On the night of November 14, Nepal's Maoist guerillas struck in force once again, this time in simultaneous
attacks on an isolated police outpost in Gorkha district, west of Kathmandu, and a full-scale attack on
Khalanga, the district headquarters of Jumla near the tri-junction of Nepal, China and India in the remote
northwestern zone of Karnali.
The twin attacks left at least 70 people dead, including 61 security force personnel. Casualties on the rebel side are reported to have run into the hundreds. The attack killed the chief district officer of Jumla, the top civil servant of the district, and two deputy superintendents of police. The Khalanga assault was the fourth one on a district headquarters, and comes two years after the Maoists overran the headquarters of a neighbouring district. Both districts lie to the north of the Maoist stronghold in the hills of western Nepal.
Unlike the earlier attacks, the company-strength army post stationed there was able to ward off a total rout. However, the Maoists managed to destroy the airport, set fire to all the government buildings and make off with a substantial amount of cash and jewellery looted from the local bank and ordinary citizens.
The attacks came a day after a three-day countrywide shutdown called by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). On the concluding day of the strike, the Maoist leadership had claimed in a statement that the 'success' of the strike had shown that the people were with them and reiterated their three key demands - a roundtable conference of all political forces, an interim government and elections to a constituent assembly. The statement had warned that unless there were some positive moves to find a political solution, they would continue with their movement, including 'people's resistance'.
The call for the November 11-13 strike had originally been planned to disrupt the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for November 13. The sacking of Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and assumption of executive authority by King Gyanendra on October 4 had postponed the polls indefinitely. But the Maoists, who described the king's action as a 'retrogressive step', went ahead with it anyway, calling it the beginning of a 'united people's resistance campaign' against the king.
The new government, headed by royal-appointee Lokendra Bahadur Chand, is still facing a crisis of political acceptance. The manner in which the government was constituted by the king on October 11 has come under considerable flak from constitutional experts. On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the 1990 Constitution on November 9, a group of eight well-known public figures, including three members of the Constitution Drafting Committee, questioned the present government's legitimacy. Their joint statement asked either for the reinstatement of the parliament dissolved earlier in May, or a resort to 'interim arrangements' that would restore the paramountcy of the people's sovereign rights. The 'interim arrangements', they said, should also include the Maoists.
For its part, the government has maintained that it has opened the doors for talks, and has even authorised a committee of human rights activists to make contact with the rebels on its behalf. But the Maoists too have questioned the government's legal status and have indicated that any negotiations would have to have the king's participation.
A statement on October 24 from the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist (CPN-M) chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda', called for a 'political exit' to the present impasse through a dialogue among all political forces, including the king, and for which the king would have to initiate the first steps. That statement was remarkable for the absence of anti-monarchy rhetoric and was viewed as a possible opening for talks.
But, two weeks later came the dampener, as the Maoists resumed their previous stance on the monarchy. The
convener of what is known to be the Maoists' central government, the United People's Revolutionary Council,
Baburam Bhattarai, appealed to all parliamentary and non-parliamentary forces in a broad united front against
the 'feudal monarchy'.
The country's two major political parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML)) have so far steered clear of joining the government despite exhortations from the Prime Minister. The two parties are agreed on the unconstitutionality of the king's October 4 action, but differ on how it can be 'rectified'.
The Nepali Congress wants the parliament reinstated, which would put it in a strong position to form the
government again, while the CPN-UML, which was the main opposition in parliament, prefers the king to hand
over the executive power to the cabinet as a prelude to their entering the Chand cabinet. Leaders of the two
parties are known to have restated their positions to King Gyanendra, who has begun a series of consultations
with leaders of political parties to seek a way out of the present political crisis.
Apart from this difference both parties agree on the need to bring the Maoist issue to a close through peace talks. That is a view that is increasingly gaining acceptance. The army has been out for almost a year now, but it does not seem to have made a significant dent in the Maoists' military capability. The rebels have certainly received setbacks, most recently in a late October attack on an army contingent guarding an airport in eastern Nepal.
Although the army continues to notch up an average of 10 'Maoists' a day, given factors like the terrain,
the small numbers the Army can mobilise on the ground, lack of local support and the widespread nature of
rebel operations, the military does not seem likely to achieve a significant victory any time soon.
The Maoists too have said that they are ready for a dialogue if the government is committed to a political solution. On the day of the simultaneous attacks in Gorkha and Jumla, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a top Maoist leader and known hardliner, speaking in an interview broadcast over CNN, blamed the government for the present standoff. He said that the rebels were ready to declare a ceasefire if there were positive indications. Otherwise, however, he warned ominously, 'this war will be a historical and decisive one'.
The author is a Kathmandu-based Journalist and Editor. Copyright: South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.