Growing accumulation of tensions and escalation of Maoist violence in Nepal
On 26 May, a string of bomb blasts in three separate locations shook the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, resulting in four people killed and more than seven injured. The Nepal’s Army bomb disposal unit has since then defused bombs across numerous other districts. The following day the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) claimed responsibility for the Sunday bomb blasts and launched a nationwide strike against the killing of one of its members by the police force, which happened on 22 May.
Unfortunately, the 26 May incident was not an isolated case; on the contrary, it actually highlighted the growing accumulation of tensions and escalation of violence on behalf of dissident groups in the small Himalayan country. In 2014, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) split from the mother Maoist party – which is currently part of the coalition government – as the splinter group argued that the latter is no longer following the doctrine of ‘People’s War’ and it has strayed away from the Maoist ideology, hence it is the mission of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to ‘accomplish the revolution’.
Amongst some of their offences, the group tried to boycott the elections in 2017 by opening fire on politicians, blowing up vehicles and planting more than 100 improvised explosive devices, while in February 2019, it targeted the office of a private telecom company called Ncell, killing one civilian and injuring two, as a response to which on 12 March the Nepalese government banned them arguing that their activities are crime-oriented and incite violence and public unrest.
As Gyanu Adhikari, the Editor of Kathmandu-based independent outlet The Record argues, despite the numerous efforts on behalf of the government to delineate the group as a radical, criminal entity, the Netra Bikram Chand-led organisation continues to receive support of fractions of the Nepalese society, which find themselves ostracised from the mainstream community, and believe the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) will be able to address the injustices, corruption and impoverishment, which the government has not adequately confronted. As Adhikari warns, this should act as a clear-cut signal of the disenfranchisement of certain parts of the community, which could lead to the development of a greater conflict between the government and those dissident groups, which could eventually spiral out of control. Thus, what becomes highly alarming, particularly after the official banning of the group and the recent bomb blasts, is that if the violent stance the group adopts persists unaltered, there is a serious risk of full-blown insurgency and escalation of brute force.
The current scenario inevitably poses the question, where one should draw the line between genuine political struggle and terrorism, when a particular group is resorting to unrestricted warfare while using violence and intimidation in order to achieve its ideological goals. In his recent study of 2017, Dr. Thomas A. Marks, Professor of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Counterterrorism at the School for National Security Executive Education of the National Defense University in Washington, uses the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a case study to portray how terrorism could be utilised as a strategic method in Nepali Maoist insurgency. Dr. Marks asserts that the developments in Nepal, taking place between 1996–2016, illustrate the changing nature of insurgency and its metamorphose in a new type of warfare, namely terrorism.
He explains how although in Nepal the term Maoism has been generalised, in reality “there is no longer a unified movement represented by that term but rather a fragmented spectrum that has seen until recently as many as 10 parties—of which three were dominant—all claiming to be the true standard-bearers of the would-be revolution in Nepal”. Hence, such distinctive split and disorganised power structure signify that the groups no longer operate under the banner of a uniform well-established ideology, but instead, rely on their personal interpretation, which provides them with a carte blanche to resort to hybrid self-chosen tactics.
As the example of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) depicts, often those groups rely upon criminal activities, such as ransom, kidnappings and extortion – largely against political leaders – and whenever their objectives are not met with obedience, those individuals are subjected to terrorist violence, including torture and death.
As Dr. Marks concludes in his study, if all actions carried out by Maoist groups continue to be labelled as ‘political’ and accordingly become normalised or leastways trivialised, such outfits could keep on operating under a clout of impunity in its utilization of terrorism, and gain further strength and dominion. Numerous political analysts and researchers have raised voices regarding the rise of Chand’s party and their ongoing violent activities, highlighting a worrisome trend which presents a direct challenge to the stability of Nepal.
Considering that Nepal acts as a buffer zone between two Asian powerhouses and long-term rivals, namely India and China, any brewing instability will inevitably bring about various implications for both New Delhi and Beijing. India is itself affected on its territory by growing Naxalite-Maoist insurgency, which intends to overthrow the Indian government through ‘People's War’. Thus, any support to Indian Maoist groups provided by Nepalese Maoists, alongside with anti-India activities in Nepal, particularly those backed up by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, appear as issues of grave concern for India.
As profoundly analysed in EFSAS Study Paper “Misuse of Nepal’s territory by Pakistan’s Intelligence Agencies to foment Terrorism”, the ISI’s persistent and discreditable use of Nepalese territory to promote terrorism and other related activities against India has quite strained India-Nepal relations in the past few years. The EFSAS Paper argues that “ISI’s use of Nepal as a veritable second front to target India through use of terrorist proxies began in the mid-to-late 1980s and has continued with varying intensity till today”. Although the situation experienced a turning point after the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 from Kathmandu to New Delhi – as a result of which the leader of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, Masood Azhar, was released – the ISI has remained active in the country.
This is further substantiated by Wikileaks releases of information generated by the American geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor, which in 2010 stated that “The ISI has joined hands with Nepalese Maoists to smuggle CFIC [Counterfeit Indian Currency], drugs, arms and ammunition into India, hoping that the Indian government will not take action against the latter… The ISI bosses in Pakistan know that the Maoists enjoy good relations on Indo-Nepal border and they want to take advantage of the situation”.
The same year, a report issued by Jamestown Foundation, Washington-based institute for research and analysis, explained how until his arrest by India in 2009, a former Nepal-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief, Mohammed Omar Madani, has been called upon to forge ties with the Naxalites for the purposes of recruiting new young members so that the LeT sustains its operations in Nepal and India. An article published by the Center for Security Studies at the ETH Zurich University confirms the aforementioned claims, adding that “Madani’s diaries also provided a detailed picture of the plans being made by the ISI to dismember India through the Maoist insurgency”. The article further argues that “the Intelligence Bureau had pointed out that nearly 500 Naxalites had undergone training with the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in the Vagamon hills on the Idduki-Kottayam border in 2008. In fact, Madani himself had carried out extensive research into the Maoists’ organisational structure and functioning and had also been receiving fake currency to fund terror activities in India”.
In addition, India fears that not only Pakistan’s ISI has been using Nepal as a strategic terrain for conducting its anti-India operations, but as Brahma Chellaney, an Indian author, public intellectual and analyst of international geostrategic trends has further forewarned, “the Maoists' dreamland, China, is pulling Nepal into its orbit”.
Despite the ideological affinity between the Nepalese Maoists and China, during the Nepalese Civil War, also known as the Maoist Revolution, which was fought by the then called Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the government of Nepal and which took place between 1996 and 2006, resulting in the deaths of over 17,000 people and internally displacing hundreds of thousands, - Beijing was looking upon the Maoists with disdain and contempt, considering them unworthy for carrying Mao’s name. China was treating the Nepalese Maoists as anti-government rebels and only “rediscovered their ideological linkages” and started supporting them once they became accommodated in the government and appeared as the single largest ruling party in 2008.
Through critically analysing this paradigm shift, what becomes visible is that Chinese involvement with the Nepalese Maoists appears to be based on pragmatism and opportunism, and less on any political or ideological basis. This is also clear from the Chinese strategic objectives in Nepal, which fall in line with Beijing’s desire to establish its New Silk Road, alongside with securing its presence in Tibet. China’s exploitation of the Buddhist religion and its attempts in crafting a new Nepali national identity, portray how the country is using religion as a diplomatic tool for economic enrichment, and is further establishing and fortifying its influence in the Himalayan country.
As Lauren Jackson, a journalist for The Diplomat has described, in 2011, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the atheist superpower invested $ 3 billion in the town of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, in the building of various types of infrastructure. Through these investments, China not simply obtained access to Nepal’s lucrative tourism economy, but also secured an important pawn in its game of controlling and supressing Buddhism in the region, which is essential for Beijing’s desire to silence any international voices preaching the liberation of Tibet and impose a claim on the succession of the next Dalai Lama.
Although during the Nepalese Civil War, China provided ammunitions and weapons to the Nepal government to crush the Maoist insurgency, there have been voices which have accused China of currently providing logistics, training and arms to Naxalites in India using the Nepalese Maoists as proxies in order to destabilise its counterpart. While nothing definite has been confirmed regarding those claims, what remains certain is that in the current Indo-Sino-Nepalese geo-strategic scenario, any such apprehensions need to be taken into consideration in order to prevent any future crisis.
Despite the bulk of Maoists joining the political mainstream after renouncing arms, the conditions in Nepal have not changed much. Thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, the possibility of another armed uprising carried out by dissident Maoist groups should not be discounted. In addition, considering China’s growing economic, political and cultural influence in the country, there is also no guarantee that the new breed of leaders of any such potential uprising would be concerned about Nepal’s "self-respect and sovereignty", and at the same time, be able to eschew Beijing’s offers.
A small country like Nepal, bereft of any substantial political clout in the region, will be looking towards its friendly neighbour – India – and the international community, to confront and overcome these internal challenges, principally caused and bolstered by external actors to achieve political domination in the country and the region.