AFTER MOVING forward quickly and purposefully towards the establishment of peace and democracy these past few months, Nepal’s political parties have begun to stumble in the final crucial laps with a needless controversy over the disposition of Maoist arms.
At stake is the formation of an interim government consisting of the ruling Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which will have the mandate of conducting elections to a Constituent Assembly. The interim government will also have to administer the country till the formation of a new government elected on the basis of the Constitution which emerges from the Assembly’s deliberations.
While it is the Constituent Assembly that will largely determine the political contours of the future Nepal, the credibility and structure of the interim government is equally important if the entire process is to be seen through to completion. As such, the full and unreserved participation of the Maoists and all other parties is essential. Indeed, the historic eight-point agreement, signed by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and CPN (M) leader Prachanda on June 16 explicitly commits the SPA and the Maoists to the establishment of an interim government on the basis of an interim constitution. Although that agreement explicitly provides for the United Nations to "help in the management of arms and armed personnel of both the sides and to monitor it in order to conduct elections for the Constituent Assembly in a free and fair manner," nowhere does it say that the surrender of arms by the Maoists is a precondition for the interim arrangement to go forward.
There is a good reason for this. By foregrounding the necessity of a political settlement between the SPA and the Maoists — through the instruments of an interim government and Constituent Assembly — the June agreement makes it easier for the eventual settlement of the arms question. As a senior SPA leader told me during a visit to Delhi in July, insisting on the surrender of arms before a political settlement was like putting the cart before the horse. "Let us say they give up their weapons and then we fail to reach a political solution. It will not be difficult for them to pick up the gun again." As for ensuring a level playing field during the elections — a legitimate demand of the SPA, whose cadres might otherwise be intimidated by Maoist weapons — this would be taken care of by the U.N. monitoring of both Nepal Army soldiers and Maoist combatants.
As the prospects for durable political change strengthen, however, the old order and its backers have begun reasserting themselves. For example, hardly a day goes by without James F. Moriarty, the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, warning the parties not to accept Maoist participation in government without disarmament first. So brazen has been his intervention in Nepal’s internal affairs that a number of MPs have called for his expulsion from the country. Also involved in this anti-Maoist scare campaign are Army officers who have not yet reconciled themselves to the loss of the "Royal" prefix from the name of the Nepal Army.
After the eight-point agreement was signed, the first hitch arose when the Koirala Government — presumably under pressure from the U.S. — wrote to the U.N. in early July asking for help in the management and decommissioning of Maoist arms. This "misunderstanding" was eventually resolved with Mr. Koirala and Mr. Prachanda writing identical letters to Secretary-General Kofi Annan on August 9 inviting the U.N. to "deploy qualified civilian personnel to monitor and verify the confinement of CPN-M combatants and their weapons within designated cantonment areas" as well as "[m]onitor the Nepal Army to ensure that it remains in its barracks and its weapons are not used for or against any side."
The letters also requested the U.N. to continue its human rights monitoring through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal currently headed by Ian Martin, assist the monitoring of the `Code of Conduct’ during the Ceasefire, and "provide election observation for the election of the Constituent Assembly in consultation with the parties." Nowhere do the letters speak of decommissioning.
At a press conference in Kathmandu earlier this week, Mr. Martin acknowledged there was some confusion over the sequencing of what he called "arms management" issues and political issues. By this he meant the precise moment when the U.N. will step in to monitor the Nepal Army and Maoist combatants, in particular whether the monitoring would kick in before or after the formation of the interim government. While this sequencing is a matter for the SPA and Maoist leadership to sort out, the laying down of weapons by the Maoists is a diversionary question that will only undermine the prospects of the peaceful political transition both sides say they are committed to.
When Prime Minister Koirala and Mr. Prachanda get together later this month for their summit meeting, they must put an end to the dangerous drift that has set in on the formation of an interim government. The Interim Constitution Drafting Committee (ICDC) has done a commendable job in preparing a draft covenant to oversee the transitional period, including the formation of an interim government and the holding of elections to a Constituent Assembly. No doubt ambiguities abound, not least about how the issue of the monarchy is to be resolved, but none of these is intractable. With statesmanship and patience, which both the SPA and the Maoists have already displayed in abundance, the last remaining hurdles can be overcome.
To the extent to which Washington has muddied the waters with its strident anti-Maoist campaign, however, India needs to counsel the SPA to stick to the path spelt out in the eight-point agreement of June 2006.
The inexplicable re-arrest in Chennai on Monday of Nepali Maoist leader C.P. Gajurel suggests the Manmohan Singh Government has still not realised the fragile nature of the transition Nepal is going through.
The Indian legal system can be chaotic and unpredictable but surely the Government of India knows how to negotiate its way through it.
In 2000, New Delhi pushed through the release of Masood Azhar. Unlike Azhar, who went on to found the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Mr. Gajurel is a political leader who has never been charged with a violent offence and who means India and its people no harm. Ensuring his swift release — as well as his speedy, safe and honourable return to Kathmandu — would not only be the right thing to do but it would also send an important message: that India supports the formation of an interim government with the participation of all of Nepal’s political parties, including the Maoists, and believes such a government offers Nepal its best chance for peaceful democratic change.