Nepal: From revolution to revolt
After almost 15 years since it left parliament to take up arms in a struggle to overthrow the monarchy, the once-banned Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) laid down its arms and re-joined mainstream politics on Monday.
The former rebels were sworn in around midnight, along with ten members of parliament who had been nominated from civil society; the same rebels who took part in the peaceful, but relentless, street protests last year that forced King Gyanendra to relinquish the control he had seized through a bloodless coup on 1 February 2005.
In the Maoists' "people's war," which started in 1996, over 13,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were displaced. The infrastructure, which held together a country that ranks among the world's poorest, was also destroyed during the conflict.
When Krishna Bahadur Mahara, a former school teacher and now chief of the Maoists' parliamentary party, addressed the first session of the new house on Monday night, he remembered those "martyred" during the anti-king protests, and he certainly was not apologetic about the decade-old insurgency.
"We had to use different methods to meet our goal," he said. "At one time it was the armed revolution; then it was the peaceful street protests. However, the armed revolt was necessary to set the stage for the constituency assembly election."
Since 1950, when the first prominent pro-democracy movement erupted in Nepal, the parties had been asking for a special assembly election that would allow the people to decide if they wanted to maintain the monarchy or become a republic.
Though the then-king Tribhuvan agreed to hold the election neither he nor his heirs kept their promise and the election was never held. The Maoists took up the cause in 1996. Though it was initially rejected by most of the political parties, King Gyanendra's coup in February 2005 made him so unpopular that calls were renewed for an election from the public and the Maoists' cause was boosted.
The seven-party government that came to power after the king's fall last year pledged to hold the election by June.
While the Maoists have won their insurgency, so far, there is less cause for celebration on the streets than would seem at first glance. The Maoists, it seems, have laid the groundwork for others to follow their insurgency example.
A new revolt has started in Nepal's southern plains by a group that earlier belonged to the Maoist party.
Joy Krishna Goit, a plains leader who was also one of the founders of the Maoists' Madhesh Mukti Morcha - the wing for addressing the plights of the plains people - broke away from the main party about three years ago.
Accusing the Maoists of serving only the hill communities, Goit formed the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha, ostensibly to take up the plains cause.
Since then, Goit's group has split in two, with the new faction headed by Jwala Singh recently spreading fresh terror in southeastern Nepal.
Last week, Singh's faction paralyzed eastern Nepal with a three-day general strike. Prior to that, the group called for a transport blockade in the region, stepped up abductions and extortion and killed at least two people. The splinter's modus operandi is a chilling replica of the Maoists'.
The two Morchas have given their lists of demands to the government. They include making the Terai plains in the south, inhabited by people of Indian origin called Madhesis, a sovereign state, replacing all security and government staff in the plains with Madhesis, and re-organizing election constituencies according to population so that the community is represented as well as hill people.
Despite their aggression, the groups' demands are based on genuine grounds. Though the plains provide 80 percent of agrarian Nepal's food crop, the Madhesis are the most neglected.
Along with the Madhesis not being represented in the government or military, thousands do not have citizenship. The top leaders of all political parties in Nepal hail from hill communities.
The rift between the plains people and the hill communities came to a head during post-Christmas festivities. A general strike called in eastern Nepal by the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi), a party of plains people represented in the government, snowballed into a riot with gangs attacking Madhesi shops and businesses and the administration turning a blind eye.
The rise of the two Morchas has caused concern among Nepal's major parties, with MPs cutting across party lines in agreeing that the revolts could worsen.
"It has become a worldwide tend to take up arms to get one's demands fulfilled," Banshidhar Mishra, a legislator from the plains who belongs to the second-largest party in the government, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, said in the house Monday.
"The Maoists have shown the way in Nepal. Now there are other groups following them."
The Morchas have threatened to disrupt upcoming elections, just as the Maoists had done.
There are other voices of dissent from the plains, too. On Tuesday, a group of students calling itself the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Forum for the Rights of Madhesis) tried to enforce a general strike in the plains, saying the new constitution, implemented on Monday, did not address Madhesis' grievances.
"During the insurgency, Madhesis suffered most," said Rajendra Mahato, an MP from the Nepal Sadbhavana Party.
"They were caught between the security forces and the Maoists, who exploited them. For decades, the community's suffering has been building up. Unless the government pays immediate attention [...] it is going to erupt."
Even the government is aware of the need to begin talks with the Morchas. But weighed down as it is with the mandate of holding the crucial election by June and ensuring that the Maoists' arms and soldiers are locked up under UN supervision before that, it may delay the talks too long, just as the earlier governments had with the Maoists.
Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.