Dasain has come and gone, the lilting strings of the Malshri Raga evoking the impermanence of this family festival. For a brief week, the temporary, informal ceasefire allowed us all to pretend that harmony had returned to the land.
It was a public relations plus point for the Maoists to announce on the eve of Dasain that they were unilaterally halting offensive action. It forced the government to reciprocate, which it did with extreme reluctance. Now, even this uneasy truce is over and nobody knows what lies in store.
If the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance promulgated last week is any indication, we are headed for a long winter of discontent as the security agencies seem determined to force all political opposition into submission.
Ever since TADO was passed by the parliament, it has been shrouded in a thick cloud of controversy. Human Rights activists objected to the provision under which security officials can put anybody in preventive detention for up to 90 days. After the dissolution of the parliament in early 2002, successive governments have been re-promulgating the act as ordinances with all provisions intact.
And the security forces have been using its preventive detention powers with full impunity. In fact, suspects freed on judicial order have immediately been re-arrested sometimes right from the court premises.
With the recent amendment in the act through an ordinance, the period of power to arrest and detain a suspect has been increased to one year. To detain any suspect for an initial six months, the designated officer doesn't even need a second opinion, he can arrest anybody on his own discretion. To extend the period of detention by another six months, he doesn't need permission of a court of law, just the concurrence of the Home Ministry.
We understand the 'Unified Command' had wanted premier Surya Bahadur Thapa to recommend this amendment to the king for promulgation, but Thapa resisted long enough to be ousted. His successor, Sher Bahadur Deuba, has proved to be much more pliant: the amendment has been made through an executive decision without even the pretence of a public debate. As is his wont, Deuba seems to have signed on the dotted line without thinking of the implications.
If the experience of the past two-and-half years are anything to go by, TADO will have very little impact on the insurgency. Nearly everywhere outside Kathmandu Valley, the local administration is confined to the district headquarters and elsewhere the Maoist writ runs large. So who is this draconian ordinance aimed at? Inevitably it will be local political party activists who are keeping the facade of multi-party politics alive in the district headquarters, urban centres and Kathmandu Valley. Their fate will be in the hands of the Chief District Officer.
The amendment and re-promulgation of this ordinance have been done on recommendation of the council of ministers, but its UML members seem to have failed to realise the potential of misuse against their own cadre in the countryside. When (it is no longer a question of 'if') the UML is evicted from Singha Darbar and forced to hit the streets again, its leaders will rue the day they signed what is in effect warrants for their own arrests.
Amidst all this, the agenda for peace has been pushed further into the background. Deuba now wants an election instead, the one he had announced he was going to hold in November 2002. Terrorising the opposition with TADO may be one of the necessary preparations for the kind of election his sponsors have in mind.
Apart from the security forces, the Maoists will be the biggest beneficiaries of this toughened TADO. It gives them fresh ammunition against the legitimacy of a government of royal nominees and insist on negotiations directly with the king. A stronger Maoist fold only means one thing: the prospects of peace will remain as doubtful as ever.