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Nepal: A People in Transition

Damn them, praise them, hate them or love them, the Maoists in Nepal are here to stay. The April 28 transfer of power to the Seven Party Alliance seems only the first act in the real life drama unfolding in Nepal; there are many more to follow.

NEPAL

A People in Transition

Damn them, praise them, hate them or love them, the Maoists in Nepal are here to stay. The April 28 transfer of power to the Seven Party Alliance seems only the first act in the real life drama unfolding in Nepal; there are many more to follow.

GAUTAM NAVLAKHA, ANAND SWAROOP VARMA

C
rossing into Nepal from the border town of Jayanagar (Bihar) to Siraha in June brought us in touch with new facts on the ground. We were greeted by a red arch of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) announcing the public meeting at Rajbiraj. There were many more all along the way as we travelled from Siraha to Rajbiraj, a distance of about 200 kms, on the Mahendra highway. We gave up counting after 27.

Rajbiraj is an industrial town in the Terai, also called Madhesh. It was considered an area where the Maoists were said to be relatively weak. Its peasantry has suffered feudal exaction, neglect by the government and nearly a quarter of their population denied citizenship rights. In this part of Madhesh, Maithili is commonly spoken. When we reached the town at around

10.30 am, it seemed as though it had been taken over by the Maoists. Posters, flags and arches were everywhere. Buses were making their way to the “rangshala” ground where the meeting was to be held. Maoists volunteers could be seen at street corners.

By the time the meeting began at 1 pm, the ground was chock-a-block, with people perched on the stands and the walls of government bungalows that are on one side of the rangshala. Estimates of the crowd varied between 80,000 and 1,00,000, mostly from the surrounding villages. This was remarkable because neither the posters nor the the other announcements had claimed the attendance of the top leaders. Only three members of the Maoist negotiating team and 13 central committee

(CC) members were authorised by the CPN (Maoist) to address public meetings. The other leaders, CC as well as regional committee heads, remained engaged in party work. Thus, those who came, even out of curiosity, were there to listen to what the Maoist leaders had to say about their politics rather than to gawk at the top leaders. The meeting was telecast live by Kantipur TV. In addition, loudspeakers had been put up throughout the town to enable others to hear the speeches.

Mass Line in Action

Management and security at the meeting were provided by unarmed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel and activists of the Madhesh Rashtriya Mukti Morcha (MRMM). The police and the Nepali army remained out of sight. This is how meetings are being organised by Maoists throughout Nepal including the one in Kathmandu on June 2, which drew, even opponents admit, six to seven lakh people. But even more significant, despite the heat and humidity, so common at this time of the year in these parts, people sat through the meeting, which lasted for nearly six hours. Speeches were heard in rapt silence, interrupted by applause every now and then. Occasionally people complained that their view was being obstructed by the presence of the media and TV crew on the podium. The language used was Maithili by the MRMM leaders and Nepali by the others. The speeches by two CC members of the CPN (Maoists), Maitrika Prasad Yadav and Gopal Kirati, were the longest and provided a detailed account of the Maoist perspective and touched on a number of issues, not just to do with the current situation but also how the Maoists view the national question (the right of selfdetermination), on which the Maoists promised self-rule in a federal structure. They spoke about ending feudalism and assured land redistribution (a rural land ceiling of 10 bighas and continuance of their land re-distribution programme). There was emphasis on changing the Madhesh women’s status in society, that they wanted them to be equal partners, and the party’s objective of equal representation for women. The party’s views on the issue of the Nepali army and of arming the people was brought up, with a candid declaration that it is prepared for both peaceful transition through elections to a Constitution Assembly and employing other means, if necessary. In addition Maitrika Prasad Yadav took up the issue of citizenship and the caste system, particularly the oppression of dalits. Among the others who spoke, three were greeted warmly. Mahendra Paswan of MRMM, the wife of Ram Kumar Yadav (a popular teacher and peasant organiser in Madhesh) and Ram Raja Singh, who went to jail at age nine and had the distinction of throwing a bomb near the palace in Kathmandu in 1986 in support of a republican Nepal, and lived in exile in India for years. In a way, the meeting here (as elsewhere) appeared to prepare the people for a long struggle, and therefore, to familiarise

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

them with the Maoist programme and policies. The spread of Maoist appeal was evident among large cross sections of the people.

That there were some who dreaded the Maoists was also evident. One morning three persons came to see us. They claimed that the unity of Madhesh was being subverted and that the Maoists were raking up the issue of the Tharu people’s right of self-determination. When we inquired why they thought this was wrong, for the Tharus were the indigenous people, they said that the hill people cannot countenance united Madhesh. The day after the “jan sabha”, a group of 30 odd people were protesting what they claimed was extortion by the Maoists. After a short while they dispersed. The next day the newspapers wrote that local Nepali Congress activists held a protest against “extortion”, but did not report how many turned up or how long it lasted. We met some local journalists to inquire about how they perceived the meeting. While they admitted that this was a very large meeting, the largest in Rajbiraj in their memory, they also claimed that the Maoists cadres were “extorting” money. When we asked whether people had been threatened, their answer was how can anyone defy the Maoists. We later found some of them present at a press conference where they met Badal, the head of the Maoist eastern command. Badal thanked them for highlighting the wrongdoings of party members and implored them to carry on with this. He told them that his party appreciated their criticism because this is one way in which party members can rectify wrongs committed by them. But he insisted that party members are not committing any crimes.

The Maoists do seem to be going out of their way to show a willingness to learn from their mistakes. Having come close to a split precisely over the issue of democracy and centralism, they have bounced back vigorously, only because they realised that but for inner party debate, and respect for what their members and people had to say, unity cannot be effective. Badal had alluded to this in his interview and said that this has helped sharpen the party’s politics. He went on to say that his party is convinced that one way to stem the possibility of degeneration of a revolutionary movement is through “competitive (pratispardha) politics”. What does this entail, we asked?

People have a right to organise themselves, form associations and even campaign against their party, provided all parties remain anti-feudal and anti-imperialist. How this will get translated in real life remains to be seen. He also went on to say that there is a “great debate” on within his party, and a view is evolving that the top leadership should stay away from government posts and depute second rank leaders in order to guard against “pajero culture”. Even others we spoke to said that while the ‘people’s war’ helped them defend their gains, win popular support, and organise themselves rather well, it also threw up many weaknesses, especially in the party’s relations with the people. Unless corrected these weaknesses could destroy the party.

One remarkable thing among Maoist activists is the absence of an exaggerated assessment of their own strength. Will they win elections to the CA? The answer is that democratic republicanism will garner an overwhelming mandate. But what about the party? Yes, they are confident that the people are with them, but they were unwilling to wager a guess. Some cadres said that the next few months are critical to enable their members to regain the confidence of the people. How does this square up with the massive turnouts at their meetings? Obviously, they are not leaving anything to chance. Party cadres said that the “old regime” is still backed by the US and India; it remains strong and will do anything to weaken them.1 Thus, parallel with “jan sabhas”, meetings of party members are taking place across Nepal to clear doubts, answer questions, including about the course adopted by the party. It looks as though cadres were being prepared for the road ahead.

Badal has likened the present situation to the 1917 February revolution in Russia, but says that his party believes there has to be an October revolution. Whether it would be through elections to the CA or through other means remains unknown. This very same explanation was repeated by other cadres. They also describe the present transition in terms of a peaceful outcome as uncertain. What they caution against is any attempt at assassination of their leaders and penetration by unsavoury elements. Are these the reasons why they reject any demand for unilaterally laying down arms? Possibly. But even the leaders of the ‘nagarik andolan’ (citizens movement) we met said that “laying down of arms” by the PLA is not a major issue.

SPA Discredited

Some confided that many in even the seven party alliance (SPA) acknowledge, albeit privately, that but for the PLA, the Palace-Army combine would have attempted a coup by now. Devendra Raj Pandey, leader of the nagarik andolan said that when some leaders express their fears about the Maoist army, they actually fear the loss of their property. The SPA leaders and the media are pushing the line that Maoist arms are a threat to free and fair elections. But a human rights activist said that the Nepali army poses a bigger threat since it is the “bastion of feudalism”, faction-ridden with senior officers leaning towards India, or now, increasingly towards the US. The SPA exercises little control over them. (In an email he drew our attention to the “de-royalised” chief of the army and other officers paying a visit to the king on his birthday.) The top brass of the Nepali army also consider themselves above the law, having ignored eight summons of the Supreme Court in specific cases of enforced disappearances/custodial killings in recent times. This does not mean that Maoist arms do not arouse apprehension, particularly, the ideological nature of the PLA. Maoists say that their weapons have contributed immensely to empowering the people as opposed to the army, which upholds an inequitious and decadent system. Given the recent record, there are many more takers for this line than ever before. And, therefore, support for sticking to the road map chalked out by the November 2005 agreement (especially clause 3) and the eight-point agreement reached on June 16 between CPN (Maoist) and the SPA. (The latter allows for Nepali army and PLA to move to the barracks or their camps, as the case may be, to keep their weapons at designated spots monitored by either the UN or a third party. The question of merger/ de-commissioning is deferred to after the elections to the CA.)

Besides, SPA suffers from a severe trust deficit. When people notice the SPA backtracking on their commitments they are out on the streets. When the Nepali Congress held a public meeting at Birgunj, it ended sooner than expected because people began demanding that G P Koirala should come and explain what he means by “ceremonial monarchy”. While the leaders of the SPA now complain that the

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 Maoists are not returning the land (of their members) seized by them, their own members told us that there ought to be an inquiry into how these SPA leaders came to acquire such properties in the first place.

The meeting at Rajbiraj was one among many organised by the Maoists. According to one leader of nagarik andolan, these meetings at Dang, Dhangadhi, Butwal, Biratnagar, Janakpur, Kanchanpur, Pokhara, Nepalgunj, etc, taken together, have attracted an audience of 80 lakh people! The significance of this is evident when it is realised that no other party has so far been able to hold “jan sabhas” anywhere in Nepal. This has given the Maoists a head start and edge over all other formations. Even the worst critics of the Maoists say that whereas the Maoists have a programme and a vision for the future, the SPA has none. One reason could be SPA’s own record in office, which is their undoing. The leaders of nagarik andolan said that one of the biggest problems they faced in trying to mobilise people after February 1, 2005 was to allay their fears that their coming out on the streets would not benefit the very same discredited SPA come back to power. It was when the November 2005 agreement was struck that the people were convinced that things would be different this time, now that Maoists were part of the movement.

The agenda in Nepal symbolises their popularity. It was their demand for an elected CA, over which twice talks failed in 2001 and 2003, that galvanised the people and around which a mass movement emerged. The SPA had to “eat crow” and change their stance. But are the Maoists not making mistakes? What about so-called extortion and people’s courts? The answer we received was that the Maoists had their own government in large parts of Nepal. They collect taxes, run various services, had their own army, development projects, small-scale production, etc, and were putting the resource base to better use. So why should they dissolve their set-up? A negotiating team member of the Maoists said it is premature to raise issue of dissolution when they are not part of an interim government. A party cadre told us that ever since the party opened offices in villages and districts, on an average, every day around 100-150 requests come to them for their intervention. But what about possible misuse of public trust? We were told that when everything is being done in full public views and every mistake is magnified, does this not act as an effective check?

What was astonishing, however, when we pointedly asked the leaders of the nagarik andolan to list the mistakes of the Maoists, none referred to extortion, kidnapping, or misuse of people’s courts.

Some expressed discontent at the Maoists not taking into confidence the nagarik andolan or those regarded close to other left groups. But at the district level, Maoists are preparing to build a front comprising various sections in favour of a republic, thereby encouraging a polarisation between the forces of “ganatantra” (republic) and “rajatantra” (monarchy). The thinking is that every party has republican elements within it and that it is necessary to bring all of them together. But one problem remains. To a certain extent, prominence at the district level is being given to the UML and other left groups in this effort. And, the process will take time to be undertaken at the central level. Nevertheless, while even royalists today speak of a republic, a distinction between an antifeudal republicanism and its upper class anti-land reform variant is necessary. Thus some people speak of a land ceiling of 10 bighas as being too high. They favour the ceiling to be at four bighas, which the Keshav Badal-led land commission had recommended, although the CPN (UML) did nothing about this.

Maoists Are Here to Stay

Finally, it is remarkable to note how the language of the left has become part of everyday vocabulary. News stalls in the smallest town keep the Marxist classics and other books, apart from a variety of magazines in Nepali. It is because these books sell that are stocked. This may not be a new feature, since it has been there since the 1990s. However, in the last few years, the demand for Marxist literature appears to have become even more pronounced. Class analysis, class struggle and class-based politics are part of everyday conversation. Nobody frowns or regards reference to them as irrelevant, which the Indian intelligentsia is so fond of doing. This is what distinguishes the situation from that in India. Thedistinctionbetweenformal and real democracy occurs all too often in writings, speeches and in conversation. Perhaps all this is a product of what Nepal experienced between 1990 and 2005. Even sober elements within the SPA do not deny this. Because the public mood favours a radical departure from the experience of 1990, so “Maobadi” even among its detractors is a term of grudging admiration. Damn them, praise them, hate them or love them, they are here to stay. It is this that makes the April 28, 2006 transfer of power to the SPA appear as only the first act in a real life drama. There are many more to follow.

EPW

Email: gnavlakha@gmail.com

Note

1 An eyewitness to a recent meeting between the acting prime minister of Nepal with US and Indian envoys said that the former was downright rude; he was sarcastic, and regarded the seven party alliance as gullible and warned that the US may withdraw economic aid in the event of the Maoists joining the interim government. The Indian envoy put things differently. He shared the Indian government’s “concerns” about the Maoists. India favoured the peace process but opposed parallel structures of power and advised against Maoist dominance in the interim government. On the issue of release of the Nepali Maoists imprisoned in India, the envoy politely but firmly opposed sending a written request. Lack of a written request is, however, cited by the Indian government as the reason for the delay in their release!

COURSE ON QUALITATIVE METHODS IN LABOUR RESEARCH AT V.V. GIRI NATIONAL LABOUR INSTITUTE, NOIDA

To facilitate appropriate response from researchers, particularly from northeastern states and J&K, it has been decided to reschedule the Course. It may be noted that the Course will now be held during

October 30 – November 6, 2006. The last date for receiving applications has been extended to September 15, 2006. Those who have already applied need not apply again. The selected candidates would be intimated about their selection individually.

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

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