The devastating earthquake that hit Nepal, killing over 5,000 people – that we know of at this moment – and injuring many more, has many wondering: why hasn’t the Nepalese government been much help? The answer is that Nepal has barely had a government, lo these many years: the country has been mired in political and ethnic feuds that have made any thought of having a functional government next to impossible.
Nepal in modern times has been engaged in a delicate balancing act, avoiding dominance or even outright absorption by its two big neighbors: India and China. The former has already gobbled up Sikkim, a formerly independent Himalayan kingdom even smaller than Nepal, and the Indian imperialists have been battering at the gates for quite some time. The Nepalese Congress Party, which won the most seats in the last parliamentary elections (2013), has functioned as an extension of its sister party in India, and has generally advanced Indian interests. China, on the other hand, has its own agents in the pro-China United Marxist-Leninists (Communist Party of Nepal – UML), which has never achieved a majority in parliament but which did briefly enter into a coalition government with the real Maoists, the United Communist Party (Maoist) – a government that quickly fell apart. The latter are pro-“Gang of Four” Maoists, who are currently divided into two separate parties but which, back in the day, led an armed insurgency against the elected government that ended in a truce and the absorption of the Maoist militia into the regular armed forces.
To further complicate matters, there are several minority ethnic groups, each with their own parties, who demand a federalist structure rather than the traditional super-centralist model in which all authority is monopolized by Katmandu, the capital. Yet more complications arise with the presence of the royalist remnants: supporters of the exiled and now largely deceased members of the former royal family. The royalists were once the single most powerful independent political force in the country, opposing both de facto annexation by India and domination by China. However, that ended in spectacular fashion in the summer of 2001, when the Crown Prince went on a rampage, killing the King, the Queen, several brothers and sisters, as well as some royal cousins. (I wrote about that here, some fourteen years ago.)
That signal event threw the country into chaos: the new King declared martial law, outlawed all political parties, and sparked a Maoist insurgency that killed many thousands and paralyzed the country. Nepal hasn’t been the same since. The King was eventually deposed, and a republic proclaimed: but a political deadlock between the pro-Indian, pro-Chinese, and Maoist factions has made the creation of a constitutional structure impossible.
Caught in the crosshairs of several big-power regional conflicts – India vs. China, India vs. Pakistan, the US vs. China, the Taliban vs. India and the US – Nepal has managed to maintain its independence against great odds. Yet internal centrifugal forces constantly threaten to tear it apart and leave it at the mercy of local predators, mainly the Indians – who would like nothing better than to make the country into a province of Greater India, especially now that Hindu nationalist fanatics are in power in New Delhi.
The only real opposition to this trend has been the Maoists, who worship at the altar of the deposed “Gang of Four,” and angrily denounce the Chinese “revisionists” and their local amen corner, the UML, as well as the Indian imperialists. The Maoists actually came to power in 2008, winning the most votes in the parliamentary elections, but the army stepped in and they left the government in a huff. Since that time they have constantly threatened to re-ignite their “people’s war.”
With Nepal now in ruins, literally as well as figuratively, the Maoists have an open road to stage a major comeback. Days before the earthquake struck, they staged a nationwide strike that brought businesses and other services to a halt. Although the Maoist action was called off after three days, it looks to me that this could be a foreshadowing of things to come as the Congress-led government continues to display its utter inability to deal with the disaster that has paralyzed the nation.
With the implosion of the Russian version of communism, and the apparent conversion of their Chinese archrivals into more-capitalist-than-even-Wall Street “revisionists” – as the Nepalese Maoists would put it – the world has looked at Marxism-Leninism pretty much the same way it views phrenology: as an ideological dead end that no one should take seriously.
This is flat out wrong. The Maoist version of Leninism continues to inspire millions of people in South Asia, one of the world’s poorest regions: this is true not only in Nepal, but also in India, particularly in the eastern provinces. There exists a whole range of mass-based Indian Marxist parties, some of which have won control of eastern states, and the long-running Naxalite guerrilla insurgency has continued to preoccupy the increasingly repressive Indian central government, which has pulled out all the stops to crush it.
The mountain fastness of Nepal is a veritable fortress of unreconstructed Maoism, where millions of activists fanatically devoted to the Little Red Book are quite ready to take up arms on behalf of their ideology. If and when they do, one can expect a response from New Delhi, which may well be “invited” in by the Nepal Congress government, at least for the duration of the “emergency.”
Will Nepal meet the same fate as its erstwhile neighbors Bhutan and Sikkim? While China is unlikely to be happy with this outcome, if it happens Beijing may well go along with it at Washington’s behest. The US, which has been courting the new Hindu nationalist regime, won’t stand in India’s way: while it may be “aggression” for the Russians to take Crimea – a province of the Kremlin since the days of Catherine the Great – an invasion by India of a kingdom that has been independent for thousands of years is more than likely to be labeled a “humanitarian intervention” by Washington and its media echo chamber.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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