External Affairs

‘We Did the Right Thing by Leaving Prachanda’: Hisila Yami

Former Nepali minister and one of the key leaders of Nepal’s newest political party, Hisila Yami, in conversation with The Wire.

Hisila Yami. Credit: Devirupa Mitra.

Hisila Yami. Credit: Devirupa Mitra.

With the formal launch of Nepal’s youngest political party Naya Shakti drawing closer, Hisila Yami has been busy around-the-clock, getting the organisation in place. Yami, along with her husband, former Nepali prime minister Baburam Bhattarai, walked out of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or UCPN-M, in September 2015, less than a week after the promulgation of the country’s new constitution. Both of them had been key architects of the constitution, along with UCPN-M chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, the erstwhile leader of the ten-year-long Maoist insurgency. While they maintained their uneasy alliance over the years, the Maoist support for the Nepali constitution, which led to protests in the Madhesi plains, caused the final breach.

Yami, who was in Delhi recently to invite senior Indian politicians from various parties to the inauguration function in Kathmandu on June 12, spoke at length to The Wire. She said that recent ‘flip-flops’ by Dahal further justified her decision to walk out from the party. A former minister, 57-year-old Yami also said that she usually felt “sorry” for India and claimed that Nepalese citizens are still puzzled about what exactly New Delhi wants. In a follow-up phone conversation, Yami spoke about how she and Bhattarai plan to build a political party structure from scratch and how it will also give space to ‘oppressed’ groups, including transgender people.

Do you think that the Sanghiya Gatabhandhan was right to make the Madhesi movement Kathmandu-centric?

New Force Nepal (Naya Shakti) has correctly categorised Nepal as three clusters – one-third Arya Khas, one-third indigenous Janjatis and one-third Madhesis and Tharus. So far, the ruling elite have been the Aryans. Kathmandu is basically the homeland of the Newar, who are ethnically, linguistically and culturally oppressed. In fact, in Nepal’s context, I think the two most advanced cultures and nationalities are actually the Newar in Kathmandu valley and the Mithila in Terai. They are in such a situation that they can be a nation by themselves. So, it was high time that the movement which was limited to Terai should be brought to Kathmandu.

So, there is more chance of success now that the rallies are being held in the capital?

Naturally. Although we have gone for federalism, practically, it has not been implemented. So, Kathmandu is still the centre of politics, centre of all activities. And all the movements geared towards Kathmandu are the most effective as well.

It does not seem to have moved the government. Nepal PM dismissed it as “show business on the road.”

He would naturally say that… He has been saying all kinds of nonsense, like Madhesis are Biharis and all that. So you couldn’t have expected anything else.

What is your analysis of the direction of the last Madhesi andolan?

The main thing is the leaders of the Madhesis had been quite cut off from the ground. This is also what Baburam felt when he went there. So, despite the fact that he (Bhattarai) comes from a hill region and is a Brahmin, he was quite well received in the Terai region for the very reason that he went to the ground.

Madhesi people, as such, feel that development has been in the background, despite producing so many Madhesi leaders. Let me tell you, Madhesis in rural areas are far worse off than those in the hilly remote areas.

Do you think that there is any protest fatigue in the Madhesi region?

No. As I said, the issue is very hot there, as Baburam has been telling me. The people in the rural area are in very bad shape. It is very underdeveloped, backward, particularly for women. It is really very sad.

You mentioned that Madhesi leadership has not been effective. Why is that?

You should see the structure of their castes. They (Madhesi leaders) come from all Brahmin (castes), Mishra and all that. They are not very inclusive. In fact, you will be surprised that the hill leaders are quite well-respected there, as their own people are not representing them.

Earlier this month, the Maoist chief Dahal had first indicated that he will withdraw support from the UML government. Then, he changed his mind within a day after signing a pact with UML. You know him well, why do you think that he did a U-turn?

There is a lot of speculation about that. But, for us, it was not a surprise, as he is always flipping this way and that. One of the reasons that we left him is that precisely at such a historical juncture when all these issues (federalism, Madhesis, etc.) were brought under his leadership during the war, he was killing the whole thing, because of his mercurial nature.

Do you think that he (Dahal) should have tried to topple the government in the first place?

No. Whatever he does, he should be consistent. It is like another political earthquake that he was trying to create and at such a juncture, when Nepal is going through such terrible times in terms of the earthquake, the dry spell. We had a very bad cold spell. Look at the economy. The growth rate is less than 1%. Look at the state of the people. It is going to be worse than Haiti.

Now Dahal has spearheaded the merger with Maoists splinter groups.

It is an opportunistic alliance. Why did they break it, first of all? I mean on what grounds are they coming together?

What Prachanda is trying to do in order to cover up his mercurial character, he is trying to bring in parts of other Maoists.

The reason given, I believe, is that Maoists need to show a united front to stem future electoral losses.

Do you go for quantity or do you find out exactly why this (electoral loss) happened?

There was an editorial in The Kathmandu Post which said that there was not much difference between UCPN and UML.

The editorial clearly says that if you are roping in on the basis of nationalism, then Oli is the best leader for nationalism, you know. Politically, you are nowhere. Just the follower of another.

But hasn’t Prachanda been consistent on his ultra-nationalistic outlook?

You know, we were always consistently along the Pushpa Lal line. Internally, our main enemy was feudalism and consequently, the monarchy had to be targeted. But Kiran was consistently talking about external factors.

Now, Prachanda has said that he will soon form the government.

Well. We have to wait. The way that he has been taking leaps from one (position) to another, I don’t know.

What is your position on the clauses in the nine-point agreement which commits to withdrawal of cases against the Maoists related to the civil war?

Our position is that punishment needs to be given for heinous crimes, particularly rape and disappearances and those related to personal vendettas, without taking the party’s permission. The international standard has to be followed.

The land issue need to be solved as those days, it was one-party rule and naturally, all these cases were being solved by the Maoist government.

The nine-point pact does at least commit the Oli government to hold political dialogue with Madhesi leadership – thanks to Prachanda.

But if he (Prachanda) was serious about it (Madhesi issue), why did he abandon it? How can you trust him? What was the people’s war for? It is really a sorry matter, the way that he brought the issue up, just for the sake of the government. He could flip again… With his mercurial character being exposed again and again, we feel all the more that we did the right thing by coming out.

Naya Shakti stages symbolic protest against corruption, black marketeering. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Naya Shakti stages symbolic protest against corruption, black marketeering. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think are the chances that the Oli government will seriously start the process to resolve the Madhesi issue?

We have a very interesting combination of government. We have Kamal Thapa, who is a staunch Hindu fundamentalist and pro-king. And we have Chitra Bahadur K.C. who is a staunch anti-federalist, and then we have Oli, who is a staunch monolithic. Then you have this Maoist Centre, who is responsible for all these issues of federalism, secularism and all – and (who has) given away all that for the sake of power. So with all these uncomfortable, opportunistic alliances – how far will the present government sincerely address them?

On the international front, the Oli government has been touting China’s backing in the face of India’s ‘blockade’, including the recent freight train from China and third-country trade through Chinese port.

The government made a big thing about it, but general people don’t know the practical aspect. He (Oli) is playing the old game of China against India that the king used to play. And it has never helped Nepal.

What are the mistakes that India makes in handling its relations with Nepal?

I feel sorry for India, let me tell you. Whenever there is a problem of democracy, India seems to come and help the democratic process. And take the example of Madhesi. If you look at the overall perspective, it has to do with the deepening of democracy.

But having done that, India has left us in the lurch. So one starts wondering what India wants. On one side, you feel that India is coming and helping, but before the issue is solved, it goes away.

India says that we are all for Nepal and the Nepalese do not understand that. But on Nepal’s side, there is complete confusion on what India wants and is trying to do.

After more than 60 years of close ties, why does this basic miscommunication persist?

We have witnessed these scenes again and again. From our party, we have been consistent. We have not been flip-flopping. When you are in the government, you whip up anti-India (sentiments) and when you are outside… But Baburam Bhattarai, when he was in the government, I think he had never supported anti-India actions.

And he was criticised by opposition parties for being too friendly to India.

But look at the (then) foreign minister Narayan Kaji Shreshta, who was against the BIPA agreement (with India), but then he went to Doha to sign up on BIPPA. Not only that, the so-called nationalist Kamal Thapa went to China and started asking for a BIPPA agreement with China. Look at them, they are the biggest hypocrites. Baburam is not like that.

In your view, what was India’s biggest misstep in the current crisis?

I feel that Madhesh being just next door to India, our most populous region state being adjacent to India’s most populous state – one can say that the consequence of that being a disturbed area will affect India. That is quite understandable.

Just as when we were demarcating (provinces), we heard that China did not want the division of the many border areas into many provinces, as it would mean dealing with too many administrations. (In the) same way, you can understand (what happened) with India. They would not want ten divisions. That concern is understandable.

As I say, I would even now say that the problem is not with India, it is with the ruling class and the government. It is being led by Oli, who was anti-federalist and even a royalist. He is so conservative.

So I would still say that the problem is not with Nepal. It is under their (the Nepal government’s) control. Baburam told them: ‘Don’t take it (Madhesi issue) lightly.’ Because you took the people’s war lightly when he went and delivered the 40-point-program, they thought it will be solved within three months and then it took ten years. He gave the example of the people’s war. Don’t do this.

But, India has been largely blamed, as reflected in Nepali media, for imposing economic blockade on Nepal to show its unhappiness with the constitution.

This has been hyped up so much in the media.

Take the example of Baburam Bhattarai. He was defeated in Terai, but he went there. What happened to those who won, why didn’t they go back? And look, he is being blamed as stooge of India. What do you say to that?

How are you building up your party organisation from scratch?

We are not going to do what Kiran did when he broke away from UCPN-Maoist. Unlike the traditional way of breaking parties, Baburam Bhattarai himself came out of the party and also out of the legislative body. Then, within a month, 35 people joined the party, out of which only three have Maoist backgrounds and the rest are experts and members of other parties. Now, there are about 500 people in the central council.

We have two layers. One is the secretariat of around 60 and the other is the central council of around 500. We have committees in 73 out of 75 districts. Political decisions will be made at the secretariat level. For example, we met last week to finalise political, economic and organisation papers for the big meet. These papers will be under discussion for a year. Then we will have a congress next year, where we will have a final paper. Everything is interim right now.

What type of members do you think will want to join your new political party?

We have many experts coming to join – ex-IGPs, ex-bureaucrats, and people from the film industry as well as the cultural field. And then of course, we have many people coming from the Nepali Congress and Maoists.

A few days ago, I was in the bastion of Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat (former Nepali finance minister and Nepali Congress leader) in Nuwerkot. Many people in his constituency came. He has stood there for so many years, so you have a lot of people in the hierarchy who are not getting a chance.

We have made the membership form in a new way. It is on Nepali paper, which is slightly expensive. We try to promote the homegrown industry. In the form, we clearly ask applicants to fill out three clusters and also mention if they are from a family of a martyr, of a disappeared person, a person injured in civil war, a Dalit or even of the third gender.

How will you use this information?

As our party said, the three clusters need to be reflected in the structure of the party. Not only development, but democracy has to be inclusive too.

Once we get an idea how many women are coming, how many Dalits, we will make sure that at whatever level, they will be represented.

Right now, we are campaigning to increase membership. We are aiming for one lakh.

Since you mentioned Nepal’s low economic growth, what is the party policy to improve Nepal’s economy?

We have Rameshwor Khanal, who was finance secretary for a long time. He has written the economic paper.

He has highlighted inclusive development and long-running sustainable growth as a starting point. It is already mentioned in our constitution that we are heading for socialism. But to head for socialism, you have to have plenty of productivity so that (resources) are available for distribution.

So, the present agenda is really economic growth… Naturally, the business community is looking out for whether our action is counter to what we are saying on economic growth.