In Maoist country

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

IN mid-August, a Maoist rally of 10,000 people in the hills of Sindhupalchowk district, located below the Langtang range, declared the district one of their adhar ilakas and set up a "people's government" there. Its integration into the "red districts" was of a pattern that was followed elsewhere in the country, said Churna Prasad Srestha, the chairperson of Kuvinde village development committee (VDC) and a member of the right-wing Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). At the rally a policeman was killed. Mass arrests followed and about 25 persons went underground. A VDC chairperson who was notorious for oppressing the people was killed, and it was followed by mass arrests and police excesses. Agni Sapkote, one of the three negotiators in the talks with the government, joined the movement from Kuvinde.

After a five-hour drive from Kathmandu, I trudged up the track passing a gate erected by the Maoists to enter village Thulo Shurovari, one of the 45 (out of 89) villages where the Maoists have established a village people's government (VPG), displacing the government-sponsored VDCs. A tussle is on to take over the offices of the VDCs and, more important, the funds to pay for a water tank and a park recently built by the people's government. People's labour is voluntary, but cement had to be paid for, until they could access VDC funds. Were they taxing people? "As a government, we tax the people," explained Tek Bahadur Srestha, chairperson of the VPG. Surely that imposed a double burden on the poor. "Eventually, they will stop paying taxes to the anti people's government," he said. A cooperative bank had been set up in the village, and the rates of interest and credit amounts varied for the rich and the poor. There was door-to-door investigation to assess what people had or did not have. They had not started land redistribution yet. Tek Bahadur hopes that once people are made aware, they would voluntarily surrender surplus land. As for coercion, he said, it is unlikely when the People's Militia's strength is only 15.

Tek Bahadur, who is in his late twenties, is a peasant agriculturalist and has not studied beyond the third standard. He described himself as a Maoist sympathiser. His class analysis is well-honed Maoist rhetoric but also resonated with the specificity of practical application. He recognised that tourism in the villages as promoted by the Kathmandu government was good but in its wake had come many evils - gambling, alcoholism and wife-beating. The Maoist agenda, especially at the grassroots level, is particularly pro-women.

We met Tek Bahadur in a school classroom. Ironically, the headmaster of the school, along with 39 other teachers in the district, had resigned in protest. The Maoists, as part of their school reform campaign, have proscribed fees in government-funded schools (at the same time, they attack private schools for charging exorbitant fees). But there were no government funds to cover the salaries of teachers who teach 9th and 10th class pupils.

There was no need to look over his shoulder to make sure the police were not tailing him - of the 17 police posts in the district only four were left, and none in these 'liberated villages', Tek Bahadur said. The People's Militia chief, Ganesh Gautam, was unarmed and was equally unconcerned about the security forces. He is ready to fight the Army if necessary. "It's not written on my forehead that I am a Maoist; so they'll have to kill many of us, including their own. And then they'll stop. The army will split along class and ethnic lines." Ethnic consciousness is strong in the Maoist outfit and the Army as well.

In Chautara, the district headquarters, the District Development Office (DDC) is still controlled by the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) but all effective power has devolved to the nominated, new People's Committee headed by Shyam Krishen Srestha, himself the head of the local trading body. In principle anyone can be nominated, but so far there are no representatives from other political parties. However, in the presence of Srestha, the CPN(UML) district head as well as representatives of other political parties denounced Maoists as "Left adventurists" who were out to destroy Nepal. Srestha denied that the Maoists were using force to punish people. A few hours earlier we had met a UML worker whose leg had been smashed by the Maoists. Srestha insisted that punishment be limited to community labour. The jana adalat or people's courts had done away with the witness system and reverted to the tradition of asking neighbours to vouch for the accused, he said.

The Maoists have few illusions about the talks; they feel that they would at best produce awareness. The Maoists spoke with the confidence of having the people with them. But can they face the full might of the state?

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