It is comrade vs comrade in Nepal’s elections
On 22 November, as results of Nepal’s parliamentary and provincial elections started to roll in, Surul Pun learned that he had been elected to the Lumbini Province assembly.
The 44-year-old former guerrilla and loyal member of the Maoist Centre was denied a ticket by his party, so he had contested the election as an independent provincial assembly candidate from Rukum East.
Pun defeated his rival, fellow ex-guerrilla Tej Bahadur Oli of the Maoist Centre who is a current member of Lumbini provincial assembly and was supported by the governing coalition.
Pun was born in Maikot village and joined the Maoist militia at age 17 when the party launched an armed struggle against the state in 1996. The insurgency lasted ten years, and cost 17,000 lives.
Soon after he was recruited, Pun was seriously injured during a battle when a shell exploded next to him. He remembers the day vividly: his comrades left him bleeding in the battlefield promising to come back.
“I drank my own urine to keep hydrated and stay alive, even as I was drowning in my own blood,” Pun recalls.
He survived after being captured by the security forces, but released because of his wounds. He returned to the underground Maoist, where his commander Nanda Bahadur Pun (currently Nepal’s vice president) advised him to join the party’s political wing because of his diminished physical ability. But Pun refused, and rejoined the militia.
After the war ended, Pun was active in the Maoist party serving till recently as a member of the Lumbini Province Committee, but was refused a ticket in the provincial election.
“I once rebelled against the state, this time I was forced to rebel against my own party,” Pun said in an interview with Himal Khabar. The party took action against Pun, and this convinced him that he had taken the right decision to fight the election on his own.
Even before the elections, Pun had felt strongly that the party he had been through during war and peace, had lost its way. Former commanders had reached positions of power in Kathmandu, and forgotten the sacrifices of the people. They had abandoned the goal of the revolution of Nepal’s socio-political transformation.
“When I ponder these questions, I find myself getting emotional,” says Pun. “I realised that all the answers lie within the party itself.”
When he realised his party was setting a bad example among its supporters, Pun felt that someone had to stand up against the leadership. His decision appears to have been right — not just because of his own win but because the Maoist Centre has fallen far behind its Nepali Congress partners and the UML in the polls.
“I thought to myself— if I don't do it, who will?” Pun says of his decision to stand as a rebel candidate. “If I don’t stand up now, when is it going to be the right time?”
Rukum East is a historical Maoist stronghold, with an organised base of former Maoists. But Pun’s win is indicative of loyal voters’ dissatisfaction with established Maoist leaders as well as party politics.
Pun agrees that the party base in the districts has collapsed, and there is open aversion to the former guerrilla commanders. Many other former Maoist combatants who later joined the party have long since left.
“Voters here understand that promises of a better society were just lies,” says Pun. “The people who lost their lives, livelihoods or their limbs, whose loved ones were killed, have been long forgotten. They were not even offered a word of gratitude, let alone justice.”
He adds, “I stand on the shoulders of those who paid with their blood during the war. I am indebted to them, and recognise the responsibility I have.”
Although he is no longer involved in the party, Pun says that he holds no grudges. “If the founding members of the party recognise the need for complete institutional overhaul, and are open to listening to current and former cadres who are down the ladder, I will be wholeheartedly supportive. But if things within the party remain as they are now, I do not see myself returning.”
For now, Pun looks forward to uplifting his neglected district in the rugged mountains of central Nepal. His priority will be the road linking the district to the rest of the country. Almost every family in Rukum East has an ex-Gurkha soldier or is working in the Gulf. Pun himself was once a migrant worker.
“I understand these issues because of my personal experience, I can raise them at the provincial level, but I alone cannot solve these problems,” says Pun.
Rukum faces many of the same issues of social injustice, discrimination, exclusion and state neglect that it did before the war.