What is astonishing is how quickly in the past month the country's mood has turned from bad to worse. Underneath the seeming calm of the bustling streets of the capital there is a deep sense of foreboding that we are all being pushed to the edge by forces beyond our control.
Five million children couldn't attend classes last week because a student group sent out photocopies of a mildly worded letter ordering schools to close. Just to show they meant business, the pro-Maoist students roughed up a few principals. What it showed was not how much the Maoists are in control, but what little government control there is. The Maoists are simply exploiting a vacuum created by absolute disarray in government, in the politicised bureaucracy, and in a leftist opposition that seems to have gone into winter hibernation.
To be sure, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala hasn't had much time for governance lately. No sooner had he patched up a threatened mutiny within his own party than he was immersed in a high-stake haggle with the Royal Palace to get approval for an ordinance to set up a specially armed paramilitary unit. After six months of toing-and-froing between Singha Durbar and Naryanhiti Durbar, the draft law has finally been sent for approval by King Birendra. That is supposed to be a formality, but one has to factor in the army's extreme reluctance to agree to such a force. Even if it does get royal approval, the bill will have to be ratified by the winter session of parliament. For now, a demoralised police force cannot put any pressure on the Maoists even if it wants to-it is poorly equipped, inadequately funded and lacks training. Commented one UML mouthpiece, Drishti: "At present, powers from the Palace to the Maoists are intent on spreading instability. But the government has not been able to respond adequately."
Sensing the palace, the government, the police and the army working at cross-purposes, the Maoists have seized the moment to expand the movement from their base districts and make the first inroads into national society. After mobilising supporters among college students to threaten schools all over the country to close, and for the first time affecting the urban middle and upper classes, they promised to escalate their campaign in the run-up to the sixth anniversary of their movement on 13 February.
Opinion is divided about whether this strategy will work. The schools closed not because there was genuine support for the 15-point demand laid out by the pro-Maoist students, but due to a fear psychosis at work throughout the country. Whatever the case, the Maoists were able to demonstrate a leverage that they actually do not have. Says Shyam Shrestha, editor of the leftist magazine, Mulyankan: "The Maoists are under tremendous pressure from within their own movement to resolve the contradictions their declarations have created, that is, show new results."
So far, Nepal's Maoists have out-done Mao by carrying out a revolution in fast-forward, and they need to maintain the momentum. The school strike could have been a diversion to strengthen their base areas and hold elections to what they called district-level "people's government".
One of the biggest factors working in the Maoists' favour is that most of our democratically elected leaders have completely discredited themselves in the public eye. The Maoists want to capitalise on this frustration and use it to demand a complete overhaul of the constitution. They follow Mao by the book to argue that violence is the only way forward because state repression cannot be confronted with words alone (see box). The issue of whether or not an armed uprising is the proper strategy has split Nepal's communist movement many times in the past. Former advocates of the hard line argue that Mao preached violence only as a last measure, whereas the present movement uses violence as a starting point. "The reason the Maoists seem to be gaining support is because of the total failure of governments since 1990 to bring about an economic and cultural transformation," says Hari Roka of the CPN-ML. Even so, it is clear that the Maoists would not have been able to get to where they are so quickly without opting for an armed struggle.
If the government gets its paramilitary ordinance passed, the insurgency could see a dangerous escalation. With semi-automatic weapons, helicopters and better equipment on both sides, casualty rates would rise. The government has anticipated the generals' displeasure and stipulated in the draft ordinance that the paramilitary would be under the army's command in situations where they are deployed simultaneously. (After the Dunai massacre in September, the army has been partially deployed in 16 district headquarters.) The new force will initially be staffed with transfers from the army and the police.
With daggers drawn on both sides and peace talks stalled, most political observers fear the worst as the Maoists move into the occupy political space left vacant by government inaction. The Maoists say they are now taking their struggle from the "Strategic Defence" phase to "Strategic Balance". In Mao jargon, that means creating alternative governance structures to fill the governance vacuum in the mid-western hills. During this stage, Mao said, guerrilla armies must also be ready for frontal warfare with the enemy. If that is what his Nepali disciples are preparing for, the Dunai siege could be a sign of bigger battles to come.
The Maoist leadership does have their own internal challenges to face: their junior cadre are armed and impatient, but not adequately politicised. They don't want the violence to spiral out of control even as they reign in a guerrilla force that has tasted blood. Escalating violence will help rightist forces who want to go back to pre-1990 days, while a negotiated solution is likely to benefit the UML. "The dilemma for the Maoists is that by agreeing to a peaceful resolution now they would have to settle for a constituent assembly after sacrificing 2,000 lives. That would be an unacceptable price to pay," says Hari Roka.
Recently the Maoists have been sounding out centre/left parties about an alliance for a "people's struggle"-this could be taken as an indication that they are looking for a soft landing. Maoist leaders could be looking at the long term where they foresee a scenario where serious instability caused by the insurgency may be used by the former autocratic forces to regain their lost powers, or even cost Nepal its independence.
The draft paramilitary bill will allow the force to be used to
. control armed conflict, or its likelihood;
. control any armed rebellion or separatist movements;
. control terrorist activities;
. control ethnic clashes;
. help in relief operations during natural calamities and other emergencies;
. tackle hostage-taking;
. provide security along the borders; and
. fight alongside the Royal Nepal Army in the event of war.
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
The question of whether violence is a legitimate strategy for a proletarian revolution in Nepal has split our communists many times both before and after 1990. Khadga Prasad Oli, deputy leader of the main opposition UML, was one of the leaders of the Naxalite rebellion in Jhapa in the 1970s. "Once you take up arms it is difficult to give it up," says Oli. "Within two years, some of us had realised that armed struggle was the wrong way, but it took us 10 years to change the party's approach." His decision to eschew violence even cost Oli his party membership, and he understands why the Maoists face a dilemma now: "Today it's impossible for the Maoists to win power through force, but neither is it easy for them to stop their struggle." One window that may get the Maoists back in the mainstream would be to win over the masses by implementing broad-based economic and social reform programmes, and thus negate the need for a revolution. That would be possible only with strong, firm governance and by a government that knows what it is trying to achieve.