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The Lives We Have Lost: Essays & Opinion
By Manjushree Thapa, Penguin India, Rs 350

The cover of Manjushree Thapa’s book The Lives We Have Lost, fronts a man, camouflaged by spirals of smoke, head bent in prayer in front of lit votive lamps. He wears a cap. Is it a figure of a nameless Nepali Maoist? Could be. But maybe it is not. The visual illusion, whether contrived or accidental, captures the uncertainty that dogs Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to an ultra left dominated democracy.

To Thapa, who takes a Kathmandu view of the events that led to the overthrow of King Gyanendra Shah and election of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) as the largest party to the Constituent Assembly, the political old guard is ineffectual and Maoists a “shrewd” political entity whose greatest advantage is that they have a standing army.

In her first draft of Nepal’s bloody decade, sourced from the articles and personal accounts written by the author between 2002-2009, there is little that would throw light on the aspirations of the rural and dispossessed Nepal that spearheaded the people’s movement. She does, however, assiduously trace the timeline of changes that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and formation of the Constituent Assembly.

In many ways the book presents a one sided view of the events. In analyzing the decade of bloody insurgency and counter insurgency, she blames Nepal’s traditional parties for failing to rise to the occasion. “The eternal dilemma of Nepal is that it has to wait for the political parties to show some integrity,” she writes.

This integrity was never really displayed. Yet, as the author notes Nepal society underwent tremendous change. “There is a new lack of servitude, now, in the way Nepalis relate to one another. There is greater social equality than before, and some changed attitudes. There is new understanding of exploitation and a sense of being vested with rights.”

Thapa credits civil rights, human rights and political rights movements for this change. If it weren’t for them the country would have seen no progress. It was the civil society intellectuals that brought the term ‘loktantra’ (people’s rule) to replace the 1990s call for ‘prajatantra’ (rule of subjects), she says.

The high caste, feudal lord dominated old political guard that led the previous movements for democracy, most notably in 1960s and 1990s, though part of this change, didn’t exactly spearhead it. Through the worst years of the decade, the political parties – the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) – linked their survival to the throne, the Royal Nepal Army and India. “Only a handful of capital’s liberal human rights activists, journalists and editors spoke about systemic abuse by the state,” she bemoans.

Yet India, she feels, could have helped as it did in 2005 when it brokered peace between Maoists and the Seven Party Alliance. But it didn’t. Its covert support of the Madhesi parties – in an attempt to upstage the Maoists in the run up to the Constituent Assembly – backfired. The problem according to the author, is that more than the Indian foreign policy, it is the Indian Ministry of Defence that has been extremely influential in shaping policy in Nepal and in many ways responsible for what is happening currently. “A closer look at the Maoist victory makes it clear that Indian policy has harmed the very force it sought to promote in Nepal – in particular the Nepali Congress – and with it, Nepal’s peace process.”

Be that as it may, people’s movement for democracy in Nepal, has led to the formation of a new republic. It may not answer the author’s preference for a ‘European liberalism’ but it does echo the call of the people. And that in itself is worth celebrating.

(An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday edition of the Mail Today issue dated 8 January 2012)

 

 

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