doubt.
In the ‘Deception and delusion of the international community’ I give examples of how the international community misjudged Nepal’s complex social dynamics and ended up unwittingly supporting certain policies in Nepal that they would not accept or apply in their own countries.
Do you think your being seen as anti-Maoist undermined your credibility as a mediator during the peace process?
I never pretended to be a mediator, but wanted to play a constructive role in the peace process
, and more importantly in post-conflict reconstruction and development. Perhaps my candid views were seen as partisan by some, but I know many considered them principled. My public criticism of the Maoists helped restrain them from some adventurism, and alerted others, including the UN and some donors, to be more circumspect in not subscribing to the simplistic characterisation of Nepali society as sharply polarised between the Kathmandu elite and the oppressed.
Yet you maintain a positive outlook on Nepal’s future. Given the current context, how realistic are those hopes?
Nepal has all the ingredients needed to become a just and prosperous nation. It is endowed with natural resources, spectacular beauty, a hard-working people, a strategic location between two of the world’s largest economies, and very supportive development partners. Holding us back has been the excessive focus on political experiments of various types, and the neglect of economic issues. Most Nepalis no longer believe that discredited ideologies offer any magic solution to their problems. They want pragmatic policies, good governance, rule of law and encouragement of entrepreneurship. With the exposure and better education, I see Nepal getting ready for economic takeoff. Ultra-nationalism hinders development, and distortions created by cartels and syndicates discourage competition, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Why couldn’t our media or public intellectuals challenge a harmful discourse that endorsed violence and helped impunity?
The Maoists were very clever in projecting themselves as the champions of the poor and the marginalised. They portrayed all those who disagreed with them as feudal elites. They said revolutionary violence was necessary to fight what they considered structural violence of the state. They were able to persuade Dalits, certain Janajatis, Madhesis, and even some leftist intellectuals that their noble ends justified violent means
. Curiously, even some members of the international community bought this argument. Nepal’s moderate media and public intellectuals were unable to counter this narrative for fear of being portrayed as politically incorrect. I happen to believe that all noble objectives should be pursued using noble means.
Violence can bring temporary change, but in a democracy lasting change can only happen through peaceful means. I believe Nepalis have also come to that conclusion.
The rise and fall of the Maoists, Om Astha Rai
The way ahead, Kul Chandra Gautam
Blustering reality, Prashant Jha
Maoists tricked UNMIN, From the Nepali Press