Yesterday’s enemies, today’s comrades


AMONG EX-ENEMIES: Tirtha Gautam, now an MP of the united NCP, surrounded by ex-Maoist MPs during a budget session of Parliament on Thursday morning. Her husband Yadu Gautam was executed by Maoists in Rukum in 1999. Pic Bikram Rai

The birth of the united Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has left the families of UML cadre killed by Maoist guerillas in an awkward position: they want to pursue truth and justice but the perpetrators are now their leaders.

When the Maoists launched their armed revolution in February 1996 , their prime targets were ill-equipped police and NC cadres. They killed, tortured and displaced many local politicians, security personnel and their families, who they labelled ‘feudal lords’ and ‘royal spies’.

However, after forcing most NC cadres out of rural areas, the Maoists began targeting the moderate communist party: the UML. In March 1999, they burnt nine UML cadres alive in Harjang village of Rolpa district.

The UML said 200 of its cadres and local leaders were killed by the Maoists during the war, which only ended with the ceasefire of April 2006. The families of murdered UML leaders who were tortured, kidnapped, murdered and disappeared have been pursuing justice doggedly — filing court cases and registering complaints with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

However, after UML-Maoist unification last week, the guerrillas they had identified as perpetrators and wanted to see locked up have become their comrades, or even leaders. Some are ready to forgive their ex-foes, others feel helpless, and some want to fight for justice till the bitter end.

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Yadu Gautam was one of the first prominent UML leaders to be murdered by the Maoists. He was hacked to death by guerrillas in February 1999 in Rukum. A case filed by his widow, Tirtha Gautam, against local Maoist activists is still pending at the Rukum District Court. His daughter, Sujata Gautam, has registered an application at the TRC.

Tirtha was nominated as an MP by the UML, but the party was dissolved to be merged with Maoists to create the NCP. So, Tirtha is now officially an NCP member of parliament and shares the bench with some of those accused of her husband’s murder (pic, above).

Tirtha is careful not to irk her new comrades by pushing too hard on transitional justice. “My husband firmly believed in the ballot, and those who once believed in bullet have now toed his political line,” she told Nepali Times. “This is a triumph of the principles he sacrificed his life for.”

She says she is ready to move on, forgiving the Maoists and focusing on the journey ahead. “It is not that I have forgotten what they did to my husband, but things are different now, and I cannot keep raking up the past,” she says.

Ex-MP Chakra Bahadur Dagora was a popular UML leader in Kailali district. After King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency in 2001, security forces began detaining young Tharu men and women, suspecting them of being rebels. The Maoists saw it as a chance to turn Tharus against the state. But Dagora, himself a Tharu, convinced young men and women from his community to have faith in democracy.

A year after the emergency, in October 2002, Dagora was kidnapped and killed by Maoists. His wife Parbati Chaudhary was chosen by the UML as a member of Interim Parliament in 2007. She is now a member of the All Nepal Women’s Association of UML, which is set to merge with the Maoist women wing.

She says: “I am sad that I will now have to greet the politicians responsible for my husband’s murder.”

Arjun Lama , a UML cadre in Kavre, was kidnapped, tortured and killed allegedly by a group of Maoists led by senior leader Agni Sapkota in 2005. His wife, Purni Maya Lama (pic, above), has been fighting a lonely battle for justice.

However, after the UML-Maoist unification, she says she has no more courage and energy left. “I feel defeated,” she says. “I will now focus on rebuilding my earthquake-damaged house.”

But Phadindra Luitel is not ready to give up so easily. His father Guru Prasad Luitel was the Okhaldhunga district president of the All Nepal Teachers Association of the UML when the Maoists abducted him. He was later found hanging from a tree.

“My father’s murder was a crime, and it will remain so even after UML-Maoist unification. Those who killed my father cannot get off the hook with the excuse that their old party does not exist,” says Luitel, who now runs a foundation in memory of his father.

Conflict victims have always worried about not getting justice, but he says the UML-Maoist unification has just increased their fears.

One ex-UML conflict victim interviewed for this story told Nepali Times she can forget the crime and injustice only after she dies. She later asked us to not use that quote, signalling how sensitive talk of wartime justice is in the NCP leadership.

Luitel adds: “In my struggle for justice, I have learnt that nobody really cares about the dead, and everybody just praises the powerful people. But I will not stop fighting even if no one stands by me.”