Journey to Nepal’s Maoist heartland – Pt 1
Posted by Rosa Harris on September 11, 2011
|photo: Jim Weill|
This first appeared on Winter Has Its End.
by Jim Weill
In Nepali buses there are seats, and then there are seats. Reclining seats with cushioned headrests – and just about anywhere else a body will fit: in the aisles, on armrests, on benches in the driver’s area, in the doorway, even on top of the bus. One reason for this is, of course, money. Bus operators want to carry as many passengers as possible to acquire as many fares as possible. But Nepalis are also much less squeamish about bodily proximity than European-derived peoples. Complete strangers will lay their heads on each others’ shoulders and it is no offense to lean back against the legs of someone sitting above you.
Furthermore, it seemed that allocation of the proper seats was arbitrary. One could get a ticket for a proper seat, or one could claim a seat early enough, and it was likely the arrangement wouldn’t be contested. So these long bus rides became something egalitarian and communal, with people enduring mild discomfort together, both physically and socially. In a new society, I thought to myself, will everyone have their own cushioned seat, or will everyone share in these minute, everyday struggles together?
Our large coach bus bumped and jostled along the mountain roads, veered around switchbacks and, to my occasional horror, seemed to flirt with the steep edges of the river valley. But eventually, I gave myself over to a different sort of comfort. The clouds hugged the tops of the green hills, terraced with rice paddies. The popular Hindi and Nepali music poured from the speakers, thick with percussion and broad, powerful voices.
It felt like we were flying. I had the sense we were being propelled toward a reckoning or a celebration. This was certainly true for most of the passengers, who were coming home from Kathmandu to the embraces of their friends and families. The four of us were heading to the same area, Rolpa. But for me—I hesitate to say all of us—it was a pilgrimage of sorts. Not in a religious sense at all, but a journey to a place that, one day, may be seen as having had a crucial role in building a new world. My expectations, however, were both too optimistic and too shallow.
The Rolpa district in Western Nepal is situated between the hills above the low-lying Terai region and the sharply rising, snow-capped High Himalayas. Often referred to as the “Maoist heartland” or “Maoist capital” of the country, it was one of the places from which the People’s War (1996-2006) was launched.
The aims of this Maoist war were to overthrow a brutal monarchy and its feudal society (which requires revolutionary land reform), to bring equality to Nepal’s women, to free Nepal of foreign—and particularly Indian—domination, autonomy to its ethnic groups and to establish a society on the road to socialism. A few of these goals have been accomplished, but liberation and an anti-feudal path to socialism remain elusive.
Yet Rolpa still has a reputation as a fiercely partisan – and extremely radical – base area. It is also an area heavily populated by the Magar people, an ethnic group who have resided there for millennia and were probably the first migrants into Nepal from the north. The Kham Magar are known historically for their fierce fighting ability and successful resistance to conquest. The British Army once took full advantage of this, recruiting many Kham Magars into their notorious Gurkha army. But they have shown many times that they are even more successful at fighting for their own liberation.
Our Nepali friend and de facto translator struck up a conversation with a man behind us, who was curious about our trip. He explained to the man our interest in Rolpa, and the man smiled, and introduced himself to us with a ‘Lal Salam’ (red salute). It turned out that the man had been a combatant in the People’s War.
At one point, he told us, he had to carry a dead comrade for 5 days on his back, over rugged mountainous terrain, so that his fallen friend could be buried. The man was probably in his early 30s, with soft eyes and a kind smile. This wasn’t the kind of demeanor and presence we, in the US, usually associate with heroic and traumatic actions. But this man, as I was to learn over and over again in my encounters with the people of Rolpa, was immensely proud of what he’d done and the war he’d fought in.
To him, the war hadn’t been simply an unfortunate situation in which he’d performed admirably. It was a thoroughly necessary and justified endeavor, one full of deep losses as well as triumphant resistance and sacrifice. Many of the combatants have painful memories. They also seem largely free of the guilt, the remorse and the shame that plagues the veterans of oppressive wars fought for imperialism.
There are wars fought for liberation; and then there are wars fought for greed, expansion and death, in the name of pursuing the elimination of or the suppression of a people. The countenance of the Nepali Maoist fighters suggest there is, in psychological terms, a wide gulf between these two rationales for combat.
These fighters, and everyone who contributed to the People’s War—all heroes—don’t seem to need to walk around with medals hanging around their necks. They know what they have done, and hope, even demand, that their contributions will lead toward the revolutionary society they fought for. Meanwhile, they ride on these buses with everyone else. When the bus stops and vendors climb on to sell snacks, like cucumbers and grilled ears of corn, they partake. When the bus stops for dinner, they climb out with the rest of us and eat dal bhat, the ubiquitous dish of lentils and rice, like everyone else. When the bus keeps moving through the night, they rest on their friends’ shoulders, or they hold their wives and husbands in the dark, and sleep soundly, even though the ride is rough and long.