All is fair in war (and peace)

Retelling the Maoist conflict, and its impact on Nepali society and politics

Maoist child soldiers in a corn field in the Tarai in 2004. PHOTO: DAMBAR KRISHNA SHRESTHA/A PEOPLE WAR

On 13 February 1996 the Maoist party decided to take a shortcut to power. It abandoned mainstream politics and the democratic system, and instead adopted a path of violence to cleanse Nepal of ‘class enemies’. They did get to power, but at an immense cost to the people.

Over 17,000 Nepalis were killed, thousands of children orphaned, women widowed. The 1990 Constitution failed. Violence, hatred, suspicion spread, democracy was threatened.

The violence propelled the Maoists to power with a landslide victory in the 2008 Constituent Assembly election, but the path of peaceful politics was not easy for a party that believed political power came out the barrel of a gun.

In consecutive elections since 2008, the party got fewer and fewer votes. At the current rate, its political future is bleak at best.

The 1990 Constitution empowered Nepalis, and monarchy had to relinquish its absolute powers. The elected legislature was supreme, and it was alive and vibrant. The judiciary and the Supreme Court were many times more dignified than they are today.

The Nepali Congress (NC) emerged as the biggest party in the 1991 general election, while Unified Marxist–Leninist (UML), back then only called Marxist–Leninist, also established itself as a formidable force.

The United People’s Front of Nepal (UPFN) chaired by Baburam Bhattarai won only nine seats -- two of them were Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Lila Mani Pokhrel.

The UPFN realised that it was going to take a long time to defeat the NC and UML through elections. Inspired by Mao Zedong, they felt Communists must wage an armed struggle.

In the intervening years, the party split and a militant faction led by ‘Prachanda’ led the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to launch the armed struggle on 13 February 1996 against ‘feudal forces’.

They were ambitious, and the armed conflict was a quick way to power by playing into contradictions between the NC, UML and the Palace. Police high handedness in cracking down against the rebels drove more people into the Maoist fold.

I was the editor of Deshantar  weekly, and from day one had no sympathy for Maoist violence. Many of the 40 demands in the ultimatum Bhattarai presented to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on 1 February 1996 were impractical and populist.

But the Maoists had found the right time to strike while the iron was hot. The Palace, which had ruled for 30 years, had been forced to give up its absolute power in 1990, and there were hardliners unhappy about it. The UML was not clear about its ideology, either.

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Then there was India. While the Maoists played the nationalist card by voicing anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal, across the border they got support and weapons training, the Maoists felt special and they now had to prove themselves.

The use of ruthless violence in a society that had not witnessed such bloodshed was a rude shock. The Maoists did not just kill people, they made them suffer and circulated the news widely. Terror was used as a weapon to terrify people.

I remember one case in Sindhuli, where they accused a man of exploitation and killed him by crushing his knees with boulders. Such brutality worked because it had a multiplier effect in instilling fear. They robbed banks which increased their resource base.

Their main target was the NC, especially its grassroots leaders. They initially did not harm the UML, which they regarded as fraternal Communists. This gave Maoists more access, since the UML was leading many local VDCs.

The 1997 by-election also benefited the Maoists since it was a hung Parliament and the NC and UML got Surya Bahadur Thapa and Lokendra Chanda Thapa of the rightwing RPP to take turns being prime minister, and gave people the feeling nothing had changed.

But NC won the majority in the 1999 election, which was a major setback for the Maoists. Girija Prasad Koirala, a staunch anti-Communist, became Prime Minister. By this point, the Maoists had started attacking the UML too, because of their local support.

The Maoist tactics were straight out of Mao’s Red Book: start by capturing remote parts of the country, and cut them off. They extorted villagers and raised levies, and those who did not pay were made examples of: either killed, tortured or publicly humiliated.

One of the most tragic examples of this was the case of Muktinath Adhikari, a teacher from Lamjung who was executed in 2002 by the Maoists. In Okhaldhunga, where I come from, another teacher was dragged around the village and tortured until he died, and his body was hung from a tree next to his school.

In another case, bank staff transporting money were looted. I wrote an editorial in Deshantar saying this was not a revolution but daylight robbery. In response, Janadesh, a mouthpiece of the Maoists, carried an interview with Baburam Bhattarai in which he said I should be buried alive in the same hole dug up to bury Girija Prasad Koirala.

Later, as editor of Himal Khabarpatrika, we were clear about our support for democracy, non-violence and pluralism. And we never used the word ‘terrorist’ to describe the Maoists.

When the Maoists attacked Dunai in 2000, the first raid on a district capital, Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Kantipur, chartered a helicopter to the site before even the state could do a proper survey. The next morning, pictures and testimonials of terrified villagers made it to the front pages in Kathmandu.

This became a trend. The attack on Naumule in 2002, and images of piles of dead bodies got similar coverage. I also used to assign photographers who were going with the dailies. But we were still not getting the real story, we were just counting the bodies. We felt we needed more independent reports, not propaganda from both sides.

For example, we bought 7 photographs of the Dunai attack in which it was clear that the Maoists were using child soldiers. The young boy was carrying a light machine gun. After it was published, the Maoists for the first time were defensive before the international community. They had previously denied ever recruiting children.

But we needed to do more, and especially to show how the conflict was affecting ordinary people. So we kept up with as much field reporting as possible when the Maoist attacks escalated. Other media were also doing in-depth coverage from the war zones.

The Maoists then started countering this with their own perspective in the same newspapers. They sponsored trips for journalists to their ‘base areas’. After the Royal Nepal Army entered the war in 2002, it started doing the same.

In 2004, the Maoists had taken a group of journalists to one of their mass meetings. The news and photographs were published in all major dailies, they all said 15,000 people had come to listen to the Maoist leaders.

Because we were a fortnightly magazine, we had a few more days to verify, so we went with 10,000. That evening before the magazine went to press, the reporter asked me to change it back to 15,000 because of the fear of repercussions from the Maoists. We went with 15,000, but after that we stopped accepting conducted tours.

By the peak of the war in 2000, the Maoist ambition was to oust both the NC and UML and ally with the Palace such that the king would head Narayanhiti and the Maoists Singha Darbar. This in turn heightened the ambition of the Palace, and its direct impact was on its reluctance to deploy the Army against the Maoists despite Girija Prasad Koirala pushing for it.

Koirala and other leaders asked the palace to mobilise the Army, but the palace would not budge. Nepal Police had only 25,000 personnel armed with 303 S. They were no match for the politically motivated and battle-hardened guerrillas.

But as the conflict escalated, the political parties were unable to circumvent the Constitutional provision that required the king to mobilise the army, and set up the Armed Police Force (AFP). The Maoists continued their offensive, and attacked the AFP, even killing its first chief Krishna Mohan Shrestha. Yet, the Army would still not intervene or even equip the AFP with proper weaponry.

No one knows how things would have turned out if the Royal Massacre of 2001 had not taken place, and the entire family of King Birendra wiped out. In the beginning, King Gyanendra continued the same policy, but then in 2002 he went a step further, declared political parties incapable, and took absolute power.

The Maoists were encouraged by this move, it brought them closer to their power-sharing deal with the Palace by excluding the democratic parties. The NC split over the decision to call a state emergency, and the UML was also divided.

Through all this, New Delhi still supported the monarchy, which gave Gyanendra the confidence to consolidate his authoritarian moves. But the Europeans and Americans entered into the picture, and given the strategic value of Nepal, saw the India-monarchy tie-up to their detriment. So when the West showed its hand, India backed off, and that was the downfall of Nepal’s monarchy as well.

The Maoists could not take over the country with the force of arms, which was why there was a ceasefire in 2006. The insurgency did make Nepalis more aware of their rights, and the Maoists provided a platform for suppressed groups who were easy recruits. Doors did open for women, Dalits and excluded ethnicities, but in a real sense class, caste and ethnic  divisions still exist.

In every other sense, the conflict ravaged Nepal and its people. It destroyed dreams and lives, it set back development. We would have achieved better results and sooner with peaceful democratic evolution.

After the 1990 People’s Movement, Nepal’s economy grew and there had been real hope for the future. Local elections had started to bring up accountable leaders. If this had been allowed to continue, Nepal would have been a different (and better) place today. The Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006 was not an agreement, but a compromise.

But perhaps the biggest impact of the conflict was on the politics that followed. Today, Parliament is a farce, the Supreme Court has no dignity, and there is no real federalism. The younger generation is growing up with no knowledge of the Maoist conflict. Impunity is rife because those who committed atrocities have gotten away with it. As a society, we have become more intolerant.

Transitional justice is now synonymous with hypocrisy. The commissions mandated with delivering it have been taken over by politicians. The Maoist conflict has eroded not just democratic institutions, but the state itself. We must not forget to remember what the war did to Nepal and its people.

In the last 30 years we have made dramatic progress in some areas, but did we need a Maoist conflict for that?

It is easier to look at the positive aspects, and move on from painful memories. Ask the survivors and the relatives of the victims. If we must say there were some achievements of ten years of war, then we must also admit that there were bigger losses that are still being felt.

Rajendra Dahal is the former editor of Deshantar and Himal Khabarpatrika, and is now editor of Shikshak magazine.

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