After they were demobilized in 2011, a group of combatants from the Maoist army’s sixth division moved to a village just north of the town of Kohalpur in Banke. Originally from Mugu, they selected the location because many immigrants from their district lived there. The former combatants built a cluster of houses on a small plot of land bought with the money they received when they left the Surkhet cantonment. The houses were far enough from the main village to form a discrete settlement of its own. The villagers called the settlement “Maobadi Tole.”
I visited the settlement with the writer Nabin Bibhas one afternoon a few years ago. Some young men and women sat on the front porch of one of the houses, chatting, feeding their children. Only one of the adults was not a former Maoist. Her name was Bhumi Taram. She had met her husband Surendra Shahi, a former PLA company commander, when he was living in the cantonment in Dashrathpur, Surkhet. They married, and suddenly she became part of a social world composed entirely of former Maoist fighters. She seemed outraged at the humiliation her community was subjected to in the village. “When we cross paths with villagers, they avoid our eyes and mutter ‘Maoist’ with disgust,” Taram said in a fiery voice that belied her small frame. “We are never invited to meetings of the Tol Sudhar Samiti or NGOs.” The villagers feared and resented the Maoists, she said. They imagined that these young men and women must have killed and looted during the conflict and were capable of doing so again. They begrudged them the 5 lakh rupees they had each received when they left the cantonments. To them, this was an unimaginably large and unjustified reward.
Taram’s vehemence seemed to have made her neighbour Shailendra BK somewhat uneasy. “It’s not completely the villagers’ fault that we are isolated,” he said. “We should’ve been able to take up leadership positions in the village. We wanted to form a local club, but we weren’t able to bring people together.” He complained that the party had not helped them at all and the local Maoist leader had stopped taking their phone calls. He seemed to share Taram’s feeling of hopelessness, if not her rage. “We aren’t educated,” he said, “so we can only get menial jobs. But we were PLA members for a long time, so we now feel ashamed to do such jobs. The villagers are happy to see us humiliated when we do such work for money. I’ve been to Gujarat and Shimla to pick apples and carry lumber. It’s better in India. No one knows who we are over there.”
Traveling across the western Tarai, I realized that hundreds of former combatants from hardscrabble hill districts like Mugu, Jumla and Jajarkot had settled in towns in the plains and along the east-west highway. After a detour through the Maoist movement, they had ended up on the same migratory route that generations had taken before them. Some of them had opened shops; others had gone to the Gulf or Malaysia for work. Many of them lived in precarious circumstances. They had severed their ties with their family and community when they pledged their lives to the armed movement. Although the conflict had ended over a decade ago, they had to endure the consequence of their decision every single day. They seemed to have reached a dead end, with few avenues to take them forward.
And yet for many, facing isolation and stigma in their new surroundings was preferable to what awaited them back home. A precipitous fall in status is easier to bear when one is among strangers. They would rather stay away than return with no possessions or foothold in life. Much better to avoid the pain of meeting their childhood friends, who once appeared so timid and ordinary, but had now become respected schoolteachers or employees of local NGOs. Their families did not long for their return – the ties that bound them had frayed beyond repair. The people they married while in the movement belonged to castes or ethnic groups very different from their own. They knew their parents would react with shock and anger when brought face-to-face with their spouses. Their neighbours would be hostile, remembering how the Maoists had beaten up “class enemies” and forced them out of the village.
And deep down the former Maoists could not help feeling an aversion for the humdrum rhythms of village life: the planting and harvest; the births, weddings, festivals and deaths. How could that compare to the intensity of battle, the fierce friendships forged underground, and the intoxicating feeling that justice was on their side and victory inevitable?
Maobadi Tole. Photos: Nabin Bibhas
Ajita Shahi, a former platoon commander, ran a small shop at a market that a group of former combatants had started in Bardiya. The market received barely any customers and Shahi was obviously struggling. Her husband, formerly a company commander, had gone to work in Malaysia and she was raising their child alone. I asked her whether she regretted joining the movement. She said, “No one ever feels that their life has gone to waste.”
I was struck by how firmly she brushed away my suggestion. But she was right. Absolute regret is rare. There must be few people in the world who would choose to erase an entire phase of their lives, no matter how difficult or unpleasant, and start all over again. What people live through makes them who they are. To feel absolute regret would be akin to wishing to become another person. Ajita Shahi, like many other former combatants, was struggling to make a living, but she had met her husband through the movement. She had become a mother of his child. Although disappointed at how the movement had ended, she was grateful for the exhilarating sense of freedom she at times experienced during the war.
Many of the former Maoists I met remembered the war as the most meaningful years of their lives. They saw the war as the period when they made the greatest contribution to society. Prem Bayak, whom I met in Kailali, was shot in the spine in battle and paralysed from the waist down. He was bitter that no Maoist leader had come to visit him or offer support. “I feel proud when I look back on everything I’ve done,” he said. “I’m proud of the battles I fought. I’m proud that I fought for the people.” Bayak did not believe that the failures of Nepal’s Maoist movement revealed any flaw in their ideology or the strategy of Protracted People’s War. Like many others who joined the movement, he continued to believe that their methods were necessary and their cause just.
If both the methods and the goal were correct, what then had gone wrong? The former Maoists I met usually answered this question by bringing up the theme of betrayal. “Our sacrifice wasn’t valued at all,” Ajita Shahi said. “Our leaders just used us to get to power.” I had read and heard numerous versions of Shahi’s comment over the years. Countless op-eds and social media posts by former Maoists had criticized their leadership for abandoning them. The complaints had become formulaic through repetition.
When they spoke of betrayal, one person in their minds stood as its very embodiment: their erstwhile chairman Prachanda. “There’s nobody I despise more than Prachanda,” said an ex-Maoist schoolteacher. They have seen his duplicity – for example, when he assured the cadre that the party was still on the path of revolution even as he negotiated the dissolution of the PLA with the other parties. They have heard numerous stories of his greed: of his secret deals with the businessman Ajay Sumargi, how he siphoned off large amounts of funds provided by the government for the upkeep of the cantonments. “Had I known what Prachanda was like,” Bayak said, “I might not have joined the movement at all.” Implicit in his statement was the conviction that the movement would have been successful had someone with greater integrity led it.
What were the major mistakes the party committed under Prachanda’s leadership? Listening to their answers, I realized that for most of them questions of policy were almost irrelevant. Some of them did mention that the Maoists could have pushed harder for their demands in the new constitution, like the one for a presidential mode of government, but such responses were half-hearted. Many of them seemed to think that participating in the constitution drafting process itself was a mistake. And indeed, the most ideological and committed Maoists, many of whom left the mother party to join one of the radical factions led by Kiran or Biplab, did not actively participate in the Constituent Assembly. The few who did, like Dev Gurung, were intransigent during negotiations and tried to obstruct the process. The rank-and-file combatants were excluded from the process from the beginning. They had always been uncomfortable that their leaders were making compromises with parties that they had been taught to regard as their enemies.
So, had the party’s biggest mistake been to lay down arms in 2006? However, the former combatants seemed hesitant to answer this question. The Maoists I spoke to recognized that an alliance with the parliamentary parties against the monarchy was necessary in the political situation at the time.
Although they did not frame it as such, I gradually got a sense of what the alienated Maoists saw as the crux of the problem: the peace agreements had led the Maoist leaders to abruptly abandon the organizational structures that had enabled the vast corps of cadre to exercise power and gave their lives meaning. The constitution was flawed not because of any of its provisions but because it signified a betrayal of the revolutionary promise: that the war would sweep away all obstacles and lead them to a realm of freedom and abundance. Maoists of all ranks had repeatedly pledged undying solidarity to each other and the movement during the war. Commander and foot soldier fought, slept and ate together and they believed that although the war would end, the community they had formed would remain intact forever. Nothing had prepared the ex-combatant for eviction from this community
Now that Prachanda’s faction has merged with the CPN-UML, it is the radical group led by Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ that can perhaps most credibly lay claim to the legacy of the Maoist movement. Having identified the source of rage and frustration among the rank-and-file, Biplab and his followers claimed that one of the biggest mistakes of their old leadership was to dismantle the Maoist people’s governments (jana sarkars), which controlled many rural areas during the war. The other mistake, they said, was to dissolve the PLA in exchange for the integration of an insignificant number of combatants into the Nepal Army. The parallel governments and the Maoist army had allowed the young Maoist foot-soldiers to exercise authority over the population, develop intense friendships with others in the movement, and believe that they were fighting for a cause that would reshape the nation. These two organs had allowed thousands of young women and men to experience the heady mixture of freedom, danger and responsibility that comes from participating in a large political struggle.
Whenever I’ve met members of the Biplab group, I’ve been struck by their distorted perception of reality and how besieged they appear. All of them seem to strongly believe in conspiracy. In their view, the ills that have befallen their movement were a result of manipulation by powerful and shadowy forces. In Kohalpur, one of them wondered aloud why his tight-knit community of believers had unraveled. “We all belonged to a single class and wanted to create a classless society,” he said. “But the capitalist class tried hard to divide us. That’s why when the PLA members left the cantonments, they were given different amounts of money according to their rank.” After a moment’s reflection, he added, “Perhaps India and America were responsible for creating classes within our movement.”
Another member of the Biplab faction in Lamki, Kailali sweepingly dismissed the constitution drafting process. “The constitution was the result of a grand Indian design,” he asserted. “The top political leaders hastily drafted the constitution and passed it immediately after they were summoned to Delhi for a meeting.” I was baffled by his confidence and how divorced his remark was, not just from reality, but also from the word on the street. At the time every other citizen of Pahadi background was complaining that India had imposed a border blockade because it was unhappy with the constitution. There hadn’t been such widespread anti-India sentiment probably since 2000, the year that riots erupted amid rumors about Hrithik Roshan’s derogatory comments about Nepal. How could Biplab’s supporter, a Pahadi man, not have known that there were better arguments that he could use to arouse popular anger towards both India and the parties in power?
The Biplab faction’s political tactics too seemed far from adequate. Unlike almost all other parties in the country, they have never sought to cultivate alliances with other groups with whom they share overlapping agendas. They haven’t even made an active effort to woo their former comrades who were previously in the Prachanda faction and are now in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Nor have they tried to exploit existing grievances. When the constitution was being drafted, they could, for example, have tried to gain the support of the Tharus in the western Tarai. After all, numerous Tharus had supported the Maoists during the conflict. But when Tharu groups rose up against the way the constitution carved out provinces, Biplab did not even try to articulate their grievances so that he could win them over to his side. “We stayed apart from the Tharu protests because we disagree with their methods and demands,” a member of the Biplab group told me. “All they want are amendments to the constitution. They have a very low level of political consciousness and do not understand that only a naya satta can solve their problems.” Two words I hadn’t heard in a long time, I thought. Naya satta – the hoary Maoist dream of the new dawn after the end of violence and bloodshed.
But then I wondered if my misgivings were beside the point. The Biplab group might lack allies or popular support, and their stated political goals might be vague. Their tactics of arson and enforced shutdowns might appear senseless or even suicidal. But perhaps none of this really matters. What the group actually wants perhaps is not the fulfillment of a grand political vision but simply a revival of their parallel governments and armed force. The fight for communism and a naya satta might just be a pretext for achieving this lesser goal. If their desire to recreate and nurture the old community of believers is an end in itself, then perhaps their disengagement from the world is a strength and not a weakness.
Deliberate isolation. The desire to forge an independent path to power. An almost messianic belief that they will eventually be able to ignite a massive conflagration. These elements allow them to keep alive the intensity and purity of their revolutionary faith. It seems unlikely, but who knows, over time these elements may well bring the poor and dispossessed masses flocking towards them.
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