Maoists regroup in Nepal: Ruptures and obstacles

Revolutionaries at the Maoist party congress in Nepal - 2013

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.”

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People in this conversation

  • Guest (ozilk)

    I always hate when political questions are addressed as if the main problem is to tell "the people" what a revolutionary party wants to do,to explain to them,to search for a justification and so on. People deserve to be given freedom to intervene in political revolutions (in fact,revolutions are only made by the masses) but we have to act as if everything depends on revolutionaries and nothing on the people (as in the old Jesuit maxim,replacing God by people).
    More and more I think that the crucial point of any political leap involves taking the position of wanting what the masses(and proletariat) want more than they consciously do, to be faithful and apply communism in an area where it's officially unexpected.That is: to adopt the position of a saint,fully submitting our will to that of "the people" or "the Party",counting on them as the ones who provide us enough freedom to perform our revolutionary gesture.That's the only way in order to have no interest in the present political system and be able to break with false conservative justifications.
    What this would like in Nepal I don't honestly know,but I think the article falls in the liberal position I've just described.
    Sorry for my English

  • Guest (ozilk)

    I want to stress that more than wanting what the masses and proletariat want by themselves,we have to be ready to replace the ideological dream in which they are caught (which is that of the bourgeois ruling class) by our own communist dream (of the revolutionary party or communists).This involves to create a new power and destroy the old one,not just to "awaken" the people and intellectuals of their ideological mistification.I wonder if parliamentary capitalism or rural based people's war make the job in Nepal.
    Again sorry for my English

  • Guest (curious)

    “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?”

    How did you answer these questions?

  • How did we answer those questions? In general it took a lot of explaining of the conditions in the USA. The situation in Nepal is so entirely different that much of what is happening in the USA doesn't make sense without a deeper explanation. For instance, in Nepal it is seen as very strange to not have a party-for them there are dozens of different communist parties, a few of which have a mass base of different kinds and all of them originated from splits with older communist parties over the last 60 years or so. Most of them are institutional and reformist at this point, having long since (or just recently) lost their revolutionary character. Whereas in the USA we have largely had to form organization as a refutation of the entrenched revisionism or simple impudence of older organizations from previous radical upsurges. This was true in the 1960s and again today.

    Do we you have a revolutionary party?
    In the USA we have three things missing which are needed for revolution 1) Disciplined communist organization. 2) Theory to understand our conditions and apply a strategy for revolution. 3) A revolutionary people.

    Kasama is right now an organization of communists which has come together to help overcome these tough obstacles. In the USA we have just come out of a period of inspiring and radical popular Occupy movements which have produced many new radicals and revolutionaries, and some new groups of communists as well - many of which are critical and very revolutionary in their aspiration. It is our view that we can regroup and develop a novel, deeply revolutionary communist politics through regrouping with these new communists and elements from from previous revolutionary cycles. On this basis we would aim to fuse with the advanced among the people broadly in order to form a new organization or organizations and develop a partisan revolutionary people.

    In our efforts over the last several years we have been mainly successful in our steps along this process and I am quite hopeful about the prospects for the future and a new communist movement and organization in the future, though it will be a difficult process.

    How are your leaders different from ours?
    I honestly didn't have a good answer for this. I felt like it was an odd question (which I got twice I think from different people). I just didn't know how to compare our leaders to theirs. Though, in Nepal, Mike Ely is thought to be our leader. Its not that I was defensive on this-those who know of him in Nepal tend to think very highly of him. But then I had a very difficult time comparing our leaders in the USA who are mainly facilitating a process of building organization and helping to clarify very early lines of demarcation and the leaders who are a part of what sets the terms for politics in society as a whole. In hind sight I could have elaborated more on this-but I had never really thought about such a question before I encountered it.

    How much do people support us there?
    In the USA the main problem is that many people don't know about the revolution in Nepal and to the degree that people have heard something about it has been lies or mis-portrayal through capitalist press. Right now there are not nearly enough people who support the Nepalese revolution in the USA. But we see it as a part of our responsibility as communists in the USA to build solidarity with the revolution in Nepal.

    At this point the main task is to overcome that first obstacle, to spread the word and build partisanship for the Nepalese revolution. We are working very hard on this task. Then it may be possible in the future to mobilize people politically when the USA and India try to intervene and stop the movement in Nepal.

    It is also the case that in every instance (that at least I can think of) where there have been new movements in the USA, especially revolutionary ones, it has been inspired by or connected to movements in other parts of the world. We can look at examples from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the new Maoist trends in the late 60s and 70s to the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. So, in building solidarity for the revolution in Nepal we also hope to raise the sights of people in the USA toward total emancipation and communist revolution. Building support for the revolution in Nepal helps our movement in the USA.

    How many people are in your movement?
    With this question I mainly tried to steer clear of speculating as to concrete numbers but more focused on explaining at more length the nature of popular movements, the conditions in the USA, and the relative strength (or weakness) of revolutionary forces. I think that this gives a better sense of what conditions are like and where the potential for new revolutionary possibilities lies.

    The USA was founded as a settler colonial state through the genocide of indigenous peoples and the robbing of their land as well as through the kidnapping of African people from their homeland to use them as slave labor. Today, after many years of perpetual war, conquest, and accumulation the USA is an empire. It is s a single nation state with many oppressed nationalities and a multi-national working class. And while the middle classes and the labor aristocracy constitutes the majority of the population there are also tens of millions who are deeply oppressed and exploited. There is the continuing structural oppression of Black people (the colonial domination of the Black nation) through incredibly racist conditions and culture (whether through the new Jim Crow of the prison industrial complex and new forms of slavery, the millions who are now a semi-cast after prison, the murder by the police, the lack of work and higher rate of exploitation, or the racist violence from active elements among reactionary popular bases, etc). There is also the deep oppression of immigrants who are criminalized under this system, without a legal means to exist or to work. They routinely get the worst working conditions and the worst pay, all the while with they are also deported by the millions. Women face very different, but very real, forms of oppression and domination in the USA as compared to Nepal--through the sex industry, commodification, rape culture, and the cultural domination of women (in different forms), and to this day with the assertion of traditional roles women are subordinated and used as free labor and as child rearers. There are too many particular forms of oppression and exploitation to mention all of them (and this is not meant to tag them as unimportant).

    It is my view that the core alliance of a revolutionary united front will be made up of oppressed nationalities and the lower and the more exploited sections of the working class. Historically the uprising of Black people for liberation (or simply against oppression) has been a spark for movements in society generally. This was true with the role of the civil rights movement or the Black nationalist struggles of the 1960s, the role of Black labor in the early workers struggle, slave uprisings of before the civil war... I suspect it will continue to play a central role in future revolutionary movements.

    With the recent economic crisis we have seen sections of the middle classes and labor aristocracy pushed down into the working classes or declassed altogether. This has been one of the catalysts for the recent Occupy movement, which involved hundreds of thousands of people and radicalized thousands.

    So there are many popular movements which have sometimes involved millions (with many very important ones I left out e.g. indigenous struggles, queer movements, women's liberation demonstrations, immigration reform protest movements, strikes, student movements, etc.) but there has still be a disconnect between these movements and communist organization and consciousness. This is something that we have to be self-critical about and is a part of the line struggle that we have been waging and must continue to wage against dogmatism and revisionism.

    There have been some new cores of communists to emerge and some which already existed and maintain a sophisticated as well as revolutionary orientation- Kasama's goal is to seek to work and to form something new with these elements which can be both deeply revolutionary (and communist) and connect with the people. While we do this we also work with these popular upsurges to aid them, help them to be radicalized, learn whatever we can, and to work with the advanced with these movements both in its own right but also to develop communist consciousness (and new communists as such).

    Comment last edited on about 1 year ago by Liam Wright
  • Guest (PETER TOBIN)

    First-tate, informative, engaged and inspirational.