Mellowed MaoistsHeaded in all directions, will the former rebels find a clear ideological path for the masses to follow?
In villages, children are often asked if they have seen a tiger. And most of them reply in the affirmative. They are told that a tiger will some day actually appear before them if they said they had not seen one.
Fifteen years ago, it would be impossible for a rural resident to not have encountered a Maoist—someone as terrifying as a tiger. He would make you eat cards if you were caught playing them instead of working. Your legs would be broken if you meted out injustice to poor villagers. You would have to suffer consequences if your son worked in one of the state security forces.
I never saw a Maoist cadre in combat fatigue during the decade-long insurgency. My leaving the village for college and the Maoists leaving for the forests to wage a war against the ‘ill-suited’ regime happened in the same year.
At the height of the People’s War, I caught a lean Maoist student activist—in typical militia ‘track suit’ and canvas shoes, carrying a woven bag—just out of the rented room I shared with my friends in Dhankuta. I looked at him suspiciously as he passed by me dismissively.
In the room, friends were discussing how firmly he talked to them about their mission. He could even be hiding a pen bomb in his bag along with donation receipts. We felt pity for him that he could be killed any time in an encounter with the police or the Army.
The decade-long war
People viewed Maoists with awe and wonder. They would one day establish the rule of peasants, working class and the downtrodden. All the rich people would have to relinquish their wealth. There would be no private property
and everybody would be equal. Schools, colleges and hospitals would be free of cost.
Maoist second-in-command Baburam Bhattarai wrote such fiery articles that you could be detained if they were found in your room during night-time raids. His leader Prachanda commanded enormous respect of those sympathising with the Maoists. Few outside the core Maoists had seen him. The press had only a grainy image of him. He would make one’s blood boil with his speech. Even ordinary Maoist cadres far away from the Maoist heartland could prepare youths to fight with khukuris, spears and rusty firearm against heavily armed policemen or state soldiers.
Soon the Maoists became almost invincible. Army personnel died in dozens as barracks were attacked and the police put down their weapons at the sight of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army targeting them. They were too much for the government—broadly the state—to handle. Truces were tried and a few rounds of talks held. Messengers exchanged messages between the Maoist command in Rolpa or an Indian city and the government in Kathmandu. The erstwhile king and political leaders stripped of power made their own efforts to reach out to the Maoist leaders.
The war had fatigued everyone. Financial resources had drained. Countless children lost their parents and hundreds of young women were widowed due to casualties on both sides.
It was a relief for everyone that fighting had stopped and the Maoists and mainstream political parties agreed to struggle peacefully against the monarch. The April revolution that saw a million people in the streets of Kathmandu forced the king to hand over power to the parties.
This bloodless coup heightened the people’s faith in the Maoist rebellion. Their influence was now not just limited to the village folks; even intellectuals and affluent people looked up to them.
In due course, Prachanda became Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. PLA commanders were appointed ministers. Women who had not got a chance to go to school became legislators. A Janajati looked after the defence ministry.
Maybe inconsistencies between revolutionary fighters and the old state order could be suppressed just for the nine-month tenure of PM Dahal. Another Maoist-led government was not as strong and exited disgracefully after the first Constituent Assembly (CA) failed.
However, after the second CA and the constitution’s promulgation, the Maoists—the third biggest party in Parliament—made a return to state power. One former female guerrilla leader now heads Parliament; another of her male contemporaries is Vice President. This comes on top of the nearly 1,500 former rebels who were integrated into the national Army earlier. The ruling Maoists could also allocate hefty sums from the state coffers for each of their new recruits who were dropped from the integration process.
The Maoists had fears of survival in ‘dirty’ parliamentary politics. No leader believed that their party would emerge as the largest party in the first CA. But the second CA cut their strength tremendously. They acted restless in both the situations and made mistakes. The party broke into nearly a dozen factions. One of the Maoist architects, Bhattarai, parted ways with Prachanda.
He will announce his new democratic socialist party today.
As the Maoists begin afresh, people are calculating what the revolutionaries gave them in two decades. Of course, there have been unimaginable political changes. But people’s hardships remain. To an ordinary Nepali, many of their promises ring hollow. The tiller has no land, the have-nots are without hope for a house.
Now, the Maoists are having to clean up their own mess: ethnic politics and justice for war-era crimes. Two of Prachanda’s old hands—Netra Bikram Chand and Mohan Baidya—are implementing or devising tactics to survive as separate outfits.
Headed in all directions, will the Maoists find a clear ideological path for the masses to follow?
Guragain is a desk editor at The Kathmandu Post. (@GuragainMohan)