No defence, only defiance

From The Kathmandu Post (25 April, 2014)

As ultra-nationalism unexpectedly and oddly gains ground in Nepal, the remaining option is to shout louder

angerous reactionaries of the right or far-left have invaded the political sphere in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, and ultra-nationalism is their blunt instrument against those who seek to keep society open for discussion and dissent. Ultra-nationalism also has election-time India its grip, as Narendra Modi’s cadre use the ‘Pakistan card’ to browbeat the electorate, while Pakistani liberals have for decades been targeted by the military-intelligence complex waving the patriotism banner.

In Nepal, amidst the societal polarisations that should have weakened ultra-nationalism, there is sudden rise of extreme patriotism, that too in new hybrid form. While in the past ultra-nationalism was synonymous with anti-Indianism, as we speak it is being used against the hapless Europeans.

In fact, the two Maoist parties and some leaders of the governing parties are reacting against the activism of conflict victims and civil rights proponents demanding accountability for heinous crimes of the 1996-2006 conflict. These old and new demagogues are using the fig leaf of ultra-nationalism, in a cowardly attempt to squelch debate and push through a transitional justice bill that goes against the directives of the Supreme Court and has been strongly criticised by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

Because they cannot attack the conflict victims, the bombast of the likes of Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel is directed against rights activists and the Westerners. The reaction does not have staying power, but has been enough to send a little tsunami of concern across Kathmandu’s ‘diplo-donor’ community, even as it has been trying to adjust to the sky-rocketing of Indian and Chinese influence in Kathmandu. The Maoists are of course the loudest, against the very embassies that stood by them during the long-winded peace process. One lawmaker/lawyer known for his distasteful style of delivery asked that various Western ambassadors be put in the slammer, while the party spokesman demanded the Government of Nepal take action against High Commissioner Pillay for her criticism of the transitional justice bill.


Resounding Silence

The Western embassies actually seem to have taken a vow of silence on the matters of representative democracy and human rights, themes they have been championing for years. There was a time, after king Gyanendra’s takeover in 2002, when Europeans diplomats used to be present as observers even in modest-sized dharnas. But times have changed: as if the victims of conflict as the main stakeholders in transitional justice did not exist.

No one is talking, but unlike the UNMIN syndrome of the recent past, today’s Western diffidence seems to have to do with the evolving geopolitical spheres of influence over Nepal. Added to that, the embassies and agencies keep quiet because they don’t want to be blamed for jeopardising the peace process and constitution writing.

This may partially explain the resounding silence since the November 2013 elections. The very embassies pushing for local elections went dead quiet, and there seems to be no one on the watch on human rights—not one representative has visited the fasting Adhikari couple till date, the 183rd day of their hunger strike for justice and accountability.

The refrain of the national establishment (with the Maoist firmly part of it) against the Europeans is: “How dare they treat us like this, just because we are a small country!” But that is only a shameful cover for the inability to end impunity. It is the Nepali public that wants a proper truth and reconciliation commission, and the lead is taken not by the civil society stalwarts of yore but the brave citizens who are conflict victims of both side. (Some of them are pictured in the accompanying photograph, taken last week.) Dollar-monger!

There was great momentary energy when some weeks ago the Maoists suddenly showed flexibility on the transitional justice bill, even a willingness to agree to a ‘negative list’ of grievous human rights abuse. But then, senior Congress and UML leaders seem to have developed cold feet. This might have to do with a mysterious visit by some ‘Peruvians’, the warning gaze of the military brass, or the regional geopolitical distaste of a bill that may turn out to be exemplary.

Even as the transitional justice bill was submitted to Parliament, things were coming to a head in Chitwan, where the police completed investigations on the 2004 murder of Krishna Prasad, son of the fasting Adhikari couple. The court took up the case, ending one phase in the couple’s fight for justice (though they refuse to end the fast despite the entreaties of activists).

The Maoists decided to target this writer as one of the vocals individuals demanding court trial on the Krishna Prasad murder, and demanding a transitional justice law that would prevent pardon for heinous conflict-era crimes. The labelling of ‘dollarbaadi’ is an old tactic, to accuse activists of being in the pay of unnamed Western forces who wish Nepal ill. This time, some Congress and UML leaders picked up the ‘dollarbaadi’ refrain from the Maoists.

In an attempt to deflect debate, on April 17, the Maoist leadership used the Parliament podium to make two accusations linked to this writer. The first was to claim that a grant from the Norwegian Government to support publication of Himal Southasian magazine (published by the not-for-profit Southasia Trust, with me as editor) was meant to destroy the peace process. The second was to brandish a decade-old money transaction related to a UK bank account held by my father, which has been duly reported to the Nepal Rastra Bank over exactly 50 years.

The accusation in Parliament was greeted with an explosion of media interest. As the discourse was presented by the political overlords, on the one hand were the nationalist citizens who sought to forgive and forget and to move on with national reconstruction; on the other hand, were the anti-national dollar-mongers who sought to keep Nepal unstable by raking up memories of the conflict.

Forgotten were the primary stakeholders—the victims of war, families who lost loved ones to death or disappearance, and others who were tortured, sexually abused, maimed or abducted. The fact that victims from both sides of the conflict seek a proper commission to deliver truth and reconciliation did not touch the national establishment.

In the rush to accusation, the Norwegian Embassy was caught in the Maoist crosshairs, the very embassy that has played such a central (and continuing) role to help the Maoist party and cadre find footing in open society. This could possibly also be one more attempt to force the European plenipotentiaries to take a back seat on the all-important spheres of human rights and democracy in Nepal.

Cloud Intelligence

In an article in The Hindu of Chennai, written right after the November elections, I had applauded the ‘cloud intelligence’ of voters of mountain, Tarai-Madhes and mid hills. The appreciation was centred on the fact that Nepal had a citizenry that knew to save democracy even as opportunist, weakling or vainglorious leaders of various stripes sought to derail the ship of Nepali state.

Sadly, the politicians catapulted to government have not given a hint that they are responsive to the values and concerns of the people. They conveniently forget the promise to hold local body elections, and are least concerned about putting together an inclusive state administration. In the meantime, they have sought to ramrod a transitional justice bill that flies in the face of human rights accountability. And they take cowardly refuge in ultra-patriotism to conceal the failure of will.

The only response as various forces conspire to push Nepal back into the abyss of closed society is to defy the demagogues and the handlers, and try to keep open the space for debate and dissent. The people will outlast them all.

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