Saturday, March 12, 2005

Phone Interview With Rajendra Mahato

I just got off the phone after a rather long conversation with Rajendra Mahto. I had the pleasure of calling him a colleague for a few short years in the mid-1990s. Mahto is a senior leader of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (A) and a strong voice for democracy. He is now exiled in Delhi.

He was a parliamentarian.

Instead of a question-answer format, I have decided to do a write-up.

Mahto was in Delhi for the treatment of his son on 2/1. So he just proceeded to stay back. His colleague Hridayesh Tripathy, on the other hand, was in Rajbiraj on the day, and had to escape. Tripathy too is in Delhi.

I asked him if he feared for his family who are still in Nepal. And he said the possibilities of reprisals are there. The state has the army, the police, and elements of the regime have been known to use hired goons, if one is to draw upon their history during the Panchayat years.

But he was rather strong about how this was the final struggle. And this time it was for a full democracy. This movement will go far. There will be no compromises. There are people in Delhi and in the border towns in India working hard to organize major protest programs.

Mahto said the current thinking was to go back to Nepal and to organize mass protests on Nepali soil itself. People who are in exile are thinking of returning.

I asked him about his access to communication inside the country. And he said the mobile phones are still off and that was a major hindrance. The press in the country was gagged, and so it was hard to spread the word inside the country.

The net has been cast wide. Even Maobadis have been sent feelers.

I zeroed in on this topic. Are the democrats and the Maoists communicating? Can the Maoists be trusted to stay within a multi-party framework?

And he said the Maoists have not attacked workers of other parties since 2/1. That has been a major positive sign. The Maoist leader Prachanda said in an interview to the BBC a few days back that he was for a multi-party democratic republican framework. But he did stress the importance of the Maoists making such a stand much clearer. They need to come clean and join the peaceful movement, he stressed. Back channel talk is going on between the Maoists and the democrats, Mahto said.

This movement will not stop until everything goes to the people. There is a possibility the monarchy might stick around if the king agrees to follow the British example, but it is not important if the king stays or goes, what is important is that the Nepali people become sovereign. The country could very well go republican, Mahto said.

In 1990 what we got was a very limited democracy. The king stayed in control of the army. But no more. The army will have to come under the parliament, the people.

I pointed out that the Congress and the UML were the entities in the way of the demands of his party, the Sadbhavana, when the country did have its limited democracy. Will his party benefit from its alliance with those parties? Will they be more lenient on the Sadbhavana's issues?

He said that the current struggle is for democracy. And that is to be waged with all enthusiasm. Once democracy has been secured, if the Madhesi people have to wage another struggle for their just rights, so be it. Rights are not given as gifts, they are earned. A country can not ignore half of its population for long.

Changing the structure of the state is the only way out. The country will have to adopt a federal structure. That is the only way to address the Madhesi issue, he said.

There is no solution without a Constituent Assembly, he said. So far we have only had "given" constitutions, documents that were handed down. The Nepali people have never had the opportunity to write their own constitution.

We will not accept a 1980-like scenario where the king and his men get to organize a referendum. That was a show for the outside world. The elections were fraudulent.

The two guns, army and Maoists, will have to be taken care of before elections to a Constituent Assembly can take place. The army will have to go back to the barracks. And the Maoists will have to lay down their weapons. Elections will have to be free and fair. People should be able to caste their votes without fear.

I asked him if his fellow democrats in the Congress and the UML are as strong on the idea of a Constituent Assembly as he is, and he said the UML has already moved towards the idea whereas the Congress camp was less clear on the issue, but they might be coming around to it after 2/1. They need to come into the open.

I asked him about the Badri Mandal faction of the Sadbhavana. Both claim to be democratic parties, and both claim to fight for Madhesi rights, but they are split, why? And he said the two factions have two very different characters. The Mandal faction is like the RPP, a pro-Monarchy force, but that his faction was for the people and democracy. He claimed the palace was responsible for the split in the first place. There was "penetration." The palace recognized that other faction as the real Sadbhavana even before the Election Commission had a chance to come out with their decision.

He constantly stressed the need for all the foreign powers to stay the course and keep the pressure on the junta in Kathmandu. The Nepali king has murdered democracy while claiming he is going after the Maoists and corruption. No country should give any kind of military aid because if they do that will be like being on the side of autocracy and the Nepali people will not be able to forgive. Instead the foreign powers should stand on the side of the Nepali people.

He did mention that the international reaction to date was commendable. But he feared the clever talk on the part of the regime might sway them to a changed stance. That would be disastrous. The pressure has to be kept on and increased. If the international support for democracy continues, the country will soon have it. But if the foreign powers go easy on the regime, the struggle for democracy will end up lasting longer, which would be a tragedy, a waste.

I asked what he felt about the statement by Tulsi Giri that according to the constitution the emergency will be lifted at the end of April. What constitution, he asked. This king chewed up the constitution that the country had. The document has been shredded in deed and in spirit. Is this the Constitutional Monarch that the constitution talked about? No. This is very much an Active Monarch.

All the democratic, revolutionary forces will be part of the interim government once it takes shape.

I asked what if the Maoists change course mid-stream and go back to their dream of a one party communist rule. He said the democrats are alert on that topic, and have been stressing to the Maoists that they need to come out more openly for a multi-party framework.

They will have to give up arms, he said. What if they instead ask to be integrated into the army, I asked. We will follow whatever international norms dictate, and more than one option is on the table, he said.

Mahto can be reached by email at

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