The Red Guard of Nepal
The problem with youth movements, it has long been said, is that they inevitably take on lives of their own, at which point they are not easily controlled by the mother parties. According to some observers, the mother party may use exactly this ‘unruliness’ in its favour, particularly when ‘illegitimate’ targets are to be achieved. In a strategic move, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has given its youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL), an expanded new role. The exact nature of that role, however, remains unclear. Is the YCL, as the Maoists contend, a democratic organisation working to help the poor and clean up corruption, or does it actually remain more of a paramilitary force?
Whatever the answer to that question, nearly all observers agree that the YCL played a significant role in the May 2008 elections in Nepal, as it spearheaded an ‘anti-corruption’ campaign. Previous Nepali elections had resembled big Christmas parties, with copious gifts being given on all sides – a practice that the YCL managed to reduce. In so doing, however, the YCL was also accused of violating the rights of the candidates of other parties; some have even suggested that YCL intimidation could have played a significant part in swinging the elections results in the favour of the Maoists in the more outlying areas. An NGO report states that 772 people were abducted by the YCL from the time the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) came into effect in November 2006 until the Constituent Assembly election. In addition, 22 people were killed by the Maoist youth wing. Given this past and present, as Nepal finally forms its first democratically elected government in years, the future of the YCL has become a topic of central importance – and vociferous debate.
There is little information on the exact origin of the YCL, except that it was activated in November 2006 as the CPN (Maoist) came over-ground to join the mainstream political process. An Internet portal also notes that YCL members have “reportedly received extensive training in unarmed combat, [with] cadres openly [carrying] knives, sticks, iron bars and other improvised weapons … without fear or restriction” since the signing of the CPA. Other informed sources report that a predecessor to the YCL was to be found in the Communist Party of Nepal (Ekta Kendra) of the early 1990s. At that point, it was considered to be a fighting organisation, established to be deployed in clashes with the then-dominant Nepali Congress. This unit was later replaced by the Ladaku Dal (Fighting Force), which spearheaded the Maoist uprising starting in January 1996.
As for the strength of the YCL, it claims a membership of around half a million. Of these, some 450,000 are said to be ordinary and around 50,000 are active cadre; in addition, some 6000-7000 of ‘whole-timers’. To judge its importance in present-day Nepal, however, here are a couple of noteworthy recent facts. When the CPN (Maoist) celebrated the Constituent Assembly election victory in early May, Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’) invited the YCL leader, Ganesh Man Pun, to address the crowds. At a YCL Central Committee meeting later in May, the leadership also set a goal of recruiting a million additional YCL members within 2008 alone. Although little is known of the present success of this membership drive, there is no doubt that the organisation is growing.
Although the YCL’s role in the ‘new Nepal’ is being described by Maoist and YCL leaders as focusing on issues of development, ‘anti-corruption’, traffic management and the like, the group’s make-up continues to worry many. The YCL connection to the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been described by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) as follows:
Many of the 45-member YCL Central Committee appointed in early February are former PLA commanders and commissars who left the PLA and transferred to the YCL rather than assembling in the PLA cantonment sites subsequently set up as part of the peace agreement. In addition, YCL leaders at regional and district levels also include former PLA commanders or militia members.
Indeed, Ganesh Man Pun was himself a CPN (Maoist) cadre who previously served as commissar of the PLA’s Parivarthan Memorial Ninth Brigade.
As Himal went to press, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal won an election in the Constituent Assembly to become prime minister. Simultaneously the Maoist high command announced that it would disband the paramilitary structure of the YCL. The other parties said they would want to see this decision implemented properly, citing past discrepancies between words and action.
The future of the YCL is one of the hottest topics in today’s Nepal, all the more so given the Maoist electoral victory in April. In addition to various civil complaints, all other parties have lodged formal complaints against the YCL, especially as it now appears to be partly functioning as a new paramilitary. In response to the CPN (Maoist) youth mobilisation, the country’s other major parties, as well as various Madhesi outfits from the southern plains, have begun significant campaigns to recruit and cater to the young.
The Tarun Dal, for instance, the youth organisation of the Nepali Congress, is increasingly mobilising these days. The president of the Nepal Tarun Dal, Mahendra Yadav, has warned that he may be forced to form a new wing, the Tarun Sena, to “deal with the militarised wings of the Maoists”. At an open-air meeting in June, his counterpart in the Nepali Congress-affiliated Nepal Students’ Union, Pradeep Poudel, heightened this rhetoric. “Blood flows not only in the veins of YCL,” he said. “We have redder blood in our veins. If our party gives us the direction, we are also willing to stay in barracks and fight them out for the sake of safeguarding democracy and liberty.”
Such contentions are also being shared with Nepal’s third-largest party, the centrist CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist). This party’s youth wing, the Democratic National Youth Federation, has already formed its own YCL clone, known as the Youth Force. In June, Federation Chairperson Ajambar Kamwang explained that the Force was formed to retaliate against ongoing attacks on UML cadres, as well as against the people in general. While the Youth Force is currently active only in urban areas, it is planned to be extended to the district and village level in the future, where UML leaders suggest that it will be able to resolve problems of violence, intimidation, abduction – even murder.
In December 2007, the breakaway faction of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP) led by Rajendra Mahato also unveiled its own militant youth wing, the Madhes Raksha Bahini (Madhes Security Brigade). The party’s district secretary, Shiva Patel, said the cadres were trained in self-defence tactics – including the use of bamboo lathis, as well as judo and karate. Patel claims that there were already 23,000 members across the country.
One way or another, the strength and pervasiveness of the YCL in almost all civil-society affairs has become a national issue, especially as it engenders copycat organisations in the other parties. In the experience of this writer, when the YCL messengers run through rural towns telling the youth about upcoming meetings, few dare to be absent. Simultaneously, Nepal is seeing an increase in the general use of political violence among the youth, with all parties seeking to address the role of the youth of Nepal in the days and months ahead.
‘Next step’ in revolution
The focus of political parties on youth militaries in a developing country of the Subcontinent should come as no surprise. According to the World Bank, “One fifth of the population in South Asia is between the ages of 15 and 24. This is the largest number of young people ever to transition into adulthood, both in South Asia and in the world as a whole.” Young adults, the Bank reports, account for half of the Subcontinent’s unemployed, and are six times more likely to be without jobs than are older workers.
Official figures from Nepal show that almost 40 percent of the population is under 16 years of age. As the World Bank noted, this large part of the population is also often unemployed, and thus needs to be considered highly volatile. Furthermore, Nepal’s youth generation today is one that has been raised almost entirely in an environment of violence. As such, they may have neither the respect for nor distance from violent behaviour as would youths of a different generation who grew up in calmer surroundings.
Around the world, there has been a very long tradition of recruiting youths into various kinds of violent groups and armies. This dynamic has tended in particular to pick up when conflict has broken out or intensified. Most communist parties have YCL-type militia. Many were formed just after 1920, though following the philosophies of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin rather than those of Mao Tse-tung. The British Young Communist League was formed in 1921, when the youth wing of the Communist Party merged with the Young Workers League. The Russian YCL was formed in 1917, but gained greater force when Josef Stalin, in 1922, proclaimed it to be the “next step in the world revolution”. In China, the YCL was founded in August 1920, before the Party was even officially established in 1921; in Korea, a counterpart was established in 1927.
The Russian YCL, also known as the Komsomol, was considered a “boot camp on the path to success for those wanting to climb to the top of the political pyramid”, in the words of the historian Reuben F Johnson. In present-day Russia, as the traditional Komsomol groups faded into obscurity with the end of the USSR, a new youth movement, called the Nashi, was begun by Vladislav Surkov, the head of Vladimir Putin’s former presidential administration. Surkov has been accused of creating the Nashi not as a movement for young people, but as a group of shock troops that could be called upon to break up anti-Putin demonstrations.
This was also the main purpose of the Chinese YCL – at least until the Tiananmen Square events in 1989, when the YCL sided with the student uprising. In China, the official YCL has been less prone to political violence than its Russian counterpart, but the reason for this may be that there already existed another youth movement – the Red Guards. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards travelled throughout China, going to schools, universities and various other institutions, spreading the teachings of Mao, and were criticised for their violence against ‘anti-revolutionaries’.
There seem to be several similarities between the activities of the nascent YCL of Nepal, the Red Guards of China, and the Nashi of Russia. First and foremost, they all appear prone to violence in their efforts to ‘defend’ the revolution against capitalist or traditionalist feudal affiliations. Simultaneously, while organising the youth in attempts to politicise and police the masses, individual Maoist leaders may be using the YCL to gain a wider role for the legitimate political wing of the CPN (Maoist).
The use of a non-legal paramilitary force in supporting a legal party is also nothing new in politics, with cases from Ireland and Colombia being among the best-known. In Colombia, close to 4000 fighters from six different paramilitary groups were demobilised between 2003 and 2004. Givanni Marin was once known as Comandante R, the political chief of a paramilitary force known as the Cacique Nutibara Bloc (BCN). But while Marin shed his paramilitary title as part of a government-sponsored peace process, he did not seem ready to relinquish the support base that his group had built up over many years. When Marin ran for Congress in 2006, former members of the BCN formed a socio-political organisation known as the Democratic Corporation. The question in today’s Colombia is whether such groups have a double standing, with an illegal powerbase and a legal political front. If this is so, then the illegal base may be seriously influencing the state apparatus.
The links between the legal branch of a party and an illegal underground group also came to be well known in Ireland. There, the relationship between Sinn Fein, the legal political party, and the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA) remained highly problematic until October 2006, when full disarmament finally put an end to a nearly century-old conflict. The London government saw the relationship between the two entities as awkward to say the least, with the problematic potential of the Sinn Fein using the IRA as its power base.
The dual role of youth groups and paramilitary is, of course, exactly what politicians are exploiting in today’s Nepal. As all parties, including the CPN (Maoist), have a right to have a youth wing, calling for the abolition of such groups seems a waste of both time and effort. A call for moderation however, is a possibility. When Chairman Dahal on 7 August told reporters that he had instructed the YCL forces to change their behaviour, he used the YCL card to gain strategic points towards an all-party government formation. He further confirmed a link with the PLA, as he made it clear that the changed behaviour of the YCL had hinged on payment allowances to PLA soldiers currently in cantonments. The question now is whether youth movements will let themselves be incorporated under general objectives of the mother party, or continue to respond to the local circumstances in the areas in which they operate. On the day that Prachanda ordered the YCL to reform, one such local group, in northern Lamjung District, attacked youths from other organisations, leading to an indefinite curfew in the area.
The relationship between the centre and periphery of such movements will be interesting to observe, and it will be important to define the role that such groups should play in the future, within democratic norms. For one thing, they cannot be violent, as this will encourage other youth groups to do the same, and thus endanger the democratic process itself. However, their role in policing is a bit more controversial. It is hard to criticise the YCL when they seek to help the poor and marginalised or to achieve justice in a caste-dominated society; likewise, in certain parts the YCL has indeed been successful in curbing looting, corruption and fraud, and thus its members have gained some rural popularity.
This is of particular concern given that the YCL seems to see itself as having become an extension of the state law-enforcement agencies. In a recent statement, YCL General-Secretary Bishnu Prajapati mentioned that the force would be “assisting the police and the government identifying problems” in various sectors. Police in Nepal frequently say that they are forced to release individuals handed over to them by the YCL for lack of evidence. Nepal’s State Cases Act does allow a person who witnesses a crime to ‘hold’ the alleged perpetrator, and thereafter to hand over the individual to the nearest police station. Such ‘civil arrests’ are legal in many parts of the world, but they become problematic if individuals or groups systematically take over roles of a non-functional state apparatus. In doing so, they threaten to undermine the very system they ostensibly are trying to remedy.
An interesting footnote to the current debate has to do with the US government’s continued categorisation of the CPN (Maoist) as a ‘terrorist’ group. As many have come out in favour of Washington, DC ‘de-listing’ the Maoists, the question has been raised over whether talks with the central party leaders will include the YCL, or whether it is to be considered as separate from the legal party, as with the IRA and Sinn Fein. Both Chairman Dahal and the party’s lead ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, have regularly stressed that the YCL is an integral part of the CPN (Maoist), and that the force remains under the central party’s control. However, the YCL’s continued perception by other forces as being not quite under control remains an important leg in the Maoists’ strategy. Resisting such strategies now may give the CPN (Maoist) leadership the opportunity to show real democratic statesmanship – and the opportunity to reform the potential for youth movements in the Nepal of both today and tomorrow.
~ Harald Olav Skar is a researcher with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Oslo.