By Prof Brian Cobb, PhD, Professor of Emergency and Critical Care Medicine, Dhaka, Bangladesh
History has shown that punitive, vindictive, and harsh strategies applied to your political or military foe is counterproductive. Generating anger and hatred only leads to future violence and instability. The current strategy of imprisoning the Maoist cadres in conditions barely suitable for animals sows the seeds of future instability. The attitude of the Nepali elite and the international community is narcissistic, arrogant, immoral and doomed to failure. The elites seem to think that the people took to the streets to put them in power, not to regain democracy in the hope of electing better leadership; they fail to understand that public support for the parties and individual politicians is quite weak, while that for the institution of democracy is strong. It’s time to drop the hypocritical self-righteousness and accept Einstein’s suggestion: “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.”
“We lived many lives in those swirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves any good or evil; yet when we had achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again, and took from us our victory, and remade it in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven, and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly, and made their peace.” This was written not in present-day Nepal, but in 1919 by T. E. Lawrence in the wake of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. The victorious Allied powers, France, the UK and the US, imposed disastrous, punitive conditions on the Germans that laid the foundations for Hitler’s rise and World War II.
Fortunately the Allies learned a lesson and, at the end of World War II, the next generation of leaders helped rehabilitate Germany, and indeed all of Europe, resulting in a stable and peaceful political order. The lesson is that vindictive, harsh strategies are counterproductive. Generating anger and hatred only leads to future violence and instability. And yet, I see Nepal going down that road today. Some of my ideas, such as my suggestions in 2004 that the parties negotiate with the Maoists directly, that the palace needed to be sidelined for peace, for republicanism and that the country be demilitarized, have been finally adopted. So I’d like to be heard again.
The current strategy of imprisoning the Maoist cadres in conditions barely suitable for animals sows the seeds of future instability. The Maoists are not evil or mad; they are young people who saw in revolution their only hope of having better lives. The attitude of the Nepali elite and the international community is narcissistic, arrogant, immoral and doomed to failure. To imprison them in ramshackle Guantanamos where the climate and disease, rather than the CIA, do the torturing is most unwise.
Since returning to Nepal I’ve seen so much. I’ve had experiences of government officials and party higher-ups trying to shake me down for bribes to be allowed the privilege of helping the poor. I’ve seen how corruption denies medical care and economic development to the poor, how the elites keep them in misery to attract donor funds they divert for their own use, leaving the masses to suffer. I’ve seen high caste doctors put their presumed inferiors aside to die of neglect many times, and heard their sincerely felt but racist justifications. This has, if anything, worsened in the wake of the second andolan. The elites seem to think that the people took to the streets to put them in power, not to regain democracy in the hope of electing better leadership; they fail to understand that public support for the parties and individual politicians is quite weak, while that for the institution of democracy is strong.
I hear these same elites condemning the extortion and violence of the Maoists, uncaring and uncomprehending that the politicians and bureaucrats extort more and cause more suffering. Is there any moral difference between a Maoist who shoots someone and a Health Ministry official whose corruption condemns many more people to death and suffering? No, there is not. So it’s time to drop the hypocritical self-righteousness and accept that Einstein was right when he told us, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.”
It has been the structural violence, oppression, caste discrimination, exploitation, greed, corruption and arrogance of the Nepali elites that has given rise to the Maoist movement, and the same people with the same ideology are now setting the stage for continued instability in their relentless quest for short term gains in money, power and fame. They are trying to crush the Maoists as a mainstream political force by imposing hardships on their cadres, by punishing instead of rehabilitating them.
Young people who have become inured to violence and who lack any prospects for education, jobs and improved living conditions will resort to crime in the short term and revolution in the slightly longer term. They will be a scourge. But are their demands unreasonable?
The only institution in Nepal today that inspires hope in the youth is the airport. Nearly all of them dream of going far away, to a place where their caste doesn’t consign them to be treated like animals, where they can go as far as their talents and hard work can take them. They are bitter and pessimistic about Nepal. Now this brain drain is good from the perspective of the elite, because it takes away the most thoughtful and ambitious. It is not good for the economic development of the country, but past democratic governments have not pursued development because it’s easier to rake in donor funds than the proceeds of private industry and easier to manipulate impoverished masses than a prosperous nation.
The rush to re-establish the status quo ante politically goes counter to the demands of the people’s movement and will yield a short term bounty for the elites, but to the ultimate detriment of both Nepali society and the elites themselves. The parties delude themselves into thinking they have the support of the majority, who view them with distrust and disgust. A lot of the nation’s youth are voicing support for the Maoists as a political force because, whatever their past misdeeds, they are the only ones with a vision and an inclusive philosophy.
In his insightful Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech the Bangladeshi economist and father of the microcredit movement, Dr Mohammad Yunus, said, “Peace should be understood in a human way − in a broad social, political and economic way. Peace is threatened by unjust economic, social and political order, absence of democracy, environmental degradation and absence of human rights. Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.” He went on to state, “I believe that we can create a poverty-free world because poverty is not created by poor people. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social system that we have designed for ourselves; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies that we pursue.”
Articulating some noble sentiments, as the interim government has done, is deceptive and futile when the mechanisms of government are as corrupt and inefficient as Nepal’s. Implementation of these worthy ideas by the current bureaucracy would be a miracle on par with the creation of the universe. Rapid, widespread and fearless corruption control must precede all else. The unjust social order must be dismantled. It is an unpalatable but undeniable historical truth that nowhere and never has an oppressive elite suddenly undergone simultaneous and radical character transformation; only when discredited persons and ideologies are replaced has progress occurred. It is also a gross distortion when the oppressors seek to portray themselves as victims and to label inclusiveness “caste warfare.” Although nearly all of the elites are upper caste, the majority of the upper castes are non-elite and themselves exploited.
A good place to start rebuilding as Nepal struggles to move from medievalism to modernity is with the education and rehabilitation of the Maoist cadres. It would be an exercise in getting beyond the customary zero-sum thinking and understanding Dr Yunus’s sound principles. It would be a sound investment in the future of Nepal. And it would be the right thing to do.
It was the youth who brought the monarchy to its knees. The martyrs and andolankari were overwhelmingly students and working class youth. For the old men who watched the people’s movement on their colour TVs to emerge and attempt to recreate the dystopia they created in the name of democracy will not do. A new society is possible, as history proves. And the youth of Nepal should expect no more than this, and be content with no less.