Exploring the Complex Politics of Nepal Riots in Nepal last week forced the king to reinstate parliament. What happens now? The king wants to bend only enough to appease the pro-democracy opposition. Maoists want to get rid of the monarchy. And the majority of the middle class wants democracy. Guests discuss monarchy, Maoists, and mass demonstrations in Nepal.
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Exploring the Complex Politics of Nepal

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Exploring the Complex Politics of Nepal

Exploring the Complex Politics of Nepal

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Nepal is a small, impoverished and beautiful country squeezed between China and India in the distant Himalayas, that's in the throes of a political crisis powerful enough to get the attention of the world.

At first glance, the issues can seem remote. The proper role of the king. A Maoist rebellion. But like many other countries, Nepal is being forced to reexamine long-held beliefs and traditions, being forced to adjust to the modern world.

In many ways the country's crisis can be traced to the decision of King Gyanendra to seize absolute control of the country more than a year ago. Although he's theoretically a constitutional monarch, the constitution gives him control of the country's military, and he declared that a state of emergency was needed to crush the Maoists. Instead, the rebels grew more powerful than ever, and many who formerly supported the monarchy took to the streets to demand the return of a democratically elected parliament.

Earlier this week, the king finally relented, and for the first time in weeks the streets of Katmandu are quiet today, but the crisis is far from over. To understand what's going on and why it matters, we're turn to historical and cultural experts on Nepal.

Later in the program, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us for his regular weekly visit. If you have questions about the politics of gas prices, the new White House Press Secretary, or other political news of the week, send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org.

But first, the crisis in Nepal. If you have questions about what's happening there and why, if you're from Nepal or if you've visited, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And joining us now from Katmandu in Nepal is John Lancaster, the foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. Thanks very much for staying up--I know it's late there--staying up to be with us tonight.

Mr. JOHN LANCASTER (Foreign Correspondent, The Washington Post): Hi. You're welcome.

CONAN: And I understand after the king's announcement earlier in the week there was finally a response from the Maoists today.

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, actually there have been two responses after the king's announcement Monday night, his capitulation, essentially, to the street protests. The Maoists initially had quite a negative reaction. They described it as a historic blunder by the political parties that accepted this offer from the king to reinstate parliament.

But then today they seemed to have softened their line a little bit and actually agreed to suspend the blockade of Katmandu, the capital, until the parliament--at least until the parliament meets on Friday.

They seem to be perhaps offering the parliament a chance to make good on its promise to hold an election to a constituent assembly, as they call it, a national assembly that would write a new constitution for Nepal. So it's a--it was a hopeful sign today.

CONAN: And that blockade by the Maoists had prevented much food and fuel from getting into the capital, so of course that is a welcome sign. Is there any indication, though, that if this recalled parliament does call for a constitutional assembly to revise the role of the king that the king's going to go along with this?

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, that's something of a question mark, although the party leaders seem quite confident that he will, because they--in their view, he has no choice, given the display of, what they call, People Power, that we saw in Katmandu over the last three weeks.

And, the king, in his statement, did not explicitly say that he would go along with the constituent assembly or, which, you know, could weaken the monarchy or even eliminate it. But that language in his statement in which he said he would follow the roadmap, as he put it, set by the alliance of seven main political parties, has led certainly the parties and a lot of their followers and a lot of the people on the streets to believe that he will, in fact, go along with it. And there's the feeling here also that he just may not have any choice, given the kind of passions that were aroused by these protests.

CONAN: Now, how were--you talk about the political parties, and there are several political parties there in Nepal, as well as the Maoists, give us an idea of their relative strengths, if you can.

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, the Maoists, of course, are the only ones--the only party that is armed. And so, that gives them certain clout, as you might imagine. The--there is a political mainstream here, which the Maoists actually were once part of before they launched their rebellion about a decade ago. The largest party of the Nepali congress, and then there's some--there are a number of other parties. There are several different communist parties in addition to the Maoists.

But, you know, the parties traditionally have fought bitterly among themselves, and what's been interesting over the last year is they've been united in their opposition to the monarchy and the king's assumption of dictatorial powers last year. It's really brought them together into this alliance.

And I have to say, you know, I've been here for a couple of couple of weeks now, and my impression is they've handled these protests fairly shrewdly. In, you know, not letting them get too out of hand, but certainly keeping things on the boil to the point where the king felt he had no choice but to capitulate.

CONAN: The king and the armed forces did try to crack down, and dozens of people were killed.

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, I don't know, dozens might be a bit much, certainly 14, I believe, that we know about. But hundreds, if not more, were injured. There was a brutal security crackdown. There were mass arrests. There were baton charges, tear gas. The capital was just in--really in a state of anarchy for several weeks. And it really, really had the opposite effect of what the king intended. Rather than damping down the unrest it just stirred things up and really contributed to a strong feeling that maybe it is time for the monarchy to go on the part of people who, perhaps six months or a year ago, would have accepted a monarchy in some form, even if only a ceremonial one.

CONAN: Is there a sense from people you talk to that this country is now at a watershed? That it's going to be different from here on in?

Mr. LANCASTER: There's certainly that sense. I mean, you know, there are a lot of wild cards here, you know: the king's intentions, the Maoists' intentions, whether the parties can put aside their differences and follow through on this plan. But I would say it's quite a hopeful moment in Nepal for the--you know, the supporters of democracy here.

And so in that sense I think yeah, it is a watershed. And I think that the protestors that you saw on the street, many of whom were just sort of unaffiliated young people, not particularly political in any organized sense, are really going to hold the parties feet to the fire on this and make them make good on their promise to follow through with this constituent assembly and a new constitution, in which I think a lot of people would just as soon see the monarchy be written out of existence.

CONAN: Yet some would also look at this, even from afar, and say, a weakened monarch, political parties that have been intensely competitive with each other and arguing with each other, and that armed Maoist rebellions seems to be, perhaps, a recipe for the Maoists to take over.

Mr. LANCASTER: Well, yeah, I mean, there are those who--I think that argument maybe carried a little more weight before the king's concession. I mean, I think that there was a real danger here, there was a feeling that if neither side backed down, that tings here really could explode and then you would have a situation of anarchy on your hands, and that the Maoists--you know, with no one sort of clearly in charge of the country, that the Maoists may have been able to exploit that situation and fill the vacuum in some way.

But, I think now that you have, the king having made this really historic concession, and the party's united and very publicly and strongly committed to this path of a constituent assembly and a new constitution, I think that, in a way, it's the Maoists who are a bit on the defensive now and feeling a bit marginalized. Because, after all, it was not their violent rebellion that really brought about this result, but a largely peaceful movement on the part of just ordinary Nepalis who seem to have rejected both the violence of the Maoists and also the violence and repression of the royal security forces.

CONAN: John Lancaster, thanks very much, appreciate it.

Mr. LANCASTER: You're most welcome.

CONAN: John Lancaster, Foreign Correspondent for The Washington Post, joining us by phone from Katmandu in Nepal.

Now Jim Fisher joins us to give us some context to what's been going on in the country. He's a professor of Anthropology at Carleton College and president of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. He's with us now from his office in Northfield, Minnesota. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor JIM FISHER, (Professor of Anthropology, Carleton College; President of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies): Good afternoon, thank you.

CONAN: And would you agree with John Lancaster, that the king's announcement is historic, that this is a watershed for Nepal?

Prof. FISHER: Well, I think Lancaster's assessment is right on. I think that this is definitely a watershed period. And it's a time--when all these forces have coalesced, the--not only the political parties have joined in common cause, which has never happened before, but they are also themselves in kind of a loose, cooperative understanding with the Maoists.

And that's--in that sense, the king has painted himself into a corner from which he simply cannot escape. If you have the Maoists against you and all the political parties against you--and now, in the last week or two, the educated, political--or rather the middle class…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FISHER: …of Katmandu also out on the barricades, even though peacefully. There's no one else in the king's corner, except for the Royal Nepal Army, which is not inconsiderable.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Nepal is a small country and, of course, at the roof of the world, a lot of mountains there. As an anthropologist, how much of a figure--how much of an impact does the topography have on the country's political climate.

Prof. FISHER: Oh, I think considerable. It's, of course, the home of the Himalayan Mountains; Mount Everest is there. And the effect of the topography is simply that there are very few roads, very few airports, so that most transportation or communication is done by walking. And that has aided the success of the Maoist insurgency, because it's been very difficult for royal security forces, or government security forces to engage them.

And the Maoists have--as a result--have taken over most of the country. The figures are roughly 70 or 80 percent of the countryside is now in the hands of the Maoists. And I think that couldn't have happened without the rugged terrain in which they operate.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break and continue talking about the country of Nepal. If you're joining us late, weeks of protests there have forced the king to back down and reinstall the elected parliament of the country. The country's still struggling to find a political and economic identity, though.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK; our e-mail address is Talk@NPR.org.

I'm Neal Conan, back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The streets of Katmandu are quiet today for the first time in weeks. But the political crisis that's gripped that country for weeks now is far from over. Our guest is Jim Fisher, professor of anthropology at Carleton College in Minnesota and president of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies.

If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is Talk@NPR.org.

And, Jim Fisher, let me ask you: Nepal is very far away; it's a small country, in between India and China; why should we care about what happens there?

Prof. FISHER: Well, it's an interesting question. It doesn't really have much geopolitical weight, as you say. One thing is that there is a tremendous amount of goodwill between--established between the people of America and the people of Nepal, simply because so many Americans have gone there to trek, to see the mountains, to climb them, to see the art and architecture. And they've--there's a real, I would say kind of a love affair between the Americans who have gone to Nepal and the Nepalese.

On the other hand though, it is a long, slim country, 500 miles long, between India and China, which are always competitors. And so who rules that country--and especially, if the Maoists should happen to rule the country is a matter of considerable importance for the interest--the diplomatic and military interests of the United States.

CONAN: You say the Maoists, and they call themselves Maoists. And indeed, as we heard from John Lancaster, they're not the only communist party involved in politics there in Nepal. Do they get support form China?

Prof. FISHER: Well, that's the great irony of this whole thing. They call themselves Maoists, but the Chinese utterly disavow them. They say that what the Maoists in Nepal are doing has nothing to do with, chairman--their own Chairman Mao in China. And, in fact, one of the strongest supporters of the king, against the Maoists, at least until the last few days, has been the Chinese. So there's a real irony in that label, which the insurgency has taken.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. And we'll start with Clint(ph). Clint's calling us from Cottage Grove in Tennessee.

CLINT (Caller): Yeah, hi.

CONAN: Yeah, Clint, go ahead please.

CLINT: Yes, sir. I'd like to know do people in Nepal want something other than (unintelligible).

CONAN: I'm sorry, Clint, your phone's breaking up. Try it again.

CLINT: Are the people just interested in a different form of government or (unintelligible).

CONAN: Well, I think Clint's, trying to ask what the people there are really interested in. Is it another form of government, are they trying to get rid of the king? What is going on, fundamentally, do you think, Jim Fisher?

Prof. FISHER: Well, I think, yeah. I mean, I think they--well, I think there's a broad consensus now among many people who, a few months ago, wouldn't have felt this way--that the time of the Shah Dynasty is finished. All dynasties have to come to an end someday. And there's the feeling that this guy has simply overreached. He's been stubborn. He's been intransigent. He's been, frankly, stupid about the way he's handled this whole thing. And they would just as--be glad to see him go.

However, there's also the possibility--if he could be retained in a strictly ceremonial way and not--no longer be commander and chief of the armed forces, for example, which he is now, there's some support probably for that, too, just in the way that there's a constitutional monarch in England.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's talk now with, Kishour(ph). Kishour is calling us from Binghamton, New York. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.

KISHOUR (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KISHOUR: Well, I just wanted to say that I don't think the king has been portrayed fairly.

CONAN: And how should he be portrayed?

KISHOUR: Well, he should be portrayed as the only stabilizing force we Nepalese people have. And I also think that--he's the one who has--who can provide us with that safety. And I don't think the world can ignore that.

CONAN: Is--Jim Fisher, is the king--Gyanendra, is he a stabilizing force in the country? Or as some would suggest over the past few weeks, has he become more part of the problem than part of the solution?

Prof. FISHER: Yeah, I think Kishour's general point is correct. That is over the last 240 years of so of the monarchy, it has been a stabilizing force. And perhaps more than that, it's been a very important symbolic source, or concentration of the unity--expression of the unity of Nepal, which they need to--if they're going to engage with India, for example, which is a very large powerful nation, on the southern border. That said, I still think that the king has so badly misplayed his hand in this that, I think as you put it, he's become more of the problem rather than a solution to it.

CONAN: Kishour, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

KISHOUR: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go now to Marianne(ph). Marianne, calling from Oakland in California.

MARIANNE (Caller): Hi, can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air; go ahead, please.

MARIANNE: Okay. I had two questions. One was, what is the role of the caste system in Nepal? Is that a strong force? And then also, I had another question, which is, do the Maoists have a particular regional or ethnic base…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MARIANNE: …as they have in some other countries?

CONAN: Jim Fisher?

Prof. FISHER: Yeah, you could certainly say that the caste system operates in Nepal. Caste--not only caste, but various tribal groups. There are something like 100 languages spoken in Nepal by all these different groups. So that's there and it's generally been acknowledged that this is something that has to be dealt with and needs to be changed. And I guess what you could say is that the Maoists have--rather than simply talked about it, they've actually done something about it.


Prof. FISHER: And so--there's been a strong appeal to low caste people or marginalized tribal people to enlist in the ranks of the Maoists. On the other hand, again, the ironies in this situation: the leadership--the two main leaders of the Maoists, are both Brahmans. In fact the leaders of almost all political parties are Brahmans.

CONAN: Upper caste.

Prof. FISHER: Upper caste, yes. The highest caste, exactly.

CONAN: Here's a related e-mail question. This from Sara: "When I was a Peace Corps volunteer 20 years ago, the local villagers, not Katmandu residents, viewed the king as sacred. Has that changed? And was it different when there was a different king?"

Prof. FISHER: Well, that's a very, kind of tough question to answer because in theory, yes, he's a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. And any proper believing Hindu should, you know, subscribe to that theory. But, there's also a sense in which--even if that's the case, sort of it no longer matters. It doesn't mean that people are no longer Hindu, but gods can do bad things also. And so, it's a funny kind of situation to analyze. I'm not quite sure how to resolve it.

CONAN: Marianne, thanks very much for the call.

MARIANNE: Okay, if you have time for another question. I have another question.

CONAN: Sure, if you can keep it quick.

MARIANNE: Okay. Do the--are the lower castes, the marginalized people, well integrated into the seven or so parties that are involved in this rebellion, apart from the Maoists?

Prof. FISHER: My impression is that they are not. That is, to say, the seven political parties pay lip service to the notion that all the lowly or the downtrodden should be lifted up and they should have progress and so forth. But they haven't really ever done much about it. And I think the Maoists have done much more. But I understand your situation--you mentioned you were a Peace Corps volunteer 20 years ago…

CONAN: No, that was…

Prof. FISHER: Or four years ago…

CONAN: That was the e-mail writer who said that.

Prof. FISHER: Oh sorry, yes.

CONAN: You say the Maoists have incorporated--however, journalists who visited the Maoists held areas also report they're training child soldiers, that there's a lot of unpleasant things going on. The biggest example you hear is not to Mao Tsetung, which might be scary enough, but to Pol Pot.

Prof. FISHER: Yes, to Pol Pot and to the Shining Path in Peru. No, there's no question--the Maoists, on the one hand, I think they're--I mean, they've gained some support from the population for their ideology. On the other hand, to say that they play hardball is putting it mildly. They've been extremely brutal. You mentioned--your reporter mentioned 14 people killed…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FISHER: …in the last two weeks. Well, they're have been 13,000 people killed in the last 10 years as a result of this insurgency--the fighting between the Royal Nepal Army and the Maoists. And with--many times, innocent civilians are the ones who get harmed and killed.

CONAN: Marianne, thanks very much.

MARIANNE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now to help us better understand Nepalese culture is Nepalese writer, Samrat Upadhyay. He's an English professor at Indiana University and author of a new collection of stories called The Royal Ghosts. And he joins us from the studios of member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. Nice of you to be with us today.

Professor SAMRAT UPADHYAY (Professor of English, Indiana University; Author, The Royal Ghosts): Good afternoon.

CONAN: It seems that, to some degree at least, some of this struggle is generational. Do you think that's right?

Prof. UPADHYAY: I would say to a certain extent. Although, you know, if you look at the leaders at the world parties, these are those who'd say, to a certain extent--although if you look at the leaders of the political parties, these are, you know, former revolutionaries who fought the current king's father before he suppressed them. I think in the middle-class there are probably older folks, you know, who are not so sure--who think along the lines of, you know, of what Kishour said, that, you know, monarchy is a stabilizing force.

Just yesterday on PBS, I was watching and there was, you know, an old, you know, old man who was saying that, you know, and he had affiliations with the Royal Palace, and he was blaming the parties themselves. So even among the generations, I think there are differences. We cannot paint a particular generation in one way.

But it seems like increasingly more and more young people are becoming very disenchanted with what they're seeing, in terms of the monarchy. And I think partly what Gyanendra did, just in the last year--just unimaginable in many ways to them, especially those who had not experienced, you know, what growing up during the Punjas(ph) regime, which was the one-party system, you know, from the '60's until the '90's, was like.


Now, one of the stories in your recent collection, you say, foreshadows some of the recent protests. It's called The Supreme Pronouncement, and we're going to ask you to read a brief excerpt from it, but before you do, can you briefly set the scene?

Prof. UPADHYAY: Yes, you know, this from my collection, The Royal Ghosts, and the story called Supreme Pronouncements, and the title takes after these inspirational sayings that you find scattered all over the city of Katmandu on billboards. You know, it's sort of inspirational sayings from the king. And I grew up with a lot of these, and I went back to visit Nepal last summer. All of a sudden, there were all of these inspirational sayings from King Gyanendra, you know, talking about democracy and freedom. And I felt like I was in a world of, you know, writer Franz Kafka.

So that's how this story came about. And the story--the protagonist is a political activist, who also falls in love with a woman and, you know, he's struggling between love and politics. But in this particular passage he's talking about his father.

CONAN: Go ahead and read it, if you would.

Prof. UPADHYAY (Author, “The Supreme Pronouncement”): (Reading) My father didn't care much about politics. He was a government worker until he died, content with sitting in his office inside that cold, gray building in the city, going over budgets and requests for payments. He was baffled by my rage at those in power. He knew what I had been through at the hands of the police, but he begged me to forget about it. One day you will die and your wrath will vanish with the smoke from your funeral pyre, he often said dramatically. My mother objected to his talk of my death, but I understood what my father meant. All his life he had followed the scriptures, practiced Ktan(ph) and Yoge(ph), and he was attempting to make me see the impermanence of my emotions; and consequently, the uselessness of my actions spurred by my emotions. But I had no patience for his spiritual analysis. No talk of the losery nature of my existence could blind me to the reality of the scars on my back, which I would display for him as my answer. ‘Okay, you suffered,' he'd say. ‘There are people who are suffering more and your anger will make you suffer more.' He said the word suffer gently, almost in a whisper.

CONAN: Samrat Upadhyay reading from his book, The Royal Ghosts.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Those sorts of disagreements, Samrat, they're going on in a lot of families at the moment, do you think?

Prof. UPADHYAY: Yes. In fact, I think--I think within my--even within my immediately family even I think my wife is not--I am fairly (unintelligible) over what has happened in Nepal, but I think my wife sort of has mixed reaction. And just the other day when I told her who the new prime minister was going to be, when, you know--Girija Prasad Koirala--she groaned. The first thing she did was, oh, no, not again. Because you know, he's this political figure who's been around for such a long time. He's involved in, you know, corruption scandals; you know, he's gotten into a lot of bickering, you know, with other political parties. And I think a lot of Nepalese also feel that. I mean, you know, it's--I mean, the political situation in Nepal is a lot more nuanced, you know, than this. I mean, there are also a lot of like--sure, there are a lot of people who feel that the King hasn't been portrayed, you know, fairly; that, you know, he was a uniting factor, which I strongly disagree with. And I think…

CONAN: Let me ask you--I don't mean to cut you off but I did want to ask you the same question I put to Jim Fisher earlier. As someone from Nepal who's lived in this country for quite a while, again, why should be care about the situation there?

Prof. UPADHYAY: Well, my primary--I think America should care because, you know, and I'm saying this in light of, you know, the Iraq invasion. I hear on--on the one hand, America is going into, you know, it's sort of invading a country and talking about democracy there. And in Nepal, you've had such a, you know, spontaneous outpouring of, you know, people's emotions, and I think America should--and, you know, it's a very homegrown democratic movement. And so America should be supporting that because then, you know, then that might, in turn, make its argument for Iraq even stronger. I think that's the, you know, that's my more passionate approach to it. To add to what Jim said, I think also India is a major factor in this.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. UPADHYAY: Because India has its own, you know, communist movement of the Naxalites. And India and Nepal have, you know--they have porous borders and if there is a Maoist government, you know, in Nepal, then the region could also be destabilized because of that reason.

CONAN: Let me ask Jim Fisher one last question. This is an e-mail question from Binad(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that right, in Virginia, and I'm just going to have to ask you to wrap it up in a few seconds.

“How do you foresee the future of Nepal in the short term?”

Prof. FISHER: In the short term, I'm optimistic. I mean, the Maoists have agreed to call off their blockade of the valley, at least until Friday when the new parliament can meet. If they have a constituent--elections for a constituent assembly, if the political parties reach out to the Maoists, if the king continues to be reasonable, I think--I think there's every reason to be optimistic.

CONAN: Jim Fisher is president of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, he's also professor of anthropology at Carlton College in Minnesota. Thank you for your time today.

Prof. FISHER: You're most welcome.

CONAN: And Samrat Upadhyay, a Nepalese writer and English professor at Indiana University. His book is called, The Royal Ghosts. Thank you for being with us today.

Prof. UPADHYAY: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: He joined us from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana.

When we come back from a short break, the White House has a new press secretary and an attack ad that would make Machiavelli proud. Our resident political junkie, Ken Rudin, joins us. If you'd like to, 800-989-8255; e-mail talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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