Recent news about a possible dialogue with Maoists is a welcome sign. But the government's repeated, single-minded response, asking the Maoists to lay down arms first, is an example of the gullibility of the establishment.
Without compromising on law and order, the political leadership must be prepared to be pro-active and offer a set of far-reaching devolutionary reform measures to break this impasse-decentralised regional governments and electoral reform replacing the Westminster system of election in favour of (mixed) proportional representation.
There are two schools of thought. One argument is that the extreme segment of society, unable to find a forum to form any viable coalition to engage in any policy debate to make a difference, has resorted to undemocratic norms and practices. An alternate explanation that the current extremism is totally ideologically driven and offers no room for compromise seems equally valid as well.
Let's take a look at the original 40-point demands of the Maoists and classify them:
. Economic issue and safety net: setting minimum wage (30), providing unemployment compensation (29), free health care and education (35), subsidies for farmers (33), guaranteed work (29), guaranteed low inflation (36), effective disaster relief mechanism (34), protection for cottage industry (38), protection of the domestic trucking industry by restricting Indian trucks (3);
. Infrastructure: building roads, water and electricity facilities in rural areas (37);
. Ethnic and social issues: ethnic languages and their status and bilingualism in (middle) schools (22), property rights for daughters (19), land reforms (27), solving problems pertaining to homelessness, orphans, and the elderly (31, 40), debt relief for farmers (32), corruption control (39), ending caste discrimination (20, 21);
. Human rights and press: controlling police brutality (15), press autonomy (23), intellectual freedom (24), repealing the Security Act (13), freedom for political detainees (14,16), civil oversight of police activity (12);
. Social conformity and cultural policing, less personal liberty: restriction on personal freedom to enjoy certain kinds of music and movies (8), restriction on personal choice to get private education, restriction on development of civil society like NGOs (9);
Ideological and institutional goals:
. Nationalist issues: removing unfair clauses in the 1950 Treaty (1), nullification of the Tanakpur Treaty (2), closing Gorkha recruitment camps (4), requiring work permits for non-Nepalis (5);
. Constitutional demands: declaring Nepal a secular state (18), removing monarchical privileges (11), constituent assembly for a new constitution (10), bringing the army under the civilian authority (12).
. Macro economic policy: pegging of workers' salary to inflation (and guaranteed inflationary adjustment) (36), increased custom duties;
. Closed economy and protectionism: restriction on flow of foreign capital (6), higher import tariffs and restriction on imports (7), (goal: protection for cottage industry);
. Documentation of foreign workers: requiring work permit for non-Nepalis (5);
. Devolution of central authority: autonomy to mobilise resources and decentralisation, local autonomy (26);
. Impose occupational discrimination: confiscation of the property of commission agents and brokers, targeted nationalisation of certain sectors (28).
Without legitimising the path of violence espoused by the insurgents, many of these demands may actually come under the purview of our parties, groups, and ethnic and political minorities with varying degrees of support and opposition. Many of these issues can easily be framed within the context of policy debates.
Every democracy has these policy polarisations. We may desire certain common goals and welfare, but the tools to achieve them may be different across different political parties. Forcing others to adopt a set of policy tools is ridiculous and autocratic. Some tools are theoretically sound (eg, regional level decentralised government, see demand number 26), and yet others are highly counter-productive (eg, macro-economic policy, anti-trade policy, and the nationalisation of the brokerage sector).
More importantly, why did the Maoists take the path of violence? Or do they have some other agenda that we are not seeing in the 40-point demands? If they do, then why would they want to come to the negotiation table now? In any case, many of the policy-related items on the 40-point list have been the focus of public policy debates in western democracies.
Socio-economic goals cannot be demanded, but proper policy tools can take us to those goals. Many of the goals in the 40-point demand are similar to those enjoyed, for instance, by Americans (eg, minimum wage, free school education, welfare support for minorities and the poor, homeless shelters, low inflation, disaster management, farm subsidies, community oversight of police activities, anti-discrimination laws). The Maoists just have a different way of trying to attain those goals.
With some exceptions, many of these same issues are common to citizens around the world. But political forces and civil society have solved these problems through debate and participation, using the ideals of democracy, compromise and respecting each other's views. The question is about priority and compromises: no one group or ideology should have complete domination over the entire population. Attempts to socially engineer societies in China, Cambodia and the Soviet Union all failed miserably. That is why it is important to understand what is the real motive behind violence.
Can a form of mixed proportional representation in elections and the elected regional governments, embracing a score of ethnic and political minorities into public policy debates, offer a way out?
(Alok K Bohara is professor of economics at the University of New Mexico, USA, and earned his PhD at the University of Colorado in Boulder. See also: "Devolution, not revolution", Nepali Times #97.)