16-22 October 2015 #780

Democratising Intimidation

Nepal’s politicians seem intent on twisting noble concepts like inclusive democracy and empowerment into base, self-serving tools in their never-ending pursuit of power.
Foreign Hand

If alchemists strive to turn base metal into gold, Nepal’s politicians seem intent on twisting noble concepts like inclusive democracy and empowerment into base, self-serving tools in their never-ending pursuit of power. The Collateral Damage series hereby lurches forward by examining one of the more perverse outcomes of the Pointless War and this alchemy of the opposite.

It starts way back when the Maoists raised an army, attacked the state and thereby usurped the government’s monopoly on the use of force. By training their cadre to harass all who opposed them the party effectively democratised the right to bully citizens. Intimidating others for the cause was suddenly open to all and the Maoist trademark style of coercion, backed by the implicit threat of violence, spread like a virus. Still copied by spinoffs and opportunists to this day, witness the on-going violence in Madhes, this legacy of confrontational politics is likely to cause problems for years to come.

Until the war, coercion was the exclusive preserve of the state, which maintained the police and army to enforce its will. That might sound bad until one considers the alternatives. Since Kathmandu-centric governments typically ignored outlying districts the government’s coercive (or helping) hand was rarely felt beyond the valleys’ edge. Even during the pre-democracy Panchayat era people openly criticised corruption and incompetence without fear of reprisal. With all due respect for those activists jailed during the struggle for democracy, repression on a level seen in communist or right wing dictatorships never existed here. No disappearances in the night, no government spies in the workplace, no extortion or seizure of assets and certainly no thought control.

The Maoist takeover of Nepal’s hinterland during the conflict changed all that. Suddenly a second armed force on the ground had the power to control the populace and punish those who resisted. Maoist recruitment drives depended on coercion as well as promises of a New Nepal, and those who objected to contributing a family member to the revolution (or sack of rice, chicken etc) were often beaten, humiliated and even killed in front of the whole village. As were teachers, land-owners, or anyone accused of spying for the feudalists. Such systemic intimidation and blatant interference in people’s lives, unprecedented in Nepal’s long history, traumatised many in rural areas where such abuse had never occurred before.

The Maoist leadership chose the mid-western hills as their base because the terrain is ideal for guerrilla warfare, government presence was minimal and decades of chronic neglect fed resentments easily exploited. As Maoist cadre filled the vacuum left by a retreating state they began exercising power over populations that had, until then, enjoyed the sole benefit of neglect: being left alone.

Compared to what replaced it, neglect never looked so good. Maoist indoctrination sessions and demands for food and shelter made life more difficult and attacks on government outposts, using villagers as cannon fodder, invited reprisals that escalated the conflict. Police/army patrols looking for revenge routinely accused villagers of supporting the rebels, compounding the mistreatment and suffering of those caught in the middle.

Meanwhile, in the cities and towns Maoist trade unions brought the party strategy of aggressive intimidation to factories, hotels and other businesses nationwide. Violent confrontations between labor and management, rare in the past, became commonplace as existing unions were forcefully taken over and radicalized by Maoist cadre. The right to threaten violence to achieve a goal, previously a state monopoly, was thus effectively privatised.

Organised extortion, used to finance the Maoist war, increased dramatically after the peace agreement. Extortion is simply intimidation with a profit motive and the Maoists created an impressive network of thugs trained in the dark arts of coercion. Their demands for ‘donations’ and ‘revolutionary tax’ from businesses and families spread fear into the lives of many thousands who had never faced anything similar in the past.

Once the government lost its exclusive privilege to collect taxes the democratisation of intimidation was almost complete. Maobadi trained bullies inevitably spawned ‘Khaobadi’ imposters who copied their techniques, soon followed by start-up political parties with names like Terai Cobras, keen to exploit the newly available right to intimidate others for cash.

Last but not least, criminal Mafias took advantage of the chaos and grew powerful enough to make themselves indispensible to those in power. The nation-state and its institutions, until recently in control of all levers of authority and coercion, was now helpless before forces better organized (not saying much, I know) and better armed. The Mafia’s ability to mobilise an instant army of goons whenever the need arose has become a prop no political party can live without.

And so the process comes full circle, as the right to bully others in the name of democracy is ‘normalised’ and accepted as valid. Yet again, our cabal of voodoo alchemists somehow manages to legitimize the vulgar and crude at the expense of the noble and pure, turning their promises of gold into pig iron results. 

Read Also

Proxy war, Editorial

North and South, Puru Shah

Barking up the wrong tree, Anurag Acharya

The Great National Unraveling (GNU), Foreign Hand

It's not about the constitution, Om Astha Rai

Before it’s too late, Puru Shah

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