Nepali Times
Crying wolf before Mao’s tiger

While the terrorist attacks on American civilian targets confound the mind, the Maoist problem back in our Himalayan mid-hills will not go away. The uncontrolled situation of the past week may be a harbinger of the days to come, when no one is in charge and citizens are left to fend for themselves. Certainly, the Maoists are not showing the forbearance for a party that seeks a negotiated solution-mass meetings calling for uprising, and rejection of the system of government at hand, radical slogans and all-out extortion, which has let go of all semblance of propriety.

In the middle of all this, the government is nowhere to be seen, while the Prime Minister is seen everywhere, spending hours at length at seminars of feminism in South Asia and book launches. The Royal Palace seems confident it can handle the situation if the country goes over the brink, but does not seem in any hurry to make the army respond to the developing situation. Human rights activists of a particular shade of pale, meanwhile, are mum about Maoist activities, but all-too-ready to condemn a non-existent government for trying to derail talks following stray incidents of firings by the army. A national farce is what they seem to think human rights activism is , and it is doubtful that they will be around to tackle the human rights situation when it truly begins to deteriorate-either under an authoritarian monarchy or a Maoist dictatorship.

Faced with an inactive Deuba, a fire-breathing Prachanda and hold-your-fire King, the public in parts has taken it upon itself to respond to the Maoists. It is an escalating trend-villagers in widely separated regions are reacting against the Maoists cadre at the local level. While some may see a positive development in this, vigilantism is the proof of the absence of the state, where societal complaints are tackled violently and without recourse to the government administration, the courts, village leadership or community elders. Also, it often tends to be part of the destabilising endgame in societies, the moment before everything goes completely out of hand and it is every individual for himself. This is also the moment when the thugs come out of the woodwork to take advantage of the situation, goons masquerading as Maoists or anti-Maoists. Much more importantly, in Nepal, with its enormous diversity in population (which the Maoists do not seem to have understood-see their puritanical edict on alcohol), the reaction against Maoists can often pit community against community. This is partly what happened in Parsa, where some people capitalised on the brewing hill-plains disenchantment (about the citizenship bill, land reform, extortion of plainsmen by overwhelmingly parbate Maobadi) to attack the settlement of a certain community. This kind of collective pratikar, or violent reaction, can also ignite elsewhere in the country between different communities. Unless the Maoists manage to find themselves a safe landing in mainstream society, we could, very soon, be playing with communal fire.

In the absence of such a safe landing, chances are there will be not so much a Maoist war as a plethora of actions, by the police, the army, the Maoists, the public. National energy will be frittered away on an unprecedented scale. And it will end, if our audaciously supine, tragically silent parliament and its members fail to act, with an authoritarian putsch of one kind of another. When that happens is when we will really need human rights activists. But will they be there? Not likely. It is easy to be active today, pontificating against an un-reactive and humiliated government. If there is a takeover, it will soon be clear what activism means, more than it was in the Panchayat era or in the intervening years of democracy. That is when the unsullied members of the Kathmandu intelligentsia will have to stand up courageously for human rights, press freedom, and the right to gather and engage openly in politics. Do not expect those who raise their fists at the Maoists in greeting rather than defiance today to mediate their safe landing or stand up for a plural society when the time comes to fight for it.

Perhaps it is time to take away the term \'human rights activist' from the many Nepalis who wear this signifier on their lapels. Like \'environmentalist', another misused term, \'human rights activists' is what others call you because of courage shown in the face of personal harm. It is not a name you unilaterally commandeer for your use, or simply to register an NGO that will work for-take your pick-child rights, women's rights, refugee rights, prisoner rights. \'Human rights activist' is a term you have to earn.

When things start to go down, the real human rights activists will arise. As for the rest, if they cry wolf too often they might not recognise the authoritarian tiger at the door.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)