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This restless land

Last year, after a decade of violence, Maoist rebels drove through the abolition of Nepal’s monarchy

Over dinner in Kathmandu, my friend was becoming increasingly agitated. It was not the fate of her own business - high-end fashion design and retail - that concerned her most, though a winter-long electricity shortage that had blacked out the Nepalese capital for nearly 19 hours a day had crippled it, along with many others. Her biggest worry was the fate of the business belonging to a Tibetan friend.

The Tibetan ran a successful furniture factory that gave much-needed work to several dozen employees. One day, 40 armed Maoists turned up at the factory, roughed up some of the workers and made two demands: for an exorbitant contribution to party funds, and that all the factory workers join the union. None of the staff wanted to join. The factory owner, who enjoyed a good relationship with his workforce, was equally unenthusiastic. The "union", everyone knew, was a device to establish a Maoist presence in the factory. Once installed, the union would insist on recruiting Maoist cadres to the workforce, whether they were trained or not, to ensure that the party's writ would rule in the enterprise. The factory owner closed down his operations and took an unscheduled holiday. When he returned to restart his business, it was with a militia, assembled for his protection against further Maoist visits.

Since their departure from government early in the summer, after a single, ineffective year in power, Nepal's Maoists have been noisy on the sidelines, organising demonstrations and strikes and replenishing party coffers through their own brand of extortion. They had signed a peace agreement in 2006, following a decade of armed insurgency, and emerged as the largest single party in Nepal in the constituent assembly election in April last year.

In August, the Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, was appointed prime minister of a coalition government. The Maoists remained the dominant party of government until May this year, when Prachanda tried to sack the head of the Nepali army, General Rookmangud Katawal, on the grounds of insubordination.

It seemed like an unnecessary quarrel to pick, given that the general was due to retire four months later. Prachanda, however, chose to force the issue of the integration of Maoist fighters into what used to be the Royal Nepal Army. The "Royal" was dropped when King Gyanendra was deposed in May 2008, but the army's attachment to the interests of Nepal's old ruling class was not lost. Faced with Katawal's reluctance to admit the Maoist combatants to the army, Prachanda insisted that the principle of military obedience to civil authority was at stake, even though the army had pledged loyalty, for the first time in Nepal's history, to the elected government. When his coalition partners backed away from the confrontation and the president, Ram Baran Yadav, countermanded the dismissal, the Maoist-led government collapsed. Prachanda resigned, leaving Nepal in the hands of an unwieldy coalition of 22 out of Nepal's 24 political parties.

The peace process is now in a precarious state. Certainly the central elements of the peace accord - a new constitution to follow the ending of the monarchy, and the proposed integration of the Maoist fighters into the army - have all but stalled. Complaints by the army that many of the 19,000 fighters were underage and underqualified were fuelled by a leaked and widely televised video of Prachanda apparently boasting to his supporters in January 2008 that he had deceived the UN special representative charged with guiding the peace process about the size of the movement's army, and that he regarded the integration of the Maoist ranks into the army as a means of politicising the military. Against this background, settling the outstanding accounts of the decade of violence - the still-unexplained disappearances and human rights violations on both sides - remains a remote prospect.

Mutual suspicions could bring about the outcome that everybody claims not to want - a return to authoritarian rule, either through the Maoists or following an intervention by the army, which has so far resisted the call to reduce its ranks to a size appropriate for a poor nation that is no longer at war. If the Maoists, who believe they have earned the right to political supremacy through both military and electoral success, feel unfairly excluded from power, a return to force cannot be ruled out. Equally, if the army and its supporters feel that the Maoists' real game plan is to establish the Leninist party-state, it might be moved to "save" democracy.

Mosaic of cultures

Democracy is not an easy proposition in Nepal. Many of the country's political parties - even the relatively disciplined Maoists - are racked with internal divisions, and defections are common. These tensions are acted out daily in the constituent assembly, which has set itself a deadline of next May to complete the blueprint for Nepal's political future. To do that, it must choose between a presidential or a prime ministerial system and determine what degree of autonomy Nepal's 100-plus ethnic groups can hope for.

General de Gaulle once remarked that it was impossible to govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese. Nepal, with 126 languages, presents an even greater challenge. The country's mosaic of peoples and cultures has been dominated for the past 300 years by the Brahmin and Chhetri castes, which have monopolised power in the army, the economy and political life. The overthrow of that dominance in favour of a system which would give equal ­opportunity to other groups was one of the promises held out to lower-caste Maoist fighters by their Brahmin leadership. Many already feel that the promise has been broken.

Every day there is agitation by one group or the other, anxious that such promises will be forgotten in the horse-trading around the text of the new constitution. Following the conflict, there is a new assertiveness on the part of some powerful minorities, notably the Madhesis who live in the baked plains of the Terai, terrain that merges seamlessly with northern India across an open border. The Terai covers one-fifth of Nepal's territory and contains 70 per cent of its industry, but armed and militant groups now call openly for independence from the mountainous parts of the country, with which they feel little in common. Migrants from the hills, many of them refugees from the fighting during the insurgency, are harassed in the Terai, both by armed political groups and by criminal gangs that make a living from kidnapping and extortion. The hill people are not the only victims: factories are also closing as businessmen flee the troubles.

As the ragged government stumbles on, locked in endless negotiations over the minutiae of the division of spoils, the people become more anxious and more impoverished. Nepal has the lowest per capita income in south Asia, with 80 per cent of the population making a difficult living from the land. Only 15 per cent have access to electricity and that has become increasingly unreliable. Climate change is already having an impact on the livelihoods of some of Nepal's poorest people, subsistence hill farmers, who are faced with new pests and diseases and failing crops. Two million Nepalis, out of a total population of 28.5 million, currently receive UN food aid and the government has asked for twice this number to be included. An unusually dry winter presages a low harvest for next year; a second dry winter would repeat last winter's power failures, as the rivers run too low to generate the hydropower on the which the country depends.

Peace has brought no relief from the burden of military spending: the current budget includes an increase of 27 per cent for a military that already enjoys a larger share of national revenues than the collapsing power sector, agriculture or health. Without the remittances sent home by millions of Nepalis working in construction gangs in the Gulf or serving in the British army, Nepal would be bankrupt.

Between China and India

In recent weeks, thousands of Maoist supporters have rallied in Kathmandu against President Yadav, accusing him of undermining the authority of the civilian government. Prachanda has threatened a campaign of disruption unless the party is allowed to return to government and the powers of the president are debated in parliament. Such threats merely reinforce suspicions that democracy, even in its imperfect, Nepali form, would not be safe in Maoist hands.

A further political problem is Nepal's growing role as a proxy theatre for the rivalry between Asia's emerging giants, India and China. In his brief term as prime minister, Prachanda ruffled feathers in India by making his first foreign visit to Beijing rather than to Delhi. Although Nepal's Maoists have little in common politically with today's turbocapitalist Chinese, Beijing seems happy to take advantage of the invitation to establish a larger presence in the backyard of its rival power.

Nepal's border with Tibet has been a favourite escape route for Tibetans fleeing their homeland, and the government in Beijing says it suspects Nepal's large and lively Tibetan exile community of anti-Chinese activities. Beijing's relatively modest investment in Nepal has paid dividends in tighter border surveillance and stricter controls on the refugees. For India, at odds with China over their long and still disputed border, and anxious about connections between the Maoists and India's own Naxalite insurgency, the signs of Beijing's increasing influence are deeply unwelcome.

For the Nepalese people, sandwiched between two competing giants, there is little relief. Neither the army nor the police, despite generous budgets, provides protection against disaffected armed groups. For these violent gangs, as for a corrupt and underpaid bureaucracy, for Nepal's political parties and for the police, citizens are cash machines, vulnerable to extortion and expected to offer bribes for everyday services. For these citizens, who have repeatedly taken to the streets over the years to demand democracy, a state that guarantees security, equality and opportunity remains a dream.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England