In retrospect, it was the Maoist storming of Dunai, headquarters of the highland district of Dolpa, that precipitated the peace process. It pushed the government to limited deployment of the Royal Nepal Army against the insurgency, which seems to have pushed the rebel leaders towards the negotiations. However, the talks between the government and the Maoists came to an abrupt end before it even got off to a proper start. The government has now to start all over again if it wants to pick up the pieces of peace that lie scattered all over the negotia­ting table.

In a sequence of events that seemed to come straight out of pulp fiction, Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Paudel went out of his way to meet Rabindra Shrestha—a central committee member of the underground Maoist party. This 'informal' (but for all one would know, official) meeting was arranged by the self-proclaimed 'independent-communist' and human-rights activist Padma Ratna Tuladhar. Reportedly, Paudel and Shrestha reminisced about their student days, munched biscuits, sipped tea and went their respective ways, literally as well as figuratively as it turned out.

The possibility of talks had raised expecta­tions of an imminent end to violence after five years of fruitless conflict that has already consumed the lives of nearly 2000 citizens, affected the economy, and drained the national momentum. Before they would sit for talks, the Maoists were asking that the whereabouts of their comrades held captive by the government be made public, foremost being Dinesh Sharma. The second condition was that an official negotiator be named by the government. It was a climb-down from the Maoists' earlier posturing that no talks were possible with a government under the leadership of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. The extended deadline set by the Maoists was to expire on the afternoon of Friday, 3 November at 3:00.

Events took a dramatic turn when Dinesh Sharma appeared in public at a press con­ference, minutes before the deadline was to end, hosted under government auspices. There, Sharma announced that he was leaving the violent ways of Maoists and was going out to organise the masses for peaceful politics. It looked too good to be true, and so it turned out to be. As soon as Sharma was freed, he issued another statement insisting that he had been coerced into making his earlier statement by the police who had tortured him into submission.

Tuladhar, as facilitator of the peace talks, was furious, and accused the government of double dealing. Once again, the Maoist leadership was announcing that the possibility of negotiations with the Koirala government was now sharply reduced. The government, as usual, blandly requested every one to help end the violence. The peace process that had started during the Dasain festival—and the hopes thus kindled—has rapidly completed a circle, and the country is now back where it began. Nepal, it seems, is set for a long and cold winter.

But it would be premature to predict an end to the entire process. Perhaps as important as the later-retracted statement by Comrade Dinesh Sharma in the capital city, was the case of a gunman on Maoist bodyguard duty. Frustrated by the tension of an endless 'Peoples' War', he got stone-drunk and surrendered to the police. The publicised Maoist lea­ders Pushpa Kamal Dahal (a.k.a. Comrade Prachanda) and Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai can not sustain a war forever on the strength of rhetoric alone, nor by attacking police posts, nor with the millions looted from banks and lakhs collected from government officials and businessmen as unofficial tax. More revolutions are devoured by avarice than by anything else, and the longer the Maoists spend time out in the cold the more the possibility that their dogma will be com­promised. Ideology without morality, and force without faith, do not work for long.

Most importantly, the prize of a compromise with the government would be tantalising. Using the strengths of their underground organising, and the development of a-committed youthful cadre, an above-ground Maoist organisation would be one of the more powerful political parties in the country, picking up the left spectrum abandoned by the United Marxist Leninists as they went mainstream. To be recognised as a political force in their own right, therefore, the Maoists need to keep talking to the government despite the Dinesh Sharma episode.

Meanwhile, the rebels must thank the perennial infighting within the ruling party for giving them space. Even while the whole nation was holding its breath on the likely course of talks with the Maoists, sulking Nepali Congress veteran K. P. Bhattarai wrote a letter to his party President and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala expressing his willingness to hold 'talks,' hold your breath, to bring an end to the infighting in their own party! In such a situation, it seems that, for the moment, Koirala's government will not be able to pick up the pieces of peace even if that were to be served to it on a platter. Even so, the government cannot afford not to pursue talks. An end to violence appears as unlikely at the moment as any dramatic gains for either side. Armed confrontations between organised armed rebels and the forces of government are facts of life in countries where political upheaval does not deliver a fundamental change in the balance of power at the grass-roots. Koirala and his advisors must realise that the full explanation for an insurgency as wide-spread as Maoism in Nepal lies in the failure of successive governments—and parliaments—in coming to grips with how to run a democracy.

The term 'Maoism' in this case may also be a convenient label for the aspirations of different sections of the people who know that they deserve a slice of the power cake, but are being denied a fair share by the controlling elite. Lasting peace requires a democratic and decentralised mechanism in place to address those aspirations. Assuming that the government really wants to do that—no government with democratic pretensions can afford to do anything else—it must first establish a 'workable peace'. The possibilities, for the moment, seem to have lapsed. But peace is too precious to be given up as lost just because one round has failed to take off. In the mean­time, one would hope that the Maoists do not give an opportunity for the deployed Royal Nepal Army to engage in combat. That, cer­tainly, would open up another can of worms.

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Himal Southasian