Six years into the Maoist People’s War, the toll is 1700 Nepalis dead. The people are crying out for a settlement, and given the right combination of circumstances, that could yet happen. Despite the violence, the Maoists seem close enough to the surface—they could come above ground.
In the days leading up to 13 February earlier this year, a certain tension was palpable in Kathmandu Valley. That day would mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of the ‘People’s War’ by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and there was apprehension that the insurgents would celebrate the occasion with a big bang. After sunset, police road- blocks went up on the capital’s roads and there was random checking of vehicles. Rumours flew thick, and some even expected the Maoists to carry out an assault on the Valley itself, given that they were already present in the outlying districts. The political tabloids played on the fear of the inhabitants, heretofore protected from the wrath of the ‘people’s warriors’, who had mainly concentrated their fire to the hinterland till then.
As it turned out, nothing happened. But the paranoia did serve to underscore the extent to which the Maoist uprising has by now embedded itself in the national psyche. And with good reason too. The insurgency has affected almost all the 75 districts of the country (only a handful of remote mountain districts remain untouched). Five contiguous western Nepal districts are, for all practical purposes, under the control of the Maoists, with Kathmandu’s role being limited to the district headquarters. Access to Maoist-held areas is strictly controlled by the insurgents themselves and prior permission from the commissars is required to enter. By December 2000, the rebels had even set up their own ‘people’s government’ in these districts, complete with minor development works, ‘people’s courts’ and not a little bit of social policing against alcoholism, usury and so on.
The Maoists’ power is felt far beyond the areas under their control. In some eastern districts, they have taken up the role of cultural policemen, going so far as to decree what is ‘proper’ for girls to wear. They have set off explosions in the factories of at least two Indian multinationals in the Tarai. They charge village ‘levies’ from households even in districts that they are not really active in. All over Nepal, Maoist cadre make ‘collections’ from businesses small and large, armed with receipt books. Maoist agents, known for their civility, are active even in Kathmandu as they go about making their collections in broad daylight, and There are perhaps very few establishments in the country that have not paid up..
Even the Maoists’ student wing has been able to flex its muscles with considerable impact. Last December, the students called for a week-long closure of all schools in the kingdom to protest the singing of the national anthem (which they say glorifies the king, and in fact it does) and the teaching of Sanskrit (considered disadvantageous to the many ethnic groups of the country). The fiat was complied to without visible protest and school children stayed home that week.
For a country that has not seen a real war for nearly two centuries, the number of those killed in the course of the fighting has been numbing. The latest government figures show that nearly 1700 people have lost their lives to political violence in the last five years, sacrificed to the police and Maoist bullets increasingly. (In comparison, the 1990 People’s Movement that did away with the monarchical Panchayat system succeeded with a loss of fewer than 50 lives.) By now there have been Maoist related deaths in 52 of the country’s 75 districts.
The insurgents have never been stronger in terms of strategy and fighting strength. The first indication of their fighting capability came in September 2000, when a Maoist contingent travelled for more than a week up the Bheri river gorge and launched an overnight attack on Dunai, the district headquarters of the western mountain district of Dolpa (see cover image). There they killed 14 policemen, while the civilian population cowered in terror. The death toll was to rise dramatically in April this year, when within a week Maoists guerillas stormed two police posts in west Nepal and left 70 policemen dead, some of them killed execution-style. By now, the data prepared by a human rights ngo in Kathmandu has begun to show more police deaths at the hands of Maoists than vice versa.
These military ‘victories’ in the hills of Nepal are significant accomplishments for a motley collection of village youth who followed a handful of firebrand leaders to begin their insurrection by bumping off ‘class enemies’ with rudimentary weapons and talking headily about setting up aadliar ilakns (“base areas”) in the remote regions. No one had imagined that the People’s War would continue for so long or reach so far, and by all accounts, even the Maoists themselves, despite their claim to establish a proletarian dictatorship under a “New Democratic State”, will have been surprised by their achievements so far. These are no longer romantic revolutionaries. They are battle-hardened fighters, and the only question remaining is whether their revolution will, or can, go anywhere.
For the general public in Nepal, the Maoists were quite an unknown entity until they burst into the scene in 1996. That is understandable in a country which has seen the communist groupings split, merge and split again so many times that only an acute observer will be able to navigate this history with ease. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) itself was no dif-ferent and given that the left centre-stage since the restoration of democracy in 1990 had been dominated by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the Maoist party (and its earlier reincarnations) was perceived as just one among the conglomeration of factions that spanned the political spectrum from the CPN-UML onward to the extreme left.
The origins of today’s Maoists go back to the late 1960s. Following King Mahendra’s seizure of state power in 1960 after arresting the cabinet and dissolving the elected parliament, all political parties were banned. Within the Communist Party of Nepal, there emerged two groups: one that preferred to work together with the king and the other that demanded the restoration of parliament. That difference of opinion was later formalised with a split that reflected the Sino-Soviet rift, with the pro-king faction allied to Moscow and the other to Peking. Despite the ban, like other political parties, the communist grouping opposed to the monarchy continued functioning, but given the prohibition in place, various local units had begun to operate independently.
In this situation, two of the communist leaders who had made a name as radicals within the party, Mohan Bikram Singh and Nirmal Lama (who died last year), set about creating a new party apparatus. In spite of differences with their contemporaries, including with the founder of the Communist Party of Nepal, Pushpa Lal Shrestha, they succeeded in holding what they called the communist party’s Fourth Convention (Chautho Mahadhiveshan) in 1974 and named their new party the Communist Party of Nepal (Fourth Convention). Its basic divergence was that while Pushpa Lal had always always maintained the need for the communists to join hands with all forces (read, the Nepali Congress) in their fight against absolute monarchy, the Fourth Convention opposed any such inclination. The Fourth Convention also demanded the election of a constituent assembly to write a constitution (as opposed to Pushpa Lal’s stance which called for the restoration of parliament), and its strategy was to begin a people’s movement which could at the opportune moment be converted into an armed revolt. The top leadership of today’s Maoists comes from this school.
Meanwhile, quite unconnected with these happenings, an actual communist uprising took place in a corner of Nepal. This was in Jhapa, the southeastern-most district of the country and right across the border from the Naxalbari region in India. The Naxalite movement was well underway in West Bengal when, in April 1972, a group of young Nepali activists began a campaign to eliminate ‘class enemies’ in Jhapa. This turned out to be no more than a romantic adventure and was suppressed by the king’s government in no time. A total of seven ‘class enemies’ were killed before he leaders were jailed and the movement end. At its founding, the Fourth Convention came out vehemently against the Jhapa Movement, declaring: “While we support the spirit and sacrifice shown in the struggle against class enemies, the terrorist tactics adopted…cannot be called Marxism-Leninism. This is a form of semi-anarchy.”
The Fourth Convention denounced the Jhapa uprising, yet it did represent the extreme left in Nepal, and until the mid-1980s it remained the major player among the communist factions. In 1983, Mohan Bikram broke away and formed the Communist Party of Nepal (Masal) (masal meaning torch in Nepali). (In 1984, Masal became one of the founding members of the Revolutionary International Movement/ RIM, a grouping of Maoist parties worldwide. The present-day Maoists have since replaced Masai within RIM.) Two years later, Masal split further into CPN (Masai) and CPN (Mashal). These divisions led to an erosion of public support for the Fourth Convention, ironically to the benefit of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), the party set up by the leaders of the Jhapa Movement.
It was in the Mashal party that Pushpa Kamal Dahal (the Maoist supremo who goes by the nom dc guerre of Prachanda) appeared on the top rung of leadership for the first time, and later became its general secretary. The other well-known present-day Maoist leader, Baburam Bhattarai, remained with Mohan Bikram.
That was the situation until the launch of the 1990 People’s Movement, which was undertaken by the Nepali Congress and a grouping of seven left parties, the United Left Front (ULF), against King Birendra’s Panchayat system. Although the mother party, the Fourth Convention, became part of the ULF, neither Masal nor Mashal joined it. With other small leftist groups, they instead formed an alliance called the United National People’s Movement, and only joined the People’s Movement once the street protests had gathered momentum. The climactic moments of 6 April 1990, when police firing on the Kathmandu streets culminated in the capitulation of the old regime, is believed to have been the handiwork of this latter group — its having incited the demonstrators to try and storm the Narayanhiti Royal Palace.
Following the restoration of democracy, the hardline left parties pressed for an election to a constituent assembly as a means of delivering a genuine people’s constitution rather than have a document handed down by the “establishment”. (The formation of a constituent assembly was in fact promised by King Birendra’s grandfather, Tribhuvan, as part of the so called Delhi Agreement of 1951 which led to the downfall of the 104-year-old Rana oligarchy. The Nepali Congress party itself had agitated initially for elections for a constituent assembly and only later accepted the general election as offered by King Mahendra in 1959.) Instead of a constituent assembly, however, some selected representatives from the Nepali Congress, the left, the royal palace and some independents were given the task of drafting a new constitution, which was promulgated in November 1990. That same month, four parties, including the Fourth Convention, Masal and Mashal, merged to form the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre), with Prachanda as general secretary. The first general election was approaching at the time and there was pressure from within for the party to take part in it. Accordingly, the United People’s Front (UPF) was floated as the political wing of the Unity Centre, and in the first parliament, the UPF emerged as the third largest group (with nine seats) after the Nepali Congress (110 seats) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist- Leninist) (69). (The latter, which remains today the all-powerful opposition party in Parliament, was a coming together of the Marxist- Leninists, which had become the largest leftist organisation by 1990, the remnants of Pushpa Lal’s party and others of the left.)
The Unity Centre held its first conference a year later in which the proposal for a “protracted armed struggle on the route to a new democratic revolution” was discussed and accepted. It was also decided that the Unity Centre would go underground although, in practice, it remained semi-underground. By the time the 1994 mid-term elections had come around, Unity Centre had divided between a Unity Centre headed by Nirmal Lama and another under the same name led by Prachanda. The UPF also fell apart, reflecting that split, with the group that supported Prachanda being led by Baburam Bhattarai. Both factions of the UPF approached the Election Commission for recognition. The one which supported Nirmal Lama was given recognition. Baburam Bhattarai then called for a boycott of the elections, an action that at the time was perceived more as a face-saving measure.
In March 1995, Prachanda’s Unity Centre held its ‘Third Plenum’, during which they foreswore elections (it is believed at the insistence of RIM) and decided to take up arms. It was during that meeting that the Unity Centre was renamed the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). In September the same year, the party’s central committee adopted a “Plan for the historical initiation of the people’s war” which stated that the “protracted people’s war [will be] based on strategy of encircling the city from the countryside according to the specificities of our country. The Party once again reiterates its eternal commitment to the theory of people’s war developed by Mao as the universal and invincible Marxist theory of war.”
(As far as the RIM is concerned, before 1996, the Maoists of Nepal needed – for the sake of their standing within the country – to claim membership in RIM, howsoever marginal that organisation may have been to world politics. The document cited above talks about the CPN (Maoist)’s “serious responsibility to contribute towards the further development of Revolutionary Internationalist Movement/RIM, of which our party is a participating member…” However, Nepal’s Maoists have become the vanguard flag-bearers of the revolutionary movement worldwide, and it seems that it is the RIM which needs association with the Nepali Maoists to provide its very raison d’etre.)
This, then, was how thing lay when on 4 February 1996, Baburam Bhattarai presented the Nepali Congress-led coalition government of Sher Bahadur Deuba with a list of 40 demands related to “nationalism, democracy and livelihood”. These included abrogation of both the 1950 and the Mahakali treaties with India (one on “peace and friendship” and the other on the sharing of the water on the western frontier river); introducing work permits for foreign (i.e. Indian) workers in Nepal; curtailing all privileges of the royal family; drafting of a new constitution through a constituent assembly; nationalising the property of “comprador and bureaucratic capitalists”; declaring Nepal a secular nation; and also details such as providing villages with roads, drinking water and electricity; and complete guarantee of freedom of speech and publication. Incidentally, these demands were not much different from the points outlined in the 1991 election manifesto of the above-ground united UPF. Bhattarai’s covering letter contained an ultimatum that unless the government initiated positive steps towards fulfilling those demands by 17 February 1996, “we will be forced to embark on an armed struggle against the existing state.”
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was on a state visit to India when the Maoists struck in six districts on 13 February, four days before the deadline had even expired. (Even today, the mainstream left seeks to lay the blame for the Maoist problem squarely on the door of the Nepali Congress, since the fighting began when the latter was running the government. But, as the Congress spokesman and a minister at that time, Narahari Acharya, points out, Baburam Bhattarai’s 40 demands contained just two points more than a similar list presented on 31 December 1994 to Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari, who was heading the minority government of the CPN-UML. Acharya’s argument is also that, demands or no demands, the Maoists would have begun the uprising since that was the kind of violent political agenda they had opted for.)
The Congress factor
Although realignments in party positions provided the Maoists with a theoretical premise for beginning the People’s War, the political situation on the ground too proved conducive for just such a move. This had mainly to do with the historical antagonism between the Nepali Congress and the left. Latter-day partners in the fight against absolute monarchy, the relationship turned acrimonious as the campaigning began for the first general elections in 1991. When the Nepali Congress won an outright majority in the Pratinidhi Sabha (parliament) and Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister (his first of four tenures in the last 11 years), this distrust took an ugly turn as left activists in outlying districts began to face harassment at the hands of the local administration at the instigation of local Congress politicos.
Although such incidents occurred in many parts of Nepal, it was more pronounced in the area where the Maoists today hold sway—the western hills. This is a region characterised by extreme poverty and with an economy that has for long been sustained by remittances of males who have migrated to India for work, a fact recognised by the Nepal Human Development Report 1998, which lists all the hill and mountain districts of western Nepal as scraping the bottom of the socio-economic barrel. In addition, the society is semi-feudal in nature with the kind of exploitation that goes hand in hand with it. But unlike a certain fatalistic attitude that pervades the region even further west, there was a crucial difference in the adjoining districts of Rolpa and Rukum.
These two districts had been a stronghold for revolutionary communist activists since the late 1950s and throughout the autocratic Panchayat years. As far back as 1980, during the national plebiscite when people were asked to choose between a ‘reformed’ Panchayat and a multiparty system, the army had to be put on alert in Rolpa since the Fourth Convention had called for a boycott of the vote. The large village of Thawang, which had voted overwhelmingly communist in the first parliamentary elections of 1959 at a time when the Nepali Congress had managed a landslide throughout the country, not only boycotted the referendum but also replaced the portraits of the king and queen that were mandatory in government offices with those of Marx and Lenin.
By the time of the 1991 (second) parliamentary election, their presence in Rolpa had become so strong that the United People’s Front won both the seats from the district. In neighbouring Rukum, the UPF was there right behind the Nepali Congress. The Congress-UPF rivalry soon developed into a no-holds-barred fight, and each side gave as good as it got. The leftists began ‘taking action’ against those they considered exploiters, usurers and cheats. The victims generally tended to be from the Nepali Congress for the sole reason that the local influential who had originally been with the Panchayatsystem had mostly entered the ruling party.
The Congress people had the advantage of their party ruling at the Centre and many did not hesitate to use the state machinery against their opponents. Perhaps it was a personal failing of the prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, with his much-attributed antipathy for communists, that he did little to control such acts of harassment and even terror. The police arrested UPF supporters on trumped-up charges and, in some cases, tortured them. As the 1992 Human Rights Yearbook published by the human rights organisation, INSEC, recorded, in Rolpa, “political workers, employees and teachers have been the victims of arrest and torture because of political revenge… There are many incidents that political parties with support from the ruling power had taken political revenge in this district.”
A section from the 1993 Yearbook of the same organisation states: “In Libang [the headquarters] of Rolpa district regarded as a stronghold of United People’s Front an armed force of 80 men including six inspectors and District Police Officers…launched a suppression campaign… Women were misbehaved, chickens and goats were slaughtered and eaten, and citizens were widely charged with false allegations.” There was retaliation from the other side also, as this entry notes: “District Development Committee member Shahi Ram Dangi, NC [Nepali Congress] supporter, was beaten by three persons… Both of his arms were broken.”
The abuse of state power continued, meanwhile. Not to be cowed down, and in line with their stated aim of armed struggle, in 1995, the Maoists (and the UPF) began what has been called the Sija Campaign (after Sisne and Jaljala, the two main mountains of Rolpa and Rukum) to propagate the Maoist ideology. In the words of one of those who took part in it, as told to the Revolutionary Worker, the weekly newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party of USA, it consisted of a central training programme after which the cadre went back to practise what they had learnt. The purpose was “to arouse the masses and heighten political consciousness. These teams of leaders worked with the masses building roads and bridges, and farming…”
The Maoists continued to clash with the Nepali Congress workers, but also with the CPN-UML cadres. (Although the CPN-UML and the UPF had worked out seat adjustments for the 1991 elections, the strong showing by the UPF in the western hills seems have alarmed the CPN-UML into viewing the UPF as a potential competitor for left-minded party workers as well as voters.) Meanwhile, the response of the Nepali Congress government was a police operation codenamed Romeo (R for Rolpa) to “win the heart and minds” of the people. The home minister at that time was Khum Bahadur Khadka, elected from Dang District, neighbouring Rolpa to the south. Rolpa, Rukum and Dang all fall under Rapti Zone (zone being the larger administrative boundary than a district), and it is believed that Khadka perceived the spread of the extreme left in his home zone as something of a personal slight, hence the ruthlessness with which Operation Romeo was conducted.
In a December 1995 interview with The Independent weekly, Baburam Bhattarai said that “around 1500 policemen, including a specially trained commando force sent from Kathmandu, have been deployed to let loose a reign of terror against the poor peasants… there has been indiscriminate ransacking and looting of properties of common people by the ruling party hoodlums under the protection of the police force. More than 10,000 rural youth, out of a population of 200,000 for the whole district, have been forced to flee their homes and take shelter in remote jungles.”
The INSEC Human Rights Yearbook 1995 reports: “The government initiated…suppressive operations to a degree of state terror. Especially, the workers of United People’s Front were brutally suppressed. Under the direct leadership of ruling party workers of the locality, police searched, tortured and arrested, without arrest warrants, in 11 villages of the district. Nearly 6000 locals had left the villages due to the police operation. One hundred and thirty-two people were arrested without serving any warrants. Among the arrested included elderly people above 75 years of age. All the detained were subjected to torture.”
While all this was going on, the Nepali civil society, represented by the Kathmandu intelligentsia, the human rights activists, the mainstream media, among others, seemed more or less unaware of the extent of state repression. Had they been more alert and warned the government off, there was a possibility that the insurgency would never have acquired the intensity it did over the years. (And this was not to be last time the opinion-makers in Kathmandu Valley would fail their hill brethren.) In retrospect, with the elite classes in the capital looking the other way, the police operation succeeded in thoroughly alienating the local population of Rolpa. As one activist put it to the Revolutionary Worker, “Like Mao said, they picked up a rock to drop it on their own feet.”
So, while on the one hand the political wing of the Maoists, the UPF, had had the door to electoral politics closed on its face through derecognition by the Election Commission and they had adopted armed struggle as their programme, there was outright suppression going on at the hands of the state in these farflung districts. Shyam Shrestha, a former member of the Unity Centre and now an editor of a leftist monthly, calls these the “push and pull factors” that led to the Maoist uprising.
The militant project
In Lenin’s view, the ‘objective conditions’ for a revolution consist of “the impossibility for the ruling classes to live and rule in the old way, the so-called crisis ‘from above’, and, on the other, the unrest of the oppressed classes which do not want to live in the old way, the crisis ‘from below’; extreme aggravation of the poverty and suffering of the oppressed classes; and a considerable increase in the activity of the people.”
Lenin’s prescription for a classic uprising may not be obtaining in Nepal, a land of diverse geography and demography. That could explain why, apart from the short-lived Jhapa uprising, all of Nepal’s communist parties had continued to defer revolution to a future time, and chosen ‘mass struggle’ as the way forward. So, what was it that led the Maoist leadership to decide that the time was ripe for an uprising and where did they garner their confidence for the project? And what of the Marxist ‘subjective conditions’ that “the revolutionary class must be ready and able to undertake revolutionary mass action which is sufficiently strong to overturn the old government”? Could the Maoists have interpreted the 1990 upheaval and the following years of uncertain politicking as having given way to a revolutionary situation in the kingdom?
The freedom that came with parliamentary democracy saw a babel of voices demanding a stake in the making and running of the state. Most notable among these were the ethnic groups. Constituting nearly 35 percent of the population, the ethnic communities have had a historic sense of marginalisation from the national centre of power, a grievance that goes right back to the century-long Rana era. In the changed circumstances after 1990, it was natural for ethnic assertion to come to the fore. As far back as 1992, British scholar Andrew Nickson had warned: “The future prospects of Maoism in Nepal will…depend largely on the extent to which the newly elected Nepali Congress government addresses the historic neglect and discrimination of the small rural communities which still make up the overwhelming bulk of the population of the country…[which] would mean a radical shake-up of the public administration system in order to make it both more representative of the ethnic diversity of the country and more responsive to the needs of peasant communities.”
The state’s reaction to the incipient ethnic movement was ingenuous at best. Apart from pro forma gestures such as allowing the broadcast of news over the national radio in regional languages and the establishment of the National Committee for the Development of Nationalities, it did nothing to recognise concerns relating to language rights, under-representation at the policy-making level, introduction of affirmative action, the “Hindu” nature of the state (as opposed to a secular one), and so on. Resentment continued to build up (and continues to simmer). In fact, in the first few years after 1990, there was, perhaps exaggerated, apprehension thamong the ruling classes that the greatest challenge to the viability of the Nepali nation-state came from a possible ethnic conflagration a la the erstwhile Yugoslavia.
Having decided to abandon the electoral path, and having had to revert to developing a ‘ground level’ power base, the Maoists were quick to identify their ethnic discontent and try to ride it to their purpose, taking advantage of the supposed correlation between ethnicity and poverty. They thus added ethnic demands as a flavour to their ideological programme of class struggle. In the leaflets distributed on the first days of the People’s War, they declared: “To maintain the hegemony of one religion (i.e. Hinduism), language (i.e. Nepali), and nationality (i.e. ‘Chas), this state has for centuries exercised discrimination, exploitation and oppression against other religions, languages and nationalities and has conspired to fragment the forces of national unity that is vital for proper development and security of the country.”
This was also no doubt a tactically motivated insert, since the Maoist strongholds of Rolpa and Rukum contain a significant population of Magars, who form the largest ethnic group in the country. Interestingly, the Maoist leadership consists overwhelmingly of Bahuns (Nepal’s hill Brahmins), the very group that ethnic activists hold responsible for their historical marginalisation. Whatever the motivation, the Maoist strategy seemed to have served its purpose in this region, for a large section of Magars of the central hills embraced the CPN (Maoist) enthusiastically. Meanwhile, after initially flirting with the Maoists, the leaders of many ethnic groups have begun to argue that Nepali Maoism may not be the answer to the challenge of communal discrimination, for the state power will likely remain with the Bahuns no matter how the contest ends. In this reading, the Magars of the western hills, who have died in disproportionate numbers in the People’s War, are no more than cannon fodder.
The fact that the Maoists have not been able to take advantage of the caste-ethnic divisions on a country-wide scale may actually point to the true class character of the struggle they champion. It is after all a ‘class war’ with ideogical underpinnings and its roots can be traced to the general sense of discontent in the aftermath of the 1990 movement. As the parliamentary exercise proceeded, nothing significant happened in terms of improving the social and economic conditions of the people. Governance remained in shambles as political parties concentrated on trying to reach for and stay in power. The gap between the poor and the rich grew wider even as conspicuous consumption of a kind never before witnessed soared in the capital city. Writes Baburam Bhattarai in his 1998 monograph, Politico-Economic Rationale of People’s War in Nepal: “Nepal has slid to the status of the second poorest country in the world in terms of physical and cultural developments; 71 percent of its population fall below absolute poverty level; 46.5 percent of national income is in the hands of 10 percent of the richest people…”
For all its flaws, the pre-1990 system had introduced certain developmental advances which, in the following decade, sparked significant social departures. For example, the network of highways championed by the Panchayat leadership made it easier for village youth to venture out to see the lights of Kathmandu, and literacy allowed them the access to the tools to understand, compare and contrast their lives with those of people elsewhere. For many young Nepalis, politicised by literacy and the ability to read the newspapers and yet frustrated by poor and incredibly unresponsive education, the age-old route down the mountains to menial labour in the plains was no longer a path that could be trod unthinkingly. This labour migration to the plains was, after all, the historical safety valve which kept the lid on political upheaval over the decades. But now the pressures were being bottled up.
The sense of neglect of the young, without the lived experience of the Panchayat-era ennui, became all the more acute when the parliamentary democracy achieved in 1990 failed to ‘deliver’. French social scientist, Anne de Sales, who has studied the Magars of the central hills, writes that the villages are today full of individuals “who have had experience of realities other than those of the daily life of the village”. She adds, “Whether their personal journeys have been in search of a better education or, more commonly, in search of work, whether they have gone to the flatlands of the Tarai, to the capital, or abroad, they have come into contact with a modernity which, even if it is not viewed as 100 percent positive, marks a Rubicon. The perception of rural areas like theirs as dead ends and going nowhere, forgotten by the rest of the world, discourages the young people, who are more inclined than in previous times to join a militant project for a society where they would have a more respected place and a better life.”
de Sales was writing about the Magar youth of Rolpa, but she could as easily have been referring to the young anywhere in Nepal’s hills. This disparity would not have been significant had it not been for the fact that after 1990 politics had become more participatory and political discourse more open and a larger number of people more politically conscious. And a politically aware youth population steeped in poverty and seeing no rescue from the direction of the mainstream party politicians was more likely to be swayed by Maoist rhetoric. Rhetoric which claimed, in classic ideological language, that “This state that does not manufacture even a needle in the name of self-reliant and national economy, has handed over the whole economy of the country to a dozen families of foreign compradors and bureaucratic capitalists.”
Kilo Sierra 2
Looking back at the last five years which have coincided with the People’s War of the CPN (Maoist), and pondering over the state of the above-ground politics that the underground rebels were fighting, it becomes obvious why the latter increased their reach in quantum jumps. The 1994 elections had thrown up a hung parliament that gave the country one minority government and as many as five coalition ones. Everything, including the Maoist uprising, took a back seat as the parties in parliament tried out every previously-inconceivable ideological permutations in their joust for power.
When the attacks first began in the remote hills, there was a certain nonchalance apparent among the politicians in Kathmandu. Even as they denounced the violent methods of the Maoists and, for public consumption, some repeated ad nauseum calls for a “political settlement” to the problem, the fact is that the politicians of all hues preferred to view Nepali Maoism as a simple law-and-order problem that could be tackled by the police. Bhim Bahadur Tamang was law and justice minister at the time and he told a newspaper that since the Maoists were not waging an ideological battle, they would have to be put down by force. The home minister, Khum Bahadur Khadka, was being equally forthright when he said: “We are doing our best to bring them under control.” If it was a problem to be ‘controlled’, it certainly was not done to perfection, as events that have played out since indicate.
If it was to be expected that the mainstream communists would view the Maoists kindly, that did not happen. In 1997, the mainstream communists formed a coalition government with the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, representing the discredited political force from the Panchayat era. It went one better than the Nepali Congress and tried to introduce a ‘black law’ that would have given the police wide-rang- ing powers against ‘terrorists’ (the law was also trying to address a police complaint that the Maoists they caught were being released all-too- easily by the courts). Following widespread protests from the intelligentsia and human rights groups, and also from international organisations, the effort was aborted. Later, in 1998, the CPN (Marxist-Leninist) (a splinter from the CPN-UML) joined the Nepali Congress government as a junior partner barely two months after the infamous police action known as ‘Kilo Sierra 2’ operation had been launched.
Following in the violent footsteps of Operation Romeo, Kilo Sierra 2 was at once the result of several colluding factors: an undisciplined police force that had all-too-quickly been politicized beyond recognition; a political class of ruling and opposition parties that saw the Maoists as an aberration best liquidated; a national educated class that refused to demand performance from the politicians even while fashionably opposing the proposed ‘black law’. (It is not entirely clear, but Kilo Sierra 2, i.e., KS2, is said to be an anagram of the radio code S2K, or Search to Kill.)
Operation Kilo Sierra 2 was undertaken by the Nepal Police in 18 districts of the country, for over a year. Although the men in blue denied throughout the existence of such an operation, from mid-1998 onwards the killing of Maoists and their supporters escalated to reach the highest point ever in the last five years of the People’s War. If Operation Romeo had concentrated its fire on a particular area in the western hills, Kilo Sierra 2 was spread out across the ‘Maoist-affected’ regions of the country.
The pain and suffering that the brutal police action left in its wake would have provide the long-lasting motive energy for the Maoist insurgency, and it is on the foundations of the angered peasantry targeted by the police that the insurgents have been able to build the larger edifice of the People’s War of today. This is borne out by the results of a recent opinion poll boo by conducted by Himal Khabarpatrika, Kathmandu’s Nepali-language fortnightly. In west Nepal, where the police actions have been most concentrated, 30 percent of the respondents attributed the rise of the Maoists to police high-handedness (The national average was 19 per cent. On the other hand, 38 percent attributed it to poverty and unemployment, 17 percent to the Maoist ideology and 9 percent to fear of the Maoists).
In the end, all efforts of successive governments to bring the Maoists to heel with force failed. Sending in the police with a one-point brief to quell the insurgency without considering that its fallout was a mistake the political bosses in Kathmandu have possibly lived to regret. The other miscalculation was not realising the extent to which a police force trained to handle civilian law-and-order situations can take on what turned out to be a highly motivated group ready to kill and be killed.
The bravado of the government and the police can, to some extent, be attributed to the pitiful armoury that the Maoists fielded in the initial years of their insurgency. This consisted of a few .22 and 12-bore rifles looted from village bigwigs, but mostly ancient muzzle-loaders and country-made guns fashioned by blacksmiths. But the Maoist arsenal grew formidable with firearms and ammunition capture from the police during their mass attacks. Till the end of March 2001, the Maoists had taken nearly 600 ‘three-nought-three’ rifles from the police along with a couple of hundred of other weapons. Similarly, the haul from the civilian population has also crossed 500. That is again classic Maoist strategy: “To replenish our strength with all the arms… captured from the enemy.”
Apart from guns, the Maoists have, with devastating results, fielded explosive booby traps, pipe bombs and homemade ‘grenades’ against the police (these ‘grenades’ using the spring mechanism of cheap ball point pens to trigger the explosion within the short length of the metal piping). Police sources say training in the use of explosives has been provided by Maoist groups based in India, namely the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) of Bihar and the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninst (People’s War) in Andhra Pradesh. The Maoists have also lately begun sourcing weapons from the illegal arms bazaar of the neighbouring Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
They have the wherewithal. According to government figures, the Maoists have so far looted NPR 250 million from banks and other institutions. However, analysts in Kathmandu believe that with money extorted in the form of ‘donations’ and ‘taxes’, the Maoist treasury could be well over NPR 5 billion.
According to the police, captured militants have admitted that the Maoists have by now acquired automatic weapons, although these have not so far been used in the fighting (see cover image). Going by the pictures by journalists on “guided tours” of Maoist-held areas, the muzzle-loaders that were ubiquitous even till two years ago have disappeared from the scene. The Maoists now not only have motivation, they have the arms to fight a police force that has neither the will power nor the equipment and training to take on guerillas.
In sharp contrast to the insurgents’ expanding arsenal, the Nepal Police is stuck with antiquated weaponry, in particular the 303s of World War II vintage that reportedly jam after a few rounds of firing. The police have for long complained that if they are to tackle the Maoists they need to be equipped better. This demand, however, has not been acted upon as it involves bringing in the Royal Nepal Army, long since distrustful of the police and unwilling to let it handle modern arms. Indeed, supported by the royal palace, the army has been able to deny the Nepal Police the modern weapons it needs so desperately if it is to fight a declared ‘war’ by highly motivated insurgents.
Especially since the lost battle in Dunai, the headquarters of Dolpa district, the police have been on the defensive vis-a-vis the Maoists. This is reflected in the number of killings; in 2000, more people (mostly policemen) were killed by the Maoists than Maoists and their supporters killed by the police. The Maoist tactic is to hurl homemade bombs, detonate pressure-cookers packed with explosives, and with the cowering policemen in disarray, attack in a swarm of hundreds (human waves reminiscent of the Chinese during the Korean War) to take police outposts.
Meanwhile, the policemen have abandoned outlying posts in the districts that are highly affected by the insurgency, and concentrated forces in a few places. But even this type of strategic withdrawal did not prevent the Maoists from carrying out attacks such as the ones at Rukum and Dailekh in early April or the earlier one in the same region on a convoy carrying the chief justice of the Supreme Court, in which five were killed, including the registrar of the regional court.
As a consequence of all these factors, police morale is down. There have been mass resignations and desertions after the Rukum and Dailekh losses. It does not help matters that the system of posting policemen to Maoist areas is fraught with reverse favouritism and influencepeddling. Besides, unlike in the army, the policemen are not trained to fight as a loyal band, and the seniors rarely fight in the trenches with the rank and file. It is an indication of the times that, in a country with such high unemployment, the number of applicants for the oncecoveted police jobs is down drastically.
War or peace
One of the constants since the People’s War’s beginning has been the repeated call that a “political solution” be sought to resolve the Maoist issue. At the political level, this has mainly emanated from the CPN-UML, and subsequently its breakaway CPN-ML. But apart from using the Maoists’ rise as a stick to beat the Nepali Congress with and trying to lay responsibility for the conflict at its doorstep, the two major communist forces have done precious little to indicate the shape and focus of their proposed “political solution”. Till now, their role has been to publicly nay-say any and all measures brought forward by the government, such as their resolute opposition to the use of the army option or the formation of a paramilitary police force This resistance can be seen as an opportunistic one, since going by their past record, it can be conjectured that if it were in power, the mainstream left would quite likely use all available force at its disposal to subdue the Maoists. This for the sole reason that the latter’s growth in popularity can only be at their own cost in terms of supporters and votes. This indicates, if anything, a cynical use of the situation by the main left opposition parties in particular.
As things stand, the left parties have hardly stopped pontificating on what the government should or should not do in terms of running the country, but they have not come up with anything innovative on how to engage the Maoists apart from saying that they have to be brought to the negotiating table. Negotiations are of course one way forward, and the call for talks has grown louder over the last two years, mainly because the police seemed to be making no headway and also because, as the May 1999 elections gave the Nepali Congress a parliamentary majority, it was expected that the new government would get cracking on resolving this foremost national challenge.
And indeed, the new prime minister, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, set up a committee under Sher Bahadur Deuba (prime minister at the time the People’s War was launched and the earlier Operation Romeo undertaken) to suggest ways to solve the Maoist problem. As part of that process, the government established contact with the Maoist leadership and received a positive response. In a letter to a government contact in February 2000, Prachanda listed three demands and wrote: “Should these minimum conditions be fulfilled, we are ready to send our representatives for high-level negotiations and we would like to inform you that we will cease all operations during the period of talks.”
But in March 2000, Congress infighting led to the ouster of Bhattarai, and Girija Prasad Koirala took charge once again, listing among other things the former’s failure to control the Maoist advance. One fallout of the toppling game was that Koirala’s former protégé Deuba emerged as his main rival within the Congress. The Deuba committee’s mandate was then held hostage to the political rivalry between the two leaders. It was clear the Koirala side would not be willing to give Deuba any leewaywhich could lead to some sort of breakthrough, while Deuba himself used this issue to jockey into position for the Koirala’s job.
Meanwhile, Koirala’s government made its own attempt at negotiation. With the help of Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a maverick human rights activist of the left, it got in touch with the Maoists. Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ram Chandra Poudel even had a meeting with the Kathmandu ‘area commander’ of the CPN (Maoist). Things were looking bright when the government released Dinesh Sharma, a Maoist central committee member, in keeping with one of Prachanda’s demands. However, it committed a blunder by first having Sharma renounce his party at a press conference. The Maoists cried foul and backed out immediately, and Padma Ratna Tuladhar was furious as he believes that the two sides had never been closer to talks.
Writing in a national daily soon after, Prachanda nevertheless seemed willing to talk: “If the government reveals the whereabouts of those under their custody without playing games, we are ready to talk.” There has been no more contact between the two sides since. Nepali Congress sources claim, without elaboration, that various channels are being used to get in touch with the Maoists, and there is credible evidence to show that it is the Maoists who are presently playing hard to get. It is assumed that they believe that they are on a victorious phase in the hills, and see no reason to talk at the moment. Indeed, with the continuing disarray in Kathmandu, it would be natural for them to do so.
The Great Nepali helmsman
Then in late February this year, the Maoists surprised everyone with a statement issued after their Second National Conference in which they outlined their future course of action. Most prominent among the declarations was the elevation of Prachanda from general secretary to chairman (in place of the Great Helmsman) and the adoption of ‘Prachanda Path’ as the guiding principle for the Maoists. (Path is used in the Nepali connotation, which also means “road”. The similarity of this term to Peru’s Shining Path, however, is believed to be purely coincidental) The February declaration called for a “mass armed struggle” to go together with the People’s War. Significantly, the statement also called for a meeting of “all concerned parties” and the formation of an interim government that would draft a new constitution for the country.
Considering that the Maoists’ September 1995 Central Committee document was clear that they would “never allow this struggle to become a mere instrument for introducing partial reforms in the condition of the people, or terminating in a simple compromise by exerting pressure on the reactionary classes”, and one of the main hurdles during possible talks would be their demand for a constituent assembly, observers saw this new development as a climb-down from their earlier uncompromising stance. Analysts believe that the Prachanda Path declaration, even while confirming Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s unquestioned helmsmanship within the Maoists hierarchy, indicates the willingness of the Maoists to eventually join mainstream.
After the Prachanda Path announcement there began a flurry of activity on the government side. On 6 March, the government complied with the long-standing Maoist demand that it reveal the whereabouts of their comrades in custody. A list containing more than 300 names of Maoist suspects was released and Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel said, “The name of every single person detained or serving a sentence in prison has been presented. They [the Maoists] now have to establish contact.”
Human rights activists got moving as well and they named a team, including Padma Ratna Tuladhar, that would help facilitate talks. But it was all much ado about nothing. By April, the Rukumkot and Dailekh killings had taken place. The Maoist leadership suggested rather ingenuously that these killings—of lowest rung policemen cowering in police posts and hardly the representative of state terror for the moment—were meant to goad the government towards talks. If that was so, the timing was unpropitious. The Girija Prasad Koirala government was under assault from all quarters. Even as the intra-Congress squabble continued unabated, the main opposition, CPNUML, had boycotted parliament throughout the entire winter session demanding Koirala’s resignation on an aircraft leasing scandal. Having wended his way carefully for months to get royal approval for an ordinance that would set up an armed police force, it was imperative for Koirala to get parliamentary approval for it to become law. The ordinance lapsed even without it being presented in parliament, which never met..
Even though King Birendra subsequently, provided approval to the armed police ordinance submitted directly to him, it will still have to be endorsed by the parliament at its next sitting. Even if were to be thus endorsed, it will still be at least a year before the first paramilitary company will march out of the training barracks, hopefully trained to tackle violent insurgency the way the civilian police force never was. What is to be done in the interim is a dilemma for the government. Both former prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Girija Prasad Koirala (who at the time of going to press, was holding on to his post amidst a firestorm of opposition) have at various times threatened to use the army against the Maoists, but have never been able to go the whole distance, caught as they are in a web of intrigue spun by and around the royal palace.
In their statements, the Maoists have continuously taunted the government to try and use the army, claiming that they are ready to tackle the soldiers. That could be mere brave talk, for till now the Maoists have been scrupulous in avoiding any skirmish with the men in green. In fact, up to some years ago, the main target of the Maoists were the telecommunication towers on isolated hilltops: not one has been attacked since the army was assigned to guard them. In Rukum District, where the military is building a road through areas the Maoists control, there is an unstated understanding under which the each side studiously ignores the other. In fact, the Maoists may pass a military camp on their way to attack a police post and return via the same trail, with nary a challenge. One of the biggest questions raised against the Royal Nepal Army was its disinclination to come to the aid of the beleaguered police force at Dunai when help was sought, as well as its reluctance to pursue the Maoists as they beat their retreat down the Bheri gorge.
It is possible that the deployment of the army alone, with threat of action, could itself prove a great deterrent to the Maoists activity and its spread. However, the biggest hurdle to any such move comes from the army brass itself. Speaking to a newspaper last year, Commander- in-Chief Prajjwal Shumshere Rana said the army could be deployed only with a consensus among all the political parties. While on the one hand this can be seen as the army chief’s wariness of the short-term games that political parties like to play, it was nevertheless a rather brazen act of challenging the elected government’s authority over the army.
The controversy as to who actually controls the Shahi Nepali Sena (Royal Nepal Army) has continued and the “royal” in the name is indication enough to conservatives as to where it should be. The constitution provides for a National Security Council (in which the government ministers are in majority) to direct the army while the king has been named its Supreme Commander. Other than the statement by the Commander-in-Chief (and another one in similar vein made more recently by him, see below), the army has not so far openly questioned civilian authority. For example, it went along with the partial deployment of soldiers in 16 district headquarters after the Dolpo attack. However, the army has successfully dragged its feet on each and every government initiative, beginning with its reluctance to equip the police with automatic rifles.
The latest instance of the army’s trying to put a spanner in the works has to do with the Integrated Security and Development Plan (ISDP), a NPR 400 million (USD 5 million) undertaking that would carry out development works in the Maoist-affected districts under the authority of the civilian Central District Officers, with the soldiers providing back-up support. This carrot-and-stick approach to tackling the Maoists insurgency—delivering infrastructure and other development benefits while deploying the soldiers to keep the rebels from disrupting the projects—is said to have taken some convincing from Prime Minister Koirala before King Birendra approved of it. However, a week later, the army chief repeated his demand for consensus. “The Royal Nepal Army is not a party-affiliated mechanism but a national institution,” he said, creating a minor crisis of confidence.
The role of the mainstream left vis-a-vis this matter of army deployment has also been cynical. While they are convinced about this need for civilian control of the soldiers, they have refused to support the government on this score because it would provide support to the ‘enemy’ in the form of Girija Prasad Koirala. Thus, when a crucial exercise was being carried out to test the constitutional standing of the Royal Nepal Army, they have pretended not to be looking.
The success of the ISDP is in question by the controversy surrounding its very birth, as with the establishment of the armed police. In the heartland when the police action and ‘state terror’ was at its worst, it is unlikely that the “carrot” of the ISDP will itself suffice to win over the populace. There is no indication that the Maoists are going to cease their operations and until that happens death will continue to stalk the sons and daughters of Nepali peasants, whether it is the Maoist guerrilla fighting for social equity or the police constable escaping poverty through government service. Sending in the armed police or the army will be only option available to the government if its overture for talks is not reciprocated. But there is actually no guarantee that the military will succeed where the police have so far failed. And the scenario is dire if the military’s involvement and a possible scorched-earth policy leads to the explosion of a full-scale insurgency.
The hills of Nepal is perfect guerrilla country and the estimated 5-10,000 trained fighters could easily prove a match for any army. The most the troops may be able to do is contain the spread of the Maoists. In any case, soldiers let loose on the countryside are sure to be unleash much more bloodshed, including those of civilians caught in the crossfire. The waging of war by a military is somewhat different from that by a civilian police force, and, in a manner of speaking, the Maoists themselves may want to consider whether it was worth creating a situation where soldiers are let loose on the populace.
The situation is getting desperate in the hills of Nepal (the Maoists have not yet infiltrated the Tarai or the high mountains). Nearly 1700 Nepali lives have been lost in a war that has been characterised by extreme ruthlessness on both sides. The attack on the Chief Justice and the butchering of policemen in Rukum and Dailekh has shaken the complacent middle class out of its mistaken belief that the conflict cannot and will not affect them. But, sensibly perhaps, most want to see the fighting end through dialogue. In the Himal Khabarpatrika opinion poll taken two months ago, a majority (fully 76 percent) of Nepalis wants the issue resolved through talks (16 percent think an all-party government can do it, 13 percent want an amended constitution. Only 5 percent and 4 percent want mobilisation of the army and the armed police). This desire of the populace for talks indicate that it is still not too late for the Maoists and the national political class to pull back from the brink.
But what would the talks focus on? The government is clear that there can be no negotiating the “spirit enshrined in the preamble of the constitution”, namely, constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. If that is the case, it would be plausible to ask what else is there to discuss with the rebels. However, going back to the February Prachanda Path declaration, would it be implausible to construe that the Maoists themselves are seeking a way out of the jungle and into the mainstream?
Let’s consider the situation from Maoists’ angle. They have succeeded in carving out ‘base areas’. That was easily enough accomplished by chasing away the representatives of state power—the police—from hillsides which in any case are otherwise devoid of government presence. Consolidating that hold over time is a different proposition. The end of police terror may have been welcomed by the people and measures like outlawing gambling and usury and controlling alcohol may be momentarily effective but how sustainable can they be in the long run? Condemning ‘class enemies’ to forced labour through ‘people’s courts’ may contain a sense of retributive justice in conditions that are still murky, and it may be uplifting to be part of large rallies in support of the Maoist movement. Ultimately, however, the question of social and economic progress arises. Development work has come to a near complete halt in the hills of Nepal, and even basic delivery programmes have been affected in large parts of the country.
Certainly, the Maoists have set up ‘people’s governments’, but they must know that to achieve anything substantial and long-lasting countrywide they have to reach for power in Kathmandu, which is bound to require compromising on some of their adamant stands (unless, of course, they continue to believe that it can be achieved by fighting in the face of social, economic and geopolitical realities).
How viable are such base areas as have been created by the Maoists anyway? “In China, guerrilla war had become an objective necessity because of other factors such as the Japanese occupation. In Nepal, the so-called people’s war has grown out of the party’s ‘subjective’ judgement,” says Shyam Shrestha. In Mao’s case, warlordism was rampant in his country and he actually had to set up a country within a country. In Mao’s own words: “China is a vast country; hence one need not worry about whether there is room enough to move around.” That is not so with Nepal.
Also, the Maoist fighting force is getting larger by the day, but its ranks are increasingly filled more by frustrated and romanticized youth rather than by the ideologically commit-ted senior cadre. These young men and women have by now been socialised into violence and the power of the gun, and the most difficult task yet for the Maoist leaders could be of keeping them on a leash. Hari Rokka, a senior activist of the Nepali left, says that one of the Maoists’ biggest problems is the lack of a midlevel leadership since they are mostly either at the top of the hierarchy or fresh entrants. The fact that after the attack on the motorcade of the chief justice, the Maoist ‘regional commander’ (who is one of the MPs elected from Rolpa in 1991) stated that it was not intended, and the execution-style killing of many policemen during the Rukumkot attack seem to indicate a waywardness among the Maoist fighting force that is worrying. After all, it is not such a huge jump from insurgency to banditry, and already with the weakening of the police force the public at large is at the mercy of a law-and-orderless situation even beyond the Maoist controlled areas.
Then there is the very distinct possibility of a difference of opinion among the top leadership, the bane of communist parties in general (as proven again and again by Nepal’s own left) and of underground movements in particular. Besides the regular purges carried out, reports of not everything being well between the top two leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai themselves are regular staples of the Kathmandu rumour mill. An agriculture technician by training, Prachanda, the organizational brain behind the Maoists, is a homegrown politician, while Bhattarai, known to be the party ideologue, cut his political teeth as a student leader among Nepali emigres in India while acquiring a doctorate in architecture from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Their styles are quite different, say those who have associated with both. Prachanda is more comfortable with intrigue and reportedly not averse to making trade-offs to take his party (and himself) to Kathmandu’s seat of power, while Bhattarai is said to be an idealist who would want to go the extra distance in the cold, if necessary.
It can also be asked if such a state as the Maoists propose is at all possible in Nepal. This is not a unitary country like, say China, from where Maoism sallied forth. With a variegated structure in ethnicity, language, regionalism and social systems, a state founded on the foundations of a ‘class struggle’ alone is not likely to carry very far in Nepal (although it is certainly astounding the distance the insurgents have managed to travel). Neither is it clear how the Maoists hope to tackle the Indian state once their activities become loud and violent enough for New Delhi to sit up and take notice.
It could be said that the Maoists of Nepal have come this far not because they have been extraordinary tacticians, but rather because the opposition has been so hapless. After all, they confront a newly democratic state run by a government that is saddled with: 1) an unmotivated bureaucracy, 2) a police force that is not trained to handle an insurgency, coupled with poor intelligence gathering, 3) infighting within the ruling party, 4) a belligerent opposition, 5) an uncooperative army, and 6) a king who, perhaps, holds his cards close to his chest. It is due to Nepal’s relatively small size that the Maoists have been able to create such an impact so quickly. But again, by the same token, the matter could possibly be reversed as easily, if the various roadblocks were to be removed.
Most importantly, a true long-term understanding among the political parties on the need to proceed with strengthening the parliamentary system of government would go a long way in their coming to agreement on how to solve the Maoist problem. If that happens, it is likely that the Maoists would tire of the prospects of long years in the jungle and come more willingly to the table than they have till now. This similarity in the background and thought process (not to mention caste) of the Maoists with the above-ground leadership of the left would buttress the argument that the Maoist leadership would indeed seek a ‘safe landing’ in Kathmandu tarmac, provided an avenue could be found for them to bring their cadre along.
Should the Maoists come overground, it is possible that they will find greater success than they would otherwise with years fighting in the bush. The evolution of political parties has been such over the years that there is actually a place ready for them in the political mainstream with the CPN-UML having moved towards the centre of the spectrum. It is clear that there is a sizeable constituency that would by now vote for the Maoists if they were to come above ground. After all, from a leftist faction on the extremist fringe they have managed to come centre-stage in five quick years, and now would perhaps be the time for them to cash in on their countrywide power and seek above-ground legitimacy via the ballot box. “They would not have done as much within such a short time if they had gone through normal political processes,” Shridhar Khatri, professor of political science at Tribhuvan University, told the weekly Nepali Times. “They took the high-risk, quick rewards road.”
Unlike the CPN (UML) in 1990 with most of its leaders having just surfaced in the public arena (and hence having had to bring in leaders from the 1950s era to provide public legitimacy), the Maoists would face no such problem. In terms of perception, leaders like Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai already occupy the political mainstream. They talk regularly to the people through the pages of the national dailies besides two of their ‘in-house’ weeklies and a number of magazines published by their proxies. Reactions to government moves are instantaneous, like one would expect from any regular political party, and the press has generally proved generous in granting a forum to the Maoists.
It is almost as if the very fact that the Maoists are so close to the surface give the lie to their ideological rigidity, and indicates their desire to come to play politics in the centre of power. Says Hari Rokka, “The past has shown that in Nepal, the radicals have ultimately ended up being the mainstream in the communist movement. After the first split in 1963, Pushpa Lal’s faction became the mainstream. Next it was the Fourth Conference, and then the Marxist- Leninists. Maybe it is now the turn of the Maoists.” The main difference, of course, is that the Maoists have picked up arms and amassed a power base that none of the earlier groups managed.
It is also open to conjecture whether it is long-term planning that has led the Maoist strategists to spare Kathmandu Valley in their attacks thus far. They have shown their capability to hit the capital, certainly, by carrying out small token bombings, but they have thus far preferred not to target the real weilders of power within that state. While it can be argued that this is more because such action could lead to an instant unanimity in the capital for forceful retaliation through army, armed police or whatever, it could just as easily be seen as keeping the door itself clean of blood in case of a transition towards above-ground power-sharing.
Recent developments do provide some hope that the Maoists of Nepal are seeking a less bloody solution. Why would, otherwise, Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai be together meeting up with leaders of various left parties as well as King Birendra’s unofficial representative in Parliament over the course of April 2001? (Clearly, the two are about in Kathmandu Valley, but such is the uniquely Nepali nature of the insurgency situation that even if it were possible, the authorities would most likely not want them nabbed for the political fallout it would have.)
If Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai were to want to make a ‘safe landing’ in the field of above-ground politics, they would have to overcome two obstacles. The first is simply how they would explain to their charged-up young followers the compromises they would have to make with the political establishment. The second is reconciling their demands with the present constitutional dispensation. The Maoist proposal of an interim government or of a new constitution cannot be met within the existing constitution. Narahari Acharya of the Nepali Congress points out, “Unlike before 1990, when the constitution was whatever the king wanted, according to the present constitution the Nepali Congress alone cannot even amend it, let alone make a new constitution.” It is possible that an extra-constitutional path as demanded by the Maoists would be charted only if the Maoists were to want to destabilize the entire country with all out People’s War. There is no doubt that the Maoists would even be willing to take this path if they had the men and material. However, one would hope that the leadership would consider the price in death and mayhem too high a price, and accept a ‘lesser’ solution for the sake of the life of the people.
It will be up to the Maoists and the present polity to figure out what compromises can be made to bring the matter to a close, and relegate the violent People’s War to a thing of the past. If it requires constitutional amendment, like the left parties have been demanding vociferously, it can only come about if they join hands with the Nepali Congress. Whatever the case, it would seem that the Maoists have to be provided an honourable way out if they so desire. But they first have to have the desire to talk, which seems to wax and wane according to the ‘victories’ they are able to achieve on the field.
Radha Krishna Mainali was one of the leaders of the Jhapa Movement. Today, he is a gentrified Naxalite and part of the mainstream left who has also served as minister. He says, “Revolutions have never succeeded in a democracy. In a democracy, there are just too many ways to vent your grievances; violence is not the only one.” Perhaps, that is the kind of advice the Maoists are missing. And perhaps. this word from a one-time militant would help convince the Maoist leadership and cadre that Nepal is too precious a country to be converted into a series of killing terraces.