In its tenth year, the Maoist rebellion in Nepal has not become any less complex. Its analysis requires not just an understanding of the historical evolution of conflict in Nepal, the nature of conflict in Southasia and, in particular, the southern watershed of the Himalaya. All of this must also be done against the backdrop of Maoist rebellion in other countries and continents. On the political side, there are three layers that must be analysed: the left-democratic movement of Nepal, the Maobaadi activities in the context of international and Southasian politics, and the international communist movement. Neither can we study the Maoist phenomenon in the absence of an understanding of caste-ethnic inter-linkages in the Himalayan midhills, the specificities of the Nepali economy, and the attempts of Nepali feudalism to countenance globalisation. Finally, the respective national security preoccupations of Maha-Bharat and Maha-Chin to the south and north also have a bearing on the rise and fall of the 10-year-old Maoist war.
War and the Maobaadi
The Nepali state was born of the political, strategic and diplomatic experiences gained during the 75 years that started in the 1760s with the victorious unification process. This was followed by the expansionary war that subjugated the territory between the Teesta and Sutlej rivers, and the phase of defeat that concluded with the humbling Treaty of Sugauli with the Company Bahadur in 1816.
The strategy of the conquering chieftain of the principality of Gorkha, Prithvinarayan, was to bring the various principalities of the Himalayan midhills consecutively into his axis, even while seeking to stop the spread of the British Empire. Many of his tactics resemble those of the Nepali Maoists of today – keeping at bay the foreigners who wished to help the Valley’s kings, building their fighting force from among the people, and waging an efficient guerrilla war. It took King Prithvinarayan 15 years of fighting to take Kathmandu Valley after leaving Gorkha, and he succeeded only after imposing an economic blockade and takeover of a fortress to the south.
The Maoists, for their part, have on occasion sought to block the highways into Kathmandu according to their ‘surround and conquer’ slogan. Prithvinarayan had found it easier to conquer the territories of the west, and for the east he had to use a combination of pacts and deceit. Today’s insurgents have similarly found it easier to spread in western Nepal, which has become their stronghold, while they remain weaker in the east.
The Sugauli Treaty denoted the end of Nepal’s feudo-nationalist interregnum, marking the capitulation of the state and relinquishing of large parts of territory. Decades of court intrigues followed, ending with a massacre of the Kathmandu nobility that left Jang Bahadur as the ruler. He became a puppet of the British, going to their aid during the Sepoy Mutiny in late 1857. Years later, that submission before imperial Britain was followed by the deployment of Nepali troops, in the service of the overseas Crown, into Waziristan and the two world wars. Indian experts subsequently helped to organise the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) and provided it support in its development and expansion. As such, the RNA has been little more than a unit set up with imperialist support to prop up feudal authoritarianism.
The Maoist rebellion that developed to challenge the Kathmandu state evolved as a carbon copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s own war. The rebels managed to achieve extensive success by following Mao’s dictates and turning the Nepali terrain to their advantage. Perhaps their very success was the beginning of their downfall, however, as geopolitical and national factors would not let them expand further. As a result, putting a brave face to their turnaround, the Maoists who started on the road to building a communist state have been reduced to saying that all they want now is a ‘competitive janabad’´. Thus, even an ideology as strong as Maobaad was not able to stand up to geopolitical ground-reality.
The abandonment of the earlier strategy of ‘surrounding the cities’ to what is today called ‘linking the villages to the cities’, is also the result of newfound geopolitical pragmatism. The Maoist leadership has not yet been able to decide whether it should respond to the 1 February takeover by King Gyanendra through a peaceful movement, a combination of armed and unarmed action, or an all-out military assault on the state. The reason behind this is the slow understanding that the ‘people’s war’ is not practical against the prism of Southasian geopolitics and international balance of power. The fact that the Maoists have swung from one extreme to the other with regard to their positions on India and the monarchy stems from this geopolitical situation.
The rebels started their movement in 1996 with a boycott of Indian movies, and until not long ago were urging their cadre to build bunkers to resist an impending Indian invasion. Today, those same rebels are wise to New Delhi’s geopolitical weight in their affairs, and have gone suddenly quiet. They have made extended stays in the Indian capital to meet with the Nepali political party leadership, where they also signed the 12-point understanding and gave interviews to Nepali, Indian and international media. They have even persuaded themselves to delete the line ‘Indian expansionism’ from the document of their central committee ‘plenum’, which met in August 2005. The very Maoists who claimed that the republic was at hand at the time of the royal palace massacre of June 2001 today seem willing to allow a ceremonial king to stay on, if need be. The 12-point agreement outlines a situation wherein only ‘authoritarian kingship’ is eliminated.
What becomes clear is that, while the Maoists may have amassed military might over the last decade, their political capital is very small. The future Maoist road can now lead in one of two directions: compromise or defeat.
Southasia and the Maobaadi
The continuous collaboration of the Rana and Shah clans in Nepal was supported by the national security interests of China and India, both of which sought a stable kingdom in the central Himalaya, no matter the ruling feudocracy. While both New Delhi and Beijing have now come to realise that stability in Nepal must come from a post-feudal set-up, the Maoists seem to have missed this significant shift in regional geopolitics. Indeed, at the end of the feudal and colonial eras, it is difficult for an armed rebellion to gain legitimacy, internally or externally. The Maoists also failed to include in their calculations that a rebellion within Nepal would surely make the neighbours nervous in this age of globalisation.
The Indian victory against colonialism was the result of a struggle that was linked to the Subcontinent’s civilisational values, including its philosophical, religious and cultural traditions. To this day, the Communist Party of India (CPI), established in 1920, has not been able to evolve as a national party due to its inability to understand Indian specificities and evolve a relevant ideology. Even the Naxalite movement, which began in the 1970s, failed to learn from the experience of the CPI. Likewise, the Maobaadi of Nepal failed to connect with the cultural diversity and belief systems of the central Himalayan region.
Wars can be just and unjust – and one can term all Maoist ‘people’s wars’ as just wars, the same as national liberation movements. But it becomes a matter of concern whether the rebellion puts the gun or the people at the forefront of its strategy. The Maobaadi forgot Mao’s dictum that while guns are important, it is the people who are decisive. Instead, the Maobaadi put the gun before the people, militarism before politics.
Having thus conducted a ‘people’s war’ while seeking to understand neither the civilisational values of the Subcontinent of which Nepal is part, nor the economic realities and rules of social interrelationships, the Maoists were seeking nothing less than magic in attempting a proletarian revolution. Today, their only possibilities are capitalist democratisation, or the rapid destruction of their amassed energy. There can be no other end.
The end of India’s Naxalite movement of the 1970s, as well as that of the Maoists of Peru and Colombia in the 1990s, were considered major setbacks for the global Maoist movement. Mao’s Great Leap Forward had failed while he was still alive, and the Cultural Revolution ended with his departure. In the 1990s, when the communists of the world were happy just to maintain their existence, Nepal’s Maoists proceeded to make ‘revolution’, giving renewed hope to many revolutionary brothers and sisters across the globe.
Much to the distress of those who had applauded the distant revolution without realising its inner philosophical weaknesses, after a decade of military victories and exciting propaganda, the Maobaadi suddenly seem willing to push Lenin and Mao into the dustbin. They are calling for ‘competitive politics’, promising to give up the gun under international supervision, and even saying that Nepal is not yet ready for total revolution. Incidentally, the ‘competitive communism’ of Prachanda has not been explained in terms of economic policy, nor how this novel ideology will survive amidst globalisation. This failure to specifically outline differences between Prachanda’s newfound political stand and the multiparty people’s democracy envisaged by mainstream communists in 1990 has produced a severe ideological, political and strategic crisis among the rebels. Clearly, the Maoist leaders are in a difficult spot today, having to sound placatory internationally even while maintaining the standard rhetoric for internal use among the cadre.
Though one does not have to designate the failures of contemporary communism as indicating ‘the end of history’, the fact is that the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1948 have come full circle in the hills and plains of Nepal, with the Maoists going back on their promise of ‘people’s war’. And so, here we have the Maoist leader willing to attach Maoism to capitalist democracy, which previously he himself had ridiculed as a ‘transvestite multiparty system’. At a time when the legacies of Mao and Lenin are being questioned and the followers of Peru’s revolutionary leader Gonzalo have been abandoned, the hope has been belied that Comrade Prachanda may be keeping the flame burning in the hills of Nepal.
Prachanda and his chief ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, took their organisational model from Stalin and their slogans from Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The about-face that the two and their plenum have taken in seeking an entry into multiparty politics will hardly help the proletariat they claim to champion, but will instead aid the forces of imperialism. Even if the anti-imperialist models applied in Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile and to some extent Brazil are not able to provide complete ‘liberation’ to their respective peoples, at least they are providing some comfort. Nevertheless, such fighters are derided by Maoists like Prachanda and Baburam as revisionists and reactionaries.
Perhaps the very nature of intercommunity relationships in Nepal promotes the resolution of conflicts in a peaceful manner. Whether of the left or centre, during their rise, all political movements in Nepal have used the gun, but they have also always been transformed into peaceful movements. This is perhaps a Nepali speciality, as seen in the past movements started by the Prachanda Gurkha, the Praja Parishad, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist). All eventually gave up their guns and entered unarmed politics, and none continued the fight underground. Compared to the others, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) may have conducted the most vehement and extended military action, but it looks as if they too are ready to emulate this legacy of Nepal’s modern era, which began with the fall of the Ranas in 1950. After ten years of insurgency, the Maoists are intent on jettisoning their ultra-traditionalist communist values and coming to the mainstream, in order to keep their identity alive. This is a good move, and it should be supported.
~ Puskar Gautam is a former Maoist commander. He is currently a political analyst who has just started further studies in the UK.