Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nepal Political Diary - II

A visit to the hilly areas of the mid-west and the west is an eye-opener to what the Maoists have done to revive the fortunes of the left. This is the second of a three-part diary of the author’s travels in Nepal.

One of the remarkable features about the constituent assembly elections in Nepal was the sheer number of communist parties in the fray and the cumulative gains made by them. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclamation of the “end of history” notwithstanding, the idea of communism is alive and well over here. For observers from outside Nepal, a visit to the hilly areas of the mid-west and the west is an eye-opener to what the Maoists have done to revive the fortunes of the left in today's world. The districts of Rolpa and Rukum in mid-west Nepal are the strongholds of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN (M)].

In the Dang Valley

We travelled over the east-west highway to the Dang valley from Nepalgunj taking one of the popular modes of transport, the “micro-bus” or the kia (named after the KIA brand). Dang is located in the inner-Terai, sandwiched between the Shivalik and the Mahabharat ranges. The east-west highway criss-crosses the hills between Nepalgunj and the Dang valley; as the bus goes along its path, the beautiful and picturesque landscape is a treat to one’s eyes. Along the roadside, there were wall paintings, murals, and posters calling upon the people to vote for the Maoists. Clearly, we were entering an area which had voted overwhelmingly for the Maoists.

On entering the Dang valley, we travelled to Ghorahi, a town bordering Rolpa district. We started our day in conversation with Hiramani Dukhi, a regional bureau member of the CPN (M) in the Magarat region. He had been involved in organising the janajatis, besides his work as a journalist before the emergency. During the emergency he had taken shelter in India to escape repression. He briefed us about the Magarat region and the reasons why it was considered a stronghold of the Maoists. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the CPN (M) had launched their first attack on an army garrison (in Dang) in this region and had also set up a “base area” over here. Rolpa also had a history of support for communists with some of the earliest communist victories in elections being recorded in this district. The voters had elected the Maoists because they had led the struggle
against the “feudal elements” (absentee landlords in particular). The carving of a “janajati identity-based autonomous region was also welcomed by the people”, he asserted.

PLA Camp
With guards to the PLA camp

We decided to spend some time in the nearby Dang barracks of the PLA. We were guided by two members of the PLA; one of them, Anand was the public relations officer of the battalion. The PLA fighters were ecstatic at the Maoist victory and talked eloquently about the task of building a “naya Nepal”. As we walked through pathways between pine trees and picturesque village houses, the PLA cadre told us about the local natural resource base of the region – “herbs, coal, granite, water, etc which could be harnessed to the benefit of the people”.

The PLA cantonment was elaborately organised. There were about three battalions of the fifth division in the cantonment and each battalion was sub-divided into a few brigades. The entry to the battalion camp was marked by elaborate insignia of the “communist pantheon”: pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Make-shift tents for residence and offices dotted the hilly cantonment. Women constituted 30 percent of the soldiers in the camp. Even as we entered, a group of women were being interviewed by the local press.

We interviewed some of the PLA cadre, including women. Melina was a section commander had participated in the Dang barrack attacks in 2001. We asked her as to whether she sees a future for women as senior commanders in the unified Nepal army under Maoist rule and she promptly answered that it was this dream that motivated her to join the PLA itself. She emphasised that women in the PLA were on par with their male counterparts and there were many who had risen to the ranks of battalion commanders.

Nirman, a 22 year old health worker in the PLA, trained in para-medics and well-versed in the treatment of wounds and internal injuries, had performed a key role in the battalion. A keen poet, he had been given a “cultural award” for his poetry. On being asked about his future role, Nirman was clear that he would play his part in rural healthcare.

We were taken on a tour of the battalion quarters. Most PLA cadre in the camp understood that they would have to play paramilitary roles or even roles in the development sector once the new republic was formed. They had regular political education classes, scheduled early in the day, apart from physical training. From our interaction, it was clear that from the leaders to the ordinary cadre, all of them were imbued with proletarian consciousness. They were living spartan lives but did not quite begrudge their paltry allowances from the government.

In Rolpa

We took their leave the next morning and returned to Ghorahi, from where we set out on an arduous bus ride to Dahaban, site of the PLA divisional headquarters. Dahaban was high in the hills and there was only a recently constructed kuccha (unpaved) road for our vehicle to ply on. Driving up the hills was one bumpy experience, and yet, the buses had made life easier for the hill dwellers who used the service to transport essential items instead of using mules as they did not long ago. Plying the bus across the treacherously sloping road was a difficult experience and hence the buses ran their services (both to and fro) only in the mornings. After a bumpy, dusty and scary ride, we made it to Dahaban. All along the way, wherever there were bunches of households, we could see Maoist insignia on the walls. We were now in what use to be one of the main “base areas” in the people's war.

Dahaban was part of Rolpa-II, the constituency where Prachanda, the general secretary of the party, had won by a huge margin. Here we met two senior vice commanders, Bibek and Avinash, from the strategically important fifth division of the PLA. The fifth division was one of the most important strategic units of the PLA, having participated in several pitched battles both with the police and the army. We asked them about the prospects of integration with the Nepali army. We also asked them to elaborate on the promise of security sector reforms in the CPN (M)’s manifesto, where the Maoists had promised “professionalization” of the PLA and “democratisation” of the Nepali army. The Nepali army's democratisation was a must, as it was an army subordinate to feudal forces and it had to be restructured to serve the people. Integration with the Nepali army was bound to problematic in a few areas – for instance, in the new division of labour when the two armies are integrated, in the totally different political consciousness of the two armies, and on the question of maintaining only a compact army instead of the current bloated numbers, they said. What was encouraging for the commanders was the fact that many members of the Nepali army (25 percent, we were told) had voted for the Maoists in the proportional representation based elections held in the army to the constituent assembly.

Vice commander of the PLA, Bibek and Nabina, battalion commander
After our interactions with the two senior commanders of the PLA, we met battalion commander Nabina who had been in the PLA for 8 years, having lost her first husband in one of the military operations. She was now married to a member of the cultural troupe of the Maoists. She related her experiences, her elevation in the ranks in the PLA to become a battalion commander. We were then given a tour of the headquarters where we came upon a sub-camp of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) where arms and ammunition belonging to the Maoists had been locked up. Bibek mentioned that the keys were with the PLA commanders and “in any expediency, the weapons could be taken out”.

Up in the Hills

Our next stop was Tila, further up the hills in Rolpa district, close to where the Maoists had set up a hospital, a cooperative bank and also a model commune. Tila is right up in the hills and is connected to Dahaban by a long and winding stretch of kuchcha road, built by the Maoists and appropriately designated “Shahid path” (martyr's road).

View of "Shahid Path"

Our first meeting in Tila was with Rajan, the chief political activist of the Maoists in the area. The very same day, he was in negotiations with transport operators for reducing the fares for travelling on the road built by the Maoists. He gave us an overview of the work done by the Maoists in their base area up here. Over the last year, in keeping with the 12 point agreement, the Maoists had to return the land appropriated from absentee landowners and distributed among the peasants, and had to wind up their parallel justice institutions, he said, but “they were still sought after to adjudicate on issues at the local level”. Apart from the road which was built by mobilising the PLA as well as ordinary village folk, the Maoists had also made provisions for drinking water by drawing it upstream. It was such “selfless work” that won the Maoists huge support, he asserted.

Dalit Lohar family in Tila

We could sense the support enjoyed by the Maoists as we went around the village. The Magar community and the dalits had voted for the Maoists. The dalits had been at the worst end of repression during the days of the emergency, one family recounted to us. They now expected the Maoists to make life better for them, but were clear that only by “education and hard work” could their situation improve. Many youth from the village had spent some time working in India, particularly in Chandigarh.

Terrace farming in the hills in Tila, Rolpa

The land in Tila was fragmented, reflecting the patterns of ownership in the hills of Nepal. Brahmin and Chettri families owned most of the land. Absentee landownership was abolished by the Maoists, who had snatched such land and distributed it among the peasantry. But the 12 point agreement signed in 2005 had forced them to return this land back to some of the big landowners. The support base for the Maoists in the village ranged from shopkeepers to small peasants and dalits, in essence, a multi-class alliance. The royalty was scorned upon and everyone whom we met in the village was a republican.

Back to Ghorahi

Minister Krishna Prasad Mahara in a public meeting

We returned back to Ghorahi in the Dang valley after spending a day in Tila, where fortuitously we met the national information and broadcasting minister and central committee member, Krishna Bahadur Mahara who had been visiting villages close by to thank voters for electing him. Women, village elders and youngsters were listening with rapt attention to what the minister was telling them about the future goals of the Maoists. We had a quick conversation with the minister at the end of the meeting. Mahara singled out the identity issue and “people's high immediate expectations” to be the major challenges. Over the Madhesi question, he was confident that they “would go to the people, and take them along”, a refrain we heard from every senior Maoist leader on this trip. Will the CPN (M) pursue policies a la the West Bengal government, i e, encouraging private investment in industry while pursuing land reform? “Maybe”, Mahara said, even as he went on to emphasise the unique structural features of Nepal's economy.

One of the major features of Nepal's topography is the east-west highway. The arterial road travels the entire breadth of Nepal. It practically criss-crosses the entire Terai, strategically positioned a few kilometres away from its main cities. Traversing the east-west highway, one gets a glimpse of the natural beauty endowed in the many foothills of Nepal.

In the Terai Again

Butwal, a four hour drive away from Ghorahi, lies in the Awadhi speaking area of the Terai and is close to Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. Upon enquiring about the election verdict there, we gathered that every major party, the CPN (Maoist), the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [UML] and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) had won at least a seat each in the seven seats in the region surrounding Butwal and Bhairahawa. This clearly showed that in the plains, where the population was ethnically more diverse, there had been a mixed verdict. A journalist we met explained that the Maoists had won in areas where there were substantial rural and working class populations. But, their support base that came from the multi-class alliance forged in the hills was not quite there in the plains. The NC and UML could barely retain their support of yore, losing out to the Madhesi parties who had received a groundswell of support on the identity issue.

River on the way to Kathmandu

Armed with an understanding of the support base of the main political parties in the hills and the plains, we now made our way to Kathmandu. The capital was buzzing with political activity; practically all the elected representatives to the constituent assembly had gathered. We were distracted by the breathtaking splendour of the Narayani river flowing parallel to our course of the journey.

Article written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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