Hope amidst alarm

Nepal not only looks like it is in turmoil, it is in turmoil. The anarchy in the country is near-total, with the Maoists having the run of the countryside and extracting 'voluntary donations' from all and sundry, the state institutions (including the police) cowed and sequestered, and the law-and-order situation just about the worst in living memory. The home minister doubles as the chief of the government's negotiating team, and has not had the time – even if he had the inclination – to motivate the administration and challenge the rebels to keep within the bounds of the law. Prime Minister G P Koirala seems to have the right instincts in terms of bringing the Maoists in from the cold without compromising on principles of pluralism and democracy, but at 84 years of age, he seems not to have the energy to lead the seven-party government as one. Meanwhile, the Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has gone on a media blitz yet again, appearing on television and radio as an accessible, avuncular rebel, clearly seeking to put the stigma of brutality – including memories of 'socket bombs', maimings and safaya (eliminations) – behind him, in an attempt to come into aboveground politics.

With the absence of governance in large parts of the country, and the Maoist bravado at high decibel in recent weeks, it might appear that the principles of pluralism may indeed be lost. But the fact is that the peace process in Nepal is very much on track. Holding a Central Committee meeting in a hill district just east of Kathmandu last month, the Maoists decided not to go back to the jungle – even though they claim loudly that the SPA government is prevaricating on its promise of bringing the Maoists into the government, and taking the country towards the constituent assembly. They have decided to fight 'peacefully' through an urban agitation, and there is no doubt that the Maoists still have the ability to bring tens of thousands of villagers into the Kathmandu Valley on the basis of threat alone. The fact that the Maoist student wing had to truck in schoolchildren to show their strength during a recent convention in Kathmandu is not lost on observers.

Many find cause for alarm in the fact that the Maoist leader, Mr Dahal, talks of an "October Revolution" should the SPA dilly-dally. Towards the international media, the rebel leader is all sugar and smiles; he speaks with home-grown zest on Nepali television. At the same time, he gives radical, rousing speeches to his cadres on preparing for the 'big fight' if the talks fail. Some claim the Maoists are preparing for an urban uprising, having brought armed fighters into the Kathmandu Valley. Others listen to Maoist extortionists, who come to Kathmandu businessmen and threaten them with dire consequences: "When the talks fail and we come to power, we will come looking for you in your homes."

A new evolution

It is more likely that the Maoists are using this as their last chance to fill their coffers, for their rhetoric and public certitude belies an uncertainty about the ultimate destination of the path they themselves have taken. Indeed, having decided to divert from the 'people's war', Mr Dahal and his commandantes have a task of controlling and cajoling the very fighters whom they have motivated for a decade or more with talk of violent revolution and takeover of the state. Given that the Maoist leadership's desire to enter open politics seems genuine, as also confirmed by every politician we have spoken to, it would behoove Nepali society to be a bit indulgent regarding the current Maobaadi rhetoric. All the same, though, it is time for Mr Dahal to begin publicly preparing the fighters, militia and activists for open, unarmed politics. In conditions in which he has not begun to do that, there is the need to be ever watchful. It is important that, in the search for peace, compromises not be made in the planned summit talks between the parties and rebels which would harm the pluralism also demanded by the citizenry during the People's Movement of April.

The Maoists themselves are surely uncertain about whether things will end up as they hope. While there is a hardline group among the rebels who would rather not give up the gun, the leadership seems united on the impracticality of continuing the armed insurgency. But in the meantime, they have to tackle contradictions that have come forth with this shift in their political stand. The Maoists are seeking to come aboveground with credibility and dignity intact, while convincing their followers that this emergence into competitive politics is indeed "a new evolution of communism in the 21st century", rather than a defeat. But the most convincing logic for those who would want to believe in the Maoist transformation is the India-and-international factor: the rebel leadership understands that it can never achieve state power with gun-in-hand, due, if nothing else, to existing geopolitical factors.

So, for all the bluster, the rebels are looking for a quick entry into the interim government in Kathmandu, which would legitimise them in the international arena and give the cadre the sense of having 'arrived'. Here, matters are stuck on the issue of 'arms management' – to what degree and when the fighters are to lower and sequester their arms, and ultimately to disarm. Though the Maoist rhetoric has reached higher decibels in recent weeks – a ratcheting-up that seems designed to maintain ranke-and-file morale – the road ahead is quite clear. The United Nations Secretary General has sent his Personal Representative, Ian Martin, to Kathmandu to oversee the 'arms management' process, as requested by both the SPA and the Maoists. This course is then to lead towards election of the constituent assembly that is to draft the new Constitution.

By the time this magazine emerges from the press, Nepal will be well into the Dasain season, traditionally the time when political activism takes a back seat as the peasantry of this primarily agrarian country sets about bringing in the harvest. Nothing would be better for the people of Nepal than to receive a Dasain gift from the SPA and the rebel leadership, in the form of movement on 'arms management'. This would mean the strict placement of the Nepal Army in its barracks, and control of its 'royalist' commander-in-chief and top brass; and the Maoists placing their entire armed squads in cantonments, as required under the letter to the UN Secretary General.

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Himal Southasian