Nepali Times
"I still believe talks are possible"

Ever since the fiasco over the release of Dinesh Sharma (on 4 November, when the CPN-Maoist central committee member was let go after he denounced his party and ideology at a press conference), the government has done nothing to hold talks with the Maoists. Instead, it has now established an armed police force. Many people are concerned that once the armed police begin to engage the Maoists, it will herald a phase of civil war in our country. All this is happening at a time when the possibility of talks still remains open.

The prospect of dialogue between the two sides is not new. As soon as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) announced the "People's War" five years ago, the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had proposed that a way out be sought through talks. At his request, Rishikesh Shah, Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, then chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives and the present communication minister, and myself immediately formed an informal group, and I was given the responsibility of contacting the Maoists. In a similar way, the Maoist leadership too has always been positive about talks. From the very beginning, they have maintained that they are not against talks in principle and that a dialogue is possible. Since both sides were agreeable to sorting out the matter through discussions, we were very optimistic.

Later, when a committee was formed in late-1999 under Sher Bahadur Deuba to make recommendations to the government on how to handle the Maoist situation, Deuba personally approached me to act as a go-between. Until then, the Maoists had been announcing their willingness for talks, should some "minimum conditions" be fulfilled. When I approached the Maoists, they reiterated their demands of "minimum conditions". Deuba asked me to find out what specifically those conditions were. At that point I contacted Prachanda himself and asked if they could be more forthcoming. Within a few days Prachanda announced their four-point charter of demands:

. The government should make public the whereabouts of all people arrested in connection with Maoist activists, including Dinesh Sharma and other CPN (Maoist) central committee members and initiate a process to release them;

. The thousands of people arrested on trumped-up charges should be released;

. An independent commission should be set up to investigate cases like the Khara incident (where the houses of innocent people were burnt down by the police), and that the culprits responsible should be punished; and

. There should be an immediate end to state terrorism.

We have come to know through other sources that even if only the first of their four demands had been fulfilled, the Maoists would be willing to sit down for talks. If only the Dinesh Sharma episode had been handled properly, or if the proper procedure had been followed during his release (like handing him over to a human rights group), it was more or less certain that the talks would have materialised. But there is still hope. In a letter signed by Comrade Prachanda to Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Maoists gave the assurance that they would end the violence as soon as they reached the negotiating table. Deuba must have told the prime minister about this since he has said this publicly on many occasions.

It has been debated in various fora whether either side is really serious about dialogue. The government has never said it is against talks, but has not taken any steps towards it. On the other hand, there is no let-up in Maoist violence even as they claim to be positive about negotiations. So a fair degree of scepticism about the whole process is only to be expected. The main stumbling block right now is the Maoist demand that the whereabouts of their arrested colleagues be made public. The government should have no problem with that, since our Constitution and our laws, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international covenants related to humanity, enjoin the government to do exactly that. In this context, it is natural to doubt if the government is serious about talking with the Maoists.

Past records show that nothing has happened so far mainly because of the reluctance of whichever government is in power to a serious commitment to actually sitting down at a table. For example, the Deuba government failed to meet the simple demand of issuing a public notice that there would be talks and sending a formal letter stating the same to the CPN (Maoist). The Chand-UML government tried to push through the anti-terrorist bill, as did others later on. In the same way, even as moves to begin talks were going on, the Thapa-Nepali Congress government took particularly and (at that time) unusually repressive measures against a bandh called by the Maoists. As for the present government, it refuses to even meet the minimal conditions set by the CPN (Maoist) that require basically that the government abide by its own laws and international agreements. Here it must be remembered that although Dinesh Sharma's name gained prominence in the newspapers, the CPN (Maoist) had requested information on and commencement of the release of 74 missing persons.

But I still believe that talks are possible. Not long after he re-assumed power 10 months ago, Prime Minister Koirala invited me and spoke about holding talks with the Maoists. He talked about national unity, and even raised issues of nationalism and the sensitive nature of the Nepal-India relationship, and said there must be talks with the Maoists. He even said that if the talks are successful there are possibilities of general amnesty, and they could even discuss compensation for the victims of violence on both sides. I was greatly impressed. Talk to Sher Bahadur Deuba, and he too will come across as someone serious about talks. Just before the Dinesh Sharma case, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ram Chandra Poudel had even held an informal meeting with a member of the Maoist central committee. Unfortunately, due to the bungling over Dinesh Sharma's release, nothing came of it.

There is also scepticism whether the Maoist issue can really be solved through negotiations. The Maoists are demanding the establishment of a republican state. Is there a precedent anywhere in the world where a monarchy has been replaced by a republic or a multi-party system by a single-party one without bloodshed? Because of this, people like us who stress that talks are the only way out have also been accused of misleading the public and there are people who try to discourage us. The Constitution is clear that the fact of the multi-party system and parliamentary rule in Nepal cannot be altered, and neither can the position of the monarchy. Recognising this, both as prime minister and coordinator of the government committee, Sher Bahadur Deuba, told us many times over that apart from these two demands (among the 40 the Maoists have presented), everything else is up for discussion.

Yet I have hopes and I have my reasons. I was present when Poudel met Rabindra Shrestha of the CPN (Maoist). At the very outset of their meeting, Shrestha had proposed that a joint declaration signed by [CPN-Maoist General Secretary] Prachanda and the prime minister should announce a ceasefire. He said that his party is aware that all their demands may not be met, but that as communists, it was natural that they advocate a republican Nepal. He also recognised that negotiations involve both giving and taking, and that the art of negotiation is to obtain something by convincing the other party.

As an independent observer, I can say there is no obstacle to begin substantive negotiations, and the government should recognise its potential to bring peace to our country. Similarly, of their 40 demands, if only 50 percent can be achieved, for the sake of people, the Maoists should consider such a proposition seriously. Baburam Bhattarai has written time and again in his newspaper articles that there is a possibility for a ceasefire if not an end to the insurgency itself. That is why I say we must have a dialogue, and that only through dialogue can we achieve anything. If talks begin, an understanding to end the violence can be reached. The main concern of Nepalis is to see an end to the violence and killings. Nobody has ever opposed anyone for believing in anything, whether it is Maoism or Gandhianism. The public's concern is an immediate end to the violence.

Concerns have been raised that as there is no ready mechanism to bring the two sides together there may be foreign interference. Many of us are opposed to any such possibility, but if we cannot take care of our problems, it will provide an excuse for foreigners to meddle in our affairs. Voices have been raised that perhaps foreign actors have to come into the picture to mediate between the two sides. Already conflict resolution and conflict prevention experts have started landing in Kathmandu. They will surely enter the scene as mediators if the government and civil society do not take the initiative to start talks. Baburam Bhattarai and Prachanda once told me that they are willing to hold talks even without mediation. But their only concern was how trustworthy the government is. In such a situation of a crisis of confidence, the only way out, in the Maoists' view, is for a group of human rights activists, trusted by the government as well as themselves, to be present when they meet, but only as witnesses not mediators.

(Human rights activist Padma Ratna Tuladhar was a minister in the 1994-95 UML government. This article is adapted from a talk given at "Peace and Good Governance", a conference organised by SAP-Nepal, 31 January.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)