19-25 September 2014 #725

Showing a red flag

Jagannath Adhikari’s personalised account of living and surviving the Nepal conflict
David Seddon

As the author explains in the preface, Under the Shadow of the Red Flag (which he describes as ‘a travelogue’) is an outcome of his journeys through Nepal as a researcher and consultant during 2003-2005 at the time of the Maoist insurgency, and the armed conflict to which it gave rise.

His ‘accidental writings’ (Che Guevara called a similar account of his travels through Latin America The Motorcycle Diaries) provide the basis for an engaging and highly personal account of his experiences and encounters with local village people, Maoist cadres and party workers, government officials, development workers and security forces.

The Introduction provides a broader political context for the more personal diaries, and takes the reader from the launching of the People’s War in 1996 up to 2013 and the election of a second Constituent Assembly. In the first of the 11 chapters (‘Living on a Tightrope’) we return to late December 2003, when Adhikari visited development workers in east Nepal. The central theme of this chapter, as with most of the ten others, is how development workers and the local villagers lived in fear of both the Maoists and the Royal Nepal Army, but evolved strategies for coping on a daily basis with their fears and with the two opposing forces which in different ways threatened their lives and livelihoods.

Much the same general theme permeates another recent collection edited by Prabin Manandhar and myself, In Hope and In Fear. In Jagannath Adhikari’s accounts there is also a subtle thread of analysis, revealed by the title, which suggests that the image of locals and others being ‘caught in the middle of a conflict between two opposing forces’ is somewhat misleading. The book is after all about living and surviving ‘under the shadow of the Red Flag’.

Jagannath Adhikari in Kaski at the beginning of the conflict.
The book implicitly demonstrates how unavoidably interwoven were the lives of local villagers both with those whom the author refers to as ‘the Maoists’ and also (albeit to a lesser extent) with the local government officials who remained in the areas he visited, and even members of the government armed forces. In part, they had known each other and in some cases had previously lived and worked together, before the conflict materialised.

The Maoists were not therefore, by and large, an alien force from ‘outside’ as much as a distinct section of the local population, separated from other villages by virtue of their commitment as cadres in the Party or in the armed struggle. Less obviously, local people had links to the government armed forces, most of whom were of course villagers before they joined up – although it was generally the case that whereas the Maoists were often known as individuals, the RNA rarely were.

Unavoidably, given his own status as a Brahmin, Adhikari himself often felt vulnerable to those Maoists who ‘rallied against “Brahmanbad” and its power over the state’. There is an additional thread of unease as regards the Maoists that runs through descriptions of his experiences and encounters, which is perhaps as much personal as it is a reflection of the feelings of all those with whom he talked. This becomes more evident in the Epilogue, where Adhikari effectively criticises the Maoists for having ‘deviated from its fight for greater goals such as social justice, equality and economic development’.

Under the Shadow of the Red Flag: Travels During Nepal’s Armed Conflict

by Jagannath Adhikari

Chautari Book Series, 82

Martin Chautari Kathmandu 2014

229 pages ISBN 978-9937-594-11-0

He suggests that ‘the party and most of its cadres have shown a tendency to accumulate money and assets for personal gains and to vie for positions of power’. But this is a charge that should be leveled against the old Party leadership, not the Maoists as a whole, for there remain many Maoists -- most of them now in the CPN-M – who make this same complaint against the leadership of the UCPN(M).

Indeed, Adhikari cites the memoir of Tara Rai who wrote in her memoir of the solidarity (vargiya maya) once felt among Maoist cadres, and the suspicion now felt towards the old leadership.

Finally, Adhikari is convinced that ‘ultimately, the Maoist movement achieved none of its goals through the armed conflict … rather, the war helped only to hold Nepal back by repressing and delaying economic opportunities, leaving further social divisions in its wake’. This conclusion is highly debatable, and the merit of the book lies less in its overall political-economic analysis than in the fact that it allows the complex realities of life under the Red Flag to speak for themselves.

David Seddon is co-author (with Arjun Karki) of The Peoples’ War in Nepal: Left Perspectives, and co-editor (with Prabin Manandhar) of In Hope and In Fear: Living through the Maoist Insurgency, both published by Adroit Press.
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