The popular uprising in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal was celebrating a victory as Socialist Worker went to press on Tuesday of this week. The country had been paralysed for weeks by a general strike and popular movement against the hated and brutal regime of King Gyanendra.
The king was forced to bow to demands for a restoration of parliamentary democracy on Monday, prompting scenes of jubilation. But he remains in place for now – a compromise bitterly rejected by the Maoist rebels that control the bulk of Nepal’s countryside.
In recent weeks a wave of strikes and demonstrations has swelled – as has the confidence and consciousness of ordinary Nepalese people.
Much of the conflict has centred around Kathmandu and especially around the king’s palace. There have been running battles between crowds of demonstrators and the army, with 14 protesters killed so far.
“I am not afraid, I do not fear the government. Every Nepalese person here is willing to give up their lives in exchange for freedom,” stated demonstrator Ranjal Varal, a 24 year old engineer.
“There has been a lot of violence over recent weeks. The army have implemented a shoot-to-kill policy. Despite this, I do feel safe. I’m in the centre of thousands of people. We’re all helping one another and even some policemen support the protests.”
The movement against the king was initiated by the Seven Party Alliance – a coalition of constitutional opposition parties – in loose alliance with the Maoists.
But in recent weeks support for the opposition has surged, with huge numbers of ordinary Nepalese joining the protest movement.
And the movement’s initial demand – that the king restore the constitutional democracy he suspended in February last year – has begun to give way to open calls for a republic and an insistence that the monarchy must go.
This follows the terrified king’s bizarre speech on Friday of last week, which combined promises of elections with an extension of shoot-to-kill curfews against demonstrators. This was a stark attempt to bully the Nepalese people into acquiescence.
The people’s response was to march on the king’s palace and turn both his curfew and his declaration into meaningless ciphers. The bloody response of the king and his security forces was to open fire on peaceful demonstrations.
“The bastards shot at children,” said Bharat Sharma, a volunteer ambulance worker. “If the king thinks he can control us with bullets he’d better forget it. This is the 21st century and a king is a rarity – something that belongs in a zoo.”
“We don’t want monarchy anymore, we want a republic,” said one demonstrator. “Maybe tomorrow we will come with guns against the police and the soldiers.”
The king’s panicked gambit represents much more then the last throw of a semi-feudal regime. Even right wing commentators admit that he has almost no support inside Nepal. But the Nepalese monarchy receives plenty of external help.
King Gyanendra’s Friday announcement came just one day after a visit from Karan Singh, special envoy to the Indian prime minister. The US embassy has also switched from threatening political parties for making deals with the country’s Maoist rebels to demanding that they recognise a “constitutional monarchy”.
The Indian military is now mobilised along the border with Nepal. The US supports the king’s declaration and warns of bloodshed if the demonstrators don’t accept it. The mask of a “peaceful Hindu kingdom” whose people worship their king like a god has been ripped off.
To understand the logic of this situation it is necessary to analyse the links between the local and global forces which have produced this enormous social confrontation.
The monarchy itself is backed by feudal families who have legal claims over most of the arable land. Most Nepalese are poor peasants – just 2 percent of Nepal’s population is engaged in industrial labour, usually low tech assembling and processing manufacture. These factories are also typically owned by the feudal elites – King Gyanendra is personally a capitalist of this sort.
The other group that benefits is Indian traders and industrialists. They exploit the unequal terms of trade imposed on Nepal in exchange for military assistance and backing from India.
This grotesque amalgam of Indian capitalism and Nepalese feudalism is one reason why India’s ruling class keeps a tight rein on political change in Nepal. But the economic and political interests India has in Nepal’s “stability” are further heightened by the problems it faces in large swathes of the north Indian countryside.
These areas of India are afflicted by similar patterns of combined and uneven development, which has produced struggles led by Maoist groups as well as caste warfare and regional insurgencies.
So the situation facing the Indian ruling parties is more serious than that confronting the US over struggles in Latin America. It is not only India’s regional hegemony that is at stake, but its domestic political stability.
The possibility that wider political dissatisfaction with economic liberalisation might find a focus in regime change in Nepal is a major headache for all parties in the ruling Congress coalition.
The Indian state’s recent foreign policy shift towards the US has drawn the Bush administration into the fray. While the US is happy to encourage “orange” revolutions in eastern Europe, the prospect of a red one on the geopolitical faultline between India and China is a nightmare for a US foreign policy already in crisis.
These geopolitical relationships are reflected back into the internal politics of the movement in Nepal. The distorted pattern of capitalist development has produced massive disparities between regions and social groups, much as in India.
The danger is that groups of the oppressed and exploited can be turned against each other in a situation of economic collapse and brutal counter-insurgency. This problem could emerge in the 80 percent of the country currently controlled by the Maoists.
But these risks need to be balanced by an understanding of the limitations of the 1990s democracy movement that led to the Maoist insurgency in the first place.
Nepal’s democracy movement splintered in 1996, largely thanks to splits between activists on the ground and leaders who seemed more interested in dividing up the spoils of political competition than in addressing searing social inequality.
Something similar is true today in the relationship between mainstream political parties and the population mobilising against the regime. Many people fighting the king’s repressive forces in the streets express a willingness to fight on regardless of what the political parties say.
The mainstream parties’ decision to accept the king’s reinstatement of parliament represents a break with their previous unity with the Maoists.
There are real social tensions at work here. Sections of the elite do back democracy – but many might stand to lose out in any serious programme of land reform or thoroughgoing democratisation.
There is a divide between those who oppose the king because the abolition of democracy endangers the system, and those who have no interest in the system at all. The Maoists effectively stand outside of this, as do the huge numbers mobilising independently on the street. This is likely to produce splits and deep seated ideological crises in the coming days.
The position of this elite is in many ways an impossible one. They cannot survive in the old system (and may genuinely despise it), but stand to lose their privileges in a new one. They also face enormous and growing pressures from the global and regional powers whose patronage had skewed the system in their favour.
Even the possibility of the kind of constitutional arrangement favoured by this group is endangered by the loyalty of the army to the king rather then the people, and the fact that the Maoist armies represent the only armed alternative. So the reformist sections of the elite face terrible political problems and contradictions.
In this ideological atmosphere there is much talk of the Maoist forces representing the possibility of a political catastrophe such as that seen in Cambodia in the 1970s. But there is plenty of evidence that this is a false analogy – the Maoists enjoy broad bases of support in large areas of the country, and the popular movement in the cities is enthusiatic and confident.
But whatever the nature of the Maoists’ political goals, the real danger is that isolation and its attendant brutalities could be engineered by the regimes that have always been responsible for the nature of Nepal’s relationship with the wider world.
In such circumstances, the global anti-capitalist movement will have a responsibility to ensure that events in Nepal do not become a crisis for the people, but a crisis for those global forces that have always been responsible for their suffering.
John Game is researching labour history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.