Bloody brinkmanship

CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.

The scale and style of this carnage, unprecedented in Nepal's history, is distressing even in comparison to the violence-ridden regions such as the Indian Northeast or Kashmir. Even the Maoists' fellow travellers,  the People's War group in Andhra Pradesh or others in central Bihar, have not managed quite this level of 'war'.

Ironically, the demographic profile of the dead policemen match those of the Maoist cadres that killed them, coming as they do from the same rural peasantry of hill and the tarai.

Such is the indifference of Kathmandu's educated—the political class, the 'intelligentsia' and the media—that the modest ripple of concern exhibited was hardly proportional to the scale of the massacre. The leader of the main opposition party—the Communist Party of Nepal (UML)—lacking any suggestion for an immediate solution, demanded the prime minister's resignation, forgetting in the process to address words of concern to the families of the deceased policemen.

For their part, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and his government are unequal to the challenge of confronting the mysterious forces that seem intent on dragging the country towards the precipice. The prime minister's feckless conduct in the face of the Maoist challenge is sufficient reason to demand his resignation, using appropriate parliamentary and democratic methods. Instead, the main opposition party has abandoned the Pratinidhi Sabha and taken to the streets to force Koirala's ouster on an aircraft leasing scam.

In stark contrast to the lack of focus and the disunity of Nepal's main political parties, and the factions within them, is the Maoist cadres' motivation and military organisation that was so evident in the attack on the Rukumkot police post, following on the heels of their seige, last September, of the Dunai district headquarters. But, at a time when the government has indicated its willingness to come to the table for talks and made conciliatory gestures, why did the Maoist supremo, Comrade Prachanda and his increasingly violent militia, feel the need to kill policemen closeted in barracks, who at the present moment cannot even be regarded as instruments of state-terror? Indeed, the scenario today is reversed, with the Maoists' killing spree resembling the conduct of the Nepal Police's some two years ago during the infamous 'Kilo Seira Two'.

Clearly, the Maoists, ideologically refurbished following their adoption of the true-to-the-soil "Prachanda Path", are supremely confident because of the human and material resources that they now command. Their confidence is bolstered by the knowledge that the proposed special armed police intended to counter their firepower will be delayed by the partisan calculations which overwhelm Nepali politics. Further, the monarchy's unwillingness to 'release' the Royal Nepal Army to combat the insurgency has, doubtless, also emboldened the the Maoists.

Under the circumstances, the Maoist strategy seems to be to gain maximum ground and have the upper hand when the talks really happen. In achieving this objective, cowering and inactive policemen, stationed at posts that are merely meant to register the government's presence, are evidently no more than so much dispensable fodder to be sacrificed for the cause of the revolution. Apparently, the weaker the government at the centre, the more brutal are the attacks by insurgents in the districts.

It is in the nature of feudal society that those who cannot make others obey are seldom obeyed. When the government is perceived to be weak, the belief that it does not pay to antagonise the strong only grows. This explains the fear psychosis that has gripped the elite sections of Nepali society. Indeed, it has become so intense that pressmen are afraid to denounce militant violence; lawyers find it safer to talk about human rights; politicians are ambivalent towards the insurgents; custodians of justice have learnt to be lenient towards those who break the law; and the army is reluctant to dirty its hands in what is by now effectively a civil war. Meanwhile the policemen, abandoned 'representatives' of a state that the Maoists abhor, are left to fend for themselves in the insurgents' line of  fire.

Nepal cannot afford such social apathy for long. Fighting insurgency and combating terrorism (some of the militant activities are beginning to take on that flavour) require much more than what a weak government alone can do. A strong political agenda that has the backing of society at large is needed to control armed rebellion. Since political parties represent the public, it is primarily their responsibility to try and forge this broad-based consensus on the aims and methods of combating the insurgency. In the face of escalating Maoist violence, the ruling Nepali Congress cannot wallow in the luxury of the faction-fights that it seems to revel in. Nor can the Left opposition carry on in cyincal disregard of the Maoist advance.

Once a political understanding on common objectives is arrived at, the necessary steps can be taken without delay. This includes effective administrative coordination between the civil police, the proposed armed police and the army, to ensure internal security. It is time the realisation dawned on all concerned that playing politics with the two proposals for appointing regional administrators (at a step higher than central district officers) and establishing an armed police, will be counter-productive. It does sound strange that even after so many lives have been lost in vain, there are pusillanimous politicians who will not utter a word against the Maoists, but do not hesitate to drone endlessly on the importance of restraint by the government.

But it is the the failure of the media in arousing public opinion against the violent tactics of the militants that stands out. Obsessed with running down politicians and championing fashionable causes, the Nepali media has to learn that more important than the jargons of liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation, transparency, accountability and good governance, is the right of the people to live in a society where political scores are not settled by the gun. The free media must at least now wake up to its responsibilities.

The fact is that everyone is indulging in disingenuous political correctness in how they propose to see the Maoists' and the state's responses to each other. Violent insurgencies tend to be the response to a police state's extreme actions against innocent citizenry. In Nepal, however, the state is in such disarray that, especially at present, the police can hardly be blamed for terror of the kind that invites the intensity of retaliation they are being subjected to. True, even three years ago, the police was guilty of terrorising villages in parts of the mid-western hills, an action which helped fan the Maoist insurrection. But the present phase of Maoist violence cannot be attributed to police excess of that variety.

If Nepal Police is to be better motivated to counter what by the Maoist's own declaration is war, it should be given proper weaponry. However, this is not to suggest that the Nepal Police should embrace the policy of bullet for bullet and go on a counter-killing spree. In fact, it is the danger of such an eventuality that should make Nepali opinion leaders careful about what they say, and civil society organisations and the media more watchful against any move of the polity in that direction. For, when the public outcry against Maoist detenus becomes too high, embattled policemen may be prompted to adopt a "take no prisoners" policy, of the kind that the Subcontinent has been witness to in Punjab, Kashmir, the Indian Northeast and elsewhere. Once the police gets into the habit of extra-judicial killings, there will be no escape from the vicious circle of brutal violence and counter violence.

At the moment such an outcome seems to be a distant prospect but there is no saying what will happen if Kathmandu's elite sections, neighbouring India (which is surely watching the happenings in the Nepali hills with a worried eye) and the royal palace agree on a policy of squelching the Maoists. Bloodshed and the killing of innocents will follow inevitably. It is for the Maoists more than it is for the government to realise what may be in store. Will Maoist violence come to an end only when national sovereignty has been compromised, or the democratic gains of the 1990 People's Movement have all been lost? A frightening question, but it is time Nepalis started facing it. Apathy and political correctness do not provide an escape from the mess.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian