Books
 

back to issue

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN THE UNITED STATES AND INDIA: A Comparative Perspective by Thomas E. Weisskopf. Routledge, London and New York, 2004.

DESPITE a five decade plus experience with affirmative action (AA) policies, and more if we take into account the experience of reservations and quotas during the Raj, it is instructive how few studies assess the consequences of positive discrimination policies. We have a plethora of writings on the origins and development of positive discrimination policies, as also on the political and judicial context in which these policies took shape, but surprisingly little engagement with whether these policies have achieved their objectives. In part, this may be because consequences are multifaceted and generally difficult to measure. But equally it is because both our policy-makers and social scientists operate on a premise that if the design is good (i.e. based on sound principles), the outcomes will automatically be positive. In the event this hope is belied, blame can then be placed on ‘the lack of political will’ or inefficient and corrupt implementation. Rarely do we come across efforts which attempt to rework design drawing upon assessments of outcome.

There is another general ‘problem’ marking the Indian debate on affirmative action. We tend to treat the issue of reservation, positive discrimination or affirmative action more as a matter of principle rather than policy. Consequently, the debate invariably turns into one of for or against rather than what works, to what degree and in what circumstances. Thomas Weisskopf’s book is a welcome departure from the usual literature, both because of its comparative frame (comparing AA outcomes in India and the US) and for its focus on outcomes. We thus have a rational basis for examining policy.

Before engaging with the book, it would be useful to distinguish between AA as it evolved in the US and reservation in the Indian context. AA policies in the US are efforts to assure equality of opportunity to all Americans and to end discrimination against members of groups that had historically experienced discrimination. Over time, the term has come to denote policies that provide a certain degree of preference in the process of selection to desired positions to members of under-represented groups. In brief, AA encompasses a form of discrimination in favour of under-represented groups as opposed to an effort to abolish all forms of discrimination.

Reservation policies in India, in contrast, consist of compensatory or protective discrimination in favour of under-represented groups through fixing quotas in desirable institutions or occupations. Weisskopf’s book focuses on positive discrimination policies for members of identity groups defined in ethnic terms (race, caste, tribe). The focus is on ethnicity rather than class, because in an individual’s lifetime, socioeconomic status is malleable while group identity is not.

There are other differences between the two countries. The US, unlike India, is more strongly oriented to individual rights and responsibilities. Collective action to press claims on behalf of an ethnic community encounters hostility and comes about only in unusual historical circumstances such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Consequently, the first group to press for positive discrimination was a discriminated minority – Afro-Americans. In India, though community identity is more the norm, yet the first stirrings for better group opportunities came not from the Dalits or tribals, but the more amorphous, better placed non-Brahmin groups. Second, India introduced political reservation, an anathema in the US. Third, and this is important, while overall support for positive discrimination in any sphere other than legislative representation has been waning in India (more so after the Mandal reforms), particularly among forward caste groups, support for reservation remains high among the rest. This is why politicians across party divides rarely oppose reservation, be it continuation or extension. In the US, though AA policies are controversial, elite groups including the US Army, business and educational leaders remain in favour, as evidenced by the 2003 Supreme Court judgment in the University of Michigan case.

In the United States, AA is supported to (i) assure truly equal opportunity for all; (ii) compensatory justice; (iii) integration of social elite; (iv) to build on diversity as a source of higher quality education and (v) to spread social capital more equitably. In India, the case is made essentially on grounds of compensatory justice and to assure equal opportunity. Those against, in both countries, foreground problems associated with reverse discrimination, claim that the policies do not help the most disadvantaged, highlight questions of merit and efficiency or the fact that they induce complacency on the part of beneficiary groups and, finally, that they heighten rather than narrow differences based on markers of ascriptive identity.

More interesting are the sections in the book dealing with potential benefits and costs of positive discrimination and the design of a general model to assess consequences. Weisskopf factors in not only the characteristics of a positive discrimination policy but those of the under-represented groups and societal environment. Further, he introduces two intermediate factors – quality of performance by PD beneficiaries and need for a focus on ethnicity – to arrive at the overall cost-benefit of the policy in question.

Weisskopf is less supportive of a quota policy unless it is constrained by size, the period for which it is to be applied, and merit bars. Instead, he advocates a preferential boost system of positive discrimination. He also asks us to look at the sensitivity of the selection process, advises that potential beneficiaries should not be identifiable in order to reduce resentment, and favours broader policies to enhance competitiveness rather than quotas. He also highlights the importance of the context in which the policies come to be implemented. Rarely has one come across such a detailed framework to analyse policy.

The real merit of this book, more than its conclusions – PD policies based on ethnic criteria are necessary for reasons of diversity, justice and societal efficiency and integration – is the framework provided to assess outcomes. In this, Thomas Weisskopf keeps us firmly grounded in the domain of policy (amenable to rational and empirical analysis) rather than in the rarified environs of ethical philosophy. His cautionary notes on the impact of different kinds of policies in different kinds of environments need to be taken seriously if we are to avoid the kind of backlash to the very idea of positive discrimination that we witnessed in the wake of Mandal and which may be in the offing if we try and push through quota based policies in the private sector through a legislative route.

As an academic, Weisskopf has special interest in how such policies affect the educational sphere. India, in general, has specified the quota of reserved seats in all state run and supported institutions. The US in contrast uses ethnic criteria for awarding weightages to increase representation of specified groups in the student body. In addition, there is an effort to evolve special programmes to help under-represented groups acquire the skills and confidence to cope with a competitive environment. Merit and individual competence is sought to be maintained even as diversity is foregrounded. It is worth remembering that this mix of policies, differentially followed by different institutions, has helped increase the presence of under-represented groups. Undoubtedly, Indian quota policies too have helped increase the presence of SC and ST groups in our institutions. Equally, without such policies, this would not have happened. But the actual working out of the reservation schema has not only created resentment, raised issues of merit and efficiency, stigmatized groups receiving preference but worse, done little to help these groups cope. It is almost as if filling the quota is the only objective.

A final word about the needed Management Information System if the different AA policies have to be assessed against desired outcomes. Weisskopf’s book provides many clues about the kind of indicators we need to develop to capture outcomes. Hopefully, our scholars will take the cue and generate the needed data so that our debate too can finally operate on a rational terrain.

It is always a matter of regret that the best analysis of our (Indian) experience comes not from our scholars but from those located outside. Just as Marc Galanter’s Competing Equalities (1984) energized the debate on law and the backward classes in India, Thomas Weisskopf’s book too can have a similar impact. One wishes that a less expensive local edition of the book was available to generate a wider debate.

Harsh Sethi

LAW, POVERTY AND LEGAL AID: Access to Criminal Justice by S. Muralidhar. LexisNexis Butterworths, New Delhi, 2004.

IT is significant that at the close of the 20th century when ideas of social justice have been relegated to the margins, one has a book which takes the suffering of the poor seriously. Muralidhar’s book is a reminder in these days of self congratulation that till India is able to grapple with the problems of the myriad poor, all its claims to great power status will continue to remain illusory.

Muralidhar chooses to engage with this problem through the interface of the poor and the criminal justice system. What emerges through the interstices of the legal narrative are powerful stories of what are called ‘status offenders’ (those who are incarcerated purely on grounds of their status as poor people or sex workers), poor people who are in jail because they cannot produce a surety or pay the cash surety as well as those who are condemned to penal servitude merely on account of inadequate/poor quality of legal representation.

He calls attention to the injustice of the existing criminal justice system which inheres not only in the more obvious phenomenon outlined above but also in the way an elaborate system of rules in custodial institutions such as prisons, protection homes, homes for the mentally challenged and juvenile homes function to regulate and control the behaviour of its inmates. To take just one example which the author draws out, the Bihar Prison Manual (Rules 588-592) talks about ‘Latrine Parades’, a clearly unconstitutional practice. The rules read:

‘Rule 589 – After the barracks have been opened and the prisoners counted out, they shall be marched to the latrine and be made to sit in file at a short distance therefrom, whilst those who wish to do so are allowed to visit the latrine in turn.

‘Rule 590 – At all latrine parades, every prisoner shall be allowed to remain at least five minutes in the latrine, and longer if absolutely necessary. Each latrine parade ought not to occupy more than half an hour. The latrine parades shall be carefully regulated by the warder in charge, who shall allow only so many prisoners to go in at a time as there are vacant compartments.

‘Rule 596 – Every prisoner who uses the latrine out of hours shall be reported to the medical subordinate. A prisoner going frequently to the latrine out of hours, must either be placed under medical observation in a segregation board or cell, subject to such diet as the medical officer may direct for such cases, or if there is good cause to believe that the prisoner has visited the latrine unnecessarily, the irregularity may be treated as a jail offence.’

The rules on Latrine Parade embody the absolutist nature of the still colonial Indian state as manifested in custodial settings. They call attention to the micro workings of power and the injustices which are inflicted on a day to day basis with the target invariably being poor people. By calling attention to the hidden vestiges of colonial law, which sits uneasily with a constitutional framework, Muralidhar performs a yeoman service.

If such is indeed the nature of wilful suffering inflicted on the poor, then the question is: what is being done about it? The burden of Muralidhar’s work is to show the different ways in which the iniquities of the system are being tackled from within.

The author first focuses on legal aid as one possible solution to the problem the poor face in negotiating the criminal justice system. He traces the history of legal aid right from the colonial context through the heyday of social justice concerns as manifested in the persons of J. Krishna Iyer and J. Bhagwati (best described as uncompromising crusaders for legal aid), to finally result in the institution of the Legal Services Authority in 1987. In tracing this history, Muralidhar is careful to point out ways in which legal services could be delivered more effectively to poor clients. The belief clearly is that the legal aid system could be improved and the attempt is to point out ways in which this can happen. The author then makes an exhaustive comparative analysis of the legal aid systems of USA, UK, Bangladesh and South Africa to shed further light on how the legal aid system could be renovated to provide justice for the marginalized.

The author then turns his attention to the role that the Supreme Court has played in expanding and innovating a jurisprudence which focuses on the rights of the poor as they interface with the criminal justice system. This jurisprudence has itself evolved from a slightly broader reading of the rights of the poor in the colonial era to a narrower reading of rights in the post-independence era to finally an expansive reading of rights of the poor as they come in contact with the criminal justice system in the post-emergency phase. The liberal and expansive reading of rights in the post-emergency phrase is today best remembered through iconic decisions in cases such as DK Basu, Nandini Satpathy and Sunil Batra. One cannot underestimate the key role played by J. Krishna Iyer in developing a jurisprudence of rights of people who come in contact with the criminal justice system. However, despite the advances made at the level of the Supreme Court, the egregious rules embodied in the Prison Manuals still continue to hold sway with the Supreme Court unable or unwilling to strike them down.

This book is indeed an important contribution towards understanding both the specific problems which the poor have in negotiating the criminal justice system as well as the nature of interventions to address the injustices of the criminal justice system. But where the author provokes curiosity and yet leaves one unsatisfied is in his treatment of the link between legal aid and politics. There are enough hints that legal aid is closely linked to the politics of legitimizing political dispensations but unfortunately the analysis is not developed.

In 1976, after the emergency had been in force for almost a year, both Justices Krishna Iyer and Bhagwati were appointed by the government to the Juridicare Committee to re-examine the issue of legal aid. Just three weeks prior to this appointment, J. Bhagwati wrote a concurring judgement in the infamous ADM Jabalpur case in which he held that , ‘There can be no doubt that in the view of the presidential order which mentions Art 21, the detenus would have no locus standi to maintain the writ petition if it could be shown that the writ petitions were for the enforcement of rights conferred by Art 21’.1 The Supreme Court in effect held that because it was a time of emergency, no person had the right to life under the Indian Constitution. The irony could not be more telling. J. Bhagwati in effect acquiesced in the suspension of fundamental rights and then participated in a committee whose purpose it was to secure rights for the poor and the disadvantaged. What is one to make of this fundamental contradiction? What might be the ethics of participating in a committee whose purpose was to secure a rule of law framework for the marginalized when the government in power strove to destroy the very rule of law? Would not such participation be merely a cynical exercise of re-legitmizing a government which had exposed its undemocratic soul?

Muralidhar is very aware of these series of problems as his analysis of the Juridicare Report shows. He notes, ‘The 1977 Report was an amalgam of the 1971 Gujarat Report and the 1973 Report in many respects, but the absence of certain aspects of the legal services programme was conspicuous. For instance, both the 1971 Gujarat Report and the 1973 Report had dealt with the issues arising from the criminal justice system separately. Reform of the monetary bail system, providing representation at every stage of the criminal justice process, legal aid to prisoners within jails and providing assistance to victims of crime had been dwelt upon. Even the programmatic content of the earlier reports was not adverted to. Except saying that it was a continuation of the earlier reports, the 1977 Report made no reference to these aspects’ (p. 65).

This omission of legal aid relevant to the criminal justice related processes can only indicate a complicity of the committee with the excesses of the emergency. When the reality is of thousands of illegal arrests, torture and killings and the committee specifically ignores the one aspect which might call attention to the excesses of the emergency (i.e. legal aid in prisons), what conclusion is one to draw? Unfortunately these are not questions to which one finds answers in this otherwise excellent volume.

The link between the legal system and the political system could have been better explored. Particularly in the contemporary era of globalization, how legal aid continues to have political salience remains an important concern. If the contemporary era is marked by an invisibilization of the issues of the poor (the fact that the Malimath Committee on criminal justice reform had only one question on legal aid), then how does one combat it? This also perhaps raises the larger question of legal scholarship and how it should interface with a wider array of disciplines to provide a richer and more nuanced account of legal processes as a form of politics.

Arvind Narrain

1. ADM Jabalpur vs Shivkant Shukla, (1976) SCC 2 521 at para 124.

DEEPENING DEMOCRACY: Challenges of Governance and Globalization in India by Madhu Purnima Kishwar. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005.

Madhu Kishwar’s book falls in the genre of works that have come up since the completion of fifty years of the Republic, all exploring the evolving nature of Indian democracy in the context of the momentous changes that have taken place in the era of globalization. The volume containing her essays written over the last decade displays a range that is breathtaking. Just to mention some of the themes taken up while reflecting on the life and times of ‘democracy in transition’: education, reservation, majoritarianism vs. minorityism, corruption, human rights, environment, modern sewerage system, statist development planning models, among others. The essays, however, do acquire some kind of coherence in the sense that there seems to be an attempt to engage broadly with what can arguably be called the two most significant trends in Indian politics and society in the last one and a half decades – namely the economic reforms effected in the shadow of globalization and the assertion of identities based on caste, religion and ethnicity leading to societal divisiveness and violence.

Kishwar argues that poverty in India, even after nearly six decades of independence, cannot be held as a ‘natural’ condition, if one considers the abundance of natural resources and innovative and industrious people at her command. It has to be attributed to ‘malgovernance, the choice of inappropriate policies, and a lack of accountability in government.’ Another discernible concern is related to the endemic nature of communal polarization, mistrust and violence that pervades contemporary Indian society, despite centuries old traditional bonds and locally worked out consensual arrangements among the communities very much remaining in place, and also despite the establishment of a secular, democratic republic in the aftermath of partition. She blames it on the breakdown of consensus, achieved in the nationalist past, on important social, economic, cultural, and political issues that ensured the recognition, representation and accommodation of differences and provided for a special hearing for the marginal and historically disadvantaged groups.

Kishwar also suggests that emotional bondage and a shared destiny between the urban elite and the urban poor as well as the rural people that existed earlier has now been replaced by a mindset that reflects a callous disregard for the basic survival needs of the poor. Indifference bordering on muted support to the unfair treatment meted out to the masses belonging to an ‘unintended city’ as well as impoverished farmers, by our classes confirms the growing emotional and cultural divide that is holding the country back.

What is being done to address these maladies that have crept in as the widening and deepening of Indian democracy goes on? Are the attempts adequate for a more equitable distribution of resources and the provision of basic social security as a social goal agenda? Can the emergent ‘third sector’, i.e. civil society groups, NGOs and social movements, bridge the widening gap? Answering in a negative mode, Kishwar suggests that even the radicals in their obsession with projecting the interests of various economic strata as being permanently mutually hostile, ignore the mutual complementarity of people in the varied sectors of our economy. At the social level the political parties have contributed to promoting fragmentation along caste, religion, community and class lines. She refers to politically engineered communal and caste violence.

Now, Kishwar does not deny the presence of serious conflict of interests between these categories. All she suggests is that a struggle to pursue the social agenda of democracy should be such that while it keeps the legitimate interests of each group in view, it does not have a vested interest in a permanent simmering of hostilities. As for ensuring a degree of complementarity of interests by providing effective and impartial conflict resolution, what India needs is the presence of transparent and accountable institutions.

The radicals also receive Kishwar’s wrath for insisting on the state being the sole protector of the marginals. A lack of economic freedom pervades globalizing India as the state bureaucracy acting as a rentier class continues to indulge in systematic and routine loot, extortion, violence, and heaping indignities upon the people as they go about their perfectly legitimate economic pursuits.

Taking on the NGOs who are part of what she calls an Anti-Globalization-Brigade (AGB), Kishwar accuses the critics of economic reforms of thwarting the process of acquiring a competitive edge in India. Coming together under the auspices of the World Social Forum, Kishwar argues that the AGB mostly indulges in empty sloganeering rather than engage itself in constructive activities that may empower the marginals. She presents a rather lengthy critique of AGB’s worldview questioning their bonafides. To her the argument that market forces are undermining democracy is flawed, as it was the closed-door economy that was synonymous with press and media censorship. Economic reforms have often accompanied political and administrative reforms, and states that attract foreign direct investment are the ones that have taken measures to usher in reforms. And so on.

What is fascinating about the volume is that it is different from its genre. It may not be theoretically well-grounded or scholarly in terms of references and abstraction, and yes a bit polemical, as Harsh Sethi has argued elsewhere, but Kishwar, the activist-editor-academic shows a refreshing way to substantiate her courageous, insightful and not always politically correct arguments by engaging us with places (Ayodhya, Meerut, slums of Delhi), states (Kashmir, Punjab, Nagaland), people (rickshawpullers, street vendors, ‘rich’ farmers, Yandees, the steel-makers of yesteryears from Andhra who join other artisans on the margin thanks to an education system that promotes ‘Angreziyat’) and policies (a reservation policy that remains inherently anti-efficiency).

Whether we agree with Kishwar’s ‘agenda for India’ or not, her resolve to take up some of the critical issues concerning both the procedural as well as substantive forms of Indian democracy in a manner that does not hesitate to question all ‘for or against’ arguments, makes these essays valuable and original. It is a book that resembles Satish Deshpande’s Contemporary India in so far that they both set out to critically re-examine our unexamined and often unconscious beliefs and opinions ‘through which we normally view the world.’ Even our conscious and fully worked out positions harbour deceptions in the form of our unexamined prejudices as well as a reliance on the ‘politically correct ideas’ often derived from the West.

Ashutosh Kumar

FORGET KATHMANDU: An Elegy for Democracy by Manjushree Thapa. Penguin/Viking, Delhi, 2005.

DESPITE its long and intense engagement with Nepal, India has taken little interest in the Himalayan kingdom. At any given time, barely a dozen serving and former diplomats, intelligence analysts and academics in New Delhi follow developments in the neighbouring country on a sustained basis. The indifference of the media is even more galling. Unless there is a dramatic event like the royal massacre in the Narayanithi Palace in Kathmandu in June 2001, our newspapers and news channels pay scant attention. The number of Indian correspondents in Kathmandu can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

India’s officialdom and media should have known better. Over the last decade or so large swathes of the country have come under the effective control of the Maoists. They are determined to establish a communist dictatorship. Their links with various Naxalite groups in India are no secret. Add to this the mushrooming growth of mosques and madrasas in several areas adjoining India, wholly out of proportion with the educational and spiritual needs of the Muslim population of Nepal. The mischief mongering of Pakistan’s ISI has also been exposed from time to time.

Compounding the threat to India’s security has been the rapidly worsening economic, social and political situation in the country. With little new investment and developmental work at a standstill, Nepal was driven to the brink of collapse. The politicians squandered every opportunity to provide clean and effective governance. They failed to make common cause even when it was clear that soon after he ascended the throne in tragic and still somewhat mysterious circumstances King Gyanendra was hell-bent on booting them out from every post of power and authority. That is why New Delhi, like Nepal’s political establishment and cocktail circuit, was caught napping when the monarch finally took over all the reins of government on 2 February.

Against this background, the publication of Manjushree Thapa’s book could not have been more timely. On the author’s own admission, it is a ‘mongrel of historiography, reportage, travel writing and journal writing.’ But the mongrel, as we shall see in a moment, barks on the right occasions and often bites at the right places. It is a primer to initiate the reader to understand a complicated, intricately stratified and opaque country now at the mercy of forces that have spun out of control and, in the process, reduced its 20 million people to wallow in anger, sorrow and an overweening sense of fatalism.

The very first salvo Ms. Thapa fires is against the monarchy. She raises doubts about what actually happened on the night of the royal massacre and makes bold to point a finger at King Gyanendra and his much reviled son, Crown Prince Paras. She sounds convincing enough when she picks holes in the findings of the three-member commission set up by the new monarch to enquire into the ghastly episode. (It was actually a two-member commission for the third resigned shortly after his appointment challenging its legitimacy.)

But the whole truth is unlikely ever to be known. The wildest conspiracy theories will therefore continue to be aired. In fact, a Pakistani columnist writing in Dawn has even argued that the massacre and what followed was the handiwork of India. Obviously he has no clue why the King and New Delhi have barely been on speaking terms since he grabbed all executive powers.

The chapters devoted to Nepal’s historical evolution offer a perspective which many commentators on developments in the kingdom tend to neglect. The coming together and the falling apart between the Shahs and the usurper Ranas is a classic case of a small but rapacious elite pursuing power and wealth without a thought to the public weal. It is Jawaharlal Nehru’s India that enabled the Shah dynasty to regain control of the throne. He swiftly switched his support to the political parties which were in the forefront to end Rana and secure the return of King Tribhuvan.

During the spell of Panchayat Raj, when power tilted in favour of the Palace, India continued to side with the democratic forces. The ‘one party democracy’ lasted for three decades. King Mahendra took over in 1972. He was well educated, affable, but as Ms. Thapa writes, a ‘bit like a placid pothead.’ Sikkim’s annexation by India in 1974, she argues, strengthened the monarchy. Ever since the familiar refrain of the Nepali elite has been as follows: if the politicians come to power, they will hand Nepal over to India.

But when the blockade decreed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 eventually led to the collapse of Panchayati Raj and democracy was restored in Nepal, the same elite breathed a sigh of relief. That sigh does not resonate in the book. Instead, when the Maoists formally launched their ‘People’s War’, sections of the elite believed that this was yet another ploy of New Delhi to ‘Sikkimise’ their country. Ever since anybody who called the shots in Nepal – Palace, politicians, Maoists alike – were regarded as Indian agents.

Manjushree Thapa does not say much about this India-bashing. However, New Delhi’s own conduct is not above reproach. It has systematically underestimated the strength of nationalism in Nepal. The country is proud of the fact that it has never been colonised. And though it is sandwiched between India and China, it is the overbearing presence of India that is irksome. Successive rulers have therefore played the Chinese and, in a truly bizarre sense, the Pakistani cards to resist India.

Reinforcing this image of the Ugly Indian is the behaviour of Indian visitors and the arrogant and patronising attitude of Indian officialdom. At the same time, as one recent envoy to the country told me, the very people who rail against India during the day make a beeline to the Indian mission at night to seek all kinds of favours. The message is clear though the author will not admit as much: should India regard Nepal as any other sovereign country and insist on reciprocity, relations between the two countries will collapse overnight and in the process place the landlocked Himalayan kingdom in dire straits.

But it is Nepal, not India, that is her concern. On this score, the book needs to be treated with caution. It is all very well to rail against all and sundry: the monarch, the political parties, the Maoists. The monarchy, and especially the present king, have never reconciled to the end of the Panchayat system. The Palace and the courtiers spared no occasion to berate the elected politicians. Their barely concealed aim was to discredit parliamentary democracy itself. In this endeavour they received much help from the political establishment. The venality of the politicians, their failure to provide effective governance and their endless ego clashes brought such discredit to democracy that many thoughtful Nepalis welcomed the emergence of the Maoists. But then the Maoists rapidly transformed themselves from a force dedicated to the welfare of the masses into a trigger-happy bunch of adventurers, extortionists and thugs.

But a compendium of the misdemeanours of the major players in Nepal’s power games or a statement of first principles cannot be a substitute for what needs to be done to contain and roll back the multiple crises in the country. Ms. Thapa ends her book on a note befitting the chattering classes: ‘If only the extreme right and the extreme left can be disarmed and brought to the centre, we could re-establish democracy again…’

For all the vivacity, neatness and elegance of her style, this ‘if only’ conclusion is the surest sign of the political impasse in Nepal. Obviously, any one who is familiar with the country wants the restoration of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. But how do you go about providing governance that ensures civil liberties and speeds up development? Neither the players nor the spectators of the latest episode in the sordid saga of Nepal quite know the answer. Trust is lacking on all sides. The only guess that one can hazard is that pressure from within and without would compel the contending parties to see reason.

This is easier said than done for Nepal finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. The King controls the army which remains steadfastly loyal to the monarch. But the army has played a largely ceremonial role so far. It is neither trained nor equipped to crush the Maoist rebellion. The political parties have no road map to guide the country back to a democratic destination. They cannot break bread with the Maoists nor feast at the king’s table without losing face. That brings us to the Maoists. No power, not even China, would want them to overrun Kathmandu and establish their supremacy over all of Nepal. As a Nepali journalist once remarked: ‘Let alone a light at the end of the tunnel, we are unable to see the tunnel itself.’

All the same, it is important for the world at large, and India in particular, to listen to the voice of Manjushree Thapa for even if she does not indicate a way out of the impasse, she speaks with knowledge, insight and a healthy scepticism about her country’s travails. She emerges from these pages as a sensitive, passionate and sophisticated witness to a phase in Nepal’s history which threatens to shatter the myth of a Himalayan paradise.

At the time of writing this review India, the United States and Britain have suspended economic and military assistance and put pressure on the monarch to restore political freedoms. The latter has turned even more belligerent. Meanwhile, defiance of the monarch has gradually picked up momentum. The key question remains: will the three major players in this tragic turn of events be able to reach a precarious modus vivendi which could begin to usher in some tranquillity that Nepal desperately needs to remain in one piece? Until that question is answered, writers like Manjushree Thapa will continue to be heard with respect and admiration.

Dileep Padgaonkar

 

top