How could one leader and his movement change power relations in a society dominated by conservative thinking and feudal traditions, a society where Dalits were unofficially barred from entering politics? This is the story of Kapileshwar Sardar, a Madhesi Dalit youth who battled against caste, class and regional discrimination to become a leader.

Goithi lies in the eastern part of Saptari district. Until recently it was a village development committee and now it is part of  Tirhut Village Council. During the Panchayat era, Goithi was part of Madhwapur Panchayat. In those days a few families from two caste groups controlled the politics of Saptari – the Jha families in the eastern part of the district and the Yadavs in the west. These families vied with each other in professing their loyalty to the Panchayat and gaining proximity to the monarchy. Among the Yadavs, the families of Satrudhan Singh and Bindeshwari Yadav were influential. Satrudhan Singh’s son Mrigendra Singh Yadav is currently a leader of Sadbhawana Party. Bindeshwari Yadav’s granddaughter-in-law Renu Yadav is a leader of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal. Both these Yadav families were from west Saptari and their influence was limited to that part of the district.

The Jha families were powerful in the eastern part. Nunu Jha, Bachha Jha and Jagadish Jha of eastern Saptari had clout in areas around Bhardaha. Goithi was thus known to be the Jhas’ stronghold.

Dalits make up one fourth of Saptari’s population. A large number of Dalits live in Goithi and surrounding areas. During the Panchayat era, Dalits could not even dream of joining politics. They used to work in the households of wealthy families and carry out orders of the local elites. People in Kapileshwar Sardar’s neighborhood did the same.

Kapileshwar’s house happened to be close to mine. It still is. We are of the same age. As children we played, roamed and went to school together. Even now when I go to the village, we spend hours reminiscing about the old days.

In those days families that didn’t have enough to eat sent their children to work as domestic helpers in the households of wealthy families. The employers were not obliged to pay them any salary. They were only expected to give them food. Like many other Dalit boys, my childhood friend Kapileshwar worked as a domestic help.

I belonged to a middle class family and finished school without interruption. I sometimes stayed at a boarding school. I passed the SLC without any problems. But this was not the case for my classmate Kapileshwar. He only passed the SLC three or four years after I did. For a long time he was the only person in his community to have passed the SLC.  By then he had worked as a domestic help in at least three households.

Throughout childhood Kapileshwar worked in exchange for three meals a day but no salary. When he reached adolescence, he began tutoring his employers’ children besides working in their fields. In return his employer provided him food and accommodation. The job gave him a higher status in the village. People started seeing him as a teacher rather than a domestic worker.

Theories of class do not seem to apply to village politics. Communist leaders never tire of analyzing class but their principles did not apply to my village. The man who owned a concrete house and the most land in our locality supported Nunu Jha throughout the Panchayat period. But immediately after democracy was restored in 1990, the same man ran for VDC chief representing the CPN-UML. At some point Kapileshwar had worked as a domestic help in this UML leader’s house. He tutored his children twice a day and helped him with farm work. Kapileshwar later became a Maoist but the former VDC chief from the UML is no longer associated with any political party.

After passing the SLC, I came to Janakpur and enrolled in intermediate-level science (ISc). During those days the UML did not have much influence in Janakpur.  Ram Chandra Jha and a few others were involved in minor political activities but that was about it. Later when I found out that Raghuvir Mahaseth (one of the richest people in Janakpur) was a local UML leader, I remembered the UML leader of my village who owned a concrete house. It was around 1990. Whenever there were disputes between the student wings of the Nepali Congress and the UML, the Congress was portrayed as a party of the rich and the UML as a party of the poor. The disconnect between the arguments I heard in my college and the reality I saw in my village confused me all the more.

I had almost completed my ISc when Kapileshwar passed his SLC exam. I came to Kathmandu to pursue a BSc. Kapileshwar went to Bajhang district with a surveyor from my village hoping to get a job. But even after trying for several years, he couldn’t get a job in Bajhang or in the nearby hill districts. Wearied out with the search, he returned to the village. I met him when I visited my village in 1992. I felt guilty for not being able to help him. He wanted to find a job in Kathmandu. We came together to the capital. He was desperately hoping to find a job as a surveyor, to no avail. He then tried to find a job as a mechanic, but failed. Sad and disheartened, he decided to return home a year later.

The writer and the subject.
The writer and the subject.

He stayed in the village for a few days and went straight to Ludhiana in Punjab, India. There he started working as a laborer. Later he told me he’d gone to Ludhiana after coming into contact with a Nepali diaspora association there. After some years, he returned to his village again. I had finished my BSc and enrolled in an engineering program at Pulchowk Engineering College. The CPN-Maoist (now CPN-Maoist Centre) had already launched their armed insurgency by this time. One could see how the Nepali diaspora association in Ludhiana had influenced Kapileshwar. He used words like bourgeoisie, feudalism, class discrimination and ethnic emancipation in casual conversations. Maybe the diaspora association had raised his awareness of class struggle. I think the difficult times he faced while growing up, his struggle in Bajhang and Kathmandu and the promises made by the initiators of the People’s War had gradually made Kapileshwar a Maoist. He was probably the first Maoist cadre from my village.

In the early days of the insurgency, the Maoist party held little sway in Saptari and other districts of the Madhes. As the party’s influence grew slowly, the police began to keep an eye on Kapileshwar. Soon he went underground. Around 2001/2002, he was arrested from Belha (Prasbani) village of Saptari. He was then taken to the Barmajhiya base camp of the Armed Police Force. The police would tie his legs and hang him upside down from a bamboo pole for hours on end. He received endless beatings. He still trembles when he recalls the torture he suffered at the hands of the police. He spent three years in prison and was released only after the peace process began.

When Kapileshwar was in jail, his family could barely make ends meet. In the beginning the party had given them some cash support to open a shop in the village. But a few months later, Kapileshwar’s political rivals in the village and the local police looted the shop. It became increasingly difficult for them to live in Goithi. They were forced to leave the village.

During the first Constituent Assembly (CA) election of 2008, the Maoist party listed Kapileshwar’s name as a candidate in the proportional representation category. Although the party won a large number of votes across the country, it didn’t do well in Saptari district and the Mithila region. The party did not select him as a CA member.

In his village Kapileshwar was known as an educated Dalit leader who had struggled a lot. But few leaders at the central level knew him. During his visits to Kathmandu, he always said he’d come to see a Maoist leader named Jamarkattel. He’d also met the CPN-Maoist chair Prachanda a few times. I imagine Prachanda might have met him in a group and not noticed him. As far as I could tell, not many at the centre knew Kapileshwar. In his village, though, he was seen as a big leader.

After the Maoists joined the peace process, local leaders from other parties joined the CPN-Maoist for two reasons. Those who were known as anti-Maoists during the conflict era joined the party for their own security and others did so in the hope of benefiting from the party in the future. Many local leaders of Goithi and nearby areas also joined the CPN-Maoist after talking to Kapileshwar.  Now, on the eve of the local elections, many local leaders are still joining the Maoist party. Those who had employed Kapileshwar as a domestic help in the past treat him as a leader today.

There was a time when politics in Goithi and the nearby villages was the sole prerogative of the Jhas of Madhavpur village, and Dalits like Kapileshwar could not even imagine joining politics. Today Kapileshwar has established himself as a leader in the same society.  No Panchaiti (village-level meeting of local leaders for settling disputes) is held without Kapileshwar’s presence and no issue in the village resolved without his positive intervention.

Kapileshwar had no complaints even when his party gave him no space in the first CA. He continued to work for the party. His party did not help him improve his financial situation. His daughter had passed the SLC exam and his son was studying in tenth grade. Despite his growing responsibilities, he had no source of income. This was causing tension within his family.

The second Constituent Assembly elections were held. During that time I stayed in my village for almost a month for personal work. The Maoist party chose candidates younger than Kapileshwar for the first-past-the-post (FPTP) seats. Kapileshwar was again listed as a PR candidate. This time he was very hopeful of becoming a CA member, so he worked day and night to ensure victory for Maoist candidates who were contesting elections under FPTP. During the election campaign his family cooked for 15–20 party cadres every day. His wife and daughter were tired of cooking. Luckily it was harvest time and the family could arrange enough rice to feed the party cadres.

The elections were held. The Maoist party won three seats in Saptari including Kapileshwar’s constituency. A grand victory rally was held in the district.  When it was time to select candidates for the PR seats, Kapileshwar contacted Jamarkattel in Kathmandu. He was repeatedly told not to worry. He even called me several times requesting me to build support for him. I had told Maoist leaders Giriraj Mani Pokharel and Bishwanath Sah and journalist Shubha Shankar Kandel, the people I knew, about Kapileshwar’s dedication and integrity. But this time too his efforts were in vain. He did not get selected under the PR system.

After some time, either because the prime minister was about to nominate 26 CA members, or for a different reason, the Maoist party had to choose a candidate for the CA.  One day Kapileshwar called me and told me about it. He asked me to lobby the party to select him.  I said to myself, “If I had the capacity to influence such decisions, I might have become a lawmaker myself. Why doesn’t my friend understand this?” Though I was aware of my lack of influence, I said, “sure, sure,” the way so-called smart people like me often respond to people like him.

A few days later Kapileshwar came to Kathmandu. This time he wore a coat. I had never seen him wearing a coat. His face glowed like never before. He seemed happy and optimistic. He repeatedly called CA members from his district and other leaders in Kathmandu asking to meet them. He met me again four days later, just before returning home. That day he looked utterly drained and hopeless. His coat was the same perhaps but the color appeared faded.  The clean shirt he had worn when he came to Kathmandu looked dirty. Perhaps he did not have a chance to shower. The man who appeared so spruced up on the first day looked unshaven and morose.

“All right, friend, please keep trying. Who knows if your effort will make me a CA member,” he said before he returned to Goithi. This was the second time Kathmandu had let him down. Two decades ago, too, Kapileshwar had arrived in Kathmandu full of enthusiasm and returned to his village empty handed. Back then he came with the hope of becoming a surveyor and this time with the hope of becoming a CA member. Even with my basic understanding of modern politics, I could guess his party would not select him, and my guess had come true.

I was astounded to learn that the Maoist party had recommended Lhyarkal Lama (a rich businessman with no political experience who became very controversial later) as a CA member and not Kapileshwar. I remembered the dreams sold by the Maoist party during the People’s War. Then I learned that CP Mainali (head of CPN-ML) had recommended Rajendra Khetan (a rich businessman) and CPN-UML had recommended Binod Chaudhary (another wealthy businessman) as lawmakers. This revealed the character of the communist movement in our country.

I immediately called Kapileshwar and informed him about the nominations. After I hung up I thought my friend would have been better off not coming to Kathmandu at all. For the city had twice broken his heart ­– the first time when he was unable to get a job and the second when he heard the name of the person his party had recommended as a new CA member.

Prachanda may still not know Kapileshwar, Kathmandu may have let Kapileshwar down time and again, but his position and that of others like him in Goithi and nearby villages has undergone total transformation. The war that his party launched in the past raised the consciousness of Dalits, and the problem of untouchability has decreased substantially even in far-flung villages like Goithi. People have started eating together at social events. Most importantly, Dalits’ access to politics has increased. Whether it is the panchaiti held every day in the villages or elections of the school management committee, the presence of Dalit representatives like Kapileshwar has became compulsory. This represents a tremendous change in the power relations in a traditionalist, feudal rural society. This indicates that people like Kapileshwar will certainly have a larger role in the future.

(This story was originally published in Nepali in Annapurna Post on 8 April 2017. It was translated into English by Shradha Ghale and Ram Kumar Kamat. All photos by Tula Narayan Shah.)