- Category: Winter Has Its End
- Created on Saturday, 02 February 2013 20:14
- Written by Liam Wright
The Nepali Maoists always talk of peace and revolution. To us, arriving as a reporting team from the U.S., this seems like a peculiar contradiction. Revolution would seem, to us, to be sharply opposed to peace. And a social peace seems like an absence of revolution.
But here in Nepal, the revolutionary process is deeply embedded among much of the population, and it is therefore just as idiosyncratic and contradictory as its people. The country went through a difficult and brutal decade of civil war to overthrow a hated king – and the costs of igniting a new war are understood by everyone. And yet, even after all the changes and events of the last years, the great majority of people in Nepal truly need a much deeper, more thorough-going revolution – they need deep changes in the social system, they need profoundly different, and new, forms of power at all levels, they need to break with the dominating treaties with India. Nepal’s people want peace, but many of them also want radical change.
We got to attend the founding congress of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) to see how the revolutionaries were going to work through that peculiar contradiction: how they would bridge the Nepali people's desire for peace and that aspiration for revolution.
For six days, our reporting team watched over 2,000 communist delegates debate the future. Just walking into a conference of that size and hear those debates in real-time, we got a gut sense that, that for Nepal, revolutionary change is not just a dream. Here it is a living movement and confronts a set of very intense and urgent problems.
The color red in a room of comrades
We were in a towering, multilayered auditorium.
At the front, bright light shone down on the stage, illuminating podium, central committee, and those of us attending from other parts of the world. As people rose to speak their words were followed intensely by a sea of faces – fully engaged. Sometimes the seriousness was broken for a moment.
Laughing children would run across the stage and try to grab a microphone or a performer’s drumstick. We would laugh and chuckle, but to the multitude of delegates this seemed expected, even common place. This was a meeting of serious revolutionaries considering how to organize a new armed uprising – and yet it was obviously also a room of regular people with a love for each other and for the world.
The color of this meeting was bright, primary-red.
High above the room, and on the podium, and lining the walls, was the famous hammer and sickle – the symbol of an alliance between peasant farmers and urban workers. Here in Nepal, of course, the vast majority of the population is poor farmers either in the fertile Terai lowland belt, or scattered in isolated villages, without roads or schools, across the giant mountains. For the Nepalese, many of those who can find work as laborers have to go to Indian mega-cities across Nepal’s southern border – doing the worst and least-paid jobs far from home.
But, in any case, here in Nepal, here in this room, the hammer and sickle is not just some icon from the past – it represents a plan to unite those at the bottom of society, those who suffer and labor, and whose dreams require radical change.
There were people from all over Nepal in attendance. From village and city, from student organizations, peasant organizations, women's associations, indigenous people's organizations, popular fronts, state committees, regional committees, former people's military...
And then there were portraits of the martyrs, those who died in the ten years of peoples war between 1996 and 2006. Young faces, a few older ones. Faces of those shot down, or tortured, and sometimes raped. Those who died for liberation. Many of delegates here are family members or close friends of those who died. And that memory of the martyrs is one of sadness and pride. It is also an indictment: The memory of the martyrs are invoked against those who have betrayed this revolution, who have called for it to stop halfway. “Remember what the martyrs died for,” it is common to hear Nepalese revolutionaries say.
"Surely they did not die for what we now have. For them, for ourselves, we must find a way forward."
Sometimes, the ballot harms more than the bullet
After years of preparation, the revolution in Nepal was launched in 1996.
The Maoists organized an armed countrywide uprising and rapidly took over a few districts to start a rural guerrilla war. The corrupt, very decadent and very isolated monarchy crumbled before the fury of armed peasants and urban disturbances. But that monarchy left behind its Royal Army. While it is now renamed the "Nepal Army," it is still the defender of old ways and still far from defeated.
But the main problem for the revolution was that the core leadership of the leading party [the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), UCPN(M)] succeeded in winning government posts in elections after a ceasefire – and they chose to call off the revolution. They dissolved the local institutions of popular power and people’s courts – and disarmed the people by trying to break up their own Peoples Liberation Army.
So this new congress of the split-off CPN-M representes a long-awaited first step, a regroupment of the most determined partisans – it was where they gathered to affirm their dedication to a liberated Nepal, and settled on their method of doing so. And it was where they came to express their outrage with the conservatism of their own former leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai.
For the last six years, large sections of the leaders of the Maoist guerrilla war entered the elected government as a part of what was called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). For the revolutionaries among the Maoists, joining this process was an opportunity to enter the main city,Kathmandu, and make deep contact with urban sections of the people (including the urban laborers, students, and intellectuals needed for the future). They saw the CPA as a way to broaden their base for seizing power – for creating what Maoists call New Democracy (a form of peoples rule that is the first stage of socialist revolution).
But for their leaders, Bhattarai and Prachanda, entering the city and entering the government were the end of the revolution. Their goals apparently stopped at some rather familiar reforms:
- a stalemated parliamentarian democracy (where old oppressors set the pace),
- integration into the world capitalist market (where global powers set the terms), and
- continuing the subordination of Nepal (where the Indian military, government, culture and capital bully their way in everywhere).
“We entered Kathmandu to take power,” we were told by Biplab, a dynamic young Maoist leader “First Prachanda says that the Peace Agreement is just ‘talk.’ Then he says that this is a ‘peace process.’ Then he says that this was the ‘revolution!’”
Biplap captures the sense of betrayal – which was such a major theme of the congress.
During the congress a kind, veteran female communist shared her experiences with me. Pleasant lines etched her face, as we sat and talked on the lawn surrounded by a group of women. She spoke thoughtfully, in sometimes broken English:
“During the people’s war we had a communist culture. All of the feudal traditions were gone for us. Men and women would eat together, women could leave their home.” She went on, “Now our base areas are gone, our courts and schools are gone, our People’s Liberation Army is gone.”
Bhattarai and Prachanda claim they are recognizing the limits of the possible. But for the most poor and the most radical, it feels like a sellout.
Oppression continues, so does the dream of liberation
To understand what it would mean to call off this revolution, we have to think about what is actually needed by the 30 million people who live here.
Nepal is a small, deeply impoverished and land-locked country sprawled over the southern foothills of the vast, towering Himalayan mountain range. The country contains many diverse peoples who were often marginalized by the old feudal-monarchist system. There is a caste structure which says some people are “untouchable.” There is traditional feudal domination of women – including lack of school for girls, early arranged marriage, and international sale of girls into sex slavery. There are inequalities of culture – so that many nationalities, including the Madhesi people on the border with India, feel neglected and oppressed.
And yet oppressed people had come so far during that people’s war.
Many radical changes had started to take hold while the Maoists, mobilizing the impoverished farmers, controlled much of the country. Then the Maoists took a gamble and entered the CPA. They granted some concessions in the peace agreement -- as they grabbed for an opening beyond their rural liberated territory. They took major leaps in building their strength, especially in the urban areas.
To the surprise of everyone, the Maoists won a plurality in Nepal’s April 2008 elections for a Constituent Assembly (a body designed to dissolve one political system and form another). This stunning victory for a very radical party gave them the proven legitimacy to actually take power. But just as they were on the verge of a major breakthrough, in 2010, as they mobilized millions to shut down every city in the country for six days through general strikes and blockades, the revolution was betrayed by Prachanda and Bhattarai. These leaders blinked, and backed down, and called off the strikes.
Everyone now sees that when those leaders said, “Not yet!” they actually meant, “Never!”
At the congress we attended, the revolutionary wing of that movement is now regrouping large parts of the previous Maoist party, its grassroots organizations and the core of its People's Liberation Army. But they are all still reeling from this setback, and grappling hard with how to regain their former poise with a now-splintered movement.
In one sense, their split and the building of a new party has been a long time coming. It was a common thing to hear among the rank-and-file, "Why didn't we split sooner? What took them so long?" And “them” in this phrase refers to the leaders of the Maoist left, the leaders of this new party. And it suggested to us that the delegates have learned a skepticism toward leaders and a sense of the need for alertness from below.
Putting it all On the Line
During the congress there was also a lot of down time. Every chance we had we would go outside, where we were often swarmed by Maoist cadre. They were dying to know about the state of the revolution in the USA. There was a insatiable curiosity about our conditions and our movement. Most have never seen an American up close. Most know foreigners mainly from the trekkers who visit Nepal.
“Do you have a revolutionary party?”
“How are your leaders different than ours?”
“How much do people support us there?”
“How many people are in your movement?”
What struck me was: They are asking if they will be alone. If they make that leap to revolution and people's democracy – if they wage their fight for real emancipation – will there be others alongside them around the world?
Will people speak out if India tries to crush them? Will other revolutionary societies emerge as allies? It is tied to the core question of this revolution for the radical egalitarians of Nepal. If they rise up, can they win? And if they win, can they keep power in the hands of the people?
For hours each day we sat on plastic chairs in the sun asking and answering questions surrounded by a changing cloud of delegates. I was struck by the loftiness of their vision and their remarkable optimism. Some had complaints about their new party program, but most seemed to feel a renewed excitement.
“They are all enthusiastic. But also they are sentimental,” one of our translators told me. “They have a new party, but they find themselves facing against the same people who fought alongside them in the people's war.”
On one of the first evenings of the Congress we sat down under a large, decorative canopy to share a meal with a couple of young men.
"I was a commander in the People's Liberation Army. He was a vice-commander. But I am Brahmin and he is Dalit," one of them explained around mouthfuls of food. Brahmin are the upper caste in South Asian society and constitute a significant part of Nepal’s people. Dalit are the so-called “untouchables” – at the very bottom of the social structure and historically despised.
"Before the revolution we could not touch." There were many such stories while we sat outdoors, communally consumed our heaps of rice, lentils, and curry.
The difficulties of new beginnings
This regrouped party of militants faces vexing obstacles. In many cases Nepalis observing from the outside the revolutionary organizations don't seem to see the difference between the old UCPN(M) and this new party. They feel deeply betrayed-and rightly so.
Ten years of war, incalculable enthusiasm, thousands dead, painful sacrifice... both the people and the core cadre ask, "For what?"
During the people's war, when revolutionaries had their own state power in the countryside. There were deep and rapid changes. But those changes rested (in a direct way) upong that revolutionary power. Take away the liberated zones, demoblize the peoples liberation army -- and many of the old traditions and relations between women and men have reasserted themselves. Much of the liberated land has now been given back to the old landlords. (Many of whom are then selling that land to developers). India is intervening intensely in Nepali affairs -- and in an even more direct and sinister way than before.
Liberation has not yet been realized. The overthrow of the king, while an inspiring change, is being institutionalized into a familiar parliamentary system which the next revolution must now overturn.
Some in Nepal claim that this Maoist split is just over seats in the government. From everything I see here this is not the case. The revolutionaries of the new Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist share in the sense of betrayal with the people of Nepal and are earnestly working to continue the revolution. Many who we encounter, especially in the rural areas still have a deep partisanship. The new party seems to have much work to do to make clear their aims to the society they seek to change, to win over the people, and to understand, themselves, where they erred.
Hurdles and Potential
During the congress different members of the central committee spoke on different topics, explaining and debating the proposed program from different angles.
“Our basic strategy is ‘people's revolt on the basis of the people's war,’” said Gaurav, vice-chairman of the party, his voice echoing through the hall. “Why is this possible?” He asked this key question, emphasized with a wave of his arm. “Our base areas are gone but the people are still there. Our courts are gone but the people are still there. Our schools are gone but the people are still there... Our revolution will not be like Russia’s revolution. And it will not be like China’s revolution. It will be like Nepal’s revolution... On the basis of the gains of the people’s war we will make a people’s revolt. It will not be that difficult to re-establish the base areas, I think.”
If you have spent much time in a conservative place, like today’s U.S., where the revolutionary forces are small and not yet truly contending, it’s hard to think that any meeting can be decisive for changing everything, for uniting millions. Revolutionary politics in many places seem removed from real politics – meaning from the actual questions of power. But it felt very different here in Nepal. This revolution is taking new steps in recovering, working to regain its footing. While they have suffered serious setbacks, this congress represented a moment of rupture and regroupment, of new assessment and, hopefully, of new clarity .
While Biplab spoke to the congress he called out, standing at the podium in his bright blue jacket, “Are you ready? I ask you: Are you ready?” The participants listened pensively, as though they were asking themselves the same question. “Prachanda and Bhattarai had a choice: to sacrifice or to capitulate. They capitulated. This party must be ready. We are ready to make any sacrifice.”