When the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) declared a “People´s War” in February 1996 and attacked police posts in some areas in the Nepali hills, it came as a surprise to many. After all, the United People´s Front, the political organ of the CPN (Maoist), was still involved in constitutional politics. And although the Front had boycotted the 1994 general elections, its strong showing in the first election held in 1991, where it emerged as the third largest party in parliament, had had people believe that the extreme leftists would not actually act upon their rhetoric of armed revolt.
This is the second Maobadi rebellion in Nepal. The first was the “class-enemy annihilation campaign” of 1971, carried out by the Coordination Centre, the embryonic organisation of what was to become the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist). Also known as the “Jhapa Movement”, after the southeastern district where it was centred, this short-lived uprising was influenced by the Naxalites in Naxalbari, just across the border river of Mechi. The rebels went on a gruesome spree, chopping off the heads of some local landlords before they were brutally suppressed by the then Panchayat regime. (The CPN (ML) merged in 1991 with the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) to become the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), which is the dominant partner in Nepal´s ruling coalition at the moment.)
The present-day Maobadi, who accuse the ruling communist party of being revisionist and reactionary, are well aware of what happened to that earlier revolt. Their armed operations indicate they have refined on the shortcomings of the Jhapa Movement in that their actions seem more coordinated, with the central leadership retaining overall control.
The Maoists are active in eastern and central Nepal, but the epicentre of their movement is the two contiguous districts of Rolpa and Rukum in the western mid-hills. This area is served neither by roads nor development activities. This poverty-stricken area is inhabited by Magars, a very ´backward´ ethnic group which continues to be sustained through migrant labour in India. A region ruled historically by feudal princelings, the area even today retains a medieval relationship between the rich and the poor a classic setting for Maoist activity.
Over the 18 months of armed struggle in which close to a hundred people have been killed, it is true that the Maoists have succeeded in carving out a distinct political identity. But it is one that is based more on isolated acts of violence and the bravura of a few devoted cadres rather than on the revolutionary upsurge of an oppressed people.
When the insurgents trained their guns on the rural elite, and those identified as ´informers´, they found favour among sections of the rural populace in the areas where they operate. However, it is significant that Maobadi have had negligible influence on Nepal´s sizeable urban working class.
The rise of the Maoist movement can be attributed directly to the failure of the leaders of the 1990 People´s Movement to respond to the hopes of the masses. Despite the expectations engendered by the Movement, which ushered in democracy, not one of the several governments that have held power since then has done anything to deliver the rural peasantry, making up the bulk of the population, from the exploitative land relationships existing in the villages.
The marginalised peasantry thus finds it convenient to vent its anger at the local landlords and rich peasants the class immediately above it and the one that represents to it the state with all its shortcomings. The Maoists have exploited the situation by attacking this very class in the name of “People´s War”. If the militants do not invite extreme repression and avoid having to fight stronger forces of supression, their insurgency is likely to grow and continue for some time to come.
In that sense, the Maoists´ most visible achievement in the first phase of their “People´s War” has been the establishment of the politics of armed struggle. However, it seems they have over-emphasised violence, and in the process have forgotten the fundamental tenet of Marxist thought regarding its use. Doctrinally, Marxists opt for violence only as a last resort when all other ways to seek social progress have failed. Violence can only be a reaction to attempts by the ruling class to wipe out the peaceful struggle of the people with state terror. Mao, too, upheld this Marxist concept of using violence only to end violence.
Nepal´s Maobadi, on the other hand, seem to understand the application of violence quite differently. They plead that armed action is a must from the very beginning of the struggle; it is something which can be applied at any time and at any place. There is no need to concentrate this highest form of struggle on concrete situations. The principle of armed struggle is accepted absolutely and a cult of violence propagated, with the Maoists boasting of the number of violent incidents and glorifying in the unnecessary deaths of their heroic cadres. “War, war, and war! From the beginning till the end!” is their battle cry.
And thus it is that the taking away of life has become acceptable and commonplace. In a country where earlier even five deaths would have created a nationwide distress, today, even as scores die, the polity refuses to be shaken out of its somnolence. In February 1997, Maoist-related violence had already been relegated to single column space in newspapers even as the leadership declared the start of a “second phase of operations” at the end of the first year of the “War”.
There have been blunders aplenty by the Maoist leaders over the past two years. Most important was the inability to judge if the people were prepared for armed revolt. Even in the impoverished areas where there has been enthusiastic popular support, the militants did not work to educate the masses, nor to prepare them for the struggle to come. There was no thought to whether the public would be able bear the reprisals that were to follow soon enough. What the Maoists presented, therefore, was a sure recipe for anarchy, and a people in poverty are now doubly burdened by terror, perpetuated by the revolutionaries and the police.
The leaders´ impatience to get on with armed struggle may have also lost them a voice in Kathmandu´s political arena. For when they went underground with their well-established political organ, the United People´s Front, the Maoists forfeited the avenue to apply political pressure above ground even as they continued their underground campaign. The Maobadi also made the mistake of lumping together everyone who disagrees with them. So, they have attacked both “class enemies” and those who do actually speak their own language. This has led to their political isolation, and also affected their public image.
On occasion, the Maoists have also displayed extreme naivete, such as when they raided the rural branches of the government-owned Agricultural Development Bank and destroyed loan records. The goal was to “liberate” poor villagers of their loan commitments, the Maoist leadership seemingly unaware that banks maintain copies of their records outside the branch office, too.
Indulging the Revolutionary
The Maoist movement has now publicly moved into its second phase, and it has been marked by revenge killings of those involved in doing away with real or suspected Maoists. As part of this agenda, both policemen and local exploiters have been killed. The plan is to generate an atmosphere of statelessness whereby they can easily step in and take over the administration.
To some extent, this plan has succeeded. In some areas, people live under a twin administration the government´s and the Maoists´. This was greatly evident in the poor voter turnout in the local-level elections earlier this year in districts like Rukum, Rolpa and Jajarkot. The Maoists had announced a boycott, threatening to kill those who won the elections, and so in 42 village centres no one even dared file nominations. Elections could not be held in more than 70 village centres.
While such scare tactics may have succeeded in creating an aura of unquestioned authority around them, the Maoists do not sense that their revolutionary militancy and armed revolt also can be used, and is being used, by the former autocratic forces for reviving their lost powers. Although police action has killed 26 party militants, only one leader of significance has lost his life till now. The State´s strategy seems to be to keep the militancy at a controllable level, while not finishing it off entirely by decimating the leadership just yet.
The Maoist bogey is thus kept alive as the government goes about reviving the much-hated Public Security Act which was used with such devastating effect by the Panchayat regime before 1990. The government is also using the Maoists as the pretext to enact an Anti-Terrorist Act, although there is stiff opposition to it. These acts would give wide-ranging powers to the police, the army and the intelligence agencies, which, because of Nepal´s peculiar political arrangement, would mean ultimately power to the Royal Palace.
It is likely that until these legislative measures have been successfully implemented, the government will strive to keep Maoism alive in the hills, by continuing its crackdown on the grassroots cadres while giving free play to the top leadership. As soon as it gets the powers it is seeking, a violent suppression of the Maoists can be expected. They will be indulged no more.
The Maoists are isolated today due to their own policy of regarding all those who criticise them or who disagree with them as enemies. This holier-than-thou attitude could be their undoing, through sheer isolation. They seem not to have grasped the significance of the fact that even though practically every left group in Nepal has protested the violent repression of the Maoist movement, not one has indicated support for the “People´s War”.
The Maoists have a false sense that they are on the right track only because of the abject failure of mainstream parliamentary politics over the past couple of years. This cumulative failure includes the signing away of Nepal´s hydropower options to India, the horse-trading to maintain coalition governments in power, the outright corruption of those who till a few years ago used to call themselves revolutionaries and democrats, and the inability to give a new push to development activities even as market forces move in to take over the hinterland.
This failure makes the Maoists all the more self-righteous and vociferous, but they are making their own mistakes. Nothing in their activities indicates that the Maobadi are trying to involve the local populace. They are taking to shortcuts and sloganeering rather than trying to raise the awareness level of the people to that of the leadership. The public is not being prepared to act for itself.
Mao Zedong´s direction was that the revolutionary leadership should wait patiently until people are ready for action. Meanwhile, they should constantly educate the people and do whatever possible to arouse and prepare the masses for struggle. No action, howsoever well-intentioned, should be initiated until the people are prepared to follow. This is Mao´s famous “mass line”, and without this the “People´s War” is bound to degenerate into a war without the people.
An objective and conscious revolutionary movement is not possible and a revolutionary theory to suit the country cannot be developed without understanding how Nepali society and the class struggle is developing. Nepal´s Maobadi of today are moving ahead in the blind hope that all will turn out well once a class struggle has begun.