As a country emerging from the deep political hibernation of the Panchayat period, Nepal’s political system in the early 1990s was buffeted by numerous demands from both the social and political spheres. On the social side was the rise of Janajati (indigenous), Dalit (‘low caste’) and women’s movements demanding an equal space in the polity. Despite the prominent role of Madhesis (from the southern Tarai plains) in Nepal’s post-war transition, the Madhesi social movement did not exist at this time [see article on social movements in Nepal on p.97]. On the political side, parties on the extreme left viewed the 1990 democratic political transition as incomplete, and continued to advocate a drastic makeover of Nepali politics and society, which included accommodating the demands of the social movements.
At the cusp of launching the ‘People’s War’ in 1996, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) submitted a list of demands to the government. The ‘40-Point Demand’ contained elements of the leftist agenda such as land reforms. But it also had a heavy focus on ensuring the rights of women, Janajatis, Dalits and Madhesis though measures such as ending patriarchy, granting autonomy to ethnic communities (ie Janajatis), eliminating untouchability (relating to Dalits), ending discrimination against Madhesis, providing state recognition to all Nepali languages, and transforming Nepal into a secular country.
There are enough grounds to suggest that, even if the government of the day had begun serious negotiations on these matters, the Maoist insurgency would have taken place anyway. The worldviews of the Maoists and the mainstream political parties were poles apart, while the Maoists had already made preparations for an armed movement. The creation of the political environment that enabled the Maoists to give up arms and enter competitive politics was years away in the making, and eventually happened almost by chance – with the monarchy inadvertently playing a major facilitating role.
But the 10 years of the Maoist conflict also allowed for the social and political discourse to shift firmly in favour of those very demands made by the Maoists and the different social movements, until the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in 2006 committed the state to,
carry out an inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state by eliminating the current centralised and unitary form of the state in order to address the problems faced by women, Dalits, Adivasi Janajatis, Madhesis, oppressed, neglected and minority communities and backward regions by ending discrimination based on class, caste/ethnicity, language, gender, culture, religion and region (Article 3.5).
The acceptance by political leaders of such definitive language evolved over the course of the war. It came from their trying to understand the causes behind the Maoist movement and seeking ways to pre-empt its appeal. And, although for the most part many of the changes announced earlier on remained largely only on paper, they laid the basis for real reforms that became ever more progressive over time.
Among the first efforts were ‘task forces’ formed to suggest ways to resolve the Maoist conflict, set up under Prem Singh Dhami of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) in 1997 and Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress (NC)in 2000. The task forces’ reports sought to explain the Maoists and their actions, but they also recommended socio-economic reforms that somewhat reflected the Maoists’ agenda.
For example, the Dhami Commission recommended ‘socio-cultural package programmes’ to preserve and promote the religion, language and culture of groups that felt discriminated against, marginalised and exploited. Likewise, the Deuba Committee report stated that Janajatis ‘feel that they have been ruled over by the tagadhari [‘upper castes’] and there is some truth to that’, and that Janajatis and Dalits were disenchanted because they felt they had been sidelined in the decision-making process of the country. The insurgency had not extended to the Tarai at that time, and so the reports did not mention Madhesis, but only Janajatis, Dalits and women – the same groups that overwhelmingly formed the foot soldiers of the Maoist insurgency.
Given the fluid political situation, changes of government coincided with the submission of both of the reports, and so they were shelved. But Sher Bahadur Deuba got his chance when he became prime minister in July 2001.
Within three weeks of assuming office, Deuba presented his programme of reform to parliament. It included ‘a 25-year action plan to provide special opportunities and protection in education, employment, and [the] national development process to women, Dalits and Janajatis, who for centuries have been deprived of socio-economic, political rights and other developmental opportunities’. It further included the grandiose declaration that ‘[e]ffective from this moment, the practices of social discrimination and untouchability are declared as grave and punishable crimes’. Deuba also announced the formation of national commissions for women and Dalits and a ‘fully authorised academy for the preservation and development of religion, culture, and language’ of Janajatis.