Extremist strategy

Print edition : February 25, 2005

The Maoists, who have built a strong base in the countryside using ideology and strategy, now feel that a broad political front against the King is a "historical necessity".

recently in Kathmandu

THE Maoist insurgency in Nepal is only 10 years old but has today spread all over the country with most rural areas under its control. "The Maoists contested the first elections held in 1991 and won nine of the 205 seats," said Pradeep Nepal, standing committee member, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist, or UML) in an interview in January in Kathmandu. The Jan Morcha, the party of the Maoists at that time, also won some local authorities.

Armed police posts in Nepalgunj. The Maoists have considerable influence in the town despite the presence of the security forces.-

"But the Nepali Congress government and the State authorities did not cooperate with them and blocked all development funds for their constituencies - no schools, no roads, no water works," Nepal said. Many of the Jan Morcha MPs were from linguistic and ethnic minorities, with their own culture, which is distinct from the Newar-dominated Nepali culture and language. "When their MPs wore their own ethnic dresses they were even stopped from entering Parliament by the police guard posted outside," Nepal said. The Jan Morcha boycotted the next elections and by 1995, the "people's war" had been declared by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or CPN (M).

There has always been a faction among the Maoists who wanted to continue the armed struggle, and the first recorded attack on a police station was as far back as 1986. Since the revival of the armed struggle in 1995, the Maoist army has grown by leaps and bounds and today it consists of three divisions, nine brigades with 29 battalions. At full strength this should comprise 29,000 soldiers. Government sources in Nepal claim that this army consists of only 8,000 soldiers and a 20,000-strong militia.

Whatever the terms used, a visit to Nepal outside of Kathmandu confirms that it is Maoist arms that hold sway in much of the country.

Nepalgunj is 4 km from the Indian border. It is the main market town and administrative headquarters of the mid-western region of Nepal as well as the headquarters of Banke district. It has a large garrison of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA), the Armed Police and the regular police. Every street corner and road junction has a permanent armed barricade, and heavily armed patrols on foot are a constant reminder of the military presence.

On December 26 last year, the CPN(M) issued a proclamation asking all employees of the Royal Nepal government to stop working and told the people to "boycott" the "old regime". Since then not one government office has been functional. When this correspondent visited the town in the third week of January, the Appellate Court was absolutely deserted at noon. The judges were all there, but not a single petitioner was present.

Similarly, at the Land Revenue office nearby all the employees were sitting outside and there was not a single member of the public present. The head clerk, visibly scared by the arrival of an unknown person (this correspondent), refused to talk. Another employee said: "We were scared of the Maoists and stopped coming to office as people also were not coming anymore. But Army men came to our homes and threatened us and our families that we would be arrested as Maoists if we did not report for work."

Thus, government employees are walking a tightrope. They come and sign in at their offices, but immediately go out of the building and sit in the lawns or on the roadside, only to scurry inside when the Army patrol comes for inspection.

It is a difficult tightrope indeed. The government employees are in a tight spot - government employees are regularly arrested or detained without any legal cover by the Army on charges of being Maoists. Despite an armed police post merely 100 metres away, Maoists blasted a room at the land revenue office on January 15 at 1 p.m. as a warning to government employees to follow their diktat.

While the gun, whether of the Maoists or of the RNA, seems to rule the lives of people, it would be incorrect to think that the Maoists' success is solely because to the gun.

"In Nepalgunj town we have two powers - the Royal government and the Maoists. In the rural areas there is only one government - the Maoists," says a journalist in Nepalgunj. Most political observers agree that in at least 45 of Nepal's 75 districts the Maoists hold complete sway. Even in other districts they control the villages with the district town under the control of the Royal government. In a recent newspaper report, the RNA admitted that even in Kathmandu there were about 300 armed Maoists present, though they had only a limited hold on the capital.

In the rural areas of Banke district and neighbouring Bardiya district, the Maoists have taken control of thousands of acres of agricultural land and given it to the landless, says one human rights activist working as a conflict field monitor in Nepalgunj. The journalist explains this process: "The Maoists have made it clear that whatever land a person owns, has to be cultivated by that person's family. No hiring of labour will be allowed." He says that those who had hundreds of bighas of land have now left the villages for the relative safety of towns such as Nepalgunj and Kathmandu, leaving the Maoists in possession of their land. "The Maoists have become the biggest landlord in Nepal today," he says. Previously, much of the land was under the traditional 50:50 sharecropping, with lower-caste communities like Tharus and Kamaiyas actually cultivating the land. "The Maoists with their slogan jiski jot, uski pot (harvest belongs to the actual cultivator) have practically abolished this system," said the journalist.

The Maoists seem to have built up an entire alternative structure of governance in Nepal. They have their own justice system and have reportedly "arrested" and punished close to 1,000 landlords, government employees, traders and contractors for violating their edicts. Their favourite form of punishment, human rights activists say, is to sentence their prisoners to labour. As they term them shram kaidis (labour prisoners).

The Maoists also collect taxes that range from 5 per cent for the common people to 40 per cent for forest contractors and big businessmen. They have a radio station of their own - the Jana Ganatantrik FM Radio - whose components are carried in baskets and set up on hilltops for transmission.

The Maoists have now started `development works'. In Rolpa district of mid-western Nepal, they are building a 92-km-long mountain highway, with 10,000 people working on it every day, including the shram kaidis. Already, 30-odd-km of this road is ready for use after just three months of work. They have also started a cooperative bank, a medical college and other works. In Rukum district the Maoists have constructed a mini-hydel power station on Sisne lake to supply electricity to a neighbouring village with a few thousand people.

Moreover, the Maoists have proved to be master strategists by building a social base for themselves in the rural areas.

About 25 per cent of the rural population suffers from social discriminations of various forms. While some of them are termed "untouchable", others face varying degrees of discrimination and social exclusion. The Maoists have banned all these and there have been reports that those found continuing with practices of untouchability and caste exclusion have been punished severely or even killed. This reportedly has created much goodwill for them among the lower-caste populations of the rural areas, especially since the democratic political parties had not addressed the problems of social oppression in the villages after they formed the government in 1991.

In a masterstroke of political savvy, the Maoists have also started giving land to the families of Royal Nepal Army soldiers and police personnel who were killed in combat with them. Their argument is that they were `poor peasants' who had joined the Royal forces not for ideological reasons but to survive. Therefore, they argue that it is their duty to provide for their families, as they do for the families of their own cadre who were killed in combat.

In a context where most families of soldiers who are killed in combat with the Maoists are yet to receive even one rupee of the compensation announced by the Royal Nepal government, this is a strategy that not only reinforces the moral hold of the Maoists in rural areas but also provides them with a steady stream of recruits.

Pradeep Nepal, who is reported "missing" after the coup.-

"Every dead RNA soldier's family is a potential source of Maoist recruits," says the journalist.

Strategies such as these have made the Maoists the predominant power in the rural areas of Nepal and given their relatively small army a much larger punch. The reach and ability of the Maoist army was on display twice when it blockaded Kathmandu and there was not much that the RNA, despite its superior arms and manpower, could do to remove it.

Most Nepali observers, both sympathetic to the Maoists and their critics, agree that despite their spectacular successes of the past few years, the Maoists are not in a position to capture state power in Kathmandu merely with the gun. "The geopolitical situation is such that a simple capture of power is impossible," says Govinda Sharma Bandi, an advocate in the Supreme Court of Nepal.

Not only are India, the United States, the United Kingdom and China firmly against the Maoists, they have not managed to break completely the hold on the people of the democratic parties such as the UML and the Nepali Congress.

"There is no democracy in the Maoist-controlled areas," said the human rights activist in Nepalgunj. "From their central committee member to the local cadre they all repeat the same words and give exactly the same answers and opinions," said the activist. Speaking one's mind can even get one a bullet in the head.

Moreover, there are dissensions emerging within the Maoists. It is commonly accepted that there is an uneasy relationship between the CPN(M) supremo, Pushpa Kamal Dhal, who is known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, and the number two, Baburam Bhattarai, who has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Some months ago, Sherman Kuwar, a Maoist central committee member, was captured and killed by the RNA in Saptari district and there were reports that Bhattarai alleged that Prachanda's people had betrayed Kuwar.

But what is of greater significance is that people in the rural areas are also turning against the Maoists. In Dullu village of Dailekh district, the women residents came out openly against the Maoists and informed the local RNA garrison about the whereabouts of senior Maoists in their area. Most of the leaders were captured and killed. Since then some of the villagers have been attacked by the Maoists and an uneasy calm prevails in the village at present.

According to newspaper reports and human rights activists in Nepal, the women of Dailekh protested against the demands of the Maoists and the imposition of their social edicts. The Maoists would demand workers and soldiers from the village youth and supplies to feed their army, and pass orders on various social customs. One of the orders related to putting sindoor (vermillion on the hair parting on the head) by village women. The Maoists declared it a feudal, patriarchal, practice and said that henceforth either no woman would apply sindoor or all women would apply it, including widows.

It appears that the Maoists also understand their limitations. In a recent statement released to the press after the takeover of executive powers by King Gyanendra, Prachanda called on the "parliamentary parties" to form a united front with the Maoists against this "fratricidal, artificial king" and promised to make the "necessary sacrifice and flexibility" for this. The Maoists have said that a united front with democratic parties against the monarchy and the RNA is "a historical necessity". Simultaneously, they announced an indefinite countrywide blockade and traffic strike from February 13, the 10th anniversary of their armed struggle.

Today, with the King seeming to return to the autocratic monarchy of the pre-1990 era, it seems that the Maoist demand for a republican government is gaining ground.

In the relatively calmer conditions in January, Pradeep Nepal said: "The Maoists are willing to lay down arms if a political solution is offered where they also have a share in power and the safety and security of their cadre is assured." He said that if Parliament, which was dismissed by King Gyanendra in 2002, was re-instated and elections for a constituent assembly were ordered, a political solution to the armed conflict was possible.

Pradeep Nepal questioned the wisdom of the Indian policy of blindly supporting the RNA with arms and know-how. "Much of the arms land in Maoist hands and in any case, the RNA has proved itself incapable of resolving the issue militarily," he says. The only solution is to accept that the Maoists have emerged as a dominant power in Nepal and negotiate a settlement with them, he argues.

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