The following passage is excerpted from Aditya Adhikari’s debut book, The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution, published recently by Aleph Books, New Delhi. In it, Adhikari explores the experiences of Maoist women during the civil war.
To read Daniel Lak’s review of The Bullet and the Ballot Box, click here.
The Nepali Maoists wrote novels glorifying their rebellion. The Path of Struggle (Sangharshako Goreto) by Manju Bam, who joined the Maoist student wing at the age of eighteen in 2001, more or less typifies the genre. Yet the novel is also unique in being written by a woman, and providing an idealized account of a woman’s trajectory within the Maoist movement. According to Hisila Yami, one of the two highest-ranking women in the party and the wife of Baburam Bhattarai, women comprised 30–50 per cent of the Maoist army, and there were hundreds of others serving in political roles. The Maoist leadership encouraged journalists to report on the large numbers of women who had fled oppressive circumstances and found new lives in the party. Still, the vast bulk of Maoist literature was produced by men and rarely included a female perspective.
Alina, the protagonist of The Path of Struggle, is deeply discontented with her social world. After completing her SLC exam, she enrolls in a college near her village in the country’s south-western plains. But like many other Nepali parents, her parents want their daughter to become a docile and obedient housewife. As insurance against future deprivation, they decide to marry her to a man who holds a stable job in Delhi.
The thought of leaving college to marry a man she has never met fills Alina with dread. She has a lover, Yogesh, who is studying in Kathmandu. She remembers how one of her aunts, who also had a lover, committed suicide after being forced to marry someone else. Yet Alina does not dare tell her parents about Yogesh.
Despite his conservative social beliefs, Alina’s father is a Maoist sympathizer. Two Maoist activists – Comrade Manoj and Comrade Basu – regularly come to her house for shelter. One day Alina has a long conversation with them. They explain why they are engaged in armed struggle against the state, and convince her of the futility of formal education. ‘Now you should be ready to read the books without a text,’ they say. ‘You have to study the villages and huts of the poor.’ For Alina, it is like receiving a revelation.
Alina feels more and more helpless as the threat of marriage looms closer. One day she meets Comrade Manoj in the marketplace and shares her dilemma. Manoj advises her to summon up her courage and tell her parents about Yogesh. If a woman is to take charge of her destiny, he says, she should be able to decide whom she will marry and when.
To the shock and dismay of her parents, Alina soon leaves home to join the rebels. She becomes absorbed in the Maoists’ collectivist culture and the tasks they assign her. Yogesh learns of her whereabouts and comes to meet her. He wants them to return to Kathmandu together and get married. But Alina refuses; instead she asks him to join the cause she is fighting for: ‘If we have longed for each other for so many years, then why can’t we tread the same path? True love is when two people invest their ideas and emotions in following the same journey to reach the same destination.’ Yogesh tells her he needs time to think, and leaves. But as he is desperately in love with Alina, he eventually comes back and becomes a full-time activist of the Maoist party.
Alina and Yogesh are tasked with organizing a mass meeting during the ceasefire of 2003. They help set up a large stage festooned with red flags and banners and arrange vehicles to transport people from the villages to the site of the meeting. A large crowd gathers, and a senior Maoist takes the stage. ‘It is not our desire to fight a war,’ he declares, ‘it is our compulsion.’ This leader is clearly well versed in the writings of Mao, who said that communists fought wars because of their ‘desire to eliminate all wars.’ The Nepali rebel leader echoes this sentiment when he claims that ‘communists are the most peace-loving people in the world’. If the war is to end, he explains, the government has to accept the Maoist demands for a round-table conference, the formation of an interim government and elections to a Constituent Assembly. ‘We have taken up arms for peace,’ he says, ‘and as soon as this government guarantees food, shelter and clothing for the people we will be ready to immediately throw our weapons into the sea.’
These words were no doubt reproduced from a speech Manju Bam heard at a mass meeting held during the second ceasefire. The suggestion that the Maoists were actually pacifists and that fulfilment of their political demands would guarantee ‘food, shelter and clothing for the people’ must have confused at least some in the audience. The novel, however, gives no such indication. The spectators clap and cheer in unison as though all doubt and scepticism had vanished in the fervour of the moment. Next, Comrade Basu, one of the two Maoist activists who used to visit Alina’s house, takes the stage and announces the marriage of a ‘red couple’:
Dear audience, a new janabadi culture is taking root in our society, dismantling the old, superstitious customs and traditions. Respected people, comrades Alina and Yogesh … have ended the trend of squandering one’s last paisa on a wedding and then toiling on the streets of India to pay off one’s loans. Their marriage is founded on revolutionary thought, on cooperation, on class-consciousness and on trust.
Comrade Basu then reads out the letter in which the couple asked for the party’s permission to marry and the letter of approval from the party’s district committee. Alina and Yogesh, who are now on stage, smear vermilion powder on each other’s faces, put garlands around each other’s necks and exchange a firm handshake. The cultural troupe performs a song amid cheers and applause. It is now time for the newly-weds to pledge their lifelong commitment to the revolution. ‘As soon as one of us deviates from the party,’ the couple recite in one voice, ‘our relationship will come to an end. Otherwise, we will have the same goals and destination. We will always follow the party and revolution like the star on the horizon.’
Thousands of young Maoist activists met and fell in love with their fellow comrades during the war. Their weddings were rarely as politically charged as that of Alina and Yogesh, nor did they take place in front of such a large audience. But the details in the novel – the announcement of the wedding by a leader, the reading aloud of letters of request and approval, the oath of undying allegiance to the party – accurately depict the ritual of a Maoist wedding, particularly during the later years of the war.
As Comrade Basu claims, this approach signified a rejection of marriages that demanded wasteful expenditure and shackled women to a life of domestic servitude. In the Maoist conception, a janabadi wedding allowed two people to enter into a union in complete freedom and become equal partners for life. In contrast to traditional marriages where the idea of divorce carries a stigma, forcing women to remain trapped in loveless and oppressive relationships, janabadi marriages could be terminated with relative ease. The Maoists also encouraged inter-caste and inter-ethnic marriage as a measure to relieve caste discrimination. And they encouraged widows to remarry (in opposition to the traditional Hindu custom that requires a widow to live the remainder of her life in seclusion and austerity).
But the party was far from allowing complete freedom in matters of love and marriage. The minimum age requirement for marriage was twenty-two for male cadres and twenty for women. Those below the age limit were deemed too immature to assume marital responsibilities. The Maoist leaders encouraged marriages between cadres because they believed this would increase their commitment and energy for the revolution. Many young people had joined the movement out of a desire for adventure, rather than ideological commitment. The leaders felt that allowing too much romantic or sexual liberty could lead to dissipation and anarchy in the ranks. As Hisila Yami observed, ‘History demonstrates that many brave warriors who couldn’t be brought down by the gun were brought down by lust.’
Maoist activists were therefore instructed to stay away from titillating literature and movies. They were not to remain idle for long periods of time. They were not to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex unless circumstances left them no choice. They were not to engage in premarital sex. While in groups, they were to discuss ‘serious matters to increase knowledge’ rather than wasting time with jokes and small talk. They were to keep their immediate superiors informed about all aspects of their lives, including their romantic affairs. The cadres were thus expected to live a life of sacrifice and austerity, and above all subordinate their private desires to the needs of the party.
Out-of-wedlock sexual liaisons were considered particularly damaging to the party. Euphemistically referred to as ‘cultural deviations’ (sanskritik bichalan), such transgressions were subject to harsh punishment, and even high-ranking leaders were not exempt. The most notorious case was that of Yan Prasad Gautam, alias ‘Alok’. A member of the central committee since the earliest days of the rebellion, Alok was at one time very close to the party’s chairman, Prachanda. In 2000, he was charged with having an illicit affair with a Maoist district committee secretary and treating his wife like a ‘slave’, among a long list of other ‘deviations’. It turned out that the money he had been extorting from the population went not towards meeting the party’s expenditures, but to fulfil his appetite for luxury. He dominated and abused lower-ranking cadres. His lust for violence had led him to murder a civilian without permission from the high command. Instead of heeding the criticisms of party leaders, he had resorted to conspiracy and blackmail to save his skin.
Alok was duly stripped of his party positions and sent to a labour camp run by the Maoists in Rolpa. He was later killed, apparently in an army operation. But his notoriety lived on. The party defined the ‘Alok tendency’ as ‘rightist opportunism cloaked in leftism’. This tendency was personified in a degenerated Maoist who served as a warning to the entire rank and file.
The restrictions imposed by the Maoists led to a somewhat paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the party leaders desired marital unions between cadres. On the other, they discouraged them from engaging in the leisurely courtship necessary for establishing deep bonds. Leaders would pressure their juniors to marry at the first indication of budding romance. The age requirements were often overlooked. Maoist leaders complained that cadres lied about their age to get married, but they rarely took the trouble to check. More often they deliberately ignored the age factor, believing that marriages between activists would further bind them to the party.
Relatively senior activists who were divorced or whose spouses had been killed in the conflict were also pressured to remarry. Lekhnath Neupane, alias ‘Nirmal’, the head of the Maoists’ student organization, received this letter soon after his wife Urmila Adhikari, alias ‘Samikshya’, was killed by the RNA:
We are communists, and all our joys and sorrows belong to the people. Our marriage is not for individual happiness but for the benefit of the entire party and the revolution. Nirmal dai [brother], remember, you had said, ‘Samikshya’s responsibility has now fallen on my shoulders.’ But after seeing you in such torment, I feel you are having trouble fulfilling even your own responsibility, let alone Samikshya’s. Therefore, for the sake of the party and the revolution, you must find a comrade who can take Samikshya-ji’s place and fulfil her responsibility, someone who can alleviate your physical and mental suffering and restore your vitality and enthusiasm. Every person needs a companion sooner or later, and I hope you will not push the party and the revolution backward by waiting too long to fill the vacuum left by Comrade Samikshya. Samikshya-ji’s soul will find peace only when you are happy and someone fulfills her unfinished duty for the party.
Neupane’s marriage to Samikshya too had been encouraged and facilitated by other party leaders. He had barely met her, and had been courting her for about two weeks when they got married. Six months later when she was killed by state security forces, the couple had barely spent two months together. This was a common pattern. Marriages were conducted in haste, before the partners got to know each other well. They were assigned to separate areas across the country even after marriage. Their communication was often limited to letters, passed from hand to hand through the underground network and taking weeks, if not months, to reach their destination.
The Maoist ideal of a marriage founded on free choice and full awareness was thus often violated in practice. One might say that the janabadi marriage simply replaced the pressures and obligations of the traditional marriage with the pressures and obligations of the party. The Maoists, however, were likely to dispute this criticism on the grounds that it is premised on bourgeois individualism, which views with suspicion all systems where individuals are asked to subordinate their personal interests to a larger cause. Asked what desires she had beyond serving the party, a newly married activist said: ‘We have no desires beyond the fulfilment of our basic human needs. We are communists, brother.’
The marriage of Alina and Yogesh in The Path of Struggle is far from blissful. Alina remains entirely committed to the party and its ideology, and steadily rises up the ranks. Yogesh, meanwhile, is unable to maintain such faith. He complains that he will find it difficult to live without her when he is posted to a remote area in the mountains. Later, when they have a child, he wants to stay at home with his family. He tells Alina they are wasting their lives in the Maoist movement. Alina thinks Yogesh is guided more by his emotions than by ideology, and rebukes him for his weakness. ‘Don’t speak like the rich bourgeois,’ she says. ‘They are the ones who desire only luxury and relaxation and call that life.’
Unhappy with his conditions in a remote mountain outpost, Yogesh starts drinking heavily and takes a lover. Eventually he steals money from the party and runs away with her. Alina finds out about her husband’s betrayal from her region’s party chief. Her initial reaction is one of intense rage: she vows to take revenge on Yogesh, and her leader has to tell her to calm down. Later, she thinks about other men in the party who have abused or abandoned their wives, and her anger hardens into a belief that men, driven by desire and lust, are inherently unreliable. In contrast, she thinks, women are far more capable of sacrifice and commitment to the revolution.
In these sections of the novel, Manju Bam obliquely expresses her frustration with the male dominance that persisted within the party. Yet the novel also contains an element of fantasy, of wish fulfilment, as it allows the female protagonist to outdo her husband and rise higher in the party hierarchy. In the end, it is the man who is disgraced.
Taking part in the Maoist rebellion undoubtedly gave many women a sense of purpose and confidence. Those who possessed some education and skills in writing, speaking or singing were given substantial responsibilities. Manju Bam herself, starting as a district committee member of the Maoist student organization, soon came to lead a cultural group and went on to become a member of the Seti-Mahakali regional bureau. And in 2006, when the Maoists abandoned armed rebellion to join multi-party politics, Bam, aged twenty-four at the time, was nominated to the country’s interim parliament.
But the movement did not exist in a vacuum, and party members could not entirely escape the prejudices prevalent in the broader society. When they visited people’s homes and families to engage with local populations, female Maoists often faced difficulties. Satya Shrestha-Schipper, who studied women’s participation in the Maoist movement in Jumla district, discovered that men who temporarily returned home had no problems reintegrating into social life. Women, on the other hand, tended to avoid contact with their old friends, preferring instead to stay home or mix only with their comrades. Many of these women had joined the party at a young age under coercive conditions, and lacked experience of the wider world. They remained with the Maoists not out of a deep commitment to the cause, but due to fear of what lay outside.
Despite the Maoists’ efforts to establish a janabadi culture, it was not easy to root out ingrained prejudices among their cadre. Shyam Kumar Budha Magar recounts that when he was in Nuwagaon, Rolpa in 2000, a local woman approached him and his comrade, the Maoist in charge of the area. The woman was a Badi, a Dalit caste whose women have traditionally engaged in prostitution to earn their living. She asked the Maoists to help her recoup the money owed her by a man who had repeatedly used her services without paying. The young rebels were shocked by the request, and scolded her. But since their standing in the village would suffer if they did not try to resolve the dispute, they summoned the man to hear his side of the story.
The man admitted, in the presence of the Maoists and a number of villagers, that the Badi woman’s allegation was true. This placed the Maoists in a dilemma. They recognized that the woman would have to be compensated if justice was to be served. But they also felt that forcing the man to pay up would encourage prostitution, which they viewed as a major social ill. They tried to force the man to marry the Badi woman, apparently without taking her feelings into consideration. He vehemently refused. Eventually they settled the matter by making him pay the amount due. If he repeated such a ‘mistake’ in the future, the Maoists would punish him – the precise terms of the punishment were left unspecified. The woman, for her part, was ordered to take the money and leave the village for good. If she ever came back, she was told, the Maoists would take ‘physical action’ (bhautik karbahi) – a euphemism for punishments ranging from severe beating to execution – against her.
Cover photo: Dense jungle growth. Doug Knuth/Flickr. Republished under CC license BY-SA 2.0.