…or perhaps not so paradoxical. For the conditions exist in the hills of Nepal for a Shining Path-like movement, equally sectarian and equally violent.
The London staff of the International Emergency Committee to Defend the Life of Abimael Guzman, the imprisoned leader of the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru, has been astounded by the volume of mail received from Nepal in support of him. From nowhere in the world has. such a large number of letters been sent by so many members of a national legislature, to say nothing of common citizens.
Why should a country on the tar end of the globe from Peru, known through the international press, travel brochures and anthropological monographs more for its medieval romance and mysticism than for militant political movements, suddenly gain notoriety through support for Comrade Gonzalo? He is a man who some in his own country have painted as a ruthless terrorist. Others, particularly the coalition of small Maoist parties known as the Revolutionary International Movement, regard Comrade Gonzalo as the new center of world revolutionary struggle, of Mao’s “people’s war”.
Perhaps this support from a world away springs from ignorance of the less than complementary picture portrayed by the international press and western analysts of the Sendero Luminoso (the party’s name in Spanish). Or does it derive from a naive romance of Nepal’s intellectuals with the revolutionary tradition? Or could the affinity for Comrade Gonzalo’s ideology have deeper underpinnings, based on similarity of certain underlying characteristics of Himalayan society with those of the Andean hinterland of Peru? If this were the case, could we then expect tendencies similarly violent to emerge in Nepal?
Appealing geo -cultural analogies can be drawn between Peru and Nepal. Both countries straddle major mountain ranges of their respective continents, in which isolated valleys and high ridges have given rise to a wide variety of cultural traditions. While neither country has a history of recent foreign military conquest and occupation, as was the case of China in the 1930s, both have large rural indigenous populations subordinated to small ruling elites from whom they are divided by racism or caste-ism and regionalism.
Both Peru and Nepal have experienced the sharp and growing divisions between the city and the countryside, as well as the rise of new mercantile and bureaucratic classes over the countryside. The development of these classes in both countries has been influenced and underwritten by outside industrial and financial interests and ideologies. Direct multinational investment and ownership has been long entrenched in Peru, while Indian interests are consolidating their position in Nepal, particularly with the liberalisation process that is underway in South Asia.
Finally, both countries have strong communist movements that have experienced a history of divisions along similar ideological lines: Soviet and Chinese communist parties, parliamentary roaders vs. cultural revolutionaries, democrats/revisionists vs. extremists/pure line Maoists, and so on.
In Peru, these cultural, historical, urban-rural and inter-communist party divisions have led to inter-community strife, manifest genocidal violence and peasant struggle, which the Shining Path took up and used as a basis for its own programme. In Nepal, however, these various divisions have yet to surface with the same intensity and ferocity.
There are, however, ample forms of masked violence present in Nepali society, and perhaps the type of sectarian violence espoused by Comrade Gonzalo is but a short step away. These masked forms of violence include expropriation of lands, rural debt, rent servitude, high child mortality, misappropriation of resources, inflation, corruption in favour of a few, labour migration, and trade of women for prostitution. Besides the communist movement, these factors are also giving rise to new forms of janajati consciousness and nationalist movements in the hills. If respected as a cry for recognition, autonomous development and substantial change, they could evolve into a positive force; if ignored or suppressed, they could lead to sectarianism and violence.
Recruiting the Foresaken
The Shining Path has drawn its cadres from among the millions of Peru’s young who sought to raise themselves out of their poverty through education but found that opportunities were limited to the informal sector, the drug trade, or the bottom of the state and military bureaucracies controlled by the . Spanish speaking upper class. Consisting of 50 percent women, the Shining Path is also the one significant women’s movement in the strongly male-dominated Peruvian society. The Shining Path offered these youths recognition and a sense of achievement in directly confronting a society which blocked their aspirations.
In Nepal, young people and their families front all over are desperately seeking education as a means to better their economic and social conditions. Those who pass school and college are increasingly faced with the same problems of unemployment and unsatisfactory subordinate jobs in government, military, industry and commerce. The Government bureaucracy is saturated and actually casting off civil servants; Gurkha recruitment shows a downward trend; and industry’s sluggish growth and ability to take in the labour surplus has been badly hit by recent power outages (which are expected to last the rest of the decade). The submission of more than 50,000 applications for 55 openings in the Nepal Telecommunications Corporation exemplifies the desparate situation faced by Nepal’s educated young.
The School Leaving Certificate examinations are designed so that an extremely low proportion of the population outside of the Kathmandu Valley succeeds. Nepali education simultaneously prepares the students for bureaucratic and managerial jobs and disqualifies most of them from these jobs. As is the case in Peru as well, the educational curriculum has not been built according to the situation and conditions of the rural population. It is instead an imposition onto the village communities of an alien system of knowledge, priorities, values and methods evolved from Western colleges of education. Classroom discipline, examinations and certification authoritatively determine what is “true knowledge”, and devalue the knowledge, practices and languages of the villagers. The process of failing examinations serves to convince rural youth of the need to submit themselves to the patronising and presumptive authority of ‘certified’ individuals — extension workers, health professionals, foresters, engineers, doctors, contractors, political leaders, foreign advisors and so forth.
An immense class of people is presently being schooled in Nepal to despise their own rural background. The situation is ripe and ready for the rise of movements such as the Shining Path. which provide the population with an alternative and convincing-sounding “true knowledge”. One form of absolutism and negation of social being thus can easily give rise to new ones as people become disillusioned with the old unfulfilled promises of jobs, development, land reform, health for all, basic needs, etc.
Filling a Political Void
The goal of the Shining Path has been to destroy the old society and replace it with its own paramountcy. The problem has been that the society which the Shining Path sought to replace was already filled by people and their independent organisations and initiatives: grassroots village and slum dweller organisations, labour unions, and political parties. Certainly they were imperfect and filled with contradictions, but they too were trying to positively change the society in favour of the oppressed.
It is enticing to interpret, as did Comrade Gonzalo and the Naxalites of South Asia, Marx’s concept of “negation” in terms of Mao’s adage: “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Marx’s concept, developed from Hegel, was a much more complex one of an up-and-coming class creating a new society and culture which increasingly displaces and transforms the old one (Hegel’s “sublimation”). This process has been going on in Latin America over the last five decades, with the vibrant growth of thousands upon thousands of grassroots organisations in barrio, village, and factory. These in turn have given rise to larger solidarities—popular committees and councils, and even entirely new kinds of parties which are controlled through forms of direct democracy internally by the grassroots organisations rather than by party bureaucracies, officials and sponsors, as so-far characterises parties in Nepal.
Elsewhere in Latin America, the Sandinista Front of Nicaragua, the Workers Party of Brazil, and the 1.5 million strong Slum Dwellers Committee of Chile, were quite successful in building broad alliances among a variety of groups and interests, without destroying their autonomy and initiative. Rather than advancing the independent initiatives of the peasant, worker and slum-dweller organisations, the Shining Path interpreted their goals as “revisionist” or “reformist” and thereby “complicit” with the regimes. It sought to infiltrate and compromise them in the eyes of the Peruvian Government so as to force them to its side. Lacking the military organisation and secrecy of the Shining Path columns, the groups were left exposed to violence by undiscerning authorities, who saw any popular initiative as subversive. Indigenous organisations were put in an uncomfortable position between two aimed camps, suffering violent retribution from both.
Though these organisations initially supported the Shining Path to the extent that it advanced their own goals, when it demanded that they serve its particular military and political purposes, they organised themselves against it as well. Consequently, the Shining Path has been least successful in areas where these organisations were already strong. And it is these organisations that have proven effective against the ruling elites and powerful corporate sponsors of the Peruvian regime, on the one hand, and as bulwarks against all kinds of sectarianism, on the other.
In Nepal, the Panchayat regime’s repression of political activity denied the growth of the independent grassroots organisations and movements that might have provided a bulwark here against both military bureaucratic over-extension and sectarian tendencies. Today, consequently, Nepali society finds itself vulnerable to political extremism and violence.
For the purpose of catering to the most recent international funding priorities, the present local government law has been crafted to appear as if it encourages grassroots initiatives. Actually, all the machinery of the local government is manipulated back into the control of the center. True NGO activism is discouraged by bureaucratically determined constraints of registration. And some anthropologists have demonstrated that the recently passed labour laws are even more restrictive and anti-union than those of the Panchayat period. Thus, the dominating tendencies of old continue to exert themselves in the present, albeit in the guise of a new “democratic” legitimacy.
The international development agencies in their latest slogan-raising and report-writing have exhibited support for grassroots activism through non-governmental initiatives. But the tendency of these agencies to work through the educationally certified English-speaking group co-opts this potential class of organisers with high salaries and perks. It removes them from sharing the difficult conditions and working alongside of the oppressed. Consequently, most of the funding for grassroots initiatives goes to developing this class into yet anew burden on the countryside, further subverting the position of the people it is to help.
All this leaves just the kind of void conducive to the development of a highly sectarian movement such as the Shining Path, whose disciplined and ideologically committed cadres are willing to spend years or decades among the villagers, intimately researching their situation and helping them to organize themselves. Lacking their own independent organisation to advance their goals or protect them from ruling class and governmental excesses, the rural and urban poor have few alternatives besides ethnic, nationalist or religious sectarian movements which build their base on real social divisions and exploitation by playing on illusory ideological antagonisms.
The militarisation of various nationalist movements within the country, spillover of violent repression of farm labour in adjacent Bihar, or a military response by the Nepali Government against indigenous social movements, all could lead to the growth of violence and sectarianism.
Alternatives to Sectarianism
One of Comrade Gonzalo’s mistakes has been to try and transfer Mao’s categories of revolution, which really only referred to the China of the 1930s, to a Peru of the 1980s. Neither do those categories apply to the 1990s Nepal. Although there are many patronistic feudal-like aspects in Peruvian arid Nepali society, using Mao’s characterisation of them as “semi-feudal” and “semi-colonial”, tossing about epitaphs such as “revisionist” and “reformist”, and designating one national group of capitalists as “national bourgeois” and another as “imperialist”, seems a mechanistic exercise aimed at justifying a people’s war programme to the exclusion of other initiatives.
Perhaps the central paradox of the path taken by Shining Path is that it has not succeeded in transcending the same authoritarianism, violence and nihilistic denial of people’s own alternatives which characterises and sustains the present oppressive order. Strategy must begin with humans in the given conditions of a world intimately interconnected politically, economically, culturally and environmentally. The old leader-oriented bureaucratic national parties and national struggles seem to be obsolete, as people buy things, sell their labor, share ideas, interact and submit to or struggle with conditions determined far beyond their local communities and national boundaries.
What is required is careful analysis, self-education and organisation according to this analysis — not by outsiders, political leaders, intellectuals, experts and elite NGOs, who interpret the situation according to their own relatively privileged situations — but by the poor and oppressed themselves and others who choose to live and work alongside them and share their conditions. The problems and powers overshadowing the world today are so vast that confronting them requires coordinating a wide variety of strategies and initiatives, particularly those which cannot be anticipated according to old bygone theories transformed to present-day dogmas, whether they be “Mao Thought,” “Gonzalo Thought,” or a recently exhumed and rehabilitated Adam Smith. They must be developed through practical effort and engagement.
The future, if humans are to have a place in it, will require immense tolerance, willingness to work together, and also sacrifice, especially of a powerful few for the demands and needs of the weak and of the earth.
L. Mikesell is a research scholar and editor at the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University.