Anand Swaroop Verma, Gautam Navlakha
Economic and Political Weekly
In Maoist understanding, People’s War (PW) is 80 per cent politics and 20 per cent warfare. The decisive factor in a war of this genre is not guns but the mobilisation of people for seizing power through protracted war. This is not to underplay the significance of armed struggle in Maoist politics or to delink one from the other, but to stress that the mark of Maoist success lies in their emergence as the dominant political and ideological force in Nepal. The remarkable political consistency and dexterity displayed by them in sticking to their strategic goals and making their agenda (a democratic republic through an elected constituent assembly, interim government, under an interim constitution, etc) the basis, if not the rallying point, for ending the civil war, and attempting to win the mandate to constitutionally transform the state, are its articulation. In this paper we confine ourselves to the period 1990 onwards, leading up to PW – the period from February 1996 to the “12-point agreement” of November 2005. We highlight the elements of continuity in the salient features of the strategy of PW implemented by the Maoists.
Degenerate Parliamentary Politics
It is worth recalling that the armed struggle of the Nepalese people against feudal monarchy is as old as the kingdom itself. Thus struggle persisted even after the 1950 overthrow of Rana autocracy, which had wielded state power until then. The 1950 Indian intervention, which restored the king’s power, was soon followed by several anti-feudal struggles in 1952-53, primarily in western Nepal. In these struggles, government officials were removed, feudal landlords were eliminated and foodgrains looted and redistributed. Failing to subdue this rebellion, the king sought the help of Indian troops. In 1959 when the Nepali Congress, then led by B P Koirala, signed Gandak agreement with India it triggered off violent protests against it. The Nepali Congress which was thrown out by the king on December 16, 1960, then initiated in 1962 and again in 1971 an armed uprising. In 1972-73, inspired by Naxalbari, an armed struggle broke out in Jhapa. The introduction of the multiparty system in 1991, as a sequel to the protracted struggle against partyless Panchayat regime, spurred the people’s aspirations at various levels.
In these 30 years, 1960-1990, the democratic forces went through lot of trials and tribulations. Since the Nepali Congress had at one time held the reins of power and had developed cordial foreign relations, particularly with the ruling classes of India, it did not bear the brunt of repression. Despite the fact that it took to arms in 1962 and 1971, its movement against the monarchical system remained qualitatively different from that launched by the left forces. Many communist formations were active during this time, the most powerful among them being the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) (CPN(ML)). The party, inspired by the Naxalbari movement in India, had carried out a peasant led anti-feudal movement in Jhapa in eastern Nepal.
Without going into the strategy and tactics adopted by the Jhapa peasant movement,it can certainly be said that the movement laid the traditions of communist struggle and sacrifice. Several activists of the CPN(ML) were killed, many more were put behind the bars, while the land and the properties of many others were attached by the state. In spite of repression, many young people left their home and hearth and dedicated their lives to the establishment of a genuinely democratic order. The CPN(ML), in its First National Convention (held between December 26, 1978 and January 1, 1979) had resolved that “(t)he party…shall unite and lead through a protracted peoples’ struggle all such progressive forces who are committed towards the victory of the ‘New Democratic Revolution’ in Nepal as a prerequisite for the eventual establishment of a socialist and communist society.”(1) The resolution identified the agrarian revolution as the kernel of the new democratic revolution and committed itself to uproot “the power of big landlords through armed struggle”.(2)
After the declaration of a multiparty system, the CPN(ML) which had so far been functioning underground started working as an open political party. They tried to unite other left formations and were successful to a considerable extent. The party in association with Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist), led by Manmohan Adhikari, formed the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party, which was christened CPN(UML).
The CPN(UML) participated in the first democratic elections held on May 12, 1991 after the establishment of the multiparty system. Although the party was a newcomer in the electoral arena, it scored major victories in various places as compared to the Nepali Congress, well steeped in the rituals of parliamentary democracy. In this election, the Nepali Congress won 110 seats, whereas CPN(UML) captured 69 seats. Undoubtedly, against all odds, it was a great achievement for the CPN(UML). In subsequent elections, the party forged ahead of the Nepali Congress and, for the first time in south Asia, a communist government took over the reins of power at the national level. Yet, once the party entered the realm of parliamentary politics, it jettisoned its historical legacy to bring about social transformation, beginning with radical land reforms. Instead, in order to remain in power it took recourse to the same means adopted by the Nepali Congress.
Thus if the Nepali Congress took the support of the pro-monarchy Rashtriya Prajatantrik Party (RPP), then the same means were adopted by the CPN(UML). The RPP was then led by Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Surya Bahadur Thapa who had earlier been prime ministers in the panchayat system. In fact, Lokendra Bahadur Chand was the prime minister at a time when a massive and unprecedented protest movement was taking place outside the Royal Palace in 1990. In September 1995, the Nepali Congress government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba had secured the support of RPP. In March 1997, CPN(UML) helped install RPP’s Lokendra Bahadur Chand as the PM in spite of the fact that the CPN(UML) had 90 members of Parliament (MPs), whereas RPP could boast of only 10. This was done to prevent Nepali Congress from forming the government.
Again in October 1997, the Nepali Congress helped in installing the RPP’s Surya Bahadur Thapa as PM. At that time, the RPP had only 17 MPs, whereas Nepali Congress could boast of a strength of 85 MPs. The Nepali Congress resorted to this ploy to prevent the communists from forming the government. In March 1998, there was a split in the CPN (UML) and 40 MPs walked out of the party to form CPN(ML). The same story was repeated when the new party also indulged in playing the same power brokering games as its predecessor. In August 1998, the new party, in collaboration with the Nepali Congress formed the government. In this descent towards degeneration, CPN(UML) could not be expected to be an exception. In December 1998, the coalition government of the Nepali Congress and the splinter group CPN(ML) collapsed. Immediately afterwards, as on cue, the CPN(UML) formed the government in alliance with the Nepali Congress.
Locating People’s War
It would not be far-fetched to say that to remain in power at any cost, the political parties betrayed the trust of the people.(3) It is against this background and resultant disenchantment of people with parliamentary brokering, in particular with the tactics of the parliamentary communist parties, that one can locate PW. First the 1990 transfer of power from the palace to the political parties gave wind to people’s expectations. Whereas in the Terai region, the people’s expectations were for ending feudal landlordism which was rampant, in the far-flung areas in the east as well as west, the popular demand was to end the neglect of these regions. On both counts, the political parties failed. Moreover, the shenanigans of the communists hastened the process of disenchantment. Also, while the international situation was unfavourable for the launch of social transformatory projects, conditions nationally were just the opposite. Nepal’s economy was in a crisis by 1994-95. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stipulates that any country whose foreign debt is 200-250 per cent of the value of exports and debtservicing ratio is 20 per cent of the same is in a “critical stage”. Nepal’s foreign debt jumped to 600 per cent of the total export trade and debt servicing to exports reached 35 per cent. Profligacy and scarcity, typical of a nascent capitalist country with strong feudal roots, not only contributed to low capital formation but also made it dependent on foreign donors for up to 70 per cent of its revenue needs. The migration of people in search of jobs had picked up in the 1970s and began to surge towards the end of the 1980s. The economic embargo imposed by India in 1989 brought home rather painfully the dependent nature of the relationship with India.
In initiating the PW, the Maoists were not simply engaging in combat; the very act of fighting was political. Acquisition of weapons by looting the armouries to arm themselves was as much a mark of their independence as of their awareness that any challenge to undermine the status quo would invite military suppression. It was increasingly realised that radical land reform, women’s liberation, the right of self-determination of nationalities and social justice could not be brought about through parliament under the 1990 constitution. Even the actual conduct of the
Maoists was pregnant with revolutionary tactics. Their secret parleys with Birendra (king of Nepal from 1972 until 2001), playing on his patriotism and Sihanouk like role, achieved its aim, even as they were able to maintain a line of communication with the political parties. Thereby the Maoists delayed the deployment of the army against them until they were prepared. They won this time by exploiting the contradictions between the palace and the political parties on the one hand, especially over the control exercised by the king over the army, and between the various political parties on the other. When the PW began on February 13, 1996, it was dismissed as being of no major consequence. And, as in the past, a “police action” was felt to be capable of quelling this problem.(4) However, by 2000 India and the US began pressurising the Nepal government to bring in the army. It was the attack on Dunai which was the headquarters of Dolpa district, on September 24, 2000, which brought home what it meant to keep the army out of the fighting. The army unit, based in the district headquarter watched while the Maoists destroyed the police station; it did not intervene. It was after this incident that the tussle between the king and the political parties for control and deployment of the army began in earnest. Although king Birendra gave in to international and national pressure by the end of April 2001 and agreed to an Integrated Security and Development Programme which was meant to bring in the army to the frontline in the fight against the Maoists. Nevertheless, following the assassination of king Birendra and his family on June 1, 2001, the situation changed dramatically.
Advantage of Hindsight
With the advantage of hindsight, it is worth a pause to consider how the Maoists expanded and consolidated their position during the PW. The People’s War did not emerge in a vacuum or out of simply exploiting opportunities that came the way of the Maoists. It emerged after long years of political work amongst the people, debating the failings of earlier struggles, including Jhapa. There was intense debate and differences over tactics and strategy amongst their top leadership as well as the rank and file, and above all, about creating the opportunities. The most endearing quality of the Maoists has been their willingness to learn from every crisis, of which they were witness to several. A crisis was turned into an opportunity. It is this which enabled them to overcome the near split in the party in 2004-05 and bounce back strongly so as to be able to reach an agreement with the seven political parties by November 2005. In the process the question of ‘democracy’ within the party got a boost. But, in 1995-96, the world was different. On December 13, 1995 in an interview given to The Independent, Baburam Bhattarai, a senior leader of the CPN(M) said that “every revolution appears as a dream before it is made…(and) appears like a nightmare for the reactionary classes before and after it is made”. And certainly, two months before the PW actually commenced this did appear to be a foolhardy enterprise. But commitment, perseverance and critical reflection pay. The Maoists leaders and leading cadres had been working underground long before the PW began. Some such as Kiran and Gaurav, from the 1960s, although most of the others began their journey from 1970 onwards. Prachanda and most of his other comrades began their political life in 1970s. When the first elections took place after the jan andolan of 1990 on May 12, 1991, the Samyukta Jan Morcha (United Peoples Front), headed by Baburam Bhattarai, won nine seats. The UPF was the open front of the communist group called Ekta Kendra (Unity Centre), which believed in armed struggle and was working underground. Though their seats were fewer than the seats won by the Nepali Congress or CPN(UML), the UPF secured the third position. Even as the UPF was taking part in the elections, the leaders of Ekta Kendra publicly campaigned that the Nepali people will not benefit from this parliament.
Meanwhile in December 1991, the Communist Party of Nepal (Ekta Kendra) which was reconstituted in 1986, changed its name to Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and after long deliberations and discussions, and some parting of ways, evolved the present line. Within this ideological context, the party came to the conclusion that PW is the only path for the successful completion of the New Democratic Revolution which would entail the encirclement of the cities from it villages, and, in this process, guerrilla warfare would play a strategic role. Following this the party carried out a large-scale survey in 1992 covering 18 districts. The objective of the survey was to identify the ways and means for initiating and carrying out PW. Several districts such as Rolpa, Rukum, Gorkha, Sindhuli, Dhanusha and Kavrepalanchowk were chosen for carrying out the preparatory work. In January 1994, when the CPN(UML) was in power, the Maoists had submitted a 38-point charter of demands concerning “nationalism, people’s democracy and people’s livelihood”.
Thus between 1990 and 1994, through public meetings, posters and pamphlets, the UPF leaders had been emphasising that the parliamentary system serves those who have been exploiting and tyrannising the common people. In 1994, mid-term elections took place in Nepal and the UPF boycotted it. The boycott of elections by them and the movement launched by Maoists against the local landlords and moneylenders was seen by the government as discarding parliamentary politics. As a result, large-scale repression was unleashed on the supporters of UPF and the Front had no other option but to go underground.
On February 4, 1996 the CPN(Maoist) submitted, through UPF a 40-point charter of demands to the then government headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba, giving that government a two-week ultimatum. But, a few days before the ultimatum was to expire, on February 13, they declared protracted People’s War against the state. The charter of demands were no different than what UPF had been demanding since April 1992, related to nationalism, democracy and livelihood issues. Thus, the first demand under “Concerning Nationality” was for abrogating “(a)ll discriminatory treaties, including the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty”. Under “Concerning People’s Democracy” the first demand was for drafting a new “constitution…by representatives elected for the establishment of a people’s democracy”. And finally, the first item under “Concerning Livelihood” demanded that “(l)and should belong to ‘tenants’. Land under the control of the feudal system should be confiscated and distributed to the landless and the homeless.” Besides, the 40-point demand focused on women and dalits as the two most discriminated groups, even amongst the exploited classes/strata. And, they did so by mobilising them in the first instance. In other words, the 40-point demands were not a mere rhetorical device but were meant to be taken seriously, since these demands encapsulated their politics. That the charter of demands was dismissed in the first instance by the political parties had much to do with their bloated self-image, borne of being “mainstream” parties, either in power or as contenders for acquiring power.
In an atmosphere of repression and resistance, the Central Committee of the Party held its Fourth Extended Meeting in mid-1998. A “New Plan for New Stage” was chalked out in the meeting. Based on the experience of the past two and a half years, the party drew some important conclusions regarding this particular issue. At the ideological level, the party made an attempt to develop a clear perspective regarding the distinction between a guerrilla zone and a base area. According to the party, in a protracted PW, without a base area, there cannot be any surrounding of the cities by the countryside. Thus, whereas PW had established itself as a parallel power centre via-a-vis the state, the party’s assessment was that it was quite weak in terms of military strength. Therefore, augmentation of people’s military might was identified as the main task. Based on its own experience, the Party underscored the point that if people do not possess military strength then it would not be possible to protect and uphold their achievements. Besides, due to lack of military might, people tend to lose their initiative. Thus the speedy formation of the new state necessitated the augmentation of military strength.(5)
Development of People’s War
In order to augment their military capabilities, many qualitative changes were carried out in the third year of PW. And bigger armed actions had been initiated by the party. But the interesting thing to note is that simultaneously while the war was being waged between 1998 and 2003, the ongoing process of formation of the new state was sought to be based on democratic principles. And the party was engaged in discussing the strategic importance of democracy for the new Nepal in the making, as well as the question of dissent, discipline and centralisation during the war within the party. People’s rule was organised at the village, region and base area levels; the principle of democratic centralism was followed. In areas where people’s local governments were in operation, the entire population were brought under the fold of various organisations and the right to recall their elected representatives encouraged. Above all, the new political setup was expected to harness human resources for economic resuscitation while fulfilling essential economic, social and cultural needs of the people. In 10 years what the Maoists achieved appears modest, but looked at from where they began, it is a novel people-oriented development, a story yet to be written.
Within three months of king Birendra’s assassination, negotiations took place in August 2001 between the government and the Maoists. Arguably, both sides needed a breathing space and used the period to consolidate themselves. However, the difference lay in their stated position at the negotiations. The Maoists stuck to their stance in terms of their demand for a round-table conference, an interim government and formation of an elected constituent assembly (CA), whereas the government appeared to have no clear idea other than wanting the Maoists to capitulate. And, once the September 11, 2001 attack took place in the US and the “war on terror” began, the prospects of talks dimmed perceptibly. When the talks broke down in November 2001, a few days later, the Maoists overran a big army garrison in western Nepal. The message sent out was clear while they favoured a democratic closure of the civil war, they were prepared to engage in war. By 2002, the tussle between king Gyanendra and the political parties had reached a new crisis point with the king declaring a state of emergency, dissolving local government bodies and dismissing the Deuba government because it had failed to hold general elections. The demand for an elected CA, however, was gaining supporters, with elements within the political parties discovering that the CA was a means to undercut the monarchy. Thus the PW entered a new phase, in which debate over an elected CA was gaining adherents. This was carried on until January 29, 2003 when a ceasefire was reached once again, and negotiations were attempted for the second time. However, while the government of Lokendra Bahadur Chand appeared keen, it failed to live up to its commitments in releasing imprisoned Maoist leaders and non-implementation of the agreement to limit the army to within a five kilometre radius of the barracks. The last straw was the deliberate massacre of 19 unarmed Maoist cadres in Doramba by the RNA in August 2003. This compelled the Maoists to withdraw from the talks. While the talks derailed, by early 2005 it had become clear the king’s army could not deal a fatal blow to PW. This brought about a “tectonic shift”; by November 2005 the Indian authorities saw an advantage in encouraging the seven political parties to reach an understanding with the Maoists.
The remarkable thing, despite all the ups and downs, is that the two rounds of negotiations show the continuity in the Maoists’ position. In 2001 they had publicly proposed that if an elected CA was accepted by the government, then they were prepared to be part of the interim government and therefore favoured a roundtable conference. This remained their position as well in 2003. Indeed by 2005 and 2006 those very same demands became the common rallying point for the democratic movement in its entirety. Graduating from being a rag-tag band of revolutionaries to becoming the centre of people’s struggle was no mean achievement. This was the result of their creating as well as seizing opportunities. When they claim that they combine strategic firmness with tactical flexibility their politics testifies to that. It is this that catapulted them to become the leading political force in Nepal. Their success lies not only in gaining legitimacy for their transformatory project within Nepal, but also in their boldness to address failures of other socialist experiments in order to learn from the mistakes committed. In concrete terms, the Nepali Maoists have put the question of democracy within the party as well as in the new state in the making at the centre stage.
In an interview to The Worker (No10, May 2006) Prachanda had said that “(w)e know…that in today’s world the usefulness of the tactics to use parliament has come to an end. But continuous boycotting of a system without considering the situation of a country and its people is not Marxism”. Instead his party “believes that within the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist constitutional framework, only through multiparty competition…can counterrevolution be prevented”. Multiparty competition can also help realise people’s control, monitoring and intervention in governance. In another interview given in July 2006 Prachanda pointed out that if one looks at the “essence of that which we are calling democratic republic then… within that we’ve raised the class question, nationality question, gender question and the regional question. If all these four issues are solved then it amounts to having a new democratic republic…but since we are also talking about peaceful competition with the bourgeoisie, its form looks like bourgeois democracy, whereas it is new democratic in essence”.(6) Whether they will succeed, how exactly this democracy would function and what contradictions will this generate remain to be seen. But this cannot detract from acknowledging their advancement of revolutionary politics.
No sooner Maoists joined the interim government, they declared that they wanted Nepal, even in the interim period, to become a democratic federal republic. This is not a sign of their impetuosity or irresponsibility. In fact therein lies their relentless pursuit of their objective through mass struggle. If Nepal becomes a democratic federal republic, then each and every party, currently espousing the republican agenda, will have to spell out its vision of what in essence this means to them. This would provide a distinct advantage to the Maoists since they have a radical programme, some experience of running their own government, and suffer least from a popular trust deficit, which afflicts the seven political parties. For instance, since they had already begun introducing major reforms in their base areas, including land re-distribution, they are disinclined to roll them back. Apart from the immediate gain for them, this will restore democracy and boost the struggle for real democracy, which is right at the centre of the revolutionary project. The Maoists are seeking to gain legitimacy for their project by winning the mandate of the people through elections to restructure the state in such a way that real inequalities do not negate formal equality under law. This struggle for “real democracy” inspires hope because they have brought more than 20 million crore people in Nepal a historic opportunity to take a big leap forward in their fight for justice. It is this journey, or “transitional democracy” as Maoists characterise it, which rekindles hope that the revolutionary left in south Asia in general, and the Maoists in Nepal in particular, are capable of fusing armed and mass struggles as well as conceptualising a democratic egalitarian state and society. What remains to be seen is whether they realise what had appeared to them to be a “dream” in 1995.
1 Political resolution of CPN(ML), party’s underground publication, 1979, p 20.
2 Ibid, p 27.
3 The sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) was held in January 1998 and it is apparent, if we look into the statements of party general secretary Madhav Nepal, politburo member C P Mainali and others on the eve of the Congress, that CPN(UML) was grappling with regression within the party. General secretary Madhav Nepal had said in an interview, “Bourgeois deviations are growing within the party. Corruption, misuse of office and charm for a luxurious lifestyle is on the rise. Petty bourgeois individualism and lust for power are acquiring deeper roots and a very large number of opportunists and self-seekers have become active in the party…anarchism, indiscipline and lumpenism are ever on the rise. There is no importance of party decisions and discipline. If a decision is favourable or to one’s liking, it is implemented, and if it is not, then there is an increasing tendency to defy it – either collectively or in a group mentality” (Interview of Madhav Nepal Mansir 2054, Mulyankan (Kathmandu), pp 5-7). A senior leader and ideologue of the party, C P Manali, was also of a similar view, that various deviations regarding the character of the party, its functional style and disciplinary matters have surfaced. He attributed it largely to the compulsions to contest elections. He said “the party has been, at many places, reduced to a front of the communists and communist sympathisers, giving rise to the dangers of the weakening of the party character” (op cit, pp 8-9).
4 Until 1999-2000, India’s ministry of home affairs (MHA) and the ministry of defence (MoD) in their annual reports, did not once refer to the presence of Maoists in Nepal. Their main concern then was Pakistan’s support for “anti-India activities from Nepal” and “growth of religious fundamentalist organisations” along the Indo-Nepal border. It was in 2000-01 that the reports begin to refer to Maoists. MoD annual report of 2000-01 spoke of a “development of concern… increasing intensity and spread of Maoist violence within Nepal”. After that there was no turning back. When MHA wrote in its annual report of 2001-02 of “the decision of the MCC [Maoist Communist Centre] and the CPIML-PW [Communist Party of India (Marxists Leninist) (People’s War)] to tie up with the CPN(M) to carve out a ‘Compact Revolutionary Zone’.” The MoD annual report of the same year claimed that “India has also offered such assistance as is desired by Nepal” to address Maoist extremism.
5 Report of the general secretary, CPN(Maoist), The Worker, No 4, 1998. Also see ‘Third Turbulant Year of People’s War: A General Review’, article by CPN(Maoist) general secretary Prachanda, February 1999. Also see, ‘Experiences of the People’s War and Some Important Questions’, Document of the Fourth Extended Meeting, August, 1998.
6 Interview of Prachanda by A S Verma, July 29, 2006. at www.insn.org