After futilely searching book stores in New Delhi for the July-August issue of the Analytical Monthly Review featuring an interview of prominent civil society activist and well informed leftist intellectual Shyam Shrestha on the recent developments in Nepal, I finally managed to get hold of a copy in the JNU library. Too bad that this interview is not available online. I decided to type out the entire interview verbatim and paste it on this blog giving credit to the AMR editors and interviewer Johan Petter Anderson. It is a must read for all progressive Nepal watchers.
New constitution or a new revolution!
Interview with Shyam Shrestha, leader of civil society and co-ordinator of The Campaign for Progressive Transformation, former chief editor of Mulyankan Monthly magazine, Nepal. The magazine is almost 20 years old. It is the largest leftist monthly magazine in Nepal, with a circulation of approximately 30,000 copies per month.
Interview by Johan Petter Anderson, Analytical Monthly Review, Kathmandu, 5th July 2010
JP: Do you think that the Maoists should lead a consensus or a majority government in the current situation?
SS: Yes, since they were the largest party in the Constituent Assembly (CA), they should lead a national consensus government. In order to make the peace process and the writing of the constitution successful, they must be in the lead. Democratic republic, federalism, equality between women and men and a secular state: these are all historical and revolutionary achievements gained under the leadership of the Maoists. These achievements must be institutionalised in the new constitution. Therefore they must lead the government.
However, the parliamentary bourgeois parties are not ready to follow the peoples' mandate in accordance with universal democratic norms where the Maoists have emerged as the largest party in the last CA election. Hence, they are putting forward many new hard-to-meet conditions for Maoists for leading a government. This explains why it is less likely for the Maosits to fulfil all those conditions and lead the government this time. But still it can not be totally ruled out that Maoists would not lead the government in the near future at all. As there is a deep rift inside Nepali Congress, a conservative right wing party of the bourgeoisie regarding who will be the next Prime minister, a Maoist-UML-MJF coalition might happen any time.
JP: How do you understand point one in the three point agreement of the 28th of May?
SS: This point states that the former agreements regarding the peace process should be implemented. Many of the points in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement have not been implemented, some because of the Maoists and some because of the bourgeois parties. Integration of the two armies, democratisation of the Nepal army, social and economic transformation, the formtion of many commissions, for example the Truth and Reconciliation Commision and Commisions for Finding Disappeared People have not been executed. There are also some issues regarding the Young Communist League, the so called paramilitary wing of the Maoists. I think that all parties must sit together and find a common understanding of these issues. So, all issues contained in this first point must be agreed upon and implemented, not just one.
JP: The Maoists say that the writing of the constitution and the integration of the armies must go hand in hand. What do you think?
SS: It is logical. But in the comprehensive peace agreement, signed in December 2006, it was agreed that integration should happen earlier. But Maoists seem to have serious fears that if they integrate on beforehand the new constitution will not necessarily be written. Other prominent parties are fearful that if it is not integrated on beforehand the Maoists will be in a position to influence the government and CA with their arms. However, keeping in mind the serious distrust and fear among the prominent parties, it is quite logical that integration and constitution promulgation must go hand in hand as constitution writing and integration of the two armies are the two main interrelated provisions of the peace process. The Maoists made the mistake of agreeing to that the combatants should be integrated within 6 months when they were in the government. Practically, it is impossible to do so.
JP: NC and UML are demanding that the Maoists give back land and valuables grabbed during the people's war, while other parts of the peace agreement, like land reform are standing still. What is your opinion.
SS: The peace agreement states that there shall be a scientific land reform and that the remnants of feudalism shall be eradicated. It also states that the land and property, taken during the people's war shall be returned. The Maoists did not make it clear that absentee landlords' property and land of the feudal class shall not be returned. During the negotiations we had continuously suggested that this kind of land owned by the feudal class and absentee landlords would be impossible to be returned as some of it had already been distributed among the real tillers and landless people.
Now the Nepali Congress and the UML are demanding that also these lands shall be returned. I do not think that these should be given back as this would be detrimental to the main contents and spirit of the land reform. Now, this dispute has become a major point for UML and the Nepali Congress. Certainly, property of the small owners, middle and rich peasantry should be given back, but not the property of the feudal class and absentee landlords that was divided among the tillers and landless people. The Maoists committed this mistake and this has created a rift between the Maoists and those that supported the Maoists because of the lack of land distribution.
JP: Can the current situation with a hung parliament and a deadlock continue for yet another year?
SS: If the national consensus government should be formed now, then the CA cum parliament would begin to work, as all the main parties will be in government and the peace process will move ahead. If a national consensus government is not formed, because of the stand of the NC and the UML, then the next year will be wasted in quarreling for power and the peace process can fail. If an agreement on army integration, democratisation of the Nepal army, disputes on some major provisions of a new constitution and return of land cannot be made, then there will not be a consensus government. The sentiment of civil society is that the parties must come to a progressive agreement on these fundamental issues. The vast majority of the civil society organisations and prominent intellectuals are demanding a national consensus government.
JP: What do you think that the Maoists should do now?
SS: First, lead and take the initiative to organise a major party meeting to settle army integration and democratisation, return of property, leadership of government and disputes concerning the new constitution. It should include UML, NC and the biggest Madhes based party.
Secondly, they should lead the Cosntituent Assembly (CA) in writing the new constitution with a socialist orientation and contents. However, it is an amazing contradiction that Prachanda himself is not giving priority to writing the progressive constitution. He has not been in the CA for a long time during the last year. The other parties have not given priority to the work in the CA, but the Maosits should give much higher priority to writing a new constitution together with other progressive forces. There are 62% progressive parties in the CA with scientific socialism as their ideology. If most of them are united, if not all, they can write a very good progressive constitution.
Thirdly, the Maoists at the grassroots level continue attacking the UML-cadres physically now and again. This has played the role of deteriorating the relationship between the Maoists and the radical elements inside the UML. The right wing bourgeois party and the Indian ruling class has been able to take a big advantage of the rift between the Maoists and the UML in using the UML against the Maoists. So this kind of physical attacks must be stopped with greater force by the Maoist leadership. The Maoists must try to win the hearsts of the ordinary members and radical leaders of the UML and other progressive parties. Even if they should now end up out of government they should give high priority to constitution making in the coming year together with the agenda of progressive transformation of the state machinery and the society.
Fourthly, if the Maoists are not in the government, and cannot lead the government then the Maoists must raise the voice of the downtrodden people. The recent price hike was very high with a two digit growth rate. The security situation is extremely bad, anyone can be killed anywhere. Right now, Maoists are only raising the struggle for the post of prime ministership. The people are asking why the Maoists are not raising the struggle on the vital problems of the downtrodden people and the working class. The Maoists must continue to win the hearts of the working masses by taking up their main problems here and now.
Fifthly, if the rightist political parties try to tear down all the achievements of the revolution so far, if the peace process fails, then the Maoists must prepare for a further revolution. People want this. A next Jana Andolan, or revolution may be necessary.
Sixthly, they should correct their mistakes by sweeping harmful and opportunist elements out of the party. Their organisation is degenerating ideologically, culturally and organisationally in a very fast speed. Many harmful and even reactionary elements of the society have joined the Maoist party and dedicated and revolutionary elements are almost in a minority. They were much more revolutionary right after the people's war.
Last but not least, they must make a broad united front. All the forces inside and outside the party seeking progressive change should be united. The major political struggle in present day Nepali society is between those who want progressive change and those who want to keep the state and society in status quo. Maoists should give enough attention in creating favourable public opinion, too, because among the people, the Maoists are losing ground. Their popularity graph is going downwards although they are in opposition in the parliament. The urban area public opinion is not on the Maoist side. The Maoists are not giving enough attention to this.
JP: How have your expectations been fulfilled when we see the results of the CA-elections in aftermath?
SS: My expectation that the CA should be well composed was fulfilled. For the first time in Nepal's history, women, lower classes, Madhesis, dalits, janajatis are all well represented, and even the neglected area are represented. So, the composition is very revolutionary. That is why the bourgeoisie is afraid. Why are they afraid? Because the CA is not on their side. And they are afraid that the CA will write a progressive constitution. That is why they are surrounding the Maoists and stopping the writing of the constitution. We have been waging the struggle for a democratic republic for a long time and that was fulfilled in the first meeting of the CA.
Federalism is central because we are a multicultural society. We had a centralised government. Now we can have federalism through the CA. The interim constitution made the state a welfare state for the first time. Women and men are formally equal in property and everything now. And untouchability has been made illegal. So, many of my expectations have been fulfilled.
JP: What do you think of the Maoists' proposal for a new constitution?
SS: There are both good and bad points. This constitution is radical reformism, it has tried to give the citizens the right to education, employment, to a residence and to food, in short – a welfare state. It also tries to make men and women totally equal, make all the languages equal, tries to give the dalits special rights in higher education and technical education and special rights to representation in the state organs. The janajati and Madhesis have the right to self-determination within self rule and autonomy, and it tries to give security to minority peoples and the areas, some special cultural rights and social security. It has a provision for compensation to the feudals and it is trying to give the workers rightful wages, social security, right to collective bargaining and the right to strike, and a directly elected president. All the 72 languages, 11 of which are spoken by more than 1%, are given the status of native languages and can be used in all public contexts.
But there are serious drawbacks also. This system is a capitalist system with a welfare state. But we must go further to socialism. This question has not been given due attention in the constitution. It needs a mechanism for a peaceful way to go forward. The way that the constitution can be changed fully through referendum or constitutional amendment is made much too difficult. This weakness will create a problem for the Maoists themselves in the future. We should learn from the Swiss here, where a certain amount of signatures can demand a referendum for changing the old constitution completely.
The Maoists suggest giving the right to self-determination to the ethnic groups and have introduced federalism, but the local community level has been given too little power in the federal state. The local communities do not have the right over natural resources. They do not have cultural rights to use their own mother tongue too. Local self government must be given more rights. If the local governments are given more rights, then the progressive forces could do much more than mobilising the grassroots and forward the revolution from the bottom.
They have declared the welfare state, but not pointed out with which resources it will be financed. For example, with higher progressive taxes on property, assets and income? They have not said anything about how to achieve the necessary resoruces and therefore the rights will only be a dream. And where shall the people put forward their claims in connection with their social rights? In the province or local self-government? It is not clear.
Also, the draft is too long. Everything is mentioned there. It must be more precise and shorter and clearer on the central questions.
Also, there must be provisions against monopoly. There is a provision on competition, but no provision against monopolies. Competition leads to syndicates, trusts and cartels and they will capture the economy. So, there must be a provision making monopoly illegal.
There are many more weaknesses, and I have only mentioned a few drawbacks. In short revolution has not been kept in mind in the draft constitution put forward by the Maoists. Instead reform has been kept in mind. The constitution put forward by the revolutionaries must pave the way for revolution.
JP: Is the role of the civil society strengthened the last two years?
SS: We are trying to be stronger. But we have become divided. Many NGOs and many intellectuals' organisations are controlled by some or the other party, and they end up siding with the government. And likewise on the other side they were earlier a part of civil society seeking progressive transformation of the society which were independent, but now they have become somewhat weaker. However, the civil society is still active and popular, but weaker. As politics get more polarised so does civil society. The behaviour of the political parties have weakened it. When the parties came to power they did not need the civil society anymore. The parties used us, when there was widespread distrust against the parties, as people listened to us. When they became stronger, they stopped listening to the voice of the civil society. Civil society in Nepal is radical. But when the Maoists were in government they did not need us either. The Maoists want our praise but do not want to hear our criticism. But in spite of it all, they are the ones that meet more often with us for our opinions than the other political parties.
JP: Now that the representation of the Dalits, ethnic minorities and women has been strengthened in the representative organs, can we see any other general concrete results in this improvement?
SS: Increased representation will lead to a better constitution and better representation in the different organs of the state. This representation has already been discussed. In general 45% of the seats have been reserved for women, dalits, janajati, Madhesis taken as a whole. So, there are improvements, but they are not sufficient.
JP: Have the political parties' standing in the eyes of civil society been strengthened or weakened the last two years?
SS: They are weakened. NC and UML have become most unpopular. They would get a very negative result if an election was to be held now. The popularity of the Maoists is also lower because they are only fighting for power and not for downtrodden peoples' immediate needs. There was an instance where three dalit women were killed by the military. The Maoists did not raise their voices. They should have developed a movement. They only published a statement. The price hike made many people poor. Many food items and basic needs became much more expensive. Corruption is so rampant. But the Maoists did not raise any struggle against this.
There is increasing corruption also among the Maoists and some people that are joining are even criminal. Here in Kirtipur (a suburb of Kathmandu), most of the royalist people have joined the Maoists. Even the criminal elements are welcome there. This type of organisational politics pollutes and destroys the revolutionary party. But still the Maoists are more popular than the other parties.
JP: Is there a danger of a military coup?
SS: This is an important and tricky question. The military is still not under civilian rule. The military is stronger than ever during the last four years. After the events of last year, it is trying to stay outside the government control. For example the prime minister says that a major called Niranjan Basnet, who is responsible for rape and brutality must be handed over to a civilian court, but Basnet is helped by the military headquarters and is not presented to the court. The prime minister does not do anything in this situation.
Last month, the defence ministry presented a new total defence policy. The military's response was that now they will operate under the titular president, not the elected civilian government. In other instances, the supreme court decides something but the military does not obey.
A coup can happen when political leaders become corrupt, most unpopular and divided. But military rule would not last long in Nepal. The reason is that the army is not popular here. Moreover, the active cadres of even the bourgeois parties like the NC have a radical mindset. The political activists in the parties lead the movement among the people, not the leaders. This was the case in April 2006 and this is still intact. The people in Nepal have a high degree of political awareness. The mainstream media has a democratic psyche and has always been against army rule. Internationally only India is trying to instigate the military to come to the forefront, not the USA, EU or China. All these elements will react in combination if the army takes power and the army would fail very soon. The same reasons that caused it to fail in 2006.
JP: You criticised the tendency of the Maoists of recruiting members with little political education and even thugs in 2008. Now that the Maoists have been active both in government and in parliamentary politics and have worked in a peace scenario for two years, how has this affected their class composition and methods of work of the party?
SS: I commented on this formerly. But a further comment is that the Maoists must put priority on building a wider united front. This is a must for both the Maoists and for the people. People are frustrated now. The conservative forces and India can use the rightist parties in this situation. Instead, the frustration must be used, not against the Maoists, but to build a united front directed against the right that are responsible for the frustrating situation. The Maoists must correct their way. They are quite confused now. They are unsure whether they should prepare for a new insurrection, make the CA successful, or adjust to the present status quo. Right now, they should concentrate on making the CA successful. But they are “looking at eight birds in the tree and losing four birds from the hand”. There should be a big united front that can create a movement for peoples' rights. The ground is prepared for change and people want change very much.
The Maoists have great organisational strength. In May, they mobilised a demonstration that could surround the whole capital. The ring road is 27 kilometers long, and their demonstration covered the whole of it! It was a great asset. But still they failed to achieve their end. Why? They should review themselves and find the answer to this 'why'? But right now, in my view, they are lacking a favourable public opinion among the people, a wide united front and a continuous struggle in favour of a progressive constitution and being the voice of the voiceless downtrodden people.
JP: What do you think of Prachanda's resignation a year ago?
SS: Prachanda was too late in dismissing the army chief, (Rookmangud) Katawal. He should have dismissed Katawal as soon as he made his first mistake. When Prachanda dismissed him, the timing was wrong. Katawal was to retire in 3 months. And Prachanda did not secure his decision in the coalition government. So it ended up with instead of Katawal being dismissed, Prachanda was dismissed! I don't think Prachanda should have resigned. He should have tested his majority in the parliament. And we told him so. This mistake became very expensive for him.
Prachanda has in the total process, had a leading role and people have attached great hopes in him, but he did not fulfil their hopes. He did not work well as a prime minister. He even kept advisors that were advisors to the king. On the other hand, the budget was very good. It was pro-poor people. In the nine months of the government, its content was not realised and could not be realised. But if Prachanda had the correct priorities it could have been realised. So Prachanda is a very good leader and strategist, but was not a good prime minister. And alas, his relatives were not all clean. Prachanda's popularity sunk while he was the prime minister. He could even have used the provisions of the interim constitution concerning land reform to push forward, and could have taken away many other concrete steps. But he had a commissioner who knew nothing about land reform.
Still we are hopeful that the revolution will be successful. I have pointed out many negative things but basically the situation is not totally negative in Nepal. The political awareness level of the people is very high. The majority of the cadres of the political parties are in favour of progressive change. Civil society and the media is still very popular and vibrant here. With all these positive elements put together, briefly you can say that either we will get a new constitution through the ongoing process or there will be a new revolution in Nepal. And we are definitely not pessimistic, we have not lost hope.