Lessons for India from Nepal’s Revolution
The Statesman, frontpage, April 26 2006
King Gyanendra of Nepal has lost legitimacy in the eyes of almost all his people. His days as a monarch are numbered. It is as inevitable as night follows day that his dynasty is over, and Nepal will sooner or later become a secular Republic. The practical questions that follow include what is to be done with him and his family, that is, which country should they seek exile in and at what pension, to whom exactly should sovereignty in Nepal pass immediately and in the long term, how may needless bloodshed, civil chaos and mayhem come to be avoided, and how soon can a viable democratic republic and a healthy economy and society emerge.
Salus populi suprema lex: the good of the people is the supreme law. And the good of the people in Nepal today requires Gyanendra to depart (that is, for exile in Britain), after abdicating in favour of his son ~ or better still his infant grandson, placing a Regent acceptable to the Seven-Party Alliance in charge of calling a Constituent Assembly as everyone and especially the Maoists have demanded.
The Government and people of India seem strangely ignorant or indifferent about what is happening right next door to us, even when that door is open. While the people of Nepal almost stormed their Bastille, we witnessed instead the bizarre televised parade of politicians and Bollywood personalities to visit another celebrity in hospital (we should be thankful they have not been allowed anywhere near him).
Our Prime Minister/foreign minister, with his “national security advisor” sitting next to him, flew off to a brief spring holiday in Europe to discuss importation of uranium and BMWs and other such posh things. The Congress Party has said the Prime Minister may have expressed “his own views” on the subject of supporting King Gyanendra’s Friday offer but that the Government of India always supported “multiparty democracy” and the Congress Party supported the government! Have people become even more detached from reality here? If it is the case the Prime Minister has become so utterly consumed by personal hubris that he is making impromptu remarks contrary to his own government’s policies, then it may be time for him to realise he has filled his quota of foreign trips and put in his papers. At the very least, MK Narayanan has been derelict in his duties by joining the Prime Minister in the European spring rather than remaining in India watching Nepal. The Prime Minister has been so negligent as his own foreign minister (for example, handing over his America policy to personal diplomacy by his favoured aide, Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia) that he is making the country almost miss the foreign minister who had to be fired, an unfortunate thought!
In the last six months, Nepal’s non-Maoist opposition coalesced and the Maoists declared a unilateral cease-fire. India remained preoccupied with the vanities of its own petty dynasties. Why we Indians, despite our pretensions as the world’s largest democracy (in reality, the world’s largest voting public), may have been so dull and ignorant with respect to Nepal’s “trinamul” democratic movement is that we have never had any kind of revolution ourselves.
Revolution is anathema to the pompous bureaucrats of New Delhi, just as it is to the pompous generals of Islamabad. Partition was the one all-consuming trauma experienced by the Indian and Pakistani ruling classes, and they are simply unable to understand populist rebellions of the kind now being seen in Nepal or seen under Sheikh Mujib in East Pakistan almost 40 years ago. The Indira Gandhi brand of populism practised by India’s “democratic leaders” has to do with renting crowds and giving speeches while waving to the TV cameras, always making sure to fly back to air-conditioned comfort in Lutyens Delhi by the end of the day if at all possible. Lutyens Delhi is Royal India, and Royal India secretly sympathises with all Royalty and pseudo-Royalty. Ours has become a democracy upside down where it is not a question of how the interests of the people of India should be represented in New Delhi but how New Delhi’s interests can come to be projected upon the people of India.
In Nepal on the other hand, the questions now precisely have to do with the most difficult issues of sovereignty, political legitimacy and representation. The forced exile of the Shah of Iran was followed by the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from Qom and the brutality and bloodshed of the Islamic Revolution. The exile of Sihanouk of Cambodia was followed by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Can mass bloodshed and class war be averted if the exile of King Gyanendra is followed by a Maoist takeover in Nepal? The Maoists are indisputably led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) who does not appear to be a murderous Pol Pot and has been projected as principled and statesmanlike. But will he be able to control his own creation or could he himself be swept aside? “Revolution is not a tea party” said Mao Zedong. There are at least two other proximate models that are more benign. One was the forced exile of Ferdinand Marcos and his odious family to the USA in 1986, leading to Mrs Benito Aquino becoming President of the Philippines. She and Fidel Ramos had led ordinary people to the most peaceful bloodless revolution ever seen until then, and coined the term “People Power”. Democracy has had its problems here but has survived intact ever since. Another relevant model has to do with the forced departure for Bombay of Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir (who pretended to “abdicate” in favour of his young son though in fact no such alternative existed in international law). Sheikh Abdullah knew his constitutional politics well enough and then led J&K to a reasonable Constituent Assembly. Our Pakistani cousins, cut from the same political cloth as ourselves, embarked haplessly saying “That the sovereignty in Pakistan belongs to God Almighty alone and that the Government of Pakistan shall administer the country as His agent”. In the words of Rashid Rida and Maulana Maududi, Islam becomes “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. The philosophical foundation of Western democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Lawmaking is their prerogative and legislation must correspond to the mood and temper of their opinion… Islam… altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the viceregency (Khilafat) of man.” Sheikh Abdullah by contrast told the J&K Constituent Assembly: “You are the sovereign authority in this State of Jammu & Kashmir; what you decide has the irrevocable force of law. The basic democratic principle of sovereignty of the nation, embodied ably in the American and French Constitutions, is once again given shape in our midst. I shall quote the famous words of Article 3 of the French Constitution of 1791: `The source of all sovereignty resides fundamentally in the nation. Sovereignty is one and indivisible, inalienable and imprescriptable. It belongs to the nation.’ We should be clear about the responsibilities that this power invests us with. In front of us li e decisions of the highest national importance which we shall be called upon to take. Upon the correctness of our decisions depends not only the happiness of our land and people now, but the fate as well of generations to come.”
The fact the young son of Hari Singh then caused or contributed to a putsch against Abdullah is among the most regrettable events contributing to the misfortunes of J&K’s recent history. Nepal is going through its own French Revolution in which Gyanendra is no longer able to claim the “Divine Right of Kings” simply because his people have permanently withdrawn their acceptance of his legitimacy.