The 12th anniversary of the people’s war in Nepal and its unsettled outcome
–A World to Win
The twelfth anniversary of the launching of the people’s war by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) on 13 February 1996 will see the country involved in intense preparations for countrywide elections to elect a Constituent Assembly, which is to implement the end of the monarchy and establish a new regime.
These elections had been scheduled and then delayed several times before. The question of a constituent assembly to decide a new form of government came onto the agenda in 2006, when in the wake of weeks of enormous anti-monarchy street protests, the CPN(M) and the parliamentary parties signed an agreement that led to a cease-fire in the revolutionary war and an interim government, which the Maoist party joined in April 2007. The country’s political institutions fell into a deadlock when the party left that government last September. It rejoined that government at the end of 2007, with five junior ministers, clearing the way for the elections to be reset for 10 April.
The basic question at stake now is what kind of state power will be consolidated and what socio-economic system will prevail. Will Nepal be ruled by a radically different kind of state, where the people are led by the working class and a genuine vanguard communist party to break out of the world imperialist system and build a completely different type of society? Or will it be ruled by a state controlled by the reactionary classes and dominated by India and the imperialist powers? Concerned friends and supporters of the revolution in Nepal throughout the world have been watching these developments and seeking to understand them in light of the whole revolutionary process begun in 1996.
A background review
When CPN(M) members and supporters among the youth carried out simultaneous military attacks across the whole country and began the people’s war, it was a daring expression of the party’s intention to liberate the people of Nepal as part of the worldwide struggle against the imperialist system and for the ultimate achievement of communism.
The original fighters had only a few weapons. They had little military experience and were not yet organised into an army. Nevertheless they dared to call on the people of the whole country to fight for a new regime that would do away with the semi-feudal system in the country headed by a centuries-old monarchy and break Nepal’s dependence and subordination to the world imperialist powers and neighbouring India. Although the initial actions were small, the reactionary state hit back with a fury, pursuing party members in the cities and sending the militarised police to carry out widespread murder and terror in the countryside. Despite these savage attacks, the insurgency quickly took root in the hilly region in the western part of the country, in between the fertile plains to the south along the Indian border and the inhospitable Himalayan mountain range to the north along the Chinese border. The backward rural districts of Rokum and Rolpa, each with a population of a few hundred thousand overwhelmingly poor peasants mainly belonging to one of Nepal’s many minority nationalities, became a stronghold of resistance and a symbol of revolution throughout the country and increasingly the world….
Soon the programme of the CPN(M) to transform Nepal began to take living shape. In the areas of the countryside cleansed of the old government’s police apparatus, new forms of people’s rule began to appear. The hopes of the formerly oppressed turned into their active mobilisation. Organisations blossomed among different sections of the people – peasants, women, workers, students and teachers. Almost from the beginning important social transformations began to take place in the countryside.
For centuries, Nepal, like neighbouring India, has suffered from the caste system that condemns whole sections of the society to a life of oppression and humiliation from the moment they were born. This was an early target and was heavily battered by the revolution. In this cruel system sanctified by the Hindu religion, the misery of the oppressed is deemed a punishment for misbehaviour in a previous life and the privileges of the upper castes a god-given right. On top of this cruel system sat the king, conveniently considered a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu by the Hindu religion. In addition, over half the population of Nepal were stigmatised as tribals, whose languages were unrecognised and whose culture was beaten down.
When the sparks of the people’s war began to light up a way out of this intolerable life, huge numbers of the downtrodden welcomed the revolution and increasingly streamed into its organised ranks. Peasant women, who, like men, suffered extreme hardship in western Nepal also had the full weight of reactionary traditions on their back. For example, young girls were often married off by age 12. Soon women were flooding into the revolution, becoming fighters and learning to read and write. Many blossomed as commanders and political leaders. Real liberation of women was being achieved through revolution.
The revolution brought about dramatic changes among the oppressed nationalities in a few short years. Equality of languages and culture was promoted. The CPN(M) gave great weight to setting up new local and regional governing bodies where the formerly oppressed would play a leading role.
Feudal oppression by landowners is intense in the fertile flat areas of southern Nepal. In fact, when the war began in 1996 a kind of legal slavery still existed in some corners of the country. Some peasants did not even have the formal right to leave their masters’ fields. The revolution raised the slogan “Land to the tiller” and the poor peasants in the flat areas also began to support the revolution in increasing numbers. Many joined the guerrilla forces based in the hills. At the beginning it was difficult for the revolutionary side to fight in these agricultural areas where enemy forces were strong and could take advantage of the network of roads and flat terrain to move quickly and bring its superior armaments to bear. But bit-by-bit these areas also became strongholds of the revolution. The government forces increasingly could only stay holed up in heavily fortified camps.
New organs of power grew up. For example, people’s courts involving the villagers were established to settle disputes and enforce the revolutionary order. Child marriage was made illegal and more and more young people began to choose their own partners without reference to caste. Discrimination against the so-called lower castes was banned and real changes took place in the way people related to each other. Alcoholism, a big problem in the country, was the target of education campaigns. The production and sale of alcohol was restricted. No one who visited the liberated Nepalese countryside failed to remark on the enthusiasm the revolution had unleashed among the poor.
These developments could not have taken place without the creation of the People’s Liberation Army in 2001. Quickly the PLA grew in strength, experience and organisation. Thousands of revolutionary soldiers fought lengthy battles against fortified enemy positions protected by airpower and heavy artillery. By winning battles like these as well as countless small ones, the PLA seized modern weapons given to the Nepalese reactionary state by India, the U.S. and Europe. Increasingly the enemy could only move by using airborne troops or marching in columns hundreds of soldiers strong. Even in the fertile plains where the royal armed forces had major installations the authority of the revolution gradually achieved the upper hand.
From the beginning the CPN(M) struggled to not allow the revolution to be isolated in the rural areas, even though the enemy’s ruthless terror made it very dangerous for any known Maoist to venture into the urban areas. Nepal is a relatively small country and word of how the revolution was transforming the countryside was filtering into all the ranks of society.
Like other third world countries, the cities in Nepal have swollen over recent decades. This process became even more pronounced during the people’s war. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of people inhabiting the slums of the capital, Kathmandu, the middle class grew as well. The tourism industry, for example, is one of the main economic activities in the country, involving many thousands of people directly and indirectly. NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) have grown like mushrooms as the imperialists have funded many projects in hopes of fostering an alternative to the people’s war.
In Nepal the ruling class forces have been divided into several camps. The forces grouped around the monarchy and the army have long been at the centre of the reactionary state power. The two main political parties in the urban areas are the Nepal Congress Party, particularly characterized by its long subservience to India and, to a lesser degree, the United States and other foreign powers, and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) usually just referred to as UML. The UML is a party of phoney communists who actively opposed the people’s war from the beginning. They were part of several reactionary governments that carried out bloody suppression of the revolution in the countryside. The UML has a strong following in the capital among the middle class and intellectuals who, like such forces in many other countries, are unhappy with the present order but also have illusions about the nature of the “Western democracies” and the possibility of radical change through elections. From the beginning of the people’s war onward, the Maoists have tried hard to influence this section of the people and win them to the side of the revolution.
As the people’s war grew in strength, the central Nepalese state, with the monarchy and the Royal Nepal Army at its core, adopted heavy-handed measures that pushed even more of the population in the urban areas into active opposition. In addition, important cracks appeared among Nepal’s ruling classes as first one government then another failed to come up with a strategy that could stem the insurgency. In June 2001, the reigning king and most of the royal family were mysteriously gunned down. That king’s brother, Gyanendra, widely considered responsible for the massacre, took over the throne. After a short period of ceasefire and negotiations with the CPN(M), Gyanendra called out the full force of the Royal Nepal Army against the revolution, which until then had mainly faced the militarised police. This, too, was unsuccessful and the revolution kept advancing.
Faced with the real possibility of losing everything, the king decided on a desperate gamble. He abolished the parliament, put the leaders of the legal political parties under house arrest and instituted direct “emergency rule”. The Western powers made a few muffled noises about democracy and human rights while giving a clear green light to the king and the RNA to try to wipe out the people’s forces.
However, the plan backfired. The PLA was able to stand up to the intensifying blows of the RNA. Furthermore, Gyanendra’s inability to come up with a decisive victory intensified the splits in the ruling classes. Disgruntlement and anger at emergency rule and the abolition of all rights increased throughout the country.
In this framework, political parties such as Congress and the UML, who had been guilty of bloody collaboration with the monarchy and the army, came out against the king. The increasing strength of the people’s war and the turmoil in the ranks of the ruling classes led to the massive April 2006 outpouring of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Nepal’s cities and towns, especially the capital. This forced the king to back down from emergency rule and restore parliament.
Under these circumstances a ceasefire was declared between the PLA and the Royal Nepal Army (whose name was changed to the Nepal Army after the weakening of the monarchy). Various rounds of negotiations took place between the legal political parties (mainly the Congress and the UML) and the CPN(M). Eventually an agreement was announced to end the people’s war and form a new regime. The agreement called for the PLA fighters to be housed in cantonments – military camps in different parts of the country, separated from the people – and put most of their weapons under UN supervision. The agreement called for the Nepal government to provide decent shelter and a food allowance for the PLA soldiers, but in reality these fighters have been living in miserable conditions to this day.
In the aftermath of the April 2006 movement it became clear that it would be very difficult for an absolute monarchy to continue to govern Nepal. Not only were the great majority of people in Nepal clear on this; the foreign powers that had previously backed the monarchy and trained the RNA feared that their own clutches on Nepal could be destroyed along with the monarchy if a new system of rule were not put in place. The reactionaries conspired to institute a constitutional monarchy, but the CPN(M) strenuously opposed this. The monarchy was widely hated and opposed by the people and its maintenance in any form became less and less of a viable option.
The fundamental problem in Nepal is what kind of a state will replace the discredited and hated monarchy. What will be the relationship between this new state and the workers and peasants? What type of economic system will it reflect and build up, and what will be its relation to the whole world economic system and the system of states that goes along with it?
The goal of the reactionary classes in Nepal and their international backers has been very clear and open from the start. (See, for example, the reports from the imperialist-organised International Crisis Group explaining its proposed strategy, at crisisgroup.org.) The reactionaries want to dissolve the People’s Liberation Army, dismantle all of the political structures created by the revolution in the countryside, and consolidate a new government apparatus that will enforce Nepal’s subordination to the world imperialist system and prop up the reactionary system of exploitation within Nepal itself. In order to carry this out, the imperialists and reactionaries need to solve what they see as “the Maoist problem” – by incorporating them into government and “reintegrating” their fighters into the old society and/or by taking measures that would cripple the CPN(M) and prevent it from taking independent action. For example, already the reactionary state has reopened hated police stations in the rural areas where they had been driven out by the revolution.
The reactionaries want the masses of the people to crawl silently back to their farms or homes. They want to wipe away all traces of the people’s war, which they consider a horrible nightmare. This would mean dashing the hopes that the revolution had awakened among the people.
The reactionaries have several powerful weapons in order to accomplish this ugly plan. First, they have the armed forces that were organized and ideologically, politically and militarily trained by the old state to defend the old order. While the people’s war battered these armed forces, they have been reinforced by aid and training from India, the US and Europe. They remain the pillar of the state today. Second, the reactionaries use the illusory promise of peaceful, democratic change through the ballot box (even as they whip up violence themselves and threaten to unleash a bloodbath). Third, the reactionaries take full advantage of the thousands of economic, political and military threads that keep Nepal thoroughly connected to and dominated by what is called euphemistically “the international community” but in reality is nothing other than the imperialist-dominated world order.
Obstacles to revolution – real but surmountable
Given the real strengths of the reactionary forces, it is not at all surprising that many in Nepal, as in other countries around the world, hate the way the people are exploited and the country is dominated, but believe that it is impossible, in today’s conditions, to do much more than make the best of a bad situation. In other words, accept a compromise in which the system remains basically intact and hope that the conditions of the people, or at least some of the people, can be improved by just reforming around the edges of the system. In Nepal, this kind of thinking has long been strong among the middle class forces who have supported the UML.
When we look at the particular conditions of Nepal, we can understand the powerful attraction of such arguments. Nepal is very poor and has very little industry. The source of foreign exchange revenue comes mainly from foreign aid, tourism, and the remittances of Nepalese workers abroad, mainly India, where they usually work under horrendous conditions of extreme exploitation.
Geographically, Nepal has no seacoast and is surrounded by two large and powerful reactionary states – India to the south and, to the north, China, whose capitalist rulers abandoned communism long ago and fear Maoism as much as rulers in other countries.
All this means that Nepal is extremely exposed to foreign pressure and control and very vulnerable militarily. In particular, India has always considered Nepal a kind of protectorate and dominates its economic life. Because of these realities, one viewpoint in the Nepali communist movement has always held that it would be impossible to liberate Nepal until revolution first took place in India. This view is associated especially with MB Singh, a leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal or “Torch”) who fought hard against initiating the people’s war prior to 1996 and became a fierce enemy of it afterwards. The CPN(M) was formed mainly out of the Mashal party and its leaders had to wage a big ideological fight against what they called “the Singh school of thought”, including the repudiation of his thesis of the impossibility of revolution in Nepal.
Another obstacle often pointed to is the lack of a single genuine socialist country today. This means that any genuine revolutionary state would be very isolated internationally. Perhaps more importantly, it means that the people in Nepal and elsewhere cannot see any alternative model or state system existing in the world. Even where armed resistance to the West has grown, such as in Iraq, it is often under the control of reactionaries with a frightening programme for society. All this has an effect on the mood of the people and whether they can be won to fight and sacrifice for a complete victory – which, they are constantly told, is impossible anyway.
Coupled with the so-called “demise of communism” has come the even further intensified propagation and even worship of Western-style democracy (or bourgeois democracy). This viewpoint corresponds to the interests of the ruling classes in the West and is heavily promoted by them in a thousand ways, but it also deeply embedded throughout the world. Capitalist dictatorship is hidden by the apparent equality of elections that in reality can never challenge that economic system and the rule based on it. These illusions of democracy and equality under an unjust system are especially strong among the urban middle classes, where they are reinforced by their own somewhat more privileged conditions of life, even in a poor country like Nepal. No revolutionary transformation of society can come about if these sections of the people are united against it, so the bourgeois democratic illusions of these sections are a real obstacle any revolution will face.
Further, despite the impressive gains the PLA made through the course of the people’s war, militarily the people’s forces are relatively weak and don’t have the same kind of modern sophisticated weapons as the enemy, especially the foreign powers. Is it really possible for an army built up from the bottom by the people of a poor and backward country and with no support from foreign countries to defeat a modern army with heavy backing and weaponry from the most powerful countries on earth? Is it any surprise that a lot of people would find such a victory impossible?
After ten years, the people are weakened by war. Although the people’s war awakened the enthusiasm of the people, it is also true that the enemy attacks brought great suffering. Even the people’s war’s most solid supporters yearn for peace. Indeed the whole society needs a solution to the war. This pressure for peace can also turn into a big pressure to stop the revolution before achieving victory.
Why a revolutionary victory really is possible in Nepal
However daunting the obstacles, it would be tragically wrong to conclude that there is no real possibility, at least not any time in the foreseeable future, of actually achieving the goal that was set when the people’s war began: the establishment of a state of a type unique in today’s world, where the people, led by a revolutionary communist party, hold political power, where it is possible to build an economic system not based on exploitation and a country that can really get out of the clutches of the imperialists. The whole experience in Nepal shows that seeming miracles can be accomplished when the people are mobilised in a revolutionary way to fight in their own genuine interests in a country (and a world) calling out to be transformed through revolution.
When you look deeper at the situation in Nepal, it is possible to see some of the reasons why a decisive victory of the revolutionary forces in Nepal is a real, possible and necessary solution to the problems of that society. This backward country oppressed by imperialism can be transformed into an advanced outpost where new social relations not based on exploitation are in command and the beginning construction of a new type of society can serve as an example to the world.
Nepal is still a largely agricultural country and the whole society desperately needs an end to landlordism and other forms of feudal exploitation that are holding it in chains. This reality means that there is a huge reservoir of support for the revolution’s programme of “Land to the tiller”. It is possible to mobilise the support of most of the population behind a thoroughgoing revolution in agriculture. None of the reformist solutions can meet this need nor unleash the enthusiasm of the peasantry, the majority of the population.
By thoroughly eradicating landlordism, instituting “Land to the tiller” in a revolutionary way and fostering voluntary cooperation among the peasants, a new foundation for the national economy can be created. Such a revolutionary agrarian revolution would not only weaken the remaining strength of the feudal classes in Nepal, it would also strengthen the base and the support for revolutionary transformations among the whole population. With land in the hands of the producers it would be possible, through struggle and hard work, to greatly increase the yields per hectare and thus ensure that the peasantry was no longer required to send family members to India to work in miserable and degrading conditions. The basis for internal commerce and trade would also grow along with agricultural development. In this way the agrarian revolution can win the support and unite the great majority of the people.
While Nepal will no doubt remain poor for some time, important steps can be taken to quickly improve the material conditions of the people. The CPN(M) has already demonstrated that it is possible to build desperately needed roads in the hilly regions relying mainly on the enthusiasm of the people and simple technology. Widespread small hydroelectric projects could provide power for the villages, instead of huge water projects aimed at providing electricity to India and bypassing the countryside. While the industrial base in Nepal is weak, it would be possible to build the kind of industry necessary to build generators, hosing for irrigation, sanitation pipes and so forth. A national economy can be built up where industry in the cities serves the rural and agrarian economic base, so that the country is not at the mercy of foreign economic blackmail. This would serve as the basis for genuine national liberation.
With a revolutionary regime firmly in command and fixing social priorities, the abysmal health and sanitation conditions of the masses could be very rapidly improved. While it will surely take a long time before hospitals in Nepal can reach advanced world standards, a great deal can be accomplished by relatively simple methods that rely mainly on mobilising and educating the people.
As mentioned earlier, one of the great accomplishments of the people’s war in Nepal has been the mobilisation in the ranks of the revolution of vast numbers of women who have shown a great determination to uproot the old society that had kept them so oppressed. In the same way, this revolutionary force can be even further unleashed in the struggle to build up a radically different kind of society in which women really are, in fact as well as in law, on an equal plane with men. A radical rupture with the old feudal system, and the old ideas and traditions of the oppression of women that went along with it, can unleash this force throughout the country. Women can be relied upon to fight to keep the revolution going forward.
In a similar way, the people’s war was able to show – in a living way – a solution to the conditions of the lower castes and the rampant discrimination against the oppressed nationalities. Carrying the revolution through to the end is the only way to thoroughly uproot these age-old horrors. It can bring forward huge numbers from the formerly oppressed who can be counted on to continue the revolutionary advance.
The relatively large numbers of educated young people in Nepal living in the cities can be turned into a big asset for building up the country on a completely new basis. They can help build a new culture that preserves and develops the best from among the Nepal’s numerous nationalities and learns from and adopts that which is scientific and revolutionary from the world as a whole. Many can be persuaded to help transform the rural areas by bringing scientific knowledge and methods to the countryside and joining with the peasantry.
The urban middle classes are crucial to the success of the revolution. It is possible to show them through life itself that a revolutionary regime can make room for them to take a full part in transforming society, allow them space to criticize, and so forth. The state system of New Democracy, a form of state where the working class rules in alliance with the peasants, middle class forces and even some capitalists who stand for an independent country, can, if handled correctly, address and fulfil the democratic sentiments of the middle classes while combating illusions about bourgeois democracy. This kind of revolutionary dictatorship need not be an obstacle to winning these sections of the people. In fact it can become a condition and a means to win large numbers of these kinds of hesitating forces who feel caught in the middle. Already life in the CPN(M) base areas showed in embryo how this process can take place on a big scale once nationwide power is in the hands of the people led by a vanguard communist party and New Democracy is achieved.
The basis exists, once revolution opens the way, to rebuild Nepal and the whole world on a completely different basis, where the exploitation of some people by others is not the foundation of society. This is the socialist and communist future glimpsed during the people’s war that so fired up the poor peasants and so many others as well, in Nepal and beyond. And it is the spectre of socialism and communism that has so freaked out the imperialists and reactionaries the world over and why they are so bitterly determined to derail and destroy the revolution in Nepal.
There is no guarantee of victory in revolution, in Nepal or any country at a given moment. But it can be said with certainty that however difficult and daunting the road to full revolutionary victory may be, it is still the only possible, real way that Nepal can be transformed. It is necessary for communists to remain firm in this orientation and lead the people to accomplish it.
The international dimension
No revolution exists in a vacuum. In Nepal as well, the advance of the revolution is closely linked to the advance of the revolution in the neighbouring countries and the world as a whole.
Nepal’s close proximity and interconnection with India is a double-edged sword. True, that increases the country’s vulnerability to pressure, interference and outright attack. It is also true that there are great advantages to the revolution as well. India has huge numbers of desperately oppressed masses, many with common cultural and linguistic links to Nepal. Already the millions of Nepalese who regularly work in India have been an important vector spreading knowledge and support for the revolution among the people of that country. Given the extreme and intensifying contradictions in Indian society, a real revolutionary regime in Nepal will have immediate and deep reverberations throughout India, especially the north and northeast. Furthermore, although it has no common border with Bangladesh, Nepal is only a few dozen kilometres from that country, most of whose 150 million people live in conditions of great hardship. Previously the CPN(M) had put forward the very revolutionary call for a Soviet Federation of South Asia which would create a new state structure in the region based on a common battle for New Democracy and the genuine equality of nations. If the revolutionary regime is established in Nepal, there is a real possibility that the people of the region may come to its rescue.
The military strength of India and the imperialist states, it is true, is an imposing and formidable obstacle. But here, too, it is necessary to understand their weaknesses as well. India has had a hard time dealing militarily with insurgencies within its own borders. Its major counterinsurgency operation in Sri Lanka in the 1980s ended in a dismal failure. It would be very difficult for India to intervene in Nepal, where hatred of Indian expansionism runs very strong and where revolution can benefit from a very favourable mountainous geography. The Indian reactionaries would have to think hard before taking on such a desperate gamble.
The U.S. is, of course, an enormously dangerous and vicious enemy. But it is also true that the American military is highly overstretched, short of manpower, and facing ever-increasing opposition to its imperialist aggression all over the world, including from its own population. Even the U.S. military knows how difficult it would be to fight Maoist revolutionaries deeply linked to the people and enjoying their active support.
It is definitely true that the revolution in Nepal cannot be separated from the revolutionary process in the world as a whole and there are positive as well as negative factors that have to be considered. In the whole region there are extreme and intense conflicts within the ruling classes and between the masses and their oppressors. The establishment of a real revolutionary regime in Nepal would be like a thunderbolt for the whole region. Yes, the governments of the neighbouring states would try to interfere and overthrow such a regime, but it is also true that the hopes of the people of these countries would be aroused in an unprecedented way. The masses of people of the region and ultimately the whole world represent a real, if presently untapped, reserve of strength for the revolution in Nepal. A clear revolutionary programme and the living example of the masses actually taking power and ruling society can unlock this potential.
Right now the people and the revolutionaries of Nepal are facing the kind of difficult choices that will confront any revolution when it is on the cusp of possible victory but also faces the real danger of being destroyed. The Maoists are up against the intrigues and opposition of the whole “international community”, the gang of thieves and cutthroats that rule the world. In Nepal, and elsewhere, another world IS possible but only if it is wrenched out of the clutches of those who now are feeding off it and keeping it in chains. This is what the ten years of people’s war were all about and this is the great task that the revolution needs to complete.
The people’s war showed the tremendous strength of ordinary people once they are unleashed in genuine revolutionary struggle. Again and again the enemies of the revolution were shocked by the determination and fighting capacity of the masses of people led by a genuine communist vanguard. Now the crucial issue is to be clear on the objectives of the revolution, and rely on and guide the revolutionary masses to finish the great task begun in 1996 and bring into being a completely different kind of state as part of the global fight for a different kind of world, a world without class exploitation, communism.
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