Peter Russell is a Canadian political scientist who has been assisting Nepal’s political leaders as they look for democracy and civic peace after decades of autocracy and civil conflict. He spoke to Peace editor Metta Spencer in August.
METTA SPENCER: Nepal’s conflict has not been easy to follow here.
PETER RUSSELL: That’s right. One reason is that the largest group in the Constituent Assembly are called “Maoists.” They resorted to violence and forced the creation of a Constituent Assembly to make a democratic constitution. The name makes people think of Chairman Mao, who wasn’t much of a democrat. But the term is misleading. It comes from Mao’s belief in “the barrel of a gun” to force a political change.
Nepal had its first chance to be a democracy in 1990, when it did get a parliamentary regime and a constitutional monarch.
SPENCER: Let’s talk about that first because I actually met that king when he was still the crown prince: King Birendra.
RUSSELL: Yes, he was the king in 1990. He was murdered years later on the first of June 2000, by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra.
SPENCER: Yeah, but I met Birendra when he was the crown prince. I was working at Harvard in the late 1960s, and I was in the office of a friend who was a political science professor, when this young man came in for his tutorial. So I was introduced to the crown prince of Nepal. Not long afterward he became the king.
RUSSELL: That sounds right. And he, Birendra, turned out to be a pretty good king.
SPENCER: I thought so. In fact, I heard that, under pressure, he allowed for political reforms—a parliamentary system, with an elected legislature and a prime minister. What was wrong with that? It sounded pretty good to me.
RUSSELL: What was wrong with it? A couple of things. In terms of process and election rules, it was exclusive. It excluded the untouchables, who were about 20 percent of the population. It didn’t exclude women but it didn’t encourage them. It was a parliamentary regime dominated by high caste Hindu men—Brahmin men, mostly—and it failed to address the most pressing problem of the country, land reform. For over 200 years Nepal had been a feudal kingdom in which the aristocracy and the army had taken land from people and turned them into peasants. Land ownership by a small group of people was continuing. Without land reform, economic opportunities for the great mass of people were almost nil, but these upper caste Brahmin men, mostly living in Kathmandu, weren’t doing anything about it.
The leader of the Maoists was Pachandra. By 1994 or 1995, the seven political parties with seats in parliament were bickering over who would get which cabinet post. One was the Congress Party; it’s still a big one—second to the Maoists.
SPENCER: Is it similar to the Congress Party in India?
RUSSELL: Very much so. It’s somewhat left of centre. The other parties are of two kinds. Some are democratic “Marxist-Leninists” with no major ideological differences among them. If no one party can get a majority, then it’s in your interest to be in a party where you can be part of the government and get a couple of key official positions. The other kinds of parties, besides the Marxist-Leninist ones, are regional—notably the Madhesi, which is the region down on the Indian border. That’s rather like Canada’s Quebec. The majority are Hindi-speaking. The border to India is accessible, to say the least, and the Madhesi are always rumbling about secession—joining India.
As to your question—why the first parliamentary regime of 1990 wasn’t successful—these parties were bickering instead of dealing with the issues. Pachandra finally confronted them with his Marxist-Leninist political organization and said, “If you don’t do land reform and make the constitution fully democratic, we’ll take to arms.”
He got nowhere, so in 1996 his small band of followers started ambushing police and capturing their guns. As they got more powerful, the Gurkhas (the army of Nepal) took them on. They fought a guerrilla war. At the height of their insurrection they had 30,000 followers. Many were recruited forcibly, going into small villages and recruiting young men and women. That went on for ten years.
In the middle of that, there was a tragic evening in the royal palace where Crown Prince Dipendra went berserk. At a family party he killed the king and queen, his brothers and sisters, grandmother, his uncles and aunts, and shot himself. He died a couple of days later.
SPENCER: Was it really obvious what happened? I’ve heard that some people dispute that that was the true story.
RUSSELL: Oh, there’s a big literature on it. The official theory, which has a lot of evidence, is that the crown prince was in love with a beautiful Indian woman. She was not quite high enough in caste, nor Nepali enough, to suit his mom and dad. He had asked permission to announce an engagement, but he wasn’t getting it, so he shot the family.
The alternative conspiracy theory involved his uncle, Gyanendra, who was out hunting and was the only senior member of the royal family not to get shot. He immediately took over and was a bad monarch who quarreled with all of the political parties. A couple of times, like Stephen Harper, he just told parliament to take a hike. He didn’t use prorogation; he just closed it down.
SPENCER: Gyanendra was the younger brother of Birendra?
RUSSELL: Yeah. All along the Maoists had wanted to end the monarchy, saying that royal family had too much land and too many privileges. After of the massacre and the poor performance of the new king, support for monarchy was disappearing. So, to end the insurrection, the Maoists who were headquartered in New Delhi, India, met with the leaders of all the main political parties and agreed on terms for suspending the fighting: an end to the monarchy, a Constituent Assembly based on proportional representation, with guaranteed seats for women, untouchables, indigenous tribal peoples, and the Madhesi. It would be really representative of the country. The UN came in and brokered that peace by creating lock-ups for the arms. I arrived just about then.
SPENCER: Who invited you?
RUSSELL: I was urged to go by a man called Yash Ghai, who was then in charge of the UN Political Development—UNPD—for that part of Asia. He was a good friend from Kenyan days. At the same time the Canadian Bar Association had partnered with the Nepal Bar Association. They wanted to create an interim constitution and help design the Constituent Assembly. They phoned me.
My expenses were paid by the government of Canada. It’s to the credit of Minister Bev Oda, that she really went for it [several other Canadian experts were also involved in the programme] and renewed it too. The government of Canada funded our work as a CIDA project.
I got over there in September 2007. They had this brokered peace but things were still unsettled. The Maoists insisted that the king had to go and that Nepal would become a republic right away. Some of the other parties wanted to let the Constituent Assembly decide whether to be a monarchy or a republic, and then design the new head of state as part of that process. The Maoists said that the monarchy must go right now. And they did.
SPENCER: This was their chief demand?
RUSSELL: That and the details of the electoral system. They wanted a mixed kind of proportional representation. That’s what Ontario turned down a couple of years ago, though we in FairVote Canada proposed it. New Zealand and Germany have it. You still have constituencies. You have first-past-the post for those constituencies, which are larger than before, but you top it up with people from party lists to make sure that all the parties are represented, proportionate to their strength. The added Nepali wrinkle was to guarantee a certain number of women, untouchables, and so on. I was involved in the process of creating an interim constitution. My main contributions were on the judicial structure for the interim.
SPENCER: Had they had much of a court system before?
RUSSELL: Oh, yeah. In 1950 they had started a court system based on the top-heavy Indian system. Most cases are heard by the highest court in the capital. Justice at the local level is almost non-existent. If you’re a property owner you’ll get a fair trial but the Maoists didn’t like the system and I didn’t blame them. (It was very much like South Africa, where the blacks didn’t trust the Afrikaner system, and I had re-designed that for Mandela and his party. Those were my credentials to be working on the justice system in Nepal.)
Others were working on other things, such as making Nepal into a federal country. The Maoists wanted to make it federal because they didn’t trust the people in the capital. They had run their insurrection in the countryside and represented the landless agricultural workers. They didn’t believe they’d get a fair shake from a unitary government in the capital. So it was the exact opposite of how federalism played out in South Africa, where it was the whites who insisted on federalism, whereas Mandela and the ANC didn’t want it at all. They wanted a dynamic new government to re-structure the country. So it was quite a selling job to get the ANC to accept federalism.
SPENCER: So the Maoists got an electoral system to their liking?
RUSSELL: Yes. They had worked hard on it. They weren’t all just “freedom-fighters” with guns. They had people designing the electoral system who were more sophisticated than 98 percent of Canadians.
Once they got that, they held the election for the Constituent Assembly, which would have two roles. It would be a parliament to govern the country for two years, while it was also drafting a permanent constitution. It had 601 members. By all accounts the election was a good, fair election. The Maoists won the largest number of the 601 seats, but not a majority.
SPENCER: I would have expected Maoists to be interested in class relations and land reform but not in parliamentary democracy. It sounds as if it’s the other way around.
RUSSELL: Yeah. And that’s why they have never —at least until now—been close to Beijing. Those intellectuals such as Pachandra got all their ideas from India. The truce that led to the Constituent Assembly was negotiated in India, engineered by a graduate student. Beijing said, “Oh, this is just US capitalist-style democracy.” They call India a capitalist democracy. The Chinese government actually were supporting that awful king, Gyanendra, sending him arms on the trade routes that run through the Himalayas. The Maoist leaders went to university in India, where the Communists are parliamentary democrats. They run in elections and control provincial governments.
But land reform and using guns to force change? Yeah, that’s Maoist. By the spring of 2008, the Constituent Assembly elections were held and Pachandra became prime minister. For about a year his party was the largest group. I went back in 2009.
SPENCER: How long were you there the first time?
RUSSELL: Ten days. The second time, two weeks. In 2009 I went back just as Pachandra had been defeated in parliament on a crucial military issue. The Maoists wanted their fighters, who were out in the countryside in UN-supervised cantonments, with their arms locked up, to be blended into Nepal’s army. It was controversial. The Gurkha army is one of the most formidable armies in the world. Even some left-wing politicians were a little worried about that. So Pachandra lost a vote of confidence.
SPENCER: He wanted to meld together the two armies that had fought against each other?
RUSSELL: Yeah. The 30,000 had been reduced to about 20,000. The UN had a program to get the women fighters, who had little babies, out of there and into Kathmandu, so the babies could be looked after and the women could go back to school. These female Maoist fighters were never able to return to their villages. In a very religious country their families would have nothing to do with them, since they’d been living with, and making babies with, men they weren’t married to.
I stayed in the same hotel as the head of UN security—a lovely Uruguayan man, Eduardo, and learned a lot about how he was operating the security side. The Maoists wanted jobs for these 20,000 fighters, who were mostly young, uneducated men. They had been recruited from villages as teenagers—some voluntarily, some involuntarily. They would become part of a very large Nepalese army with all the trimmings—jet planes and tanks—the works. Pachandra wanted to make it into a single armed force but he lost the vote of confidence and went into opposition. A Marxist-Leninist government was formed, and they carried on drafting the constitution. The Maoists weren’t upset because now they could spend all their effort on drafting the constitution instead of governing.
They kept beavering away on the constitution. Each part of the constitution was written up as a “concept paper” and taken to all parts of the country for public consultation. Then they redrafted it. They were nearing the end of the two years that had been set. The rule for adopting the constitution (and I know because I was involved in it) was that it would be approved by a “consensus vote.” What’s a consensus? The constitution doesn’t say—for good reason. Clearly the consensus would have to include the Maoists, the Congress Party, the Marxist-Leninists —and maybe today (I read the Internet every day) the Madhesi, who are getting nervous about the way things are going. I think they have to have Madhesi representation and Maoists are negotiating with them.
They were supposed to be finished at the end of May this year. Within a day or two of the end, it seemed to be collapsing, but they made a deal to add one more year to the process. We now are in year three.
SPENCER: How close are they to a consensus?
RUSSELL: There are two deal-breaker issues. One involves the relationship between the president and the prime minister. The Maoists want a parliamentary system with a prime minister who has the support of the elected majority. They also want a directly-elected president, a la France.
SPENCER: What would their respective roles be?
RUSSELL: That’s the question! As I read the tea leaves, the Maoist view is that the core of executive power should be with the president. They are rightly confident that in a direct election, the Maoist leader would win. He’s a fine man. He speaks well. He insisted that the UN human rights come in and look at any actions of his fighters. They have never been able to resolve who would be the president. Pachandra was the prime minister for a while and he (or someone from his party) is going to be prime minister again. They are putting together a minority government, and have been at it for four or five months.
SPENCER: Sounds like Iraq.
RUSSELL: Exactly. The issue is, what are the roles of the president and the prime minister? As a political scientist I can tell you, that’s a dreadful system to operate. There are only two democracies in the world that have tried to have both a directly-elected president and a directly-elected parliament to whom a prime minister is accountable—and they have had nothing but trouble: France and Israel. It does not work. It’s understandable that the Nepalis can’t work it out. It’s also understandable that the Maoists want it. The alternative is the US system, in which you have a directly-elected president and a separately-elected Congress, with all the legislative power.
The other issue that I’ve been involved in has to do with the supremacy of the constitution. Under Canada’s system, the constitution sets out the powers and human rights. Our judiciary has the final word, though the constitution can always be amended.
The Maoists are happy with constitutional rights—the draft constitution has a huge commitment to human rights—but they don’t trust the courts and judges. They don’t mind cases starting at the bottom and working their way up to the Supreme Court but they want the final court of appeal to be a committee of the parliament. Those are the biggest issues to work out in the coming year.
SPENCER: How about the fighting? I had the impression that after the Maoist insurrection, there have also been ethnic conflicts.
RUSSELL: Yes, there are. Especially down in the Madhesi area. There are also Maoist gangs versus anti-Maoist gangs. During the ten years of civil war, about 2,000 people were killed by one side or the other. The animosities linger among gangs.
There are also some different issues around accommodating the demands of indigenous peoples. I was asked to work on that issue.
One of my colleagues there is a Nepali anthropologist, who showed me that you can’t tell who are the indigenous people. Here in Canada we all know that the indigenous people were those who were here before the Europeans arrived. In Nepal some migrations happened thousands of years ago. It’s impossible to determine who are native people and who are new arrivals. The groups are identifiable mainly by language and culture, but some of them claim to be indigenous. They invoke the rights of indigenous people that are now recognized at the UN. I think they will be bought off with land.
SPENCER: Where will they get the extra land—by taking it from the upper castes?
RUSSELL: Yes. I think that will happen. This long delay is tragic. They need land reform and hydroelectric power. Great rivers gush down from Mt. Everest and the Himalayas, and Nepal hasn’t had the capital to harness them. It buys almost all its power from India in the form of gas and oil. Twice a day, all over Nepal, the power goes off. They can’t get capital until they have a stable government.
SPENCER: Will that settle the ethnic conflict at all?
RUSSELL: Oh, no! Nothing will settle ethnic conflicts. But with a reasonably good government, I think they’ll be okay.
SPENCER: Are political parties representing ethnic groups?
RUSSELL: Some of them do. The Madhesi are an ethnic, regional party.
SPENCER: I saw a list a parties that ran in the last election. It filled several pages. There were seven different Communist Parties!
RUSSELL: It’s ridiculous, but it’s part of the political corruption. They are all seeking positions in government. They don’t have distinct platforms and ideologies.
SPENCER: What’s your vision of the future?
RUSSELL: Fifty-fifty. I was just talking to a U of T colleague who had returned from Nepal. He too thinks there’s a 50-50 chance that they will pull it off in the next year.
SPENCER: So the politicians just want a piece of the action?
RUSSELL: Well, the Maoists want more radical land reform than any of the other parties. The Madhesi want a very decentralized kind of government.
SPENCER: Demographically do they have a growing population, putting pressure on the land?
RUSSELL: Not much. They haven’t ever had a good census but the population estimate is between 25 and 26 million. They are not land-poor. The southern part of the country is very fertile. Over half of the country is in the flat area near the Indian border. As you move north, it gets full of valleys, and farming is tougher on hillsides.
SPENCER: You’ve mentioned the status of women.
RUSSELL: Yes, the women are very involved. They have huge security issues in protecting the 601 people meeting in the International Trade Centre in Kathmandu. The day I was there they each had five minutes to make their point, and many of the speakers were women. In a typical day they’d adjourn at 4:00 pm and we’d go to a hotel meeting room and meet with one of the Assembly’s committees. During breaks they would talk to us in English.
SPENCER: Suppose they don’t reach an agreement. What will happen?
RUSSELL: Oh, boy! In one scenario the Maoists would come back in as a minority government, following the interim constitution. They’d command the armed forces, so it shouldn’t have to break down into insurrection.
The other scenario —the worse one— would have the Maoists in opposition, with about 14 other parties forming the government and no land reform happening.
I could see them going back to fighting. The guns are now in lockers in six cantonments in valleys. They could easily get them out. I’d rather see the Maoists form the government. It would be an okay government.
SPENCER: Federalism is going to happen?
RUSSELL: Yes, but it’s going to be more centralized than Canada. It’s a matter of getting justice out into the countryside. It’s important to have alternative forms of justice in the villages so they don’t have to go to court. Alternative dispute resolution.
SPENCER: In India they had such a tradition.
RUSSELL: Yes. The Maoists approve of that. It’s not controversial. The women would then have someplace to go for help.
Peter Russell is emeritus professor of political science, University of Toronto. Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.