Nepal: A Report on the Maoist Revolution
Posted by n3wday on April 4, 2010
This article was published in the 2010 edition of Red Resurgence found in Seminar Magazine. Kasama does not necessarily endorse the statements made in this article. Thanks to CPSA for pointing this publication out.
“The top leadership actively went out to the districts, addressing mass meetings as well as smaller party gatherings. District committees were activated in areas where the ‘People’s War’ had not penetrated deeply to spread the party’s influence. If there were major disagreements on what political ‘line’ to pursue, an extended plenum or meeting of party workers from the entire country was convened to arrive at a consensus in a remarkable exercise of internal democracy.”
“This fusion of tactics has meant that the Maoist leadership adopts different, often contradictory, rhetorical devices while addressing different constituencies – moderate, sincere, and pragmatic when in Kathmandu and revolutionary, conspiratorial with undertones of violence when speaking to the cadre. This has led both India and other political parties, who were erstwhile partners of the Maoists and are now antagonists, to claim they were betrayed. It has occasionally led to disenchantment and confusion within the rank and file about the party’s direction.
But cutting through the ‘duplicity’, if one were to decipher the party’s aim, it is to bring about a radical change in Nepal’s political-economic structure and its engagement with the world through greater control over the state and society – by consensual politics if possible, and confrontation if necessary. The goal in itself is legitimate within the norms of open politics. But the undemocratic and violent tendencies apparent in Maoist strategy give powerful interests who would lose out in the process the space to question and block the entire process of change.”
Maoism: the Nepal scene
by PRASHANT JHA
THE Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is arguably the most remarkable radical left party in operation anywhere in the world. Beginning with two rifles and a nascent organizational structure in 1996, the party has emerged as the most powerful political force in Nepal in less than fourteen years
In this period, it waged a ‘People’s War’; developed a massive party organization and a People’s Liberation Army; forced a well-armed and internationally-backed Royal Nepalese Army into a military stalemate; entered a peace process which had UN support; turned from being a ‘terrorist’ organization to a legitimate political force; ousted the monarchy in collaboration with other parties; achieved its goal of establishing a federal democratic republic through a constituent assembly; and won a mandate in multiparty competitive elections to form the first elected Maoist-led government in the world. Even its fiercest opponents agree that the scale of achievements of the party is phenomenal.
As the war escalated, the Maoists recognized that the regional context and domestic balance of power would not allow a traditional communist takeover of the state. They also evaluated experiences of 20th century communist regimes and felt the reason for their failure was the absence of political competition – engagement with open politics would help the revolution move forward and make it more sustainable.
An autocratic royal regime created a context and space for earlier antagonists – older parliamentary parties and Maoists – to come together in November 2005 and sign a 12-point understanding. The older parliamentary parties gave up their support for monarchy; in turn, the Maoists promised to end the war and accept multi-party democracy. Together, they launched a People’s Movement in April 2006, which forced the monarch to surrender and accept that sovereignty lay with the people, not the crown.
This decision gave the Nepali kranti a decisively different character than the various hues of the Indian Maoist movement. The party has moved forward on the roadmap outlined by the original agreement, of institutionalizing peace and writing the Constitution (through a Constituent Assembly elected in April 2008). At the same time, it has used the process to expand its own strength through a combination of mass politics, constitutional process and degrees of coercion when necessary – prompting opponents to question its democratic credentials.
The political process over the past few years has thrown up constant challenges for Maoists as well as non-Maoists (a broad heterogeneous coalition which includes India, Nepal Army, Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist, Kathmandu’s elites, and smaller regional/ethnic parties). There are internal contradictions among the non-Maoists, but at key moments they unite in their opposition, and distrust, of Maoists. There is a similar polarization at present. Despite being the largest force in the legislature, the Maoists are in opposition while all other parties have come together to form the government, citing the need to block Maoist designs of ‘state capture’.
At the root of it, as Maoist Chairman Prachanda candidly admits, is the fact that the 12 point understanding was tactical for all sides.
Older parliamentary parties felt that engagement with open politics and established state institutions would force the Maoists into accepting the Kathmandu status quo – the Maoists could be co-opted into the liberal democratic ‘mainstream’. Even if the Maoist intentions did not change, this argument went, their capacity would get diluted and they would not be able to institute the kind of system they wanted.
Analyst Aditya Adhikari has described the expectations of powerful lobbies. India possesses enormous leverage over Nepali political actors and is involved in micro-management of local issues. Embassy officials assessed Maoists would be susceptible to the same kind of incentives and penalties that had helped them win over older parliamentary parties – from support to form government, money for individual leaders, scholarships for children in Indian educational institutions, and threats to split the party or topple the government or prop up rivals. The Kathmandu elites thought that as the Maoists entered the capital, they would slowly get divorced from their core base and be more amenable to catering to powerful social interests which determine political outcomes for most part, except during elections and mass movements.
For their part, the Maoists planned to use the process to push their revolutionary agenda and repeatedly insisted that they aimed to create a ‘new mainstream’. This would include a republic, federalism with ethnicity/nationality as a prominent basis; an ‘equal’ relationship with India; an executive presidency at the centre; ‘democratization’ of the Nepal Army through integration of former PLA combatants and firmer civilian control; ‘first rights’ to local communities regarding natural resources; revolutionary land reform; a revised taxation policy to be enforced strictly; and eventually, restricted multiparty political competition where ‘pro-imperialist and feudal’ parties would not be allowed to operate. The party machinery, including its semi-militant wings, would be the key instrument to bring about these changes – a trend visible during the nine months the Maoists were in government. The aim would be to exercise hegemonic, though not necessarily totalitarian, control over the state apparatus.
In short, one side aimed to ‘weaken and tame’ the Maoists, while the former rebels aimed to became stronger and keep their radical edge. How the Maoists have managed to do so is central to understanding the evolution of the Nepali movement.
The party ‘fused’ normal parliamentary political behaviour and tactics with a formidable, an almost war-like, organizational structure. The first allowed them to maximize advantages from open politics, but the second ensured they would not get trapped into merely a numbers game and would be constantly under pressure to win advantages for their social base. This duality gave them an edge over all their rivals and helped them attain a huge electoral victory in April 2008.
At one level, the leadership quickly became an integral part of Kathmandu politics. Chairman Prachanda and key ideologue Baburam Bhattarai (who had pushed the ‘democratic republicanism’ line and convinced the party to enter the process) worked closely together – even living in the same house after they first emerged overground in 2006. They spent hours talking to the Nepali Congress leader and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and other parliamentary parties. Together, they drafted an interim Constitution; signed a comprehensive peace agreement that marked an end to the war; agreed on a power-sharing deal in the interim legislature and government; resolved inter-party disputes; addressed issues thrown up by ethnic, particularly the Madhesi, agitation; decided on what to do with the monarchy (held in suspension awaiting a formal decision by the CA); and after two postponements, agreed to go in for elections.
The Maoist leaders also used the period to branch out and enhance their linkages with the capital’s business community, media, intelligentsia, bureaucracy and international community. Leaders were often at business chamber meetings, reassuring them that party policy was geared to encourage ‘national capitalists’. Bhattarai in particular was clear that the goal of the revolution at present was industrial capitalism to replace feudalism; socialism and communism could only come after that.
The Maoists engaged closely with Indian diplomats who were facilitating a lot of the negotiations behind the scenes. Many leaders, from Prachanda to PLA commanders, worked with the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) to institute a system for monitoring the management of arms and armies. And they expanded ties with China and European countries. They often met with leaders of civil society and were highly accessible to the media, with Prachanda’s amiable and charming personality turning foes into admirers.
In the interim government of 2007-08, Maoist ministers gained valuable experience of the executive and state functioning, occupying portfolios like information and communication, physical works and planning, and local development and built tentative working relationships with the existing bureaucratic set-up. They used the state to extend patronage and protection to their cadre, make money, as well as make symbolic gestures (inclusive representation in the cabinet and parliament) to show they would be different than the older parties. The use of the state to expand party influence grew after the Maoists took over the government in August 2008.
At the same time, they focused on the organization. This took several forms. At the top, there were regular meetings of the standing committee, politburo, and central committee on policy issues. There was systematic reorganization of the wartime structures to suit open politics. Senior leaders were given responsibilities to head state committees, impart ideological training, and direct front organizations. Thousands of whole-timers were reallocated responsibilities. Smaller left groups were merged into the organization, with a conscious move to project the Maoists as the only genuine communist party in the country.
The top leadership actively went out to the districts, addressing mass meetings as well as smaller party gatherings. District committees were activated in areas where the ‘People’s War’ had not penetrated deeply to spread the party’s influence. If there were major disagreements on what political ‘line’ to pursue, an extended plenum or meeting of party workers from the entire country was convened to arrive at a consensus in a remarkable exercise of internal democracy.
The Maoists also penetrated across social spheres through their front organizations. The party affiliated trade union was quick to over-shadow older NC and UML affiliated unions with their militant tactics. They forced businesses – from MNCs and Indian corporates to large and even medium sized Nepali enterprises – to increase wages and adopt ‘pro-labour’ policies. The militancy led to a dip in investment and capital flight, but gave the Maoists a formidable support base among factory workers, transport sector employees, hotel, restaurant, and casino employees and others in the unorganized sector. The student union gave them an inroad into universities and colleges. Ethnic fronts assured their core base of the marginalized that the party was committed to winning autonomy and federalism for them.
The PLA was confined to UN monitored cantonments, with an agreement that they would eventually be integrated into security organs and rehabilitated into society. After a process of verification, a little more than 19,000 soldiers were accepted as qualified fighters. Most accounts suggest that the Maoists had filled the camps with a substantial portion of new recruits while some of their older fighters were shifted out to the party or the Young Communist League (YCL).
The cantonment arrangement was a huge advantage for the former rebels. Ex-combatants were paid a regular salary, a portion of which went to the party. They got a chance to live in concentrated areas, and there was regular military training and indoctrination. Peace agreements, particularly the Agreement on the Monitoring of the Management of Arms and Armies, accepted the PLA as a legitimate force, allowing the Maoists to claim an equal status for it as the Nepal Army. Divisional commanders held regular staff meetings, and while the party controlled the military, the PLA’s voice was taken into account in broader decision-making.
The most controversial, but effective, instrument in the organization was the YCL. Led by former fighters, the YCL was a politico-military organization which behaved like a parallel legal machinery. To win popular support, it cleared traffic, cleaned garbage, expanded roads, and nabbed criminals including bank defaulters. But it evoked fear among rivals with its use of violence and threats. YCL was the final word on who would win government contracts and tenders at the local level. It was an agency for ‘fund collection’, which often translated into extortion; a de-facto mediator of conflicts in many cases; and a powerful instrument to expand the party’s control through persuasion and coercion before the elections.
This fusion of tactics has meant that the Maoist leadership adopts different, often contradictory, rhetorical devices while addressing different constituencies – moderate, sincere, and pragmatic when in Kathmandu and revolutionary, conspiratorial with undertones of violence when speaking to the cadre. This has led both India and other political parties, who were erstwhile partners of the Maoists and are now antagonists, to claim they were betrayed. It has occasionally led to disenchantment and confusion within the rank and file about the party’s direction.
But cutting through the ‘duplicity’, if one were to decipher the party’s aim, it is to bring about a radical change in Nepal’s political-economic structure and its engagement with the world through greater control over the state and society – by consensual politics if possible, and confrontation if necessary. The goal in itself is legitimate within the norms of open politics. But the undemocratic and violent tendencies apparent in Maoist strategy give powerful interests who would lose out in the process the space to question and block the entire process of change.
Despite its tremendous achievements, there is an intense debate among the Maoists as well as their international comrades, particularly the Communist Party of India (Maoist) about whether the Nepali route is appropriate or not. One strain of thought has constantly challenged the leadership about its ‘creative application’ of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, insinuating that the party is becoming ‘revisionist’. This debate has become starker in the past year, revealing how difficult it has been for the Maoists to break out of the ideological straitjacket, yet pursue their radical aims.
In May 2009, nine months after Prachanda was sworn in as the prime minister, the Maoist led government was engaged in a major political battle. It had sought a clarification from the serving chief of army staff for ‘repeated defiance of civilian orders’, and decided to sack him.
Political rivals and even coalition partners saw it as a move by the Maoists to ‘capture the state’ and establish totalitarian rule. They had been wary of Maoist ‘interference’ in affairs of religion (Maoists tried to appoint Nepali instead of Indian priests at Pashupatinath temple); media (there were instances of intimidation and pressure on media owners and journalists by Maoist cadre); bureaucracy and judiciary (where Maoists were accused of infiltrating ‘independent’ institutions with their own people); and army (where the Maoist defence minister refused to permit additional recruitment as it went against the peace accord, and refused to give an extension to eight brigadier generals despite the army chief’s recommendation).
The army chief incident came as the last straw. The Maoists claimed they were trying to bring the army under control of an elected government; they hinted that feudal and royalist elements still called the shots in the military and this needed to be changed. Other parties saw it as a move to bring the army under Maoist control and ‘politicize’ it as the final step in establishing totalitarianism. The Government of India warned Prime Minister Prachanda not to ‘touch the army’. India saw the Nepal Army as the only bulwark against Maoist authoritarianism, and decided, in the words of one official, that ‘they could not let the NA fall.’ After the peace process began, India is understood to have assured the Nepal Army that its interests, privileges and structure would not be hurt.
The Maoists went ahead with their decision and the cabinet dismissed the chief. The ceremonial president, prodded by India and non-Maoist political parties, overruled the government decision late at night. Status quo prevailed in the army. Prachanda, citing the president’s ‘unconstitutional move’ and foreign interference, resigned from government the next day.
Soon after this dramatic political change, a letter arrived for the recently renamed Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), from the Indian Maoists. The sense of vindication was difficult to miss.
The Indian comrades told the Nepali Maoists: ‘Now that the government headed by comrade Prachanda has collapsed after the withdrawal of support by the UML and others at the behest of the Indian ruling classes, American imperialists and the local reactionaries, the party leadership should be better placed to understand how the reactionaries can manage the show from the sidelines or outside and obstruct even moves such as sacking of the army chief by a prime minister. This is a clear warning to the Maoists in Nepal that they cannot do whatever they like through their elected government against the wishes of the imperialists and Indian expansionists.’
The letter then prescribed a roadmap for the next step in Nepali revolution – realize the futility of the electoral game, advance the people’s war, withdraw the PLA from UN supervised cantonments, retake base areas, revive parallel governments, expand the guerrilla war, and give up the ‘right opportunist’ line. In short, go back to war and give up the peace and constitutional process.
Eight months later, in January 2010, a similar debate gripped the Maoist party internally. They had been waging an agitation for ‘civilian supremacy, national independence, constitution, peace, and a Maoist-led national unity government’ – but none of the issues were closer to a resolution. Maoists – the country’s most powerful political party – was out on the streets even as many leaders, including the Prime Minister Madhav Nepal, who lost elections were at the helm of state power.
This encouraged senior party leader Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran’ to argue for an alternative line. Kiran and his aides were sceptical of the peace process throughout. He claimed that after the abolition of monarchy, the revolution’s principal contradiction was with India and the main goal was securing ‘nationalism’. It was time to prepare for an immediate ‘People’s Revolt’; otherwise the party would get sucked into the cesspool of parliamentary politics. In effect, this line would be similar to the advice given by the Indian Maoists and mark the end of efforts to change the state structure through open and consensual politics.
The Maoists rejected this ultra-left posturing and did not get deterred by taunts of being ‘revisionist’. And credit for that goes to one man, ideologue Baburam Bhattarai. Bhattarai conceptualized the war, judged when the time was ripe for peace, and convinced the party of the need to ally with the democratic parties and India against the monarchy. He has given the party respectability way beyond its base, and provided Nepali Maoism an intellectual coherence on issues as varied as nature of the state, federalism, internal colonization of Tarai, class and ethnicity, and the nature of the ‘semi-colonial’ relationship with India. Bhattarai has a sharper understanding of the domestic balance of power as well as geopolitical realities than many other dogmatists in the party. At the same time, as his much-appreciated performance as finance minister showed, he knows how to bring about progressive change within these limits.
He dissented strongly with Kiran’s line and argued that the revolution’s principal contradiction was with internal remnants of feudalism. While Indian interference had to be taken note of and opposed, the key goal was ‘institutionalizing a new federal democratic republic.’ For this purpose, he held the Maoists must focus on constitution writing and the peace process. The party should adopt a revolt line only if domestic and foreign reactionaries did not allow the constitution to be written. Many second generation leaders like former PLA deputy commander Barshaman Pun ‘Ananta’, and organization strong-man Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ agreed with Bhattarai.
Party chairman Prachanda, who has a tendency of vacillating between contending factions, backed the ‘peace and constitution’ line after realizing that this had greater support among the top party leadership and remained the only pragmatic option. The Maoists have since reiterated their commitment to the process, but warned there is a danger of ‘counter-revolution’ led by domestic feudals and international reactionaries.
At the time of writing, the Nepali peace and constitution-writing process is in a fragile situation. The Maoists have a fresh challenge – of renegotiating their relationships with two power centres. The first is New Delhi. India played a remarkably positive part – not always by design – in encouraging the peace process in the initial years. They facilitated negotiations between parties and the Maoists, broadly backed the People’s Movement (except the late bloomer in sending Karan Singh as a special envoy), supported peace negotiations, pushed for CA elections (though it calculated that Maoists would come a distant third), and did not block the abolition of monarchy or formation of a Maoist-led government.
But in 2008-09, the India-Maoist relationship took a dip. The perception in Delhi that China had gained a greater foothold during Maoist rule, and that Maoists were committed to a one-party dictatorial system which would hurt India’s established domestic political instruments within Nepal, soured the relationship. Since then, the Maoists have launched a ‘nationalist’ campaign accusing India of conspiring to oust their government, which has convinced hawks in Delhi that Maoists are a potential threat to ‘national security’ and need to be crushed.
Unless India wants a prolonged conflict in Nepal, it has little choice but to accept the Maoists as the dominant political force of the country and give up its tendency to exercise control through pliant outfits. Similarly, Nepal’s overwhelming dependence on India – from essential commodities to livelihoods for a substantial portion of the population – and Delhi’s leverage over party politics in Kathmandu means Maoists will have to respect certain Indian red-lines, for instance on China, or risk a continued deadlock or conflict. The present tussle is about finding a balance between India’s efforts to preserve established interests in Nepal (ostensibly for its security interests) with Maoist attempts to establish a more autonomous and stronger political regime.
The second is the Nepal Army. While the Maoists and erstwhile Royal Nepalese Army fought a war in the past which no side won, they shared a relationship of uneasy coexistence after the peace process began. But the Maoist stint in government convinced the army that the Maoists wanted to disrupt their structure and chain of command in order to ‘cripple’ the last institution capable of withstanding a Maoist onslaught. The Maoists in turn felt that NA had still not internalized the political change and accept that they had to be under democratic control.
The issue of integration of former PLA combatants is critical in this regard. The Maoists believe that the spirit of the peace accord is ‘democratizing the Nepal Army and professionalizing the PLA’ to create a new national army. For the Maoists, integration is a step in changing the political orientation of the army and winning a slice of state power. The other side is deeply resistant to the idea of integrating ‘politically indoctrinated’ soldiers into the NA and refuses to accept that PLA can ever have equal status as the state army. At best, non-Maoists offer token integration of a few thousand soldiers at lower levels on an individual basis – a deal the Maoists find hard to accept.
The present controversy is thus a result of the Maoists attempting to change the NA’s structure and put it under firmer ‘civilian control’, and the other side fearing this would ‘politicize’ a professional army and make it pro-Maoist. Finding a balance would again be critical to determining the future political outcome.
The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) also has other challenges. The leadership has often emphasized the need to build a multi-class compact, but its actions (continued violence, intimidation, and extortion) deter even potential democratic and progressive allies from forming a united front on issues. The Maoist reluctance to embrace ‘pluralism’, alongside its assertion that ‘pro imperialist and pro feudal’ parties will not be allowed to contest elections, also sows doubts about its democratic commitment. The fact that 22 parties, riddled with internal contradictions, have come together to form an anti-Maoist government also speaks of the tactical failure of the Maoists themselves in opening so many fronts.
Their brief stint in government revealed they had a lot to learn about running the state; only a few ministers performed ably. They lacked specific policy plans, or the skills and knowledge to push it through the bureaucracy. There has also been a trend of erstwhile members, especially those belonging to marginalized groups, walking out of the party. In fact, most leaders who launched the Madhesi movement in the plains were ex-Maoists; a similar trend is visible among the Tharus of western Tarai. This could substantially erode the carefully constructed multi-ethnic Maoist base.
But despite the drawbacks, there is little doubt that the Nepali Maoists and their creative path has opened up space for radical activism, and successfully changed the Nepali political structure in a short span of time.