If there are similarities between 1989-90 and now, they seem to have completely escaped Premier Oli and team
In the Kathmandu of 1980s, politics and crime were inseparably intertwined. Members of the royal family demanded and received a cut from all significant businesses. There were rumors of drug deals and smuggling of antiques that involved royal relatives and palace officials.
Several policemen functioned as lackeys of criminal groups. It was believed that at least some soldiers moonlighted as enforcers of moneylenders. Salaries were abysmally low and higher authorities looked at transgressions with a wink. After all, few had the moral courage to cast the first stone.
Acutely aware of his surroundings, Premier Surya Bahadur Thapa had constructed his own network of loyalists in businesses, civil administration and security forces early in the decade. The royal establishment had allowed him the leeway to rig the Referendum and ensure the victory of Panchayat system.
In a rush to raise funds prior to the plebiscite, permissions were granted to clear forest in Tarai-Madhesh and sell the timber in the open market. Land grants were bestowed upon favorites haphazardly. Licenses were issued to export goods that were clandestinely imported from India. Snakeskin was a much talked about item that was allowed to be sold abroad.
By 1985, the new Panchayat constitution had become dysfunctional. The Stalinists, going by the name of Marxist-Leninist, had ensured the victory of Panchayat by boycotting the Referendum. They began to seek their pound of flesh in the system. The Nepali Congress had refused to participate in the drama of so-called democratic elections and was staging peaceful protests. Fiery republican Ramraja Prasad Singh had declared a war upon the State.
The economy was in shambles due to the open loot of the treasury. The gas of Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG) had started to stink. Education, health and banking began to get into the hands of neo-rich. Agriculture was in doldrums. Fortunes were being made from export of carpets, but it was barely sufficient to pay for ballooning imports.
Taking advantage of lax security—this was the period when Charles Shobhraj boasted he could easily smuggle an elephant through the Customs of Tribhuvan International Airport—outlaws of the region had begun to congregate in Kathmandu.
Operatives of Tamil groups from Sri Lanka routinely sneaked into the country to strike various deals. Remnants of the Sikh and Kashmiri militants used the city as a safe stopover before flying to new destinations. In the back streets of Basantapur, it was possible to spot an Afghan Mujahidin cleaning his automatic without any fear. Clearly they were confident about the capacity of their patrons and protectors in the system.
Perhaps it was on the sidelines of the Third SAARC Summit in 1987 that India first raised its concern over near lawlessness in its backyard. The matter was raised again at the fourth summit in Pakistan, but to no avail. Criminality had seeped too deeply into the system in Nepal. In the free-for-all of the 1980s, almost everybody of significance was on the payroll of one or the other person operating beyond the purview of law.
The Palace and the PEON astutely guessed that some divertissement was necessary to deflect the attention from their failures. The contract for Kohalpur-Mahakali Highway was awarded to the Chinese knowing Indian sensitivities in the border region full well. Anti-aircraft guns were imported for little rhyme or reason. The call for Peace Zone was made louder. Most of all, a dormant recommendation on internal and international migration was implemented that required Indians to obtain work permit if they wanted to remain employed in Nepal.
Madheshis had to bear the brunt of work permit decision most severely. By 1988, every Madheshi was assumed to be an Indian and the onus of proving otherwise lay upon the accused. This gave rise to two simultaneous tendencies among Madheshis—rebelliousness in some and supplication in most. Rebelliousness carried high risks. Kowtowing had meager rewards, but was a lot safer. This was the period when a few pliant Madheshis made some progress and resigned themselves to the fate of being decorative pieces for window dressing.
The notorious China Card probably played a role, but it was the flagrant violation of Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950 that forced Indians to refuse the renewal of Trade and Transit Treaty. The stage was set for what came to be known as the undeclared Indian blockade in 1989 when attempts were made by Nepal to ferry kerosene in passenger aircrafts in another flagrant violation of civil aviation protocols.
The China Card proved to be a dud in 1989 for various reasons. The Chinese were still struggling with the experiment of liberalizing the economy of a closed society and illiberal polity. It soon got mired into what is now coyly termed the Tiananmen Square Protests. Till the 1990s, it was a long way to Kathmandu from anywhere near civilization on the Chinese territory. In the end, democratic protests under the leadership of Nepali Congress saved the face of monarchy and blockages in transport of goods were suddenly eased.
The ‘management’ of Referendum succeeded in politicizing criminality and criminalizing the economy. Criminalization of politics was the natural outcome when any malefactor could acquire amnesty by merely agreeing to become a foot soldier of the regime.
Criminalization of society progressed in slow but steady motion as settlers on clearing of Tarai-Madhesh forests became small-time timber smugglers. Businesses along India-Nepal border came to rely upon ‘carriers’. Human trafficking increased to cope with exigencies of jobless growth in the economy that increased relative poverty even in cities. Finally, creeping criminalization of culture began as patriotism was worn as a shroud to cover all evil deeds. By the 1989-90, the comfortable class of Kathmandu had become so sedate that it had no moral energy left to counter internal or external challenges on its own.
When a former member of the Panchayat legislature Karna Prasad Hyoju was lynched by a mob in Bhaktapur, allegedly for embezzling funds meant for quake victims, all that the-then Prime Minister Marichman Singh could do was shout on the street that the perpetrator be hanged! Premier Singh had been a Stalinist before being co-opted into the Panchayat system, but his role was limited to voicing vacuous slogans until he was unceremoniously dismissed despite his unflinching devotion to the “crown, country and people” in that order.
It will perhaps be uncharitable to compare Premier Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli with a Panchayat predecessor that perhaps faced more acute shortages in supply due to border blockages. It was easy for Singh to vent his anger upon India; Oli has to be circumspect in his criticism as Madheshis are blocking entry points this time round. However, strategists of the PEON seem to have reinvented some of the same techniques they had used quarter of a century ago.
In 1989, almost anybody in Kathmandu who could write a few lines of correct English was hired to write letters to international publications outlining the plight of Nepalis due to fuel shortages. The looming environmental catastrophe resulting from felling of trees for firewood was pointed out. The right of landlocked countries was cited by legal eagles. The British and the Americans were implored to intervene and save the regime of their longstanding loyalists. Attention of the UN was drawn to the sufferings of families of Blue Helmets in the Himalayan kingdom. In the end, what really worked was a resolution of internal problems of Nepal and restoration of amicable relationship with India.
If there are any similarities between perplexities of 1989-90 and now, they seem to have completely escaped Premier Oli and his team. Nationalistic posturing in an evolving polity is poison: It kills the embryo of solidarity that emerges from an open process of give and take. Patriotism as a tool of foreign policy is even more dangerous—jingoism leaves no room for face-saving in any compromise. These lessons should have been clear from experiences of Indo-Nepal relationship in early-1970s itself. The imbroglio of 1989-90 was a repetition. The Sage of Highgate Cemetery must be allowed the last word: When the history repeats again, it’s usually a farce