For many months now, it has been clear to Nepalis that their republic, the youngest in the world, would miss its 28 May deadline for drafting a new constitution. That much of the optimism and energy surrounding the April 2008 election, the first after a decade of conflict, had been lost was evident in the run-up to end-May. With political consensus proving elusive, and the peace process moving at a slow crawl, matters came to a head in early May, as the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) enforced an ‘indefinite’ countrywide strike. The stated intention was to pressure Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign, paving the way for a national unity government headed by the UCPN (Maoist), marking the party’s return to power after a year in opposition.
Saying they were bringing ‘revolution’ to the heart of the country, the Maoist leaders termed the strike ‘Jana Andolan 3’, after the people’s movements that took place in 1990 and 2006, the latter of which heralded the beginning of the end for the Nepali monarchy. Needless to say, this was a controversial categorisation, and one refuted by many. In a show of strength, the party bussed in more than 100,000 people from across the country to the Kathmandu Valley. As people poured in, hoisting party flags, the party leadership organised temporary shelters in public and private schools, shopping malls and abandoned buildings. Those unable to find shelter simply set up camp on the street.
Embarking on this ‘revolution’ on 1 May, International Labour Day, the Maoists enforced the strike for nearly a week. It was only on 8 May, after six days of complete paralysis, that the party called off the blockade, caving to pressure from the international community and a countrywide public outcry at the devastating economic and social impact. The party leadership also realised that the situation was not progressing as planned, with Prime Minister Nepal refusing to step down even as counter-protests gained strength. But despite the extremity of the shutdown, the country’s political dynamics remained unclear, with the three major parties in a state of stalemate, and the nearly four-year peace process at an almost complete standstill. As the wrangling at the national level continued inconclusively, the mood on the streets of Kathmandu during the strike, and the opinions of those participating in both protests and counter-protests, were indicative of the seemingly intractable polarisation that has come to grip the country – even as the writing of the constitution was to have come to a close.
Although the general strike was enforced throughout Nepal, its focus was inevitably on the capital. In the days before 1 May, the mood in Kathmandu was one of anxiety at the scale of unrest that could erupt with the expected massive influx into the valley. Yet though the feeling of being on the cusp of a downward spiral remained throughout the week, a defining characteristic of the protests was the organisation and discipline exhibited by the protestors, something that could be contrasted with the mayhem that visited Bangkok a few weeks later as the anti-government ‘Red Shirt’ protesters battled the Thai army. In retrospect, the movement was clearly well coordinated, both within the party and on the streets. ‘If the cadres were told to sit, they sat,’ said one passerby at the May Day gathering. ‘If they were told to stand, they stood.’
This discipline was an effort to ‘prove to the people that the Maoists don’t have to solely rely on violence,’ said Himal Sharma, general-secretary of the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal National Independent Students Union-Revolutionary. At the Khula Manch parade grounds in the centre of Kathmandu, the strategy announced by the party chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’), followed on this line, claiming that the May Day assembly was the ‘largest, most structured and disciplined gathering that Khula Manch has ever seen.’ Thereafter, every day, the cadre marched in neat rows from various junctions along allotted routes, terminating at a given spot. Simultaneous rallies were held at the same time every day, and a few usually merged, reaching the same destination at almost precisely the same time. These rallies then concluded with a few speeches, often with song, dance and poetry recitals thrown in to keep the crowd entertained, before everyone dispersed back to their bases.
A feeling that the music and dance spectacle would take the movement only so far was nonetheless brewing under the surface, and the prospect of violence continued to loom large across the city. And indeed, localised violence did erupt during the week, between protesters and the ‘youth forces’ of other political parties, as well as between protesters and increasingly frustrated locals. It seemed more and more clear that something, though no one was sure what, would have to happen – a sentiment fanned by the Maoist leadership. For instance, Maila Lama, general-secretary of the People’s Cultural Association, the Maoists’ cultural wing formed during the conflict years, said, ‘If peaceful demonstrations don’t prevail, then we are ready for a revolt.’
The armed forces out on the streets, with little to do most of the week, also saw that tensions were mounting. ‘It’s peaceful now, but our action will be a reaction to their actions,’ said a member of the Armed Police Force surveying the scene. ‘It will be peaceful for as long as they remain so. We will not incite violence, but also will not be beaten.’ For the public, well aware of the past months of media reports on training sessions on how to wield the traditional khukuri knife, coupled with past experiences with the Maoists as a fighting force, the expectation of violence reverberated.
In the event, however, the ground reality proved different. For the Maoist organisers, the initial concern was finding a place to house the cadres, with worries about food growing by the day. Rajan Bhandari of Thumpakhar in Sindhupalchowk, an area bordering Kathmandu, brought some 2500 demonstrators with him, and finding temporary housing for them was close to impossible. Bhandari said that he first went to a college ‘to ask for a place to house the 200 cadres that had been added to my list. The guy who first came to talk to me just disappeared. After an hour’s wait, we went inside only to find that everyone had already fled.’ While Bhandari and other in-charges maintained that most of the places that they occupied were already deserted, with the rest given to them voluntarily, there were complaints of many buildings being forcibly occupied.
On the streets, meanwhile, order was maintained through the UCPN (Maoist)’s structural organisation, with meetings regularly held at every organisational level. Instructions came down a chain of command every day after evening meetings. Chandra Bahadur Thapa (aka ‘Sagar’), the valley head of the Young Communist League (YCL), the Maoist youth wing that was largely responsible for maintaining order among the protesters, explained the nature of the organisation. ‘For every three people we have out here, there is one in-charge,’ he said. ‘Overseeing several of these is another in-charge. And since we are working under an ‘arc’ system, a few of the arc in-charges sit for regular meetings together.’
‘To keep it peaceful, the management plays an important role,’ concurred Gunja Man Tamang, who was responsible for handling some 3000 protesters. One of his fellow cadres, Tej Raj Khadka, a student at the Nepal Engineering College, supervised 200 team members to provide two daily meals for around 15,000 demonstrators. As supplies ran low, each arc leader was responsible for notifying those higher up in the chain of command about the situation. As and when stocks of rice and lentils became available (a process that gave rise to significant allegations of forceful ‘donation’ drives), these were brought to the temporary shelters. When the strike was over, one Maoist party member (who asked to remain anonymous) estimated an overall expenditure of more than USD 2.3 million for the six-day strike. High as these costs were, YCL valley in-charge Thapa maintained that there was enough resources to feed the YCL-affiliated protestors for at least two more months.
Lost, scared, estranged
Still, management was a constant challenge, plagued by logistical, practical and tactical challenges. Disagreements inevitably cropped up during the evening meetings, particularly on whether the instructions to remain peaceful were hampering the party’s ability to get its message across. Such discussions surfaced more regularly in the final days of the strike, leading to the party’s decision to take a more aggressive approach. According to Thapa, this strategic shift was a response to the government ‘taking our peacefulness and artistic approach as a weakness’.
With thousands of people flooding into the city, simply dealing with differences in perspective also became a difficulty. While Thapa insists that about 20 percent of the protesters were locals from the Kathmandu Valley, this appears to be an exaggeration. Either way, on the tens of thousands of protesters who were brought into the valley, Thapa said, ‘They don’t understand the ways of urban life, and have no experience of the city’s geography.’ He added that they had difficulties understanding the ways in which the urban movement differed from its rural form; ensuring that the large number of non-Kathmandu protesters did not feel estranged was thus a constant challenge. ‘At the beginning, many people had no idea how to get back to their bases after the rallies,’ he said, ‘and would just wonder around – lost, scared and estranged by the big city.’
Inevitably, perhaps, the picture presented by the national media of the masses gathered in the city was significantly different from that presented by the Maoist leadership and cadre. Reporters and analysts wrote that some, if not the majority, of those who had flooded Kathmandu were ‘brought’ or ‘forced’ onto the streets by the Maoists, including under false pretences. Indeed, some seemed to have come for the May Day rally alone, but became stuck in the Valley because there was no transport out due to the general strike. There were also reports that many had been brought under the premise of ‘seeing the city’, if not under outright duress. However, it seems clear that a six-day-long campaign of this magnitude could not have lasted for so long based solely on force or fear.
Many supporters did appear to have travelled to Kathmandu with the belief that the Maoists were providing them a political alternative otherwise unavailable. ‘In the time when the Maoists were running government, my VDC of Tikapur in Kailali saw the largest government grant it had ever seen,’ said 29-year-old Hari Timilsina, a party member and organiser in his district. There also seemed to be much talk within the predominantly young crowd of the sarojkar programme, which offered youths an interest-free loan to undertake small-scale start-up ventures, which was to be introduced under the Maoist government by then-Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai. The party’s withdrawal from government in May 2009 meant that the effort was never implemented, leading to frustration among many of the young, largely unemployed party cadre.
A clash of classes?
Impressive as the number of protesters was, especially in the early days, it was evident that ‘muscle’ that was being flexed was that of a rural population who had descended on the city. While party leaders such as the head of the YCL, Ganesh Man Pun, ‘welcomed [all] to come to the street on behalf of eight million youths and one million YCL members,’ a large cross-section of the Kathmandu raithaney (locals, including both the indigenous Newar and others) population was conspicuous in its absence. While the party was banking on its rhetoric of feudal occupation to rouse a sentiment of anger and frustration amongst the ethnic Newar community in particular, this tactic largely backfired as these locals now saw the Maoists and their out-of-valley followers as the occupiers. Indeed, overall, the Maoists were unable to inspire Kathmandu-ites, even though the party had largely won the Kathmandu Valley urban constituencies in the April 2008 elections. The party was very aware of the ‘need for participation of the urban classes to make this revolution a success,’ according to Himal Sharma, the Maoist student-union leader.
Meanwhile, the natives of Kathmandu, especially those from the business community, whether small-scale shopkeepers or the owners of large complexes, were bearing the brunt of economic loss. ‘I have to pay 35,000 rupees a month in rent,’ said Gita Shrestha, who keeps a sundry shop not far from the city centre. ‘The landlord will not reduce the rent just because it’s a bandh, and I do not have the savings to be able to pay this rent. Only god knows how long we can continue like this.’ At the same time, for some business was booming. The closure raked in ‘more money in that one week than in a whole month,’ said a street-food vendor outside of Shrestha’s shop, reflecting the experience of many who catered to the protesters and others who needed food during the strike.
Eventually, when the people of Kathmandu did come onto the streets in great numbers, it was in opposition to the strike – to participate in a mass rally organised by a number of professional associations and business federations. Previous small-scale counter-protests had taken place in both rural and urban areas, several even organised by mothers’ groups. In retrospect, there appear to have been two central factors leading to the decision to call off the strike: the arrival of pre-monsoon showers, heralding the beginning of the maize-planting season; and the Kathmandu rally opposing the strike on the sixth day that constituted the final push. Whatever its impact on the Maoist leadership’s decision-making, the 30,000-plus rally was noteworthy in terms of the spontaneous participation of Kathmanduites, even though there had been confusing messages about its cancellation the previous evening. Unfortunately, provocation and differences ultimately led to violence when protesters and counter-protesters finally met.
More interesting were the clear differences between the protesters and counter-protesters. If the juxtaposition of the revolutionary red against the blue and white (worn by the counter-protesters) was not salient enough, the comparison of the clothes worn by the two crowds, and the English slogans being chanted by certain sections of the counter-rally, were certainly striking. ‘For the first time, we could see them and they could see us, face to face, and the differences were so apparent’, said Avash Nirola, a Kathmandu native and participant in the counter-rally. As the two sides drew closer to each other, a line of armed police between them, the urban-rural divide became clear. ‘Even our shoes seemed to shine in their presence,’ said Nirola. While many of the counter-rally participants believed that they were able to get their message across, others, like Sunny Manandhar, a Kathmandu native who also took part in the counter-protests, said, ‘The whole message of the rally was taken in a negative light by those already on the streets. They thought we were against them.’
By the following day, the Maoist leadership had called off the strike, with Dahal citing ‘the interest of the people. We saw that they were suffering.’ Even as he dismissed reports that the decision was prompted by international and domestic pressure, these considerations certainly seemed to have played a role in the strike suddenly being called off. While many of the participants went back home having had a ‘taste’ of city life, there was confusion and anger among many of the more militant cadre. What had been promised as an urban revolt to capture state power from the streets had been summarily called off, and many went away either disillusioned or in the hopes that there would be another such opportunity.
With the strike finished and the protestors back in their villages or training camps, Kathmandu went back to its usual bustle, though a potent unease continued to pervade the valley. Perhaps this was in reaction to Dahal’s post-strike speech, in which he forcefully emphasised that the ‘revolution’ was not over, and that Kathmandu had merely been the ‘trailer’, the ‘rehearsal’ before the ‘real show’ took place. The following day, the Maoist cadre encircled Singha Durbar, the seat of government – a day that saw more violence than during the entire previous week combined.
~ Bidushi Dhungel is a reporter with the Republica daily in Kathmandu.