Nepali Times Asian Paints
Unlock the country

There may be a truce, but this country is living under the shadow of the gun. In every sphere of life, there is the unspoken fear of violence: in the extortion rackets where the credo is pay-or-else, in the forced entry of hooligans into schools to lock them up, in revolutionary taxes that teachers, civil servants and businesses are forced to pay all across the country.

There is also the overt violence: the continuing harsh intimidation of ordinary people by security forces, the abductions, torture and, lately, new killings by the Maoists. In large parts of the country there are two administrations, two tax collectors, two justice systems, two armies, two governments. How else do you explain a 20-year-old Maoist in Dailekh forcing a man old enough to be his father to do sit-ups right ouside the district police post because he was caught drinking alcohol? Elsewhere the justice is just as summary, but harsher. This Talibanesque face of Nepal is keeping the population cowed in terror despite the truce, it has wiped out the slim hope everyone had for a return to a semblance of peace.

The spreading anarchy is not readily apparent in Kathmandu, where new townhouses are recording brisk sales, new motorcycle shops are opening daily, and the queue for mobile phones in Jawalakhel gets longer every week. But even in the capital, we get a glimpse of a new culture of anarchy and violence that grips the land as vehicle drivers are nearly lynched over minor traffic accidents, there are shootouts in broad daylight in New Road, and school principals are murdered in their homes. Something has changed in Nepal, and dramatically. We are living in a different sort of country now, and we may as well get used to it. If and when the peace talks resume, and it leads to some sort of normalcy, we have to learn to live with the legacy of this jungle raj.

The insurgency and the brutal attempt to suppress it have brought the country to the brink of ruin, but it has also brought out all the festering social, cultural, economic and political problems to the surface in a pus-filled abscess. At least now, we can see the boil and treat it perhaps without having to amputate the feet.

It has now become quite clear that we need to dig deeper into the structural roots of the country's malaise: poor representation, exclusion and the power monopoly of the traditional elite. As the present crisis reaches breaking-point, it presents an opportunity to finally find a political answer to the problems of poverty and social injustice.

We were already on the right track in the mid-1990s, as grassroots representation started producing citizens that was ready to carve its own destiny. But then the extreme left decimated the grassroot structure of the political parties, and then the radical right finished off the job with democratic reversal at the national level. If this was a conspiracy to wipe out the country's political middle, then it was partly successful. What we see around us today is a direct result.

We can regain the middle ground with inclusion, representation and democracy. But first we have to unlock the doors to peace, not with pious paeans from pulpits, but by being honest and accountable ourselves.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)