In 1969, a peasant uprising was attempted in Jhapa district in Nepal, bordering India. Among the communists plotting the uprising was a young man named KP Oli, who would go to jail for 14 years for his role and one day become Prime Minister.
A conflict between landowners and tenants began right after the land reforms program announced in 1964 by then King Mahendra. In fact, Mahendra had gone to Jhapa to make the announcement, and had distributed land ownership certificates to some tenants on the occasion. He wanted to develop Budhabare Village Panchayat in Jhapa as a model village.
The essence of the reform program was to set an upper ceiling for land ownership and establish tenant rights over land use, but the landowners did not honor the documents, which enraged the farmer-tenants. The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) channelized the farmer disappointment into a political uprising, known as the Jhapa Revolt.
The revolt was initiated by a district committee under the Koshi Provincial Committee of the CPN, through beheading of landlords, who the CPN viewed as the foundation of a regressive bourgeois regime. The Jhapa revolt was influenced by what was happening across the border in India.
In 1967, the Indian government launched a massive crackdown on the Naxalite movement. Naxalite leaders such as Kanu Sanyal, Charu Majumdar, Deepak Biswas, and Jangal Santhal used to take shelter in Jhapa, where Nepali communist leaders met them. The Jhapali rebels coordinated with Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist). One of the revolt’s goals was to seize rice and distribute it to farmers, and establish the rights of tenants.
The political resistance transformed into an armed insurgency in 1970. The party created armed squads in areas with high concentration of landless farmers. Each unit was supposed to create a guerrilla squad equipped with weapons, which would then collect firearms from landlords and security agencies.
The first victim was Butan Chaudhari, himself a farmer. He was perceived as a threat to the party because of his anti-communist ideology. After Chaudhari, various others were ambushed and murdered.
The Panchayat regime stepped up a search operation in the east after the murder of landlords. Police rounded up almost all the leaders, who were labeled “anti-national elements”, in a matter of one year. Five were arrested and later killed in a fake encounter in Sukhani forest bordering Jhapa and Ilam on March 4, 1973. Others were also killed or captured in various circumstances.
The rise of Oli
Political leaders were arrested and their parties were banned when Mahendra took over in 1960. Manamohan Adhikari, BP Koirala, and Ganesh Man Singh were released in 1968. “After jail life, they seemed to have lost the capacity and zeal to speak up against the autocratic regime. They were like gentlemanly opposition. Jhapa rebellion was the first ever political uprising during the Panchayat regime that shook the country awake,” said Narad Wagle, a former rebel, now history professor, and once cellmate of Oli.
“Jhapa rebellion was the first ever political uprising during the Panchayat regime that shook the country awake.”
The Jhapa district committee, under the Koshi Provincial Committee of the CPN, led the mobilizing of disgruntled tenants for an uprising. The CPN was divided and their Provincial Committee was non-functional, and it was the district committee that took initiative. The members of the district team were, among others, Mohan Chandra Adhikari, Madan Khapangi, Radha Krishna Mainali, Gopal Prasai, Ram Nath Dahal, and Chandra Prakash Mainali. Khadga Prasad Oli, current Prime Minister, was then a member of the Ilaka Committee, Charpane.
K.P. Oli, Mohan Chandra Adhikari and Ram Nath Dahal advocated organizational expansion and public mobilization to further the party. Oli argued that the murder of individuals would invite unnecessary repression, and hamper party growth and influence.
However, the majority of committee members supported armed struggle to achieve communism. The party decided to attack security agencies to collect arms to launch an insurgency. C.P. Mainali, R.K. Mainali, Naresh Kharel and Ghanendra Basnet were advocates of armed struggle. Mainali was Secretary at the time. After he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, K.P. Oli was appointed to the post.
The party continues to grow
By 1973, the Panchayat arrested almost all leaders except C.P. Mainali, who played a key role in bringing the party back from the brink. He founded the All Nepal Communist Revolutionary Coordination Committee (Marxist-Leninist), which was joined by small communist outfits to form CPN (Marxist-Leninist) in 1978. The party made Oli and R.K. Mainali were central committee members although they were in jail.
Oli and most of the other leaders were released by 1987. The Communist parties formed a left front to protest against the Panchayat. The front joined Nepali Congress in the 1990 people’s movement that brought down the Panchayat regime. Then in 1991, right before the elections, the CPN-ML unified with CPN (Marxist) led by Man Mohan Adhikari, to form the current CPN-UML.
The UML emerged as the second largest party in the election. Man Mohan Adhikari was elected parliament leader of the party. In the mid-term poll of 1994, the party formed a minority government under Man Mohan. Oli, aged 43, became Home Minister in the first ever communist government of the country, which lasted nine months. During its tenure, Man Mohan’s government brought a massively popular welfare scheme to provide old age allowance and the afno gaun aafai banau [make your own village] program under which money was sent directly to local governments.
By this stage, the party had adopted the people’s multiparty democracy proposed by late Madan Bhandari as their guiding ideology. It rejected the armed rebellion.
The party’s growth faltered, though temporarily. The UML split in 1998 over the Mahakali Treaty, perceived as an unequal water-sharing agreement with India. A faction led by Bamdev Gautam quit the party after the party majority favored the treaty. The dissenters argued that the treaty was a betrayal to the country; Nepal did not have a fair share of water and electricity produced by the integrated development of the Sarada Barrage, Tanakpur Barrage and Pancheshwar Project. However, till date, the project has not materialized.
Oli, then a central committee member, was the Coordinator of UML’s Mahakali Treaty Study Team. He played a key role in treaty endorsement in the parliament. His report stated that Nepal could earn a revenue of NPR 120 billion annually from the project, a controversial claim.
Of the members of the Jhapa Rebellion, Oli remained in the mother party and continued to climb his political career. R.K. Mainali’s career ended when the royalist government was ousted through Jana Andolan 2 in 2006, while C.P. Mainali started his own fringe party.
Oli is the only leader of the Jhapa Rebellion who has made it to the country’s top post.
In his first stint as Prime Minister in 2015, Oli declared five of his comrades in the Jhapa Revolt martyrs, 43 years after the incident.
The declaration came as a painful blow to the families of those killed during the rebellion. “How about those murdered by his comrades?” questioned Yubaraj Bimali, a local Congress leader in Jhapa. “I do not understand how the murderers are declared martyrs and the murdered get no recognition.”
Yubaraj’s father Bishnu Prasad Bimali, along with relative Ishwari Prasad Chudal, were bludgeoned to death on July 12, 1972. The rebels did not take the gold ring and NPR 10,000 from Bimali’s body. Yubaraj remembers the white shirt his father always wore. “His soul was clean. He was harmless,” he said. He had collected his father’s blood-bathed body on night of the murder.
The Bimali family had a longstanding land dispute with neighbor Ishwari Sangraula, one of those involved in the Jhapa revolt. Bishnu Prasad Bimali had gone to call the surveyor and the chief of the village committee to settle the dispute. Communist guerrillas had ambushed the group as they were making their way back to the house.
Bishnu Prasad Bimali had moved from Tehrathum to Jhapa, against the backdrop of mass migration and an armed struggle by the Nepali Congress. The Bimali family bought 60 bigha land in Jhapa in the early 50s. For the communists, this was proof that Bishnu was a feudal class enemy who had to be eliminated. “My father used to live in a tin-roofed house, but these leaders live in multi-storeyed cemented buildings. What is the definition of feudal?” asks Yubaraj Bimali.
The police killed the murderers of Bishnu Prasad Bimali in the jungle of Sukhani, without them being tried for murder and convicted. Decades later it earned them martyrdom. The Bimali family said they felt betrayed. Forty-five years have passed, and the UML has not confessed to its crimes. “We have no feeling for revenge. But they killed people and became ministers without ever having been tried, which has set a wrong political culture.” To add to that, R.K. Mainali, C.P. Mainali and Oli are relatives of Bimali.
Oli led CPN-UML won a landslide victory in the local, provincial and national elections after his party forged an electoral alliance with once arch-enemy CPN-Maoist Center and fielded common candidates for the polls. Oli, a vocal critic of the politics of violence, is set to merge his party with the Maoist Center.
“We were inspired by radical political ideology then.”
“We have to go back to the history to interpret it. The party has realized that the murder of the individual landlords was a major deviation of the movement. We were inspired by radical political ideology then. The action was taken to dismantle the foundation of bourgeois establishment to replace it with people’s regime,” said Wagle, who had himself been involved in guerilla action.
Wagle said he met the family he attacked and asked for forgiveness.
In Yubaraj’s case, the Mainali brothers met him and apologized. However, Oli is yet to face the family.
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