Nepal: Revolution At The Roof Of The World
The June 1 murder
of King Birendra of Nepal and eight other members of the royal family hit
headlines like a bizarre tale of regicide out of Hamlet or King Lear. Within
hours, thousands took to the streets in Kathmandu and conspiracy theories
buzzed through the crowds. Few believed the official story that Birendra’s son
went on a berserk shooting spree because his mother disapproved of his
girlfriend. The new king, Gyanendra, who was on vacation during the fateful
dinner, took the throne in a haze of suspicion.
account of what happened may never be known. But like all such events, the
king’s murder took place in a context—and the context is the growing strength
of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency.
Since it began
in 1996, the Maoist People’s War in Nepal has gained strength and momentum. It
has spread to almost all of the country’s 75 districts. Over 1,500 people have
been killed by the government and the police have carried out widespread human
rights violations of rape, torture, and murder—chronicled by groups like
Amnesty International and even the U.S. State Department. Recent military
encounters have involved hundreds of guerrillas and the Maoists now control
large areas of the countryside.
defining political question in Nepal is whether to support or attack the
Maoist People’s War. King Birendra was enmeshed in the growing crisis within
Nepal’s ruling class over how to deal with the insurgency. The media portrays
Birendra as just a figurehead. But Nepal’s Constitution gives the King supreme
command of the army and the power to appoint its commander in chief, while the
police forces are under the command of the ruling government. This setup made
Birendra the focus of debate over whether or not to mobilize the army against
the People’s War in Nepal could shake the South Asia region was underscored
this spring by a parade of diplomats from India, China, Britain, and the
U.S.—who held meetings with Nepalese officials with the Maoist insurgency a
major item on the agenda. But it took a bloodbath in the royal palace for news
of this conflict to make it to the United States.
In Spring 1999, I
traveled for several months through guerrilla zones in the mountains of Nepal.
My trip was arranged by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which is
leading the insurgency. Guerrilla squads escorted me through some of the most
intense areas of fighting. I traveled and lived with members of the people’s
army and interviewed political and military leaders, soldiers, relatives of
those killed in the war, and villagers in areas under guerrilla control.
As we trekked
from village to village, I could see why these peasants would support a
revolutionary struggle to overthrow the present order. Nepal is one of the
poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world. Living conditions are
extremely primitive, even by Third World standards. Per capita income is $210
and 85 percent of the people live in the rural areas without electricity,
running water, and basic sanitation. There are hardly any doctors in the
countryside and malnutrition is widespread. Life expectancy is only 55 years.
about landowners and corrupt officials who steal their small plots of land and
money lenders who charge exorbitant interest. “We work all year,” one farmer
angrily told me, “but the crops we harvest only provide food for three to four
months.” His face lit up when he described how the Maoists have set up a new
tax system, burned property-ownership records, and redistributed land. He
said, “Our vision is that we can seize the land of landlords, socialize the
land, grow crops on those lands, and have everyone work together. We will then
be able to grow enough food to eat for the whole year.”
guerillas I met were members of a people’s army cultural squad in the Eastern
Region. The first to speak were young women— 16 and 17 years old. Like
thousands of women, they had been attracted to the revolution’s offer of
About a third
of the people’s army squads are female and in the guerrilla zones just about
every village has a revolutionary women’s organization.
Nepalese parents arrange their children’s marriages and many other feudal
customs discriminate against women. But in the guerrilla zones, women have the
right to own land, choose a husband, and go to school. One woman told me she
had been stuck in an arranged marriage for six years. But then she began
working with the party and ran off and joined the people’s army.
repression has also driven many people to support the revolution. One woman in
an eastern village said, “They have killed a small child of only five years
old and an old man of 90. They have raped a 10-year-old girl and a 70-year-old
woman. They have looted our property. They have taken the property of even the
old people. They have raided homes and put people in jail. In the elections
they force us to go out and vote, even though we don’t want to. There are
massive violations of human rights. Men who speak out, demanding that the
government act according to the law and Constitution, are being hunted down.
Women are also being forced to go underground. Sometimes the men are separated
from their wives for one or two months and then the police come and
interrogate and rape the wife. Because of this terrible situation created by
the reactionary government we have come to the understanding that we need to
pick up arms and fight them.”
Nepal was never
colonized, but foreign powers, especially Britain and India, have dominated
the country for decades. Yet Nepal has remained relatively isolated and
untouched by the kind of dependent development “globalization” has brought to
many other Third World countries. For most of the 20th century the political
system was controlled by feuding dynasties.
From 1951 to
1990, Nepal was ruled by the Shah monarchy and all political parties were
banned. Then after widespread protest, the King was forced to institute a
constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. General elections were
held for the first time in 1991. But hopes that the new parliamentary system
would bring change were quickly dashed. And for the last 10 years, the
government, widely seen by many as thoroughly corrupt and beholden to India,
has been unable to solve the country’s social and economic problems.
The main force
deployed against the People’s War are the police, who have carried out several
counter-insurgency campaigns. They have arrested and tortured hundreds of
suspected guerrillas and Maoist sympathizers. But they have not been able to
crush the insurgency. Police posts in guerrilla zones have been forced to
close down. The police have suffered many casualties, and there have been
widespread defections and demoralization. Meanwhile, areas under Maoist
control have grown. All this has intensified the debate among Nepal’s rulers
over whether to mobilize the army.
forces may fear that giving the army the main responsibility for defeating the
Maoists could put too much power in the hands of the monarchy. There is also
concern that mobilizing the Royal Nepalese Army could lead to bigger and more
destabilizing defeats that would discredit key institutions of the state—the
monarchy and the army.
One major force
looming over the unfolding events in Nepal is India. While I was traveling in
Nepal’s Middle Region, my translator was a sympathizer of the People’s War who
studied engineering in India. He was constantly pointing out how so many
things around us were made by India—from the roads to the busses to the music
playing at roadside foodstands. On the border, we saw trucks backed up for
miles bringing Indian goods into Nepal.
Birendra—as well as the ruling Nepali Congress party— have had long-standing
ties with and backing from the Indian power structure. In 1950-1951, India
directly intervened to put Birendra’s grandfather, King Tribuvan, on the
India has long
considered Nepal strategically important in its often hostile relationship
with China. This conflict intensified after China was liberated in 1949 and
Mao came to power. In 1965, aiming to prevent friendly relations between Nepal
and the socialist government in China, India secured an arms treaty in which
Nepal agreed to purchase arms only from India, Britain, or the U.S. Today, the
anti-Maoist regime in China shares India’s hostility to the revolution in
Nepal, but India remains concerned that China will take advantage of the
instability created by the insurgency.
It is largely,
though not exclusively, through India that Nepal is linked to the world
imperialist system. India dominates the economic life of the
country—plundering Nepal’s natural resources, enforcing unequal trade
agreements, and exploiting millions of poor peasants who are forced to cross
the Indian border to work. Many businesses are run by Indian capitalists, and
much of the fertile land in the Terai area near the border is owned by Indian
In 1996 the
controversial Mahakali Treaty basically established India’s right to steal
Nepal’s water. Nepal’s mountains and rivers make it one of the richest in
water resources—with as much capacity to generate electricity as the U.S.,
Mexico, and Canada combined. But unequal treaties force Nepal to sell much of
its water to India at give-away prices. Meanwhile, 40 percent of the rural
population in Nepal lack regular supplies of potable water. Only about 10
percent of the country has access to hydro-electric power.
As a landlocked
country, Nepal depends on India for transhipping of imports and exports. In
1989, after a trade dispute, India imposed a virtual trade embargo on Nepal.
Much of Nepal’s trade disappeared overnight, along with essential supplies of
fuel and medicine. India cracked down on the border to prevent goods from
other countries getting into Nepal. Nepalese working in India were not even
allowed to bring their salaries across the border.
thousands of poor farmers in Nepal go to work in India. Some stay for years,
others work for several months and then return to farm their land. It is
estimated that at any given time, as many as seven million Nepalese are
working in India.
commander in Nepal, who had worked in India, told me: “My family is very poor,
so when I was 15 I went to India to find work. I lived there eight years,
working as a laborer in the countryside, collecting raw materials for
medicine. Later I went to the city and worked in a factory making plastic
bags. I also worked in a steel factory as a security guard, in a chocolate
factory, and a pencil factory. The wages were very low, about 400 rupees
($6.00) a month.”
fact that so many Nepalese peasants work in India has created a favorable
factor for the revolution. There is a strong movement of Nepalese Maoists in
India who are building support for the People’s War in Nepal. There are
friendly ties between the Maoists in Nepal and Maoist groups waging armed
struggle against the Indian government. There have been large demonstrations
in India in support of the insurgency. I met people in Nepal who were first
exposed to Maoism in India—and then returned home to join the revolution.
It is widely
expected that India would take military action to prevent the Maoists from
taking over the country. When I interviewed Prachanda, the top leader of the
CPN (Maoist), he pointed to the possibility of direct intervention.
“Ultimately, we will have to fight with the Indian army,” Prachanda said.
“That is the situation. Therefore we have to take into account the Indian
army. When the Indian army comes in with thousands and thousands of soldiers,
it will be a very big thing. But we are not afraid of the Indian Army because,
in one way, it will be a very good thing. They will give us lots of guns. And
lots of people will fight them.”
Nepal is not the
only country where Marxist parties have long been a significant part of the
political scene—including within the government. But what is interesting here,
is that a distinctly Maoist movement has gained such widespread influence,
especially among the poor peasantry—and that its strength has actually grown
after initiating armed struggle against the government.
mid-1990s, Prachanda and other leading members of the CPN (Maoist) analyzed
that the conditions in Nepal were ripe for launching, building, and sustaining
an armed struggle, and that such a struggle was the only way to unleash the
revolutionary energies of Nepal’s peasantry. Starting in early 1995, the
Maoists began a year long campaign to build support among the peasants for
initiating people’s war. Centered in the western districts of Rolpa, Rukum,
and Jarjarkot, the revolutionaries sent cultural teams into the villages,
organized the peasants to challenge local authorities, and mobilized the
villagers to build roads, bridges, and latrines.
decision to start the war was very controversial in the revolutionary
movement—as well as within the party. Prachanda told me, “In making the plan
for initiation there was great debate over how to go to the armed struggle
because many people were influenced by ‘peaceful’ struggle, work in the
parliament, rightist and petty bourgeois feelings, and a long tradition of the
reformist movement. Then we said that the only process must be a big push, big
leap. Not gradual change.”
many of the leadership and cadre in the CPN (Maoist) were working underground.
But developing a people’s army required a whole new level of commitment. One
leader in the Gorkha region told me, “In the past, the party members here were
mainly more educated intellectuals who could not leave their jobs and be
full-timers. When the Central Committee decided to start the People’s War,
this presented us with a problem. Before the initiation, we held district
committee level meetings with all the members and united with the decision to
go to armed struggle. We decided it was necessary for all the members to
become full-timers, but most said they didn’t want to do this. So the party
decided to dissolve this district party committee and form a new district
committee—made up of dedicated persons and young people who had participated
in the class struggle and were willing to do revolutionary work full time.”
government began launching a series of counter-insurgency campaigns, many
veteran party members were killed, and new, younger leadership had to step
into their shoes. Throughout this process, the character of the party changed
as more peasants were recruited. Today, the party and the people’s army are
overwhelmingly made up of peasants.
explained that, from the beginning, the guerillas envisioned a protracted war,
“waging guerrilla warfare to surround the cities and eventually seize power.”
Prachanda told me, “Geographically when you look at the whole country of India
you can travel in one or two days to every part and corner. But in Nepal you
have to walk up and down for many days. Therefore, while Nepal is a small
country, the mountainous region is very favorable for guerrilla warfare, for
people’s war. We also saw that because there has been a centralized
reactionary government for more than 200 years there has also been a tendency
for the masses to resist throughout all of Nepal.”
The Rolpa and
Rukum districts in the Western Region—now known as the storm center of the
People’s War—were key areas of strength at the time of the initiation. So I
was really excited to be able to spend a month traveling through guerrilla
zones in these two districts.
We had to trek
at night, for many hours in the mountains, without flashlights to avoid the
police. Sometimes in the middle of the night, a squad member would knock on
the door of a village house and a sleepy peasant would take us in and give us
blankets and a spot on the floor to sleep.
These areas are
remote and far from the seat of power in Kathmandu—which makes quick and large
mobilization of government forces difficult. Even before 1996, Maoist forces
had a lot of influence in these poor districts where the Magar people—one of
the 25 or so oppressed nationalities in Nepal—make up much of the population.
Most of the guerrillas I met in these areas were Magars, attracted to the
Maoists’ promise of an end to discrimination and the right of
In Rolpa and
Rukum I was struck by the absence of Hindu temples—and one of the guerillas
explained that the lack of strong religious influences in this part of the
country also has made it easier for revolutionary ideas to take hold.
sections of Nepalese society have been drawn to support the Maoists’ fight
against the government: the rural population wants land and development, women
want equality, and millions throughout Nepal want democracy and independence.
In Kathmandu, I met middle-class intellectuals, artists, and even high-level
government workers who supported the Maoists’ program of democracy and ending
foreign domination. But the heart of this revolution is in the countryside. It
is here that the guerrillas are building base areas of power.
Sitting on the
floor of a small village house, the cadre responsible for developing people’s
power in Rolpa explained to me that within the first few years of the
revolution, government officials, landlords, and police were driven out of the
villages. This created a power vacuum which allowed the guerrillas to
establish military, political, and economic control in huge areas of the
countryside. It also shattered the repressive climate and allowed peasants to
openly take part in revolutionary politics for the first time. Today, some two
million people in the Rolpa and Rukum districts of Nepal are living under
guerrilla control, setting up new forms of government.
power” committees— made up of party members, guerrillas and representatives of
mass organizations—hold court to settle land disputes, punish rapists, and
decide on other forms of justice. They set up new taxation systems, run
schools, and build bridges, latrines, and playgrounds. They also figure out
how to deal with spies who give information to the police. Peasants told me
that thousands of cases had been settled by “people’s courts,” conducted at
gatherings of up to 500 villagers.
The Maoists in
Nepal see the development of “base areas” as a strategic part of eventually
being able to “surround the cities and seize power.” In these areas, the
guerrillas are constructing the outlines of the new society they hope to build
if they succeed in overthrowing the government. According to Prachanda, “At
first, we did not teach the masses—they taught us how to begin exercising
power. It cannot be dictated from above. The masses themselves, through the
process of People’s War, through the process of struggle, gave birth to the
forms of new people’s power.”
A central part
of this new people’s power is land reform, carried out under the slogan “land
to the tiller” and the principle of “women’s equal right to property.” The
guerrillas also carry out collective and cooperative farming and organize
volunteer production teams to help farm the land of families whose relatives
have been killed by the government. A system of cooperative loans has been set
up, as well as cottage industries to produce goods for local consumption and
to support the people’s army. People’s power committees have also launched
health and hygiene awareness campaigns and adult literacy programs. Local
militias work together with squads from the people’s army to provide military
training and security against the police.
The Maoists in
Nepal have a big vision—wherever I went, people in the guerrilla zones
emphasized how they see their struggle as part of the “world revolution.”
Prachanda told me, “Nepal is a small country, we are a small party. But we
have a big perspective. Our People’s War may be a spark for a prairie fire.”
Li Onesto traveled to guerilla zones in Nepal in 1999. Her 22-part series for
the Revolutionary Worker can be found at rwor.org.