13 MIN READ
Prabes Roka Magar arrived in Kathmandu in early February to register a new business venture -- a wine factory in Rolpa. Despite the country going federal, he still had to come 600 kilometres to Kathmandu for the licence from his home town of Thabang, which is known for its apples, plums, and pears. But without adequate roads and the lack of a proper supply chain, much of that produce goes to waste.
“We can make jam and juice from the fruits but we aren’t able to sell them,” Prabes told me on a cloudy day in February as we sat sipping black tea at a shop near the Department of Industry in Tripureshwor. “I thought to make use of the fruit and turn it into wine.”
Behind Prabes, on a small television mounted on the wall of the teashop, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chair of the Nepal Communist Party, was giving a speech at a rally organised against Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s December 20 dissolution of the House of Representatives. Weeks later, the Supreme Court would rule Oli’s actions unconstitutional and reinstate the Parliament, but at that time, neither Magar nor Dahal knew which way the court would lean.
It was a week before the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Maoist ‘People’s War’, the 10-year insurgency that Dahal, as comrade Prachanda, led. During the conflict, Dahal was Prabes’ supreme commander and Prabes himself was known by his nom-de-guerre Comrade Chhiring.
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Under Dahal’s orders, alcohol was considered a ‘social evil’ and Prabes, along with many others like him, went around the countryside destroying vats of homemade liquor and even beating up those found drinking.
The war is now over and Prabes’ former commanders have all gone on to reach the highest echelons of political power in the country. Dahal and second-in-command Baburam Bhattarai have both become prime ministers while Nanda Kishor Pun, once chief commander of the People’s Liberation Army, is now vice-president.
Prabes sees no contradiction between his actions during the war years and his plans now. Everything is different and everyone has abandoned the ideals they once held, he says. Dahal even merged his Maoist party with Oli’s UML party in 2018 to form the behemoth that was the Nepal Communist Party. The merger came as a surprise to many, as Oli was long seen as the antithesis to what Dahal advocated. Oli was known to be heavily opposed to the Maoist agendas of republicanism, inclusion, and federalism. It took a House dissolution for Dahal to finally break with Oli.
Ideologue Bhattarai has allied with Upendra Yadav’s Sanghiya Samajbadi Party to form the Janata Samajbadi Party, but his influence on national politics has waned. Among Prabes’ former commanders, only Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ is still actively rebelling. Everyone else has moved on.
“The situation has changed now,” said Prabes.
Prabes Roka Magar was born into an illiterate peasant family of Kham Magars. Most of Thabang was illiterate but by the time Magar was born in 1970, the village was already a hotbed of communist activity. Thabang had always had a rebellious spirit and the villagers were united in their opposition to anyone who would seek to oppress them. Hence, it acquired the nickname of ‘baagi’ -- revolutionary.
In 1959, during Nepal’s first parliamentary election, the village voted unanimously for Khagulal Gurung, a communist candidate. In 1979, when Pashupati Shumsher Rana visited Thabang during a pro-Panchayat campaign, village leader Barman Budhamagar told Rana “to his face” that he would vote against the absolute monarchy, and subsequently went to jail. True to form, Thabang voted against the Panchayat during the 1980 referendum, and during the 1981 elections to the Rastriya Panchayat, Thabang sent back an empty ballot box.
Many of Thabang’s leaders, including Barman and Gurung, were jailed during the Panchayat. Upon release, they came back to Thabang to form a communist party. This party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Masal) with Mohan Bikram Singh as its general secretary, would become the seed for the Maoist revolution to come. When the party split, as communist parties are wont to do, the village became a stronghold for the faction led by veteran communist leader Mohan Baidya, which was confusingly called CPN (Mashal). In the ranks of this new party was Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.
Prabes joined the communist movement as a teenager in the ninth grade at Bal Bhadra Secondary School through Akhil Chhaithau, the student wing of the CPN (Mashal). He was the youngest son and his elder sister Lali managed his education. He completed his school-level studies from Ghorahi in Dang and went on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree from Tansen, Palpa. He had been planning to pursue a Master’s degree when, on February 13, 1996, the ‘People’s War’ was announced. As a party member, Prabes, along with his entire family, answered supreme commander Prachanda’s call to revolution.
Prabes’ brothers Purna Bahadur and Dhanaji were both Maoist cadres, with the former known in Thabang as Comrade Gore dai. Lali, his sister, was no less revolutionary than her brothers. In fact, Lali, along with Dilman Roka Magar, would become Thabang’s first casualties in the war. The two were killed by the Nepal Police on January 16, 1997. Altogether 32 people from Thabang were killed by security forces during the war.
Prabes went on to become secretary of the Rolpa chapter of the Maoists and eventually, district party chief. During this time, he often hosted many Maoist leaders. Dahal and Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ both took shelter there as they knew the village was safe.
In the initial phase of the war, the party transferred Prabes and Onsari Gharti Magar to Pyuthan to cultivate Maoists. But when the Maoists’ 4th extended central committee meeting in 1998 decided to announce an ‘aadhaar ilaakaa’ in Rolpa, the party recalled him to his home district. The Maoists established a parallel government with Baburam Bhattarai as the chief of the central people's council. Communes were established across the region -- Jalajala commune in Jelbang, Rolpa; Balidan commune in Chhipkhola, Rukum; Juni commune in Jurknipane, Jajarkot; and Ajammari commune in Thabang. Prabes was a member of the Ajammari commune, the largest one with about 32 families.
Prabes made it out of the war alive, but many of his comrades did not. His first love, a woman he had planned to marry, was killed in the war.
“Many of my comrades were killed just a few days after or before their marriage,” he recounted.
The war ended in 2006 but it took a few years for disillusionment to build with Prabes and in Thabang. Slowly, they began to believe that Dahal had sold them out and abandoned his revolutionary promises of inclusion, social justice, and land reform. In the first Constituent Assembly elections, all but three votes from Thabang went to the Maoists. But by the time the second Constituent Assembly elections came around in 2013, the village, now allied with Mohan Baidya -- who had split from Dahal’s party -- boycotted the election.
Again, when Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ broke away from Baidya in 2016 to reform the CPN (Maoist) and take up the revolutionary mantle, Prabes sided with Chand. Many senior Maoist leaders from Thabang, including Santosh Budhamagar, Samjhana Gharti Magar ‘Asina’, and Jaya Prakash Roka Magar ‘Pratap’, all chose to follow Chand. Santosh, an elected member of the first Constituent Assembly, now heads the Chand party’s parallel government -- the Revolutionary People’s Council.
A large mural of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao still adorns the entrance to Thabang but now, a new mural of Che Guevara has been added, maintained by the Chand party.
During the height of the insurgency, the Maoists came down heavily on anything that they believed were ‘social evils’. They smashed alcohol pots and forced gamblers to eat their cards.
“During the war, our party banned drinking, producing and selling raksi,” said Prabes. "This was mostly due to sensitive security concerns.”
But these rules only applied to the party rank-and-file and those who weren’t involved in the war efforts. Supreme commander Prachanda was known to take two pegs of raksi every day, but this knowledge was limited to high-ranking leaders and cadres.
Mal Bahadur Budhamagar, now known as Mahesh Arohi, wrote in his book, “The first time I saw the CM [chairman] smoking was at Upabang, Rolpa during an announcement for the PLA [People's Liberation Army]. Maoist combatants used to take action against anyone found smoking.”
Prabes was aware that Dahal and high-ranking leaders were drinking and smoking while restricting others from doing the same. But Maoist leaders were treated like gods back then, he said. Prabes was already beginning to see the hypocrisy behind the promises made by leaders like Dahal. Thabang was the heart of the Maoist movement but after the end of the war, the Maoist leadership forgot Thabang.
Dahal had promised villagers that Thabang was going to be the capital of Nepal. Midway through the peace process, he began to say it was going to be the capital of a separate Magarat province. Neither came to pass. It took 10 years after the end of the war for Thabang to even be connected to the national road network. In 2016, Shahid Marg, or Martyr’s Road, was built by former Maoist members through 11 districts, including Rolpa, that would’ve made up a long dreamt-of Magarat province. Thabang was once a three-day journey from Kathmandu but now, it takes 12 hours to drive to Libang, the district headquarters, and another seven to Thabang.
Now that everyone has all but abandoned the ideals of revolution, Prabes too feels that his time has come and gone. He has since left the Chand party and at 50 years of age, he is looking to make something of the time remaining. The Magar community has always brewed homemade liquor, a fact that Prabes knew when the Maoists were destroying bottles of alcohol. Now, he’s drawing on that same indigenous knowledge to launch his wine-making company. But he’s unsure whether he’ll be allowed to open up a factory in Thabang.
“Government policy is not for the common people; it is crony capitalists. All government processes are there to turn people into consumers, not producers,” said Prabes.
He had once put faith in the Maoist party and its promises to bring revolutionary political and economic change to society. The revolution was supposed to end all discrimination.
“I still feel proud of being part of the war and I am still hopeful that the flag that has now been discarded will be carried high once again," he said.
Prabes gave his youth, his family, and his love to the party and its war. He trusted in the Maoist party’s slogans of equality and social justice for all. He still believes in these ideals, but now, it appears he’s putting his faith in capital and the power of production.
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