Smoke and mirrorsMy father is an old-timer Marxist who was active in the fight against the Panchayat regime from 1979 to 1990.
My father is an old-timer Marxist who was active in the fight against the Panchayat regime from 1979 to 1990. He would eventually forgo party politics to become a human rights worker, but his leftist inclinations remained. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of a pair of large, beautiful sketches of Marx and Engels, drawn by a relative, which adorned our living room wall like watchful sentinels.
Then things changed.
By the time the Maoist insurgency began to escalate—with the then-Royal Nepal Army being drawn into the fray—I was still but a bright-eyed teenager. And though most of the events from that time remain hazy, I clearly remember the fear. Rumours were afoot that the military was checking people’s homes for Maoists and their sympathisers and my mother was mortified that they would round up father for an “inspection” because of the sketches. Although she was well-aware that the portraits had been hung long before the insurgency was at its peak, she wasn’t confident that she could convince the army that freedom of expression was a fundamental right; or that having a sketch of Marx did not make one a Maoist, or violent. Then, after hemming and hawing for days, we eventually buried the sketches, along with dozens of books.
2016 marks twenty years of the start of the Maoist violence and ten years since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed. For many people, the end of the mass violence in 2006 meant that they did not have to be afraid of a sketch or a book in their living room. It also meant that teachers were no longer persecuted for refusing to buy into the Maoist ideology and students were no longer enticed or abducted from their schools to be trained as child soldiers. At the time of its signing, it was of little doubt that the CPA came as a huge sigh of relief to the Nepali population.
However, that relief ushered in by the CPA itself also points its finger towards the violence that took place during the Maoist Movement. The insurgency began in 1996, after only six years of the reinstatement of parliamentary democracy. The drivers of the Maoist insurgency clearly did not give parliamentary democracy a chance. At the time, while my father’s generation of Marxists had come to reconcile with parliamentary democracy as the best available form of government, the Maoists hung on to the spectres of Mao Tsetung and Charu Mujumdar and rejected the system, and went to war against it.
Fast forward to 2016, and things have changed once more. The once deriders of the parliamentary system are now stuck in the same political quagmire, playing out the same number games of toppling and forming governments. The purported “great leap forward” now looks more like two steps back, and one needs to look no further than the Maoist party’s current degeneration to see how hypocritical the lofty ideals pawned during the insurgency have been.
The legacy of the Maoist Movement cannot just be equated with its leadership’s lifestyle but it is a strong indication of what has gone wrong. The once champions of the poor and the working class are now leading unbelievably affluent lives, hopping to Sukute beach to relax. They go to Bangkok, Singapore and Delhi for health check-ups and live in luxurious houses in Kathmandu. This perhaps would have been easily digested in Nepal had they not waged a violent war for equality with a promise of a red utopia. What is more, in a very Animal Farm-esque manner, the Maoist leaders have benefitted from the insurgency while the same cannot be said for the thousands that fought alongside them.
It cannot be contested that the Maoist Movement did establish important issues in the Nepali polity that my father’s generation of Marxists could not. For instance, it was the Maoists who painted “Garv se kahu hum Madhesi chhi, bideshi bhagauda nahi—dhartiputrachhi,” (Say with pride that we are Madhesis, the children of this land, not foreign fugitives), on the walls of Kathmandu. The Movement was also successful in giving voice to the voiceless, bringing historical, cultural and political disadvantages dished out to minorities to the fore. Kham Magars of Rolpa, Limbus of Ilam and Tharus of Bardiya, among other minorities, proved to be important assets to the rebel army. However, the party has not been able to deliver on its promises.
Ideologically, the Maoists have raised but eventually failed to establish their claim that Nepal’s problem is two-pronged—class and caste. The radical Maoist discourse has sharply divided the leftist narrative of Nepal into a backward looking ‘class vs caste’ debate, when, in fact, both contribute in socio-economic marginalisation. The ‘new left’ comprising of Janajati and Madhesi political organisations have abandoned the ideas of class marginalisation, whereas, the hammer and sickle ‘old left’ hesitates to admit the socio-cultural marginalisation based on caste and ethnicity. And Maoists lie oscillating somewhere in between, mostly unclear about their own narrative. Now, with a Maoist Prime Minister at the helm, the party is still not able to reconcile the political differences between the mainstream parties and the Madhesi parties. Is this is not another feather in the Maoists’ cap of failure?
Another issue raised by the Maoist movement and later endorsed by all the major parties, federalism, is now institutionalised, at least, in the constitution. Though the Madhesi parties have not accepted the federalism in its current form, it is also true that Nepal cannot revert to the administrative centralism of previous years. Power will be decentralised from Kathmandu in one way or the other. However, the sacrifices that the country had to make for this is yet to be justified. The politically silenced voiceless—who lost their parents, children, teachers, students, neighbours and lovers—will always seek answers from the Maoist leadership. Perhaps the pacifists will never be satisfied with the attempts to justification of the Maoist violence. However, the Maoist leaders, whose ailing parents have access to the best medical facilities and whose children are enrolled in the best schools in Nepal and abroad, need to work hard to vindicate their gun-barrel politics against parliamentary democracy to the generations to come.