The Beginnings of a New Democratic Nepal?
by John Mage and Bernard D’Mello
(John Mage of Monthly Review and Bernard D’Mello. deputy editor of Economic and Political Weekly (“EPW”) of Mumbai, India, visited Nepal in February, and trekked into Rolpa, the original base area of the revolutionary “people’s war.” The following account appears simultaneously on MRZine and in the current (March 17th) issue of EPW.)
Over the last year, as the world watched Nepal making a significant and qualitative break with its past, the EPW too was planning a special issue. For the two of us, having come of political age in the 1960s and 1970s, an aphorism of those times that still lingers, “no investigation, no right to speak,” may have been behind our joint decision to visit Nepal in February, to put our fingers to the pulse of things. A “people’s war” that lasted 11 years led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the CPN(M), as well as the Jan Andolan in April last year, brought about profound shifts in the balance of power in national politics. The 238-year old feudal monarchy has been marginalised, a preliminary step towards laying the foundations for a democratic republic. The Nepali Maoists, for their part, are practising another one of those 20th-century aphorisms: “to rebel is justified.” They had waged a just war by raising an army — the people’s liberation army (PLA) — ingrained with the democratic tradition of building close ties with the common people. Their strategy required the establishment of “base areas” in rural Nepal, which have now been heralded as representative of a new Nepal in the making. It was in this context that we decided to trek in Rolpa, located in mid-west Nepal, one of the first base areas in the people’s war.
As is by now well known, the CPN(M) has altered its strategy of a protracted people’s war, although the party’s goal is still the establishment of a people’s republic of Nepal. It is now concentrating on ushering in a democratic republic, with a multiparty democracy within a constitutional framework that is anti-feudal and anti-imperialist, and requiring extensive reorganisation of state power to resolve problems related to class, gender, caste, and nationality/region. Under the UN’s monitoring mission, the PLA units have stored and sealed their arms and ammunition and have confined themselves to temporary camps/cantonments in the run-up to elections to a new constituent assembly. The Nepal Army (NA), too, has been confined to the barracks and a similar quantity of its arms stored and sealed. The Maoists have even agreed to dismantle the people’s governments in their base areas; they are now represented in the interim legislature and their entry into the interim cabinet appears imminent.
We set out to understand developments in the base area of Rolpa in the Magarat region, where the Maoists have claimed, according to one of their spokespersons [Parvati 2005], to have undermined the feudal base of the state, setting up mobile, locally-based people’s courts, people’s councils at the regional (under the Magarat autonomous region), district, village and ward levels, and also a local militia to ensure public security. There have also been moves to reconstruct the economy, importantly, with a socialist orientation, and the initial foundations for progressive changes in the areas of health, education, and culture have been laid. The obvious question in our minds was that, with the end of armed conflict in sight, but with the tasks of the revolution still unfinished, what would be the fate of these progressive changes that remain in their formative stages. ……….
At another level, our trek through Rolpa brought us in touch with a spectacular landscape and a rich culture. One could talk of the beauty of the hills, the pine trees amidst winter giving way to spring, but that brings us to the dilemma of the poet in hard times, expressed so well by Bertolt Brecht (in “To Posterity”): “Ah, what an age it is/When to speak of trees is almost a crime/For it is a kind of silence about injustice.” So that’s what chalked out our trek.
People’s Army and the People
North from the district of Dang, on our way from Ghorahi to Tila we came to the main cantonment site of the 5th division of the PLA at Dahaban of Nuwagaon. The PLA mingling with the civilians in the vicinity of the cantonment was suggestive of similar mobilisations seen during the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions — the people in arms. The guerrillas who came together to form the PLA stood for the common interests of the poor against the local ruling classes (who seemed to have all fled en masse), and of the dominated and oppressed against the state. After all, the peasants wanted enough food, and land, and they wished to get rid of the feudal elite who command the NA and administer the state. There is also the fact that the bulk of the 5th division of the PLA seemed to consist of local men and women (women make up 35 per cent of the PLA), who have their friends among the local people, who know the terrain well and what is likely to happen there, and after all, are defending their own near and dear ones.
Despite an absence of insignia denoting rank, we sensed a high degree of discipline, cohesion, and morale in an armed force where there is a hierarchy of organisation: from divisions leading down to brigades, battalions, companies, platoons, and further down to sections, with each section of 9-12 combatants commanded by a front guard leader. During our conversation with a senior battalion commander, comrade Nabina, we sensed from her the kind of education and political training that probably goes into the making of the PLA.
Mao famously remarked: “Without a people’s army, the people have nothing,” but the maintenance of the PLA during 11 years of the people’s war could not have been achieved without the closest possible integration with the people. The guerrilla war was a protracted one, which required the setting up of base areas where the local people were mobilised and resources utilised. The PLA probably reciprocated for everything that the local people supplied them; they seem to have treated the local women with dignity; they brought land and justice to the poor where they were victorious; and, they did not choose to live better than the people on whom they relied. What else could account for the PLA’s patent bond with the people?
We also dropped by at the satellite cantonment in Tila where the Jhawar brigade of the 5th division of the PLA was encamped. In both the main and the satellite cantonments, what was evident was the fact that the government had failed to abide by its commitments in the budget regarding the supply of food and medicines, construction materials, communications hardware, electricity, water supply, the connecting roads, and so on. At the satellite cantonment, there was only one VCR phone set up with two handsets. Food, medicines, blankets, and construction materials were in pitiful short supply. The PLA soldiers were down to three to a blanket in the bitter winter cold. The battalion was dependent on the local shops for food supplies on credit. There was no electricity, except what the few solar panels (that belonged to the PLA itself) could supply. The soldiers were fetching water in huge buckets from a source nearby. Then overnight, a severe thunderstorm had uprooted and destroyed their entire camp dwelling but the people nearby had willingly accommodated them in their homes. Brigade commander, comrade Santosh told us: “We are enduring all these hardships in the hope that the political initiative taken by our party is ultimately successful.”
A People’s Model Hospital
From Tila we set out on foot to reach the people’s model hospital (Jananamuna Aspatal) at Ghorneti in the Oda village development council (VDC), only to realise by late afternoon that the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak; we understood that we could not get there before nightfall and had to abandon the route. Now Nepal is not unusual among third world nations in the concentration of educational, medical, and cultural institutions at the urban centre of the nation — in this instance, in the three adjoining cities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, located in the central valley. A large portion of the foreign “aid,” routed through the NGO network, as also the economic surplus, are here consumed by the traditional political and cultural elite. Little wonder at the persistence of the gross disparities in health and the social inequalities that seem so central to the spread of disease. Just as well that the Maoists are always asking such questions as “for whom”? It is ironic that after the 2006 “comprehensive peace agreement” between the government and the CPN(M), the police posts are being revived but the government has not yet provided the funds to resuscitate the old health posts. It was a pity we could not trek all the way up to the people’s model hospital, but were immensely pleased that the secretary of that hospital, comrade Lal, a paramedic, walked all the way down to meet us.
The head of the people’s model hospital is comrade Mangal Biswakarma, a dalit paramedic, now a member of parliament in the new interim legislature. When we asked how they could run a hospital without a single MBBS doctor, comrade Lal told us that practically all the nation’s full-fledged doctors prefer to reside and work in the Kathmandu valley. So they decided to train “reds” to also become “experts.” The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and some Norwegian doctors had trained them in “how to treat the wounded, how to save lives — remove bullets, the technique of amputation, how to treat internal wounds, how to join a split windpipe,” and so on. The ICRC had also donated medicines and some surgical instruments. Talking with comrade Lal, it was obvious that emphasis is placed on skills rather than on credentials. The trained paramedics had in turn trained more than 300 health workers for the PLA and these workers, during the present ceasefire, are now dispersed among the people. This is seen as an opportunity to be of service to the people rather than merely seeking personal reward. After all, the party assigns great stress to the provision of healthcare in rural areas. The hospital presently has only five beds, with two being added, but “we are now planning for 200 beds,” comrade Lal added. He went on to say that “at first, the party set up and ran the hospital, but gradually the budget was provided by the Magarat Autonomous Regional Council (people’s public administration at the regional level). The total number of staff is 12, including two staff nurses. Besides treating the wounded of the PLA in the hospital and in the field (the armed police usually killed wounded PLA persons whom they captured), gynaecological practice was assigned some priority.”
It seems to us that if social inequalities are central to the spread of disease, then revolutionary politics offers an effective medicine on a grand scale in Nepal today, and with the small beginnings made in the form of the people’s model hospital, where the health of the people is a matter of social concern, medicine is, in turn, politics on a small scale.
On the Red Trail
On the path from Tila to Thawang are quite a few landmarks in the people’s war. We passed through Losibang, where after the second (and unsuccessful) attack on the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) base in Khara (in Rukum district) on October 2003, the CPN(M) chairman, Prachanda, erstwhile standing committee member, Baburam Bhattarai, and the first deputy commander of the PLA, comrade Pasang (Nandakishore Poon Magar) found shelter for 10-15 days. Then in Iribang VDC we came to Chapka, an open field on the bank of the Ghorthikhola river that serves the local population as a gathering place for seasonal markets and festivals, where in 1994, even before the people’s war had begun, there was an attempt by the police on the life of comrade Pasang. And, near Chapka, in Rangsi VDC, at a place called Dadagaon, in March 2004, the RNA had bombarded a house where Prachanda was staying but had just left hours before it was destroyed. Our guide, comrade Prayas, narrated these episodes to us and key incidents in the people’s war were recreated in our imaginations, a red tourism of sorts!
Along the route one came to places where waist-high ledges had been constructed to set down one’s burden safely and conveniently and take a brief rest in the shade of a nearby tree — “chautharis” as these are called. The older ones had Hindu religious inscriptions in stone, but the newer ones had inscriptions dedicated to local martyrs of the Maoist movement who had been killed nearby. But, as we went along, the present and the past seemed to mingle in more ways than one. In an interesting conversation with police personnel at Obang, metres from the ruins of a police post destroyed in the first days of People’s War, and now to be shifted to Bagmara, we were told by the police in-charge: “We have come back with the consent of the Maoists. So the people are cooperating with us and the area is peaceful.”
But it was a chance meeting along the trail with comrade Juna, wife of Maoist MP in the new interim legislature, comrade Santosh Budhamagar that made our day. After the Jan Andolan I in 1990-91 (which led to the dissolution of the autocratic “panchayat” system), when the mainstream political parties were legalised, the leaders of these political parties gradually joined the exclusive club of recipients of the economic surplus and foreign “aid” that was earlier the prerogative of the feudal monarchy, the army, and the brahmin-chhetri elite in public administration. Parliamentarians became a privileged elite. But here was comrade Juna Budhamagar strolling along, quite unassuming, simplicity and ruggedness personified, knitting a pullover for her loved one. Quite simply, she could have been any other ordinary local inhabitant, that is, if our guide, comrade Prayas had not informed us of whom she was.
The new interim legislature has 73 members of the CPN(M) and 10 representatives from the civil society nominated by the party; it is a pleasant change that these Maoist MPs truly reflect the class, gender, regional, ethnic, and caste composition of Nepali society. The credit here goes entirely to the Maoists’ choice of their 73 MPs in the new interim legislature. These MPs are from 52 of Nepal’s 75 districts; 29 of the 73 are women, fulfilling the Maoist promise of 40 per cent representation of women in parliament within their group. Besides, there are 22 “madhesi” (inhabitants of the eastern Terai), 11 dalits, and 22 from the indigenous groups also among the 73 Maoist MPs. And, the average age of the Maoist MPs seems to be just a little above 30 years. The 10 civil society representatives whom the Maoists have nominated to parliament include a retired major general of the erstwhile RNA who had supported the Jan Andolan II during the time when the king had absolute powers, and a Buddhist peacenik monk. The 10 MPs have been chosen by the Maoists for their participation in the Jan Andolan; they are not obliged to follow the party whip. At the satellite cantonment of the 5th division of the PLA, brigade commander comrade Santosh had a glint of pride in his eyes when he told us that battalion commander, comrade Sanjana, a woman and a dalit, and now an MP of the interim legislature, is from his brigade.
Back on the red trail, when we got to Tutu of Mirul VDC, we found a significant memorial to local martyrs of the movement; benches under a gracefully covered shelter, offering a charming view of the intersection of two streams. Upon inquiry we were told that in 1997, the police tortured and killed 14 persons over two to three days, claiming that they were “terrorists.” Actually they were party supporters, some elderly, and some women, including one who was pregnant. Among the women, there was Kumari Budha, a member of the women’s revolutionary front. “More than 30 persons had been killed in this VDC and so a martyr’s memorial stands over here; an earlier one was demolished by the enemy,” said comrade Saubhagya, a district committee member of the party. But what explains this brutal treatment of civilians by the “official” forces?
We thought of the US forces in Vietnam, who soon realised that the only way to fight the guerrillas was by attacking their “base,” i e, the people who supported them. For a while we were haunted by thoughts about the brutal technological military fixes that imperialists and sub-imperialists often devise for “resolving” what are essentially social problems. But the entry into Thawang made us feel better, for this was the high point of the whole trek, coming to meet a community that had heroically borne all the suffering and hardships that the counter-insurgency operations of the “official” forces had inflicted on local inhabitants who had sided with the CPN(M). Thawang is a Maoist stronghold; even the police and the Nepali Congress have not yet set foot here, the “comprehensive peace agreement” of November 21 last year notwithstanding. The spirit of liberation was in the air in Thawang, and as with all good things, this spirit seemed to have spread — there is a budding people’s commune and a “martyr’s commemoration model school” nearby.
Good things seem to be happening here. A collective decision on the part of the people of all the nearby villages has quelled deforestation in the surrounding Jaljala forest, which was essentially due to overgrazing, and had led to severe flooding that disrupted life in Thawang. It was heartening to note from comrade Inkar of the Thawang people’s council that “although the local people’s councils, which functioned as the public administration, have formally been dissolved in order to adhere to the comprehensive peace agreement of 2006, but the persons who held the titles still de facto perform the same functions, for the people consider them legitimate.” So also the people’s courts, “the people still come to us to resolve disputes,” said comrade Inkar. But sadly, though not surprisingly, for this is a mountain that remains hard to dislodge, on the question of equal parental property to daughters, a subject that women in the party had flagged, “there has not been much headway in practice.”
Talking about the communes, at the outset, we think that a caveat is due. These are not communes in the usual Maoist sense of large units of collective economy and local government in the rural and semi-urban areas, formed after the poor and middle peasants had seized landlords’ and rich peasants’ surplus lands for redistribution, followed by progressive stages of cooperative modes of organisation, leading on to common ownership of all productive resources. All the same, these communes in the base areas of Rolpa and Rukum — the Jaljala and the Ajambari communes in Rolpa, and the Balidan commune in Rukum — seem to reflect, albeit at a preliminary stage, the need to demonstrate in practice that the leading ideas of socialism — equality and cooperation — are not impractical.
We met comrade Pratap and comrade Sahas, key persons in the Ajambari commune. This commune was set up in 2004. Around 32 households — martyr’s families, PLA members’ families, families close to the party, all mainly belonging to the magar community, with one dalit family and one chhetri family — sold their lands located elsewhere and purchased land here, over which all of them now have equal rights. The commune produces crops such as wheat, maize, potatoes, soybean, “saag,” cauliflower, radish, carrot, pulses, chillies, onion, ginger, and garlic. A flour mill, some cottage industries in textiles and garments, and restaurants and cooperative shops are part of the commune.
The basis of production of the net output is work according to one’s ability and capacity; distribution of part of the same is as per one’s necessity, especially taking account of the needs of children and the elderly. Some surplus in the form of vegetables and potatoes are sold in the market. The commune has invested in a small hydroelectric plant, which powers the flour mill, and four solar panels, and has also bought cattle for animal husbandry. All the adult members of the commune are party to decisions regarding investment, but the commune also coordinates and consults with the district people’s council (the public administration institution set up by the Maoists). The commune relies on technical advice from the party and for credit for investment purposes, on the people’s cooperative bank.
People’s Cooperative Bank
The Maoist movement had driven out the usurious moneylenders, but it was only in 2002 that a people’s cooperative bank was formed “to help build the base of a socialist economy,” according to bank manager comrade Birat, whom we met by chance one afternoon at a roadside teashop. So far the bank has been confined to the Magarat autonomous region. Its “main priority is to help the cooperatives to spread and grow”, said comrade Birat. The bank started off with a “capital” base of Nepalese Rupee (NPR) two million, contributed by all the district, village and ward level people’s governments in the Magarat autonomous region. Over time, the deposit base has grown by around NPR 1.7 million, largely deposits in the personal accounts and accounts of the mass fronts of the party.
The bank largely lends to cooperatives and the three communes, which in turn lend to their members, for example, individuals who transport goods with the help of mules/horses. Besides the communes and the cooperatives, loans have also been extended to families of martyrs, PLA members, party whole-timers and cadres, as also to persons who want to extend their trade beyond the confines of the Magarat region. Loans have been in the range of NPR 5,000 to 2,00,000 and the lending rates are around 12-14 per cent per annum, compared to the monthly rate of 10 per cent that the moneylenders usually charged. Unlike the latter, the bank strongly discourages consumption loans, though, depending on the need and necessity, it may lend for such purposes; however, lending is mainly for productive purposes. The savings account deposit interest rate is 5 per cent per annum, while the fixed account deposit interest rates are 9 per cent for one year, 10 per cent for two years, and 11 per cent for three years and beyond. The profits of the bank are distributed to the cooperative institutions.
Unlike microcredit institutions elsewhere, this bank does not operate like Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank. It works jointly with the Maoist movement, which, as far as the economic realm is concerned, holds that the economy will overcome stagnation only when it is liberated from the stifling effects of the old class structure, dominated by landlords, moneylenders, and comprador capitalists, which has to be smashed. It is significant that the Maoists have destroyed mortgage documents wherever they have found them. Now with the dissolution of the old domestic economic institutions, as this is achieved by the party, the bank helps release the new economic energies lying beneath the surface.
Martyrs’ Commemoration School
The political and moral rearing of the younger generation is close to the heart of the movement, and it is to this that we now turn. Comrade Inkar of Thawang’s people’s council talked about the new syllabus framed at the level of the Magarat autonomous regional council and the singing of the Internationale, which has replaced the old national anthem (that praised the institution of monarchy). Anera, a teacher in the government-run secondary school informed us: “even in the government schools, the national anthem is no longer sung anymore.”
The martyrs’ commemoration model school was inaugurated on February 13, 2004, the eighth anniversary day of the start of the people’s war. It is as yet a small primary school, with 54 students and four teachers. Three languages are taught — the Magar mother tongue, Nepali, and English. The syllabus is quite comprehensive; it includes the social sciences, maths, natural science, health and sanitation, sports and physical education, military science, fine arts and music. Listening to comrade Inkar talk about the special responsibility of the party towards the children of the martyrs we were reminded of what Mao told Chinese students in Moscow in 1949: “The world is yours, as well as ours. But in the last analysis it is yours. You, young people, full of vigour and vitality are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed in you.”
Socialists all over the world have placed a great deal of hope in the prospects of a people’s republic of Nepal. After all, the most effective argument against socialism — especially after the revolutions of the 20th century failed to successfully install working models of the same — has always been that it is hopelessly impractical. Will the Nepali Maoists refute this argument in practice? What we have sensed in the base area of Rolpa and outlined above seems to suggest that there is a social energy that is rearing to go, a potential that can be harnessed for socialist modes of life, failing which this will then assume individualistic, capitalist entrepreneurial forms. The material basis for creating a new realm of freedom has not as yet developed in Nepal; it is a backward economy with conditions of life that are harsh for most of its people. But the human resources, from what we saw, are bettered nowhere. Young people with whom we talked startled us with a superior knowledge of some of the fundamental processes taking place in the world than the “sophisticated” youth we encounter elsewhere, whether in New York City or Mumbai. A young PLA soldier at the Tila sub-cantonment engaged us vigorously on the role of intellectuals in advanced capitalist society, and the relative absence of their solidarity with dominated peoples as compared to metropolitan red intellectuals of the past. Yes, the revolution still has a long way to go. If one uses Mao’s metaphor of peeling away the “skins”, then the tasks of the new democratic revolution, that is, removing even the first “skin” layers, that of imperialist domination, comprador capitalist and semi-feudal social relations, remain incomplete. And, it is a basic tenet of Marxism that no ruling class has ever given up its power, privilege, and wealth without using all the repressive means at its disposal to defend and consolidate its rule. What then?
Among the greatest successes of the Maoist movement has been to bring the autochthonous nationalities, women, and dalits in a very big way into the political process by genuinely articulating their needs, translating them into political demands and holding out the promise that these can be met in the near future. The movement has also quite creatively, at least in the hill areas, integrated the class and nationality questions. But US “counter-insurgency” experts have had much experience and some success in manipulating national and ethnic sentiment into communalism and chauvinism, and against Marxist and revolutionary forces. The examples of the Miskito in Nicaragua and of the recent history of Indonesia or the former Yugoslavia come to mind. Already now, at least in the Terai, such practices seem to be at work.
The most striking achievement of the CPN(M) has been its ability to admit mistakes, learn from errors, and exercise great tactical flexibility. As it moves toward state power in Nepal ever greater challenges shall appear, and growing international attention shall focus on every incident, every misstep, and every opportunity offered for anti-communist propaganda. But for those observers from the left who retain their good faith, we are reminded of the words of the late Harry Magdoff, former editor of the Monthly Review, and a good friend to both of us: “I don’t think that it is up to the left to judge whether it is warranted or unwarranted when people are in struggle where there is tremendous poverty, misery, and little hope, and in the process either make mistakes, or don’t make the best decisions. . . . History does not come easy. . . . But to judge? It’s wrong. Marx at one point says that there will be many revolutions and wars and defeats before the working class learns how to be a ruling class. History takes a hell of a lot more work, comes with many setbacks, than we expect.” Today in Nepal it is fair to say that the lessons to be learned from the socialist revolutions of the last century that ultimately failed are being creatively applied to guide the working class as it once again takes up the task of becoming the ruling class. What we saw in our visit filled us with hope.
Parvati (2005): “People’s Power in Nepal,” Monthly Review, Vol 57, No 6, November, pp19-33.