The struggle for democracy in Nepal


On August 19 the Nepalese government arrested some 3000 political activists including the parliamentary representatives and national leaderships of the major opposition parties and the head of the student's federation and the womens' movement.

The mass arrests follow the King's unconstitutional dissolution of Parliament on July 10 and the formation, by the sacked Prime Minister, of an interim council of ministers. Tens of thousands of people took part in the third general strike to sweep the country since then. Activists fear that the move signals a return to a form of one-party rule similar to the Panchayat system imposed by the King of Nepal in 1960. Under Panchayat all opposition parties were banned and the Parliament was dissolved.

RAJAN BHATTARAI, a member of the All Nepal National Federation of Student Unions (ANNFSU) and the Asian Students Association International Secretariat, attended the Students Science and Sustainability Conference in Sydney in July for the Asian Students Association. Green Left Weekly's MICHAEL TARDIF talked to him about the struggle for democracy in Nepal.

The current constitutional crisis has focused attention on the mass campaign for democratic rights. What are the origins of this movement?

Nepal's mass movements, an exceptionally strong political force, include all sectors of the population. This has been the case since the 1950s. It was particularly the case in the 1960s despite the repression after King Mahendra Bir Bikran Shah Deva dissolved the parliament and banned all political parties imposing the Panchayat system.

Despite this setback, the mass organisations continued underground, especially at the local level. It was this which led to the overthrow the King and the establishment of limited democratic rights.

In 1990, the King was forced to grant some concessions after a massive 50-day campaign. All the left parties, mass organisations, youth, trade unions and even some of the bourgeois politicians who were against the absolute monarchy came together to organise strikes and other mass actions. During this period, more than 500 people were killed and over 50,000 arrested before the King finally agreed to dissolve the Panchayat system. An interim government was formed between the Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) [CPN (UML)]. National elections, widely believed to be rigged, resulted in a Congress Party government.

Besides campaigns for basic democratic rights people have raised a range of economic demands. How has this helped shape the movements in Nepal today?

The impact of the programs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been very severe for many countries. The campaigns against these international agencies in South Asia are very political.

In Nepal the left has been campaigning against the government's economic program for two years. This has centred around the economic programs of the IMF and the World Bank, including the privatisation of industry, unemployment and an annual inflation rate of 200-300%.

The left and the peoples' organisations have been demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister G.P. Koirala, particularly since the debacle of the Tanak Pur Dam, a World Bank project on the border with India. The resources harnessed by the dam were supposed to be shared equally between our two countries, but Koirala signed them all to India. The people have demanded that this agreement be retracted.

This has even caused splits within the ruling party, resulting in some members also calling for Koirala's resignation.

And this is the issue that has led to the constitutional crisis and to the most recent mass campaigns?

Yes, when the voting took place on the annual budget of the government more than 40 of the ruling parliamentarians crossed the floor and voted with the Communist Party against Koirala's program. Following this, he resigned and asked for a mid-term poll. The King is supposed to ask the second biggest party — the Communist Party — to form the government. Two days after Koirala's resignation the King unilaterally dissolved parliament. Since the collapse of the Panchayat system the King has been trying to control the new parliament. This is a very sensitive issue because it is exactly what happened in 1960 when the King first imposed the Panchayat system which lasted until 1990.

All over the country people are coming onto the streets and saying that this is a conspiracy, another attempt by the King to regain power.

The significant electoral gains made by the ANC in South Africa and the Workers Party in Brazil have spurred on debate about the parliamentary struggle. How has the Left approached this in Nepal?

I think the basic question is still the class question. Class contradictions are still the main contradictions in society. While there are different classes in society there is no way to fundamentally change the social and economic structure of society. At the moment we are using the parliament as a tactic, but this doesn't mean that we can continue with that.

One CPN (UML) leader was giving a speech at a mass rally and he said that the struggle of the movements and the left not only depends on how the left operates, but also on how the reactionary forces respond. If they respond violently, then we have to defend ourselves. At the moment they have not chosen that as their principal path. Now, while we have the opportunity, we are emphasising the need for militant mass movements. In this context the parliamentary tactic is secondary. The primary struggle is the mass movement struggle.

What led to the formation of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninist and what impact has this had on the left in Nepal?

It is a very good example of how the left can work together despite having different perspectives on certain issues. There are many tendencies in the CPN (UML). Democratic expression is important within the party especially during the campaign for the party's reunification.

If the left wants to be effective they have to unify. From the 1970s to the 1990s there were up to 25 small left groups; most of these came together to form the CPN (UML). Today the party is very big with a strong mass base, particularly in the cities.

What sorts of differences did the CPN (UML) have to overcome?

The left split in the 1960s over the differences between Russia and China. The debate centred around tactical rather than strategic points, about how to organise and achieve our strategy. In the past the two main trends to achieve revolutionary social change were, either through parliament or by armed struggle.

Now the left is emphasising the militant mass movements and, at the same time, using different tactics. They are in the parliament and also in the street. This emphasis has been very successful and the left is now able to organise the majority of the people.