Monday, December 12, 2011

Unprincipled peace

By Gyanu Adhikari (Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post)

There was a time when the Maoist party argued that land, the precious commodity of feudal Nepal, was the most unfairly distributed asset in the country. During their “protracted civil war,” the Maoists forcibly seized land from many comparatively richer landowners all over the country and said that they were handing it over to the landless. They attacked the Land Revenue Office in many districts, seized the land ownership certificates (ironically called Lal Purja, the Red Certificate) and burned them. The justification for this war on landowners was that the feudal land arrangements were deeply unjust and that Nepal needed “scientific land reform”. The justice argument (Jasko jot usko pot) was supported by the economic efficiency argument — Adhiya farming was also unproductive since the incentives for the farmer did not exactly match that of the landowners.

Land was an issue that resonated with many Maoist supporters. For example, the Tharus of Dang believed that their land was unfairly usurped by the Pahadiyas, the hill people who migrated down south. Supported by a state that favoured them, the Pahadiyas accumulated more land than they could farm. Many Tharus became peasants who toiled in lands that once belonged to them. The new power balance was humiliating. Tharu girls were forced to become servants at the landlords’ houses in order to secure the man’s favour, for the landlords big and small, fearing the selectively implemented tenant rights (mohiyani granted the farmers a stake in the land they worked on, so the landlords changed their tenants once every few years).

The land issue reached tragic heights when the Maoists decided to take on the then Royal Nepal Army with their attack on the Army barracks in Dang. But in order to fully grasp the story, a little bit of political history is required. The Tharus are the biggest voting block in Dang. Fooled by the communist land reform propaganda, they have, till date, overwhelmingly favoured the radicals among the left parties. During the 1980s, they gave shelter to various underground communists. After the democratic reforms of 1990, they voted for the CPN(UML), the then radical party whose leaders had been selling them the dreams of land reform throughout their underground years in exchange for free shelter.

The Army suspected that the core Maoist support in Dang came from the Tharus, especially since the Maoists had been issuing “revolutionary” orders which would allot two thirds of harvest to the farmer, instead of the previous arrangement of dividing it equally. In the aftermath of the Maoist attack on the Army’s barracks in the district headquarters, revenge-hungry Army soldiers in civilian dress found an easy way to identify Maoist supporters: the Tharus who wanted two-thirds of the harvest. One horrifying morning, the Army team in civilian dress gunned down 11 Tharus from a single village. And this particular case of human rights abuse, among others, are kept alive today by the very NGOs that the leader of the Maoist-led government has accused of “sowing conflict to harvest dollars.” It’s sophistry: In the strange land that the Maoist establishment thrives in, the initiators of the decade-long bloody civil war blame with an indignant face, the human rights defenders of sowing conflict.

Today, of course, the Maoists (at least the establishment faction lead by PM Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal) have made a u-turn on the land issue by agreeing to return all land the Maoist party seized during the war — without the state making a provision for the genuinely landless peasants or an alternative initiative for land reform. The issue, most likely, will fade into oblivion, but the resentment of those deceived is sure to linger. At the same time, the Maoist establishment has explained its decision by invoking the need for compromise to expedite the peace process. Since returning seized property has been the long-held demand of the Nepali Congress and the CPN(UML), this explanation, although incomplete, is believable. But the fact remains that the politics over land is an example of communists’ (especially the CPN(UML) and the Maoist) hypocrisy.

Land is not the only issue that has fallen victim to unprincipled politics. Five years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), it’s amazing to see how selectively it is interpreted. Important clauses related to ending feudal land ownership, land reform and the democratising the Nepal Army, which includes determining the right number of personnel in the Nepal Army, appear to have been sacrificed, ostensibly to achieve a consensus among the parties. And the ugly thing about consensus is that although it sounds pleasing to the ear, it is more about sharing power (and the national treasury) than about social justice and social transformation envisioned by past struggles and agreements.

When you think of the 11 Tharu farmers in Dang (and countless others in the proposed Tharuhat region) gunned down for asking too much from their landlords, it’s clear that they’ll be punished twice for buying into the communist propaganda. First, the dream of land reform never materialised. Second, the prospect of justice for those who were summarily executed look bleak. PM Bhattarai, having shut down the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is advocating a “forgive and forget” philosophy. If he and his men get their way, one of the biggest commitments of the CPA — the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the commission for the disappeared — are sure to be rendered toothless in punishing the violaters of even the grossest of human rights abuses.

About a month ago, PM Bhattarai told the media that he was “sacrificing personal principles for the sake of the peace process.” This significant line leads to a natural question, just what kind of peace do you expect from leaders without principles?

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