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On Monday, addressing a gathering of his Gandaki Province party sympathizers, embattled Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli went on a tirade about how he was coming under attack from all sides because of the progress that the country was making under his leadership. Unable to tolerate the developments happening, his opponents were now resorting to underhanded schemes, he said.
“Don’t be surprised if I am physically attacked or if there is a danger to my life,” Oli said ominously before reassuring the gathered crowd that he would not let that happen.
Oli’s statements might have been hyperbolic but coming from the executive head of the country, they carried weight, especially at a time when the prime minister is facing challenges from within his own Nepal Communist Party. Oli was clearly making a symbolic statement aimed at his primary rival -- Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who, as Prachanda, had led the 10-year Maoist insurgency before signing a peace deal in 2006.
The threat of a return to violence has long been employed by Dahal himself, but there aren’t many who believe Dahal will give up the comfortable nook he’s carved out for himself in mainstream politics to go back to the jungle. The other mainstream parties -- Nepali Congress and Janata Samajbadi in particular -- have disavowed the violence they once espoused. The Congress had once picked up arms against the Rana oligarchy while one of the leaders of the Janata Samajbadi party is Baburam Bhattarai, second-in-command to Prachanda during the insurgency.
The only real threat of violence in recent years has come from the breakaway faction of the erstwhile Maoist party -- the Communist Party of Nepal, led by Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’.
But even Chand appears to have tired of the violence.
On Wednesday, a two-member team composed of Khadga Bahadur Bishwakarma and Udaya Bahadur Chalaune from the Chand party met with a government negotiation team composed of Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Oli’s foreign affairs advisor Rajan Bhattarai. Home Minister Thapa, who was once Chand’s comrade-in-arms during the war as ‘Badal’, is responsible for security in the country, including the safety and security of the prime minister.
Later on Wednesday afternoon, Bhattarai posted a photo of the two negotiating teams on social media.
“Talks are moving in a positive direction,” he said on Twitter.
Speaking to the Record over the phone, Bhattarai said that talks were nearing conclusion but he couldn’t yet provide a date for an agreement between the two parties.
“Efforts to reach a common understanding are underway so I cannot comment on the content of the meeting,” he said. “The content will be made public once we reach an agreement.”
But Oli and Chand did not come to the negotiating table willingly; they had to be dragged there by dire circumstances.
The Oli administration has been in crisis ever since the Supreme Court overturned the prime minister’s decision to dissolve Parliament. President Bidhya Bhandari has called a House meeting for March 7 where Oli is certain to face a motion of no confidence and he doesn’t have the numbers to pass it. Oli’s opponents in the party, chiefly Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal, have him surrounded and the prime minister is looking increasingly desperate. Bringing the Chand party into mainstream politics could help put pressure on the Dahal faction while bolstering Oli’s image.
Chand, meanwhile, has slowly but surely been corralled by the state authorities. Numerous raids and arrests have reduced his party ranks while also hampering his fund-raising efforts. Banned by the Oli administration as a criminal outfit, the party has been unable to move about freely and attract believers to the cause. The negotiations, many believe, are a last ditch effort from Chand to gain some kind of political clout.
But Chand and Oli are no friends. In fact, they have a fractious history as it is Oli himself who is behind the dire straits that Chand is currently in.
Chand’s Communist Party of Nepal broke away from Dahal’s former UCPN (Maoist Centre) in 2012, vowing to continue the revolution that Dahal had abandoned. Chand, one of Dahal’s most ardent supporters and a veteran of the ‘People’s War’ had left with other Maoist stalwarts like Mohan Baidya and current Home Minister Thapa. Two years later, Chand again split from Baidya and reclaimed the name of the party that had fought the 10-year insurgency -- CPN (Maoist). Chand has since shed the Maoist tag, with the party going solely by Communist Party of Nepal.
Thapa, who returned to Dahal’s fold after abandoning Chand, is again switched allegiances from his former insurgency-era commander to Oli. When Oli dissolved Parliament on December 20, all of Dahal’s supporters in the Cabinet resigned in unison, except for Thapa who has remained as Home Minister.
Since going rogue, the Chand party has not shied away from violence. Most of bombings in recent years have been claimed by the party. In 2018, the party carried out numerous bombings of Ncell towers in Rolpa, Dhankuta, and Nuwakot. Fortunately, no one was injured. But a bombing in Lalitpur’s Nakkhu area in February 2019 led to the death of one person while two others were injured. Another bombing in Kathmandu’s Basundhara in March 2019 was the final straw of the Oli government, which quickly moved to designate the Chand party a criminal outfit and ban its activities.
Two months later in May 2019, in alleged retaliation for being designated a criminal outfit, two explosions in the Capital killed four people. The dead were discovered to be members of the Chand party who had died while rigging improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Among the most heinous of the Chand party’s actions was more recent. In December 2020, in a flashback to the days of the Maoist insurgency, a schoolteacher in Morang was abducted and murdered.
All this while, the party has been getting squeezed from all sides by the police.
“I have learned that the police are aware of every detail, such as our location, our movements, our activities, and the people we meet,” a former member of the Communist Party of Nepal told the Record.
According to the party cadre, the security agencies have been using cell phone tracking to surveil party members and then seize opportunities to arrest them, or kill them in police “encounters”.
In June 2019, Kumar Paudel, Sarlahi district in-charge of the party, was killed by police in what the National Human Rights Commission called “extrajudicial action”. A month later, Okhaldhunga district in-charge Nir Kumar Rai was killed in a shootout with police. In October 2019, in the most significant action yet, police arrested around two dozen party leaders and cadres, including Chandra Bahadur Chand ‘Birjung’, Biplab’s elder brother, from Dang while they were planning to obstruct the by-elections.
To date, over 1,000 party cadres -- including top leaders Hemant Prakash Oli, Maila Lama, Chandra Bahadur Chand, Dharmendra Bastola, Om Prakash Pun, Anil Sharma Birahi, and Uma Bhujel -- have been arrested. Hemant Prakash Oli, number three in the party after Chand and Khadga Bahadur Bishwakarma, is currently in Nakkhu jail.
Confronted with the arrest of most of his leaders, Chand, in January this year, formed a talks team under the leadership of second-in-command Bishwakarma. Dharmendra Bastola, a member of the team, was dispatched to Kathmandu to hold talks with the government, but was duly arrested en route. In response to a petition filed by lawyers for the Chand outfit, the Supreme Court had ordered Bastola’s release but he was again arrested as he sought to leave the Supreme Court on February 22.
With the loss of so many of his comrades, Chand was in a tough spot, which led him to old friends, namely Mohan Baidya of the CPN (Revolutionary Maoist), Bishwa Bhakta Dulal ‘Aahuti’ of the Baigyanik Samajbadi Communist Party (Scientific Socialist Communist Party), and Rishi Kattel of the Communist Party of Nepal. Together, they formed a “strategic united front” but little has come of the alliance.
Chand, meanwhile, has expressed a new desire to negotiate with the government, provided that the government release his jailed cadres and remove the party’s criminal designation. On February 20, Chand even issued a press statement expressing his willingness to sit for talks if the government is willing to create the “environment” for the party’s political activities.
Oli had initially assigned Finance Minister Bishnu Poudel to reach out to Chand with offers of ministerial portfolios and an alliance for the Spring elections, according to Maoist leaders who spoke to the Record. But when the Supreme Court ruled the House dissolution unconstitutional, destroying any hopes for a midterm election in Spring, Oli had to recalculate the costs and benefits. He replaced the political Poudel with the more hardline Thapa and added advisor Bhattarai to the team so he’d have a direct line to negotiations.
Political analysts say that Oli could still benefit from bringing the Chand party into mainstream politics, especially since he has already wooed CK Raut, a dissident Free Madhes activist, to abandon his secessionist movement.
“Oli is looking to bring in the Chand outfit to send a message to his political rivals,” political analyst Jhalak Subedi told the Record. “For Biplab, people weren’t joining his movement and he himself was under pressure owing to the resource crunch after the party was banned.”
Bringing in the Chand party would remove the last remaining threat of fringe political violence, which is perhaps what Oli was attempting to hint at with his outlandish statements on Monday. This would help him gain more credibility with the public and might even help sway the Nepali Congress over to his side. Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Congress president, still appears undecided on whether he will side with Oli or with the Dahal-Nepal combine. Both factions need support from the Congress as their numbers alone will not be adequate to obtain a majority in the House.
Oli also hopes that Chand’s presence will sway the more hardline members of the Dahal faction. Chand still holds sway in the Maoist heartlands of Rolpa, Rukum, and Jajarkot. Dahal has been all but deserted by his war-era comrades, and Chand publicly siding with Oli against Dahal could send a strong message.
Analysts, however, say that Chand himself is not certain about the way forward, whether he is willing to renounce violence and enter mainstream politics or simply use negotiations to stall for time. His immediate demands are that his cadres be released from jail, the criminal cases against them be withdrawn, and the criminal tag be lifted.
Bhattarai, Oli’s foreign affairs advisor, did not comment directly on whether the government would lift the criminal designation on the Chand party but implied that this condition would be met.
“When I said that the talks are moving in a positive direction, you can guess what the government will do,” he said.
Subedi, the political analyst, believes that Chand should abandon his underground ways and just join mainstream politics for his own sake.
“He should represent progressive agendas in peaceful politics,” said Subedi. “Just like the Nepal Communist Party and Nepali Congress are largely working for middle and upper-class people, he could do the same for working-class people.”
UPDATE March 4, 2021: The KP Oli government and the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal signed a three-point agreement on March 4 where the Chand party agreed to resolve all its political differences through peaceful dialogue while the government agreed to lift the criminal tag, release all of its party cadres, and withdraw all legal cases against them.
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