Revolution in South Asia

An Internationalist Info Project

Ethnicity and Maoism in Nepal

Posted by Mike E on April 24, 2008

by Gilles Boquérat

Gilles Boquerat is a researcher associated with Center for Indian and South Asian Studies, Paris. Currently based as visiting scholar at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Our South Asia Revolution site will reprint substantive articles providing useful background to studies of the revolutions of South Asia. Posting such articles here does not mean agreement with their views. This article was written two years ago, before several significant new developments related to questions of nationality in Nepal..

A decade ago, in February 1996, the “People’s War” was launched in Nepal. In a relatively short period of time, the Maoist movement made its presence felt in almost each of the 75 districts of Nepal. Such headway cannot just be explained by the overall disappointment vis-à-vis the high expectations ensuing from the end of the autocratic monarchy and the return to a multiparty democracy in 1990. Political instability resulting from party infighting caused by personal rivalries and limited opportunities for socio-economic advancement for a relatively fast expanding population have quelled the enthusiasm of those who expected a government more responsive to people’s legitimate needs. Popular resentment just waited to be exploited by a movement substituting a radical discourse to a reformist agenda which also failed to usher in a more egalitarian social order diluting the traditional Bahun (Brahmin)-Chhetri (Kshatriya) dominance. On the receiving end are the ethnic groups whose grievances have at least received a greater echo post-1990. After reviewing the status of the indigenous people in the Nepalese society and polity, this paper will analyse the role of the ethnic communities in the development of the Maoist movement, keeping in mind that their concerns have to be addressed by whoever is ruling the roost in Kathmandu.

The Ethnic Profile

According to the 2001 census, Nepal is a heterogeneous society of 52 castes and 44 ethnic groups.1 The latter are nowadays often referred as janajati, a term translated as “nationalities” conveying a political rather than an anthropological connotation. The ethnic groups, with few exceptions, are the original inhabitants of the land and are mostly to be found in the hill region, east of the Karnali river. These communities account for 36.4 percent of the total population and have been largely hinduised. The four largest ethnic groups (those representing between 7 and 5 percent of the total population) are in decreasing order, the Magars, the Tharus, the Tamangs and the Newars. A single janajati is the dominant group in 33 districts, but in only 5 districts an ethnic group has an absolute majority which would make a new territorial division based on ethnic lines a fairly complicated proposition all the more so since the Bahun-Chhetri combine is either the first or the second group in 60 districts. Until the unification of the country, linked to the capture of Kathmandu by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1768, the different ethnic groups were mostly disseminated among about fifty or so small kingdoms and principalities often ruled by Indo-Nepalese (Khas), descendants of Rajput families who fled the Muslim advance in Northern India. The defence of Hinduism gave a religious legitimisation to the temporal power of the successive kings and was consubstantial with the nation-building process of the Nepali state which acquired its actual borders at the time of the Sugauli Treaty signed with the British in 1815. Although the ethnic groups were often followers of tribal rites or Buddhism, Prithvi Narayan Shah committed himself to make the unified country the “true land of Hindus” (Asali Hindustan) shielded from the Islamic and thereafter Christian rulers in neighbouring India. The nobility, the administrators and the senior military officers were usually upper castes Hindus. Whereas for the majority of ethnic groups the mother tongues belonged to the Tibeto-Burman linguistic subfamily, the Nepali language, originating from Sanskrit and spoken by the Khas, became the lingua franca.

The Muluki Ain (civil code) of 1854, introduced by Jang Bahadur Rana, was the first step to codify social relations between the different communities whatever their socio-cultural background and according to a Hindu hierarchical order. The end of the Rana dynastic rule in 1951, partly engineered by India, in favour of a decade-long erratic power-sharing agreement between the monarchy and the Nepali Congress, did not alter the upper castes control over the State apparatus and the social conduct. On the contrary, the gradual opening to the outside world made all the more necessary to exhibit a uniform and mono-cultural Nepalese identity obliterating tribal particularism so much so that until the census of 1991 information on the ethnic composition of the population had to be inferred from data on mother tongues. The only concession to modernity was the abolition by the Panchayat regime in 1963 of the caste-driven legislation following which all subjects were theoretically equal before the law. In other words, “the processes of exclusion, labelling and stigmatisation have often been the norm” when it comes to interaction between upper castes and ethnic groups.2

The new constitution of 1990 for the first time acknowledged the plurality of the Nepalese society. The identification of the Nepalese state as bahujati (multiethnic) and bahubhasika (multilingual) was a break from the historical model of national integration. Yet Nepal remained a unitary State, Hinduism the State religion and Nepali the official language (other languages were given the status of national languages). Ethnic groups are until today under-represented in the organs of power.3 For instance, out of sixteen prime ministers appointed between 1951 and 1997, eight are Bahuns, 5 are Chhetris, 2 are Thakuris and one was a Newar. Senior army officers belong mainly to the Chhetri/Thakuri group. Rarely part of the decision-making process, often living in secluded areas which hardly benefited from development programmes – if not victims of it as in the case of the Tharus which had to face land dispossession due to the State encouragement given over the years to the settlement of hill people in the Terai region (here the Maoists reported distribution of large chunks of land confiscated from feudal landlords), the janajati are only rivalled by the Dalits in terms of socio-economic deprivation; their standard of living and education level being below the national average. This situation was acknowledged in the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-2007) when it was said that indigenous people and ethnic groups were isolated from merging into the mainstreaming of development and they could not be active partners in the overall development of the country. If various social welfare programmes were aimed at backward communities after the restoration of multiparty democracy, the ethnic groups could not reap substantial benefits.4

Political Assertion: post-1990

At the very least the return to pluralism opened an unprecedented political space for the legitimate expression of grievances of the ethnic groups. The janajati organisations had taken part in the jan andolan (peoples movement) of 1989/90 which brought the Panchayat system to an end. Some ethnic organisations had long existed but remained confined to the cultural sphere. The Nepal Janajati Mahasangh (the Nepal Federation of Nationalities which became the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) to fit in with the UN-sponsored international decade of the world’s indigenous people) came into being in 1990 with the objective of bringing together some fifty ethnic associations and acting as a pressure group to gain better access to the state apparatus, to ensure its impartiality, and to fight for a decentralised power structure. The demands were of three orders: identity assertion, political empowerment, and fair sharing of resources. The basic aim was to get their cultures, languages and religions duly respected in the functioning of the State while getting the means to bring their level of development up to that of the dominant groups. To exercise control over their own destiny, a federal structure allowing for more autonomy was seen as necessary. The means were: secularisation of the State so as to suppress any favouritism for Hindu religion; equal treatment for the different languages notably at school level; restructuring of the territorial administrative set-up in favour of the local ethnic component and of a larger autonomy; affirmative action in terms of employment and education; consideration for traditional rights regarding access to land and natural resources; and ultimately getting the financial means to materialise these aspirations.

Under-representation in Decision-making Positions

To get heard the ethnic organisations had the choice between three different strategies: opting for the parliamentary path, working with mainstream political parties and established NGOs, or, as seen further, taking part in the Maoist movement. Participation to the electoral process on a strictly ethnic basis has been a failure and no ethnic party ever won a single seat. During the fourth and to date the last parliamentary election of 1999, the Rashtriya Janamukti Party (National People’s Liberation Party) fielded 130 candidates (out of 205 seats in the House of Representatives) and the Janamukti Party Nepal 26. They got respectively only 1.07 percent and 0.11 percent of the votes, ranking 10th and 12th among the national parties in terms of valid votes.5 Whatever the grievances vis-à-vis the dominant parties, janajati votes go basically to those who seem in a better position to fulfil their demands (more access to jobs, better education and health care services or improved means of communication). Although those parties still do not give to the janajati a fair share when it comes to nominate candidates, a direct reflection also of their marginalisation within the mainstream parties machinery. During the 1999 elections, 55 elected candidates to the House of Representatives had an ethnic background. It meant 26.8 percent of the members of Parliament, with a slightly higher percentage for PCN-UML parliamentarians in comparison to Nepali Congress MPs.

Janajati members accounted for 27.2 percent of the 265 members in the two Chambers (House of Representatives and National Assembly), that is to say significantly less than the Bahun (39.6 percent, three times more than their share of the total population). Hill upper castes MPs continue to prevail in the parliamentary representation. Bahun, Chhetri and Thakuri account for 61.3 percent of the Nepali Congress MPs, and 57.7 percent of the PCN-UML MPs. Such figures show that if there is a more manifest expression of the discrimination faced by the backward communities than it was before the nineties, it has not translated into a more balanced political representation which remains as inequitable as it was during the Panchayat system. Nepal’s first and longest serving Prime Minister of the democratic era, Girija Prasad Koirala, was even criticised in his appointments to perpetuate the Bahunbad. Despite the change of regime and the declarations of intent, the disparity lingers, fuelled also by the largely authoritarian and feudal attitude of the elite and by the importance of kinship ties within the upper echelons of the power structure.

Consequently, the political practice is far removed from electoral manifestoes. The CPN (UML), which can always argue that its stint with power was too short to make a difference (from November 1994 to August 1995), pledged in 1991 to end the partiality existing in the Constitution in matters of language, religion and culture, and proposed to amend it so as, for instance, to ensure an equitable representation of “tribes, oppressed castes and women” in the National Assembly. Besides devolution of means to improve the condition of the various ethnic groups, it was also committed to end regional and ethnic discrimination when it comes to recruitment and promotion in the Army and political forces.6 To substantiate the support to marginalised groups, the Communists were at least committed to certain fundamental changes like the transition to a secular State and a dilution of King’s power. Yet, the leadership of the party was as much into the hands of the Bahuns as the one of the Nepali Congress, and the meanest share was given to ethnic representation.7 The Nepali Congress has been more conservative, getting only slowly in tune with the other parties on the ethnic question during the nineties and eventually falling in line with the idea of affirmative action.8 Yet, it remained non-committed on the issue of secularism and autonomy in a federal, semi-federal or even in the actual unitary framework.

If a more equitable representation in political parties and State institutions in favour of janajati has not made much headway, one can still take note of some positive developments. One comes from the fact that the ethnic belonging is reported in the decadal censuses since 1991 allowing for a fairly detailed enumeration of the ethnic composition of the Nepalese population. The number of listed ethnic groups went up from 25 to 44 between 1991 and 2001. Reflecting a new awareness of one’s own identity, the number of spoken languages/dialects also increased from 31 in 1991 to 106 in 2001. As a result, Nepali was the acknowledged mother tongue for less than half (48.6 percent) of the population.9 Also more ethnic people were claiming a religious creed (Buddhism or Kiranti) other than the politically-correct Hinduism. It is an attempt to reverse the trend seen during the previous decades of diluting traditional norms and behaviour, either because they were denigrated by the official praxis, or because the ethnic groups themselves depreciated those norms to copy the brahmanic ideal. The intention is really to refuse the inferior status of one’s own cultural legacy and to re-appropriate this legacy cleared of Hindu corrupting elements. The notion advanced by the State that ethnic identity assertion would only lead the nation to disintegration is inverted to declare that the State has in fact promoted a divisive cultural imperialism.

The response of the ruling elite and of the State appears to have been eventually characterised by indifference towards the plight of the ethnic groups, if not the refusal to acknowledge multiple identities, and in any case exhibited a reluctance to review the social order. For Krishna Bhattachan, an academic prone to denounce “the internal colonialism” dating back to Prithvi Narayan Shah’s policies and to emphasise the need for an inclusive democracy, “the predatory nature of the unitary Hindu state has given birth to the people’s war.”10

The Maoist Discourse

When the CPN (Unity Centre) was renamed CPN (Maoist) in March 1995 and emphasised the necessity for armed struggle to bring in a “new democratic revolution,” the challenge was to generate enough support to sustain the “People’s War.” The extremist fringe of the Communist movement, represented by the United People’s Front of Nepal, could gather only 4 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary election of 1991. The “People’s War” would not betray the trilogy of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and would remain a class struggle but given the social structure of the Nepalese society, inclusion of the ethnic dimension in the revolutionary discourse seemed inevitable especially since the criticism of the present socio-political order had some similarities with those formulated by the ethnic intellectuals and activists. The “new democratic state” was to take the form of a class, national, and regional United Front under the leadership of the proletariat so as to include the oppressed class with its different nationalities and regional components.

From the outset of the “People’s War,” the Maoists undertook to build upon janajati resentment and took on the defence of ethnic interests in the face of a monarchical and centralised regime which had historically united the country not through fraternal harmony but by oppression, submission and discrimination. The Maoist reading of the country history insists on the dispossession and impoverishment of the ethnic groups after the arrival of Indo-Nepalese invaders. “The oppressed regions within the country are primarily the regions inhabited by the indigenous people since time immemorial” emphasised Baburam Bhattarrai, the foremost ideologue of the CPN (M). “These indigenous people dominated regions that were independent tribal states prior to the formation of the centralised state in the later half of the eighteenth century, have been reduced to the present most backward and oppressed condition due to the internal feudal exploitation and the external semi-colonial oppression.”11 Before the unification engineered by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the country was said to be divided in small kingdoms, principalities and “republican tribal states”. A supposedly democratic system of tribal type, according to Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the elusive Comrade Prachanda, chairman of the CPN (M) and supreme commander of the people’s liberation army, shows that the Nepalese society was not traditionally monarchical and it is the centralised state which imposed “Hindu feudal and Brahmanist ethnic chauvinism on lingual, ethnic, religious, cultural and traditional rights of people of various communities, nationalities and religions of Nepal and thereby hindered the natural development of genuine national unity and power.”.12 Henceforth it was necessary to lay the foundations of a consolidated national unity on the basis of equality and freedom in accordance with the right of nations to self-determination in the context of the new democratic revolution. Economic distortions resulted from a repressive social order with the ethnic groups on the receiving end. The answer to the regional imbalance would be national and regional autonomy to the oppressed nationalities and regions, wrote Baburam Bhattarai. “In the old social systems, particularly because of the centralisation of the basic economic, social and physical services and infrastructure only in a few urban centres, an uncontrolled population, concentration in the big cities takes place leading to the “ruralisation of the cities”. Against this, in the New Democratic system, economic, social and physical services and infrastructure (e.g. industries, banks, colleges, hospitals, electricity, motorable roads, etc.) would be provided in the rural areas and a policy of ‘urbanisation of the countryside’ would be followed.”13

In the 40-point demands put forward by the Maoists to the then Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, on February 4, 1996, (the non-response to these demands was taken as an excuse to launch the People’s War), the ethnic question was tackled. Demand no. 20 said that in areas having a majority of one ethnic group, it should be allowed to form its own autonomous government. It was also demanded that regional discrimination between the hills and the Terai should be eliminated and that backward areas should be given regional autonomy (demand no. 25). Local bodies should be empowered and appropriately equipped (demand no. 26). All languages and dialects should be given equal opportunities to prosper and the right to education in the mother tongue up to higher levels should be guaranteed (demand no. 22).

The common minimum and policy programme adopted in September 2001 by the United Revolutionary People’s Council (UPRC), the central body of the United Front which was holding its first national convention and included pro-Maoist ethnic organisations, gave some more details about what would signify the transfer of responsibilities to the planned autonomous regions. It mentioned that the people’s committees (from the district levels to village to urban wards levels), the Government and the House of People’s representatives elected by the oppressed nationalities shall be the means of their state power and would be given large autonomy except for an extensive list of matters related to the people’s army, foreign relations, finance, currency, communication, measurements, international trade, large basic industries and large hydroelectric projects. In case of areas of mixed nationalities, there shall be representation of all in the local state powers on a proportional basis. All the nationalities shall have the right to join the people’s army and they may form people’s militia under the central command as a security force at the local level. They shall also enjoy the freedom to promote their languages (students are to be taught in their mother tongue) and to preserve or reform their traditional values and systems. The central people’s government shall assist those nationalities in these endeavours as well in their overall development.14

Nine autonomous regions were indeed created in 2003: three on an ethnic basis (the autonomous regions of Tharuwan, Magarant, Tamuwan, Tamang, Newar, Kirant, Madhesh) and two on a regional basis where there was no dominant group (Seti-Mahakali, Bheri-Karnali). If the right to self-determination was acknowledged, taken this option was considered unlikely since oppression of nationalities will end in the new people’s democratic organisation. Furthermore, the governments of the autonomous regions would be placed under the supervision of regional bureaus controlled by the Maoists. After hostilities resumed following the breaking of the first peace talks (August to November 2001), the Maoist leadership introduced at the district level 23 “People’s governments” (jan sarkar) supposedly elected by representatives of similar units at the village level. They are mainly to be found in areas inhabited by hill ethnic groups. In an attempt to dilute the image of a brahmanic hold over the highest level of the party, starting with Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai,15 ethnic leaders were promoted in areas under Maoist control. Out of 30 members of the interim central committee of the UPRC when it was created, 20 were either tribal or dalit. Within the jan sarkar, there was a certain convergence between the local dominant caste or ethnic group and the leadership of those governments. Sixteen presidents of those “People’s governments” were of ethnic background.16 In the same spirit, the five-member Maoist delegation sent to Kathmandu for the second peace talks (April-August 2003) was, besides Baburam Bhattarai and Krishna Bahadur Mahara (a Chhetri), composed of Matrika Yadav (a Madhise) and ethnic leaders, Ram Bahadur Thapa et Dev Gurung, the latter being in charge of ethnic issues at the central committee of the CPN (M) and also secretary of the 37-member UPRC. One of the Maoist demand at these talks was to have an interim government able to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly which will have representation from different classes, caste/ethnic groups, regions, sex and communities so as to ultimately rectify flaws in the 1990 constitution like the disregard for “true democracy” for these groups within the British “formal democracy”. The new constitution would have provisions ensuring that the National Assembly and the Government would duly reflect all the segments of the society.

The implementation of a discourse directed against the brahmanical norm and the monarchy led also to symbolic actions. In areas under Maoist control, the teaching of Sanskrit and the national anthem extolling the virtue of the king are been banned. In May 2002, Maoist militants attacked the Mahendra Sanskrit University in Dang valley. It is also said that they carried out the slaughter of cows, organised community meals where the dishes were prepared by untouchables, and encouraged inter-castes marriages and widows remarriage.

The government implicitly acknowledged that Maoist propaganda criticising its ineffectiveness in tackling the ethnic issue provided a measure of success among the indigenous people.17 Also in 2001, Deuba’s talk offer was made along a series of legal proposals aiming, among other subjects, at promising to the ethnic groups the establishment of an academy and the initiation of a long-term programme in education and employment. In a traditional case of too little too late, the Government, during the second cycle of peace talks with Maoists in 2003, announced its intent to introduce reforms through constitutional amendments allowing for a proportional representation of ethnic groups in the Upper House of the Parliament, for making possible the use of local languages in local administrations, and for the introduction of a quota system in favour of deprived communities (ethnic and dalit) according to their demographic weight for a period depending on the evolution of human development indicators. Governmental instability ensured that no decisions were ultimately taken.

The Involvement of Ethnic Organisations in the Maoist Movement

The organisations of “oppressed nationalities and regions” were called to play a historical role in the revolutionary process. Prachanda’s commented, two years after the launching of the “People’s War”, that “a new consciousness for fighting for their own rights and liberation is spreading amongst many oppressed nationalities of the country such as the Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs, Newars, Tharus, Rais, Limbus and Madhises. People’s War has speeded up the process of formation of various national liberation fronts and expansion of nationality organisations”.18 If the CPN (M) had to create its own ethnic affiliated organisations, it is because the existing ones did not necessarily subscribe to the Maoist ideology and conduct.19

One must remember that the “People’s War” had been launched from the Kham Magar country; the districts of Rolpa and Rukum in mid-western Nepal being the stronghold of the rebellion. Interrogated about this peculiarity, Prachanda explained it by the topography, the absence of feudal traditions among the indigenous population who was said to practice a kind of primitive democracy, the upper castes chauvinism and the remoteness of the area which had hardly known any developmental activities. 20 The rare interventions of the Central government in the area have not been seen as doing much for its development (for instance, a ban on hashish crop in 1976 impoverished the local population). There were few jobs and traditionally a number of young people migrated to other parts of Nepal or to India in search of employment. Livelihood in Rolpa depends mainly on cultivation and rearing, and because 90 percent of the inhabitants own less than one hectare, there is very little marketable surplus.21 Anne de Sales, a French anthropologist, remarks that young peasants who unsuccessfully tried to migrate to urban centres or abroad have joined the guerilla.22 Another important point which Prachanda mentioned is the fact that the Kham Magar has a long established communist presence. One of the historical figures of the communist movement, Mohan Bikram Singh, worked in this area in the fifties and founded in 1974 the revolutionary Fourth Convention. Later on, Mohan Bikram Singh allowed himself to be outflanked on the left by Mohan Vaidya (Comrade Kiran), one of the future member of the standing committee of the politburo and senior ideologue of the CPN (M), who created in 1986 the CPN (Mashal) which became the main vehicle for radicalism in Rolpa.

During the Parliamentary election of May 1991, three out of four contested seats in Rolpa and Rukum districts went to the UPFN. The latter performed also well during the following year local elections winning a majority in Rolpa and coming to a close second to the Nepali Congress in Rukum. A campaign of political mobilisation was orchestrated in 1994 by one of the Maoist military commander, a Magar, Ram Bahadur Thapa (Comrade Badal).23 The Magars offers an interesting case of complementarity/confrontation between identity assertion and Maoist struggle. A significant number of Magars work in the police and armed forces and inevitably they have been targeted by the Maoists and often their family had to leave the region. Some even pointed out that the Maoist leadership dominated by the Bahuns cynically needed Magars as gun fodder the same way Prithvi Narayan Shah used the Magars to unify the country and capture the valley of Kathmandu in 1768-69. The Magars paid a heavy tribute to the civil war with the Informal Sector Service Centre, Kathmandu, estimating that between 1996 and 2001 close to 20 percent of the persons killed by the security forces belonged to the Magar community whereas the Maoists were held responsible for killing 110 Magars.24

One of the most prominent personalities of the ethnic cause among the Magars, Gore Bahadur Khapangi, president of the Nepal Magar Sangh has always refused to be affiliated with the Maoists. After the jan andolan, he established the Nepal Rastriya Janamukti Morcha and presented to the commission in charge of the new constitution a memorandum asking for a federal government. This front became later the Rastriya Janamukti Party with Khapangi as its secretary general. He was nominated Minister for Social Affairs by King Gyanendra in November 2002. On the other side, Suresh Ale Magar is a typical example of an ethnic militant who joined the upper level of the Maoist apparatus. He was among the founding members of the Nepal Federation of Nationalities (NEFEN) before heading in 1994 the Akhil Nepal Janajati Sangh (All Nepal Nationalities Association = ANNA), a rival organisation close to the Maoists. Later on, he was nominated member of the Interim Central Committee of the URPC. He was many times imprisoned, then freed, by the Nepalese authorities before being finally arrested in Lucknow in February 2004 by the Uttar Pradesh police – along with Matrika Prasad Yadav, a member of the CPN (M) politburo and chief of the Madhesh autonomous government – and extradited to Nepal. Lok Bahadur Thapa Magar, who was also a member of the Nepal Magar Sangh, made as well the decision of joining the Maoists and presided over the Magarant National Liberation Front (Magarant Rastriya Mukti Morcha). In a book published in the end of the nineties, he violently criticised the Aryans coming from India who invaded the Magarant, sanskriticised the Magars, and took over the best lands relegating the Magars to the steep slopes. The author developed an argumentation combining exploitation of an ethnic nature and class exploitation transcending ethnic belonging.25

The Magarant National Liberation Front (MNLF) is one of those Maoist-induced ethnic organisations created between 1998 and 2000 and often characterised by a similar designation including “national liberation front” (since “liberation front” was already used by many ethnic organisations, the added “national” being reminiscent of many anti-colonial communist movements). The others were : the Tamang National Liberation Front, the Tamuwan National Liberation Front, the Limbuwan National Liberation Front, the Tharuwan National Liberation Front, the Majhi National Liberation Front, to which one must add the Thami Liberation Front, the Newa Khala, and two regional organisations the Karnali Regional Liberation Front, the Madheshi National Liberation Front and one organisation fighting for the Dalits, the Nepal Dalit Liberation Front. Most of these fronts were part and parcel of the Ethnic and Regional Fronts Coordination Committee (ERFCC) created in May 2001 to replace the ANNA. They were associated to the September 2001 Common Minimum Policy and Programme of the UPRC. These organisations made occasionally front-page news by carrying out above-ground political activities or organising bandhs. In early 2004, the Maoists announced the formation of regional governments in the autonomous regions.

As in the case of the Kham Magar region, Maoist presence in tribal areas was facilitated where already existed a tradition of communist militancy. It was so for instance in the Eastern districts of Sankhuwasabha and Terhathum, respectively dominated by Rai and Limbu ethnic groups, and where the CPN (UML) controlled the district development committees when the Maoists set up jan sarkar. The “People’s government” at the district level competes more often with the CPN (UML) than with the Nepali Congress.26 Prachanda admitted that each region and communities has its specificities and one needs to carefully study “what are their traditional constraints, what forms of feudal exploitation and feudal oppression are prevailing in that group”.27 Sara Shneiderman and Mark Turin have done a fieldwork in the district of Dolakha where in July 2001 a “people’s government” was announced. The local population was almost equally divided between the Bahuns/Chhetris and various ethnic and caste communities not sufficiently organised between themselves to possibly oppose the Maoist influence but yet a potential source of support because of their sheer poverty. They unsurprisingly noticed that the Maoist managed to gather the support of the Thami and Tamang communities, traditionally exploited by upper castes landlords.28 The capitation power of the Maoist is also dependent on the already existing social or/and political structures. The Kirant population (Limbu and Rai) have a long tradition of opposing the powers-that-be in Kathmandu. When the Maoists tried to invest the region, they had to compose with the Khambuwan National Front (KNF) of Gopal Khambu, a chauvinistic leader, which was already conducting violent operations. The Maoists succeeded in merging the KNF and the Limbuwan National Front into the Kirant Rastriya Morcha and Gopal Khambu was accommodated in the organisational structure of the Maoists, joining the UPRC, the central committee of the CPN (M), and later put in charge of the Mechi-Koshi regional bureau and head of the Kirat autonomous regional people’s government. Inclusion did not always prevent a conflicting relationship for instance, in July 2004, two sister organisations of the CPN (M), the Kirant Workers’ Party, of which Khambu was a former general secretary, and the Madheshi National Liberation Front, announced their decision to terminate their association with the Maoists, accusing the CPN (M) leadership of not fulfilling their commitment to increase the number of representatives of oppressed people at its top policy-making level.29 Reported cases of local discontent and criminal drift could impede the operational capacities of the Maoists but ethnic affiliations are needed to enhance Maoist profile and expand its influence through the breadth and length of the territory. All regional and national autonomous regions have their own militias which can participate in big operations as a supporting force for the PLA and are supposedly able to repulse isolated attacks launched by the RNA.30


The historical exclusion of ethnic groups from the power structure has been more openly discussed with the restoration of multiparty democracy. The Maobaadi have not missed the opportunity to capitalise on the ethnic fracture born out of the resentment vis-à-vis the perceived hegemony of one religion (Hinduism), one language (Nepali) and one nationality (Khas) to mobilise supporters. In the face of the cautiousness of successive governments in implementing reforms capable of answering the expectations of indigenous groups and to rectify the inequalities resulting from the traditional power structure, there has been a tacit convergence of interests between the Maoists and those disaffected groups independently of any ideological connivance, since the former participated in bringing forcefully to public notice the demands of the latter. Elimination of ethnic discrimination has emerged as a significant plank in the CPN (M) political agenda.

Nevertheless, the ethnic militants are aware of being possibly instrumentalised by the Maoists as part of a strategy to seize national power and the equation being ethnicity and Maoism is not always an easy one. Part of the answer to the ambiguity lies in the areas passed under Maoist control. The extent to which they have been able to convince the ethnic groups of their ability and sincerity in positively inducing changes in relation to the economic and social environment remains largely a question mark. A more equitable distribution of power is indissociable of a long-term stability of the country and this objective hold for all political actors.


1. There are officially 4 other communities: the Bengalis, the Charaute (Hill Muslims), the Terai Muslims, and the Sikhs. See: Harka Gurung, Social Demography of Nepal: Census 2001, Kathmandu: Himal Books, 2003.

2. Sanjaya Serchan, Democracy, Pluralism and Change : An Inquiry in the Nepalese Context, Kathmandu: Chyye Pahuppe, 2001, p. 70.

3. The only ethnic group which manages to encroach upon the Bahun-Chhetri dominance is the Newar community, largely hinduised and settled in Kathmandu Valley. It hence benefited from being at the close periphery of the ruling elite and can notably be found in significant numbers in the intermediate level of the civil service.

4. Chapter 29, National Planning Commission, HMG, Tenth Plan (2002-2007), Kathmandu, March 2002,

5. Institute for Integrated Development Studies, The Fourth Parliamentary Election, Kathmandu, 2000, p. 44.

6. Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), Election Manifesto 1991, p. 7.

7. Lok Raj Baral, Krishna Hachhethu & Hari Sharma, Leadership in Nepal, Delhi: Adroit, 2001, p. 54.

8. As a matter of fact affirmative action is already there in Article 26 (10) of the Constitution saying, among the directive principles and policies of the State, that the pursuit of “a policy which will help promote the interests of the economically and socially backward groups and communities by making special provisions with regard to their education, health, and employment”. Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 2047 (1990), Kathmandu: Law Books Management Board, 1992, p. 19.

9. There has been some drawbacks like for instance the judgment passed by the Supreme Court in June 1999 cancelling, in spite of the Local Governance Act, 1999, the decision of the municipality of Kathmandu allowing for the use of Newari, besides Nepali, for administrative purposes in the constituency.

10. Krishna Bhattachan, “Possible Ethnic Revolution or Insurgency in a Predatory Unitary Hindu State, Nepal”, in : Dhruba Kumar (ed.), Domestic Conflict and Crisis of Governability in Nepal, Kathmandu: CNAS, 2000, p. 159. See also on the question of representation : Yasso Kanti Bhattachan, “Consultation and Participation of Indigenous Peoples in Decision-making in Nepal”, nepal/yasso.pdf

11. Baburam Bhattarai, “Politico-Economic Rationale of People’s War in Nepal”, in: Problems and Prospects of Revolution in Nepal, Nepal: Janadisha Publications, 2004, p. 98.

12. Prachanda, “The Great Leap Forward: An Inevitable Need of History”, in : Some Important Documents of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepal: Janadisha Publications, 2004, p. 74.

13. Baburam Bhattarai, “Politico-Economic Rationale of People’s War in Nepal”, in: Problems and Prospects of Revolution in Nepal, op. cit., p. 107.

14. Some Important Documents of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), p. 172.

15. 2 out of 7 members of the standing committee of the CPN (M) have an ethnic background : Ram Bahadur Thapa and Dev Gurung, the other 5 are either Bahun (Prachanda, Baburam Bhattarai, Mohan Vaidya) or Chhetri (Post Bahadur Bogati, Krishna Bahadur Mahara). Out of 22 politburo members, seven are indigenous peoples.

16. See: Arjun Karki & Binod Bhattarai (eds), Whose War ? Economic and Socio-Cultural Impacts of Nepal’s Maoist-Government Conflict, Kathmandu: NGO Federation of Nepal, 2004, pp. 180-81.

17. Report of the High Level Recommendation Committee on Resolution of the Maoist Problem, 2057 B.S. [2000], p. 31. Quoted by Sudheer Sharma, The Ethnic Dimension of the Maoist Insurgency, 2002 (unpublished report).

18. Prachanda, “Two Momentous Years of Revolutionary Transformation”, in: Problems and Prospects of Revolution in Nepal, op. cit., p. 158.

19. To get a foothold in the Newar community, the Maoists once unsuccessfully tried to get the support of the Nepal Bhasa Manka Khala of Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a one-time CPN (UML) minister, and in the end created a rival organization, the Newa Khala headed by a local Maoist leader who got arrested in India in 2004.

20. “Inside the Revolution in Nepal, An Interview with Comrade Prachanda”. Arjun Karki & David Seddon (eds), The People’s War in Nepal : Left Perspectives, New Delhi: Adroit Publishers, 2004, pp. 83-84.

21. See: Robert Gersony, Sowing the Wind… History and Dynamics of the Maoist Revolt in Nepal’s Rapti Hills, 2003 (unpublished report).

22. Anne de Sales, “The Kham Magar Country : Between Ethnic Claims and Maoism”, in : David Gellner (ed.), Resistance and the State, New Delhi: Social Science Press, 2003, p. 348.

23. Ram Bahadur Thapa was himself born in the neighbouring district of Gulmi in 1955 in one of those families where the father found a job in the Indian Army. Hence he lived in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh. In 2004 he became the commander of the Maoist forces for the Eastern zone after the arrest of Comrade Kiran in India.

24. Between February 1996 and December 2001, there had been 2039 persons killed (1160 by the state agents and 879 by the Maoists). Latest figures released show that the total number of victims at the end of 2005 is around 13000.

25. See: Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, “Ethnic Demands within Maoism: Questions of Magar Territorial Autonomy, Nationality and Class”, in Michael Hutt (ed.), Himalayan ‘People’s War’, London: Hurst & Company, 2004, pp. 120-124.

26. Krishna Hachhethu, “The Nepali State and the Maoist Insurgency, 1996-2001”, in : Michael Hutt (ed.), Himalayan ‘People’s War’, op. cit., p. 77.

27. Arjun Karki & David Seddon, The People’s War in Nepal : Left Perspectives, 2003, op. cit., p. 109.

28. Sara Shneiderman & Mark Turin, “The Path to Jan Sarkar in Dolakha District”, in : Michael Hutt (ed.), Himalayan ‘People’s War’, 2004 , p. 102.

29. Keshab Poudel, ‘Maoist Affiliates Sever Ties’, South Asia Intelligence Review, 3 (3), August 2, 2004.

30. Hisila Yami (Comrade Parvati), “People’s Power in Nepal'”, Monthly Review, 57 (6), November 2005, http://www.monthly

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