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In Bloom: Nepal’s Republic

Tej Nagaraja
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

Earlier this year, the ruling Shah Dynasty in Nepal finally fell, coming up a decade short of a quarter-millennium reign. Nepalis' recent parallel struggles for democracy and communism have come to an uneasy confluence this summer:  despite backing from India, China, the UK and the US, the Hindu monarchy has surrendered state power to a Maoist-helmed electoral republic. Twenty-first century socialism, anyone?

Despite having a population approaching 30 million (like Iraq, Peru, and Venezuela), Nepal is dwarfed on the world stage by its neighbors: India, Tibet, and China. Once best known as the home of Siddhartha Gautama, Himalayan Everest and its summiteer Tenzing Norgay, and the British Army's Gurkha brigade - and as a mecca for hippies and those seeking the literary utopia Shangri-La - the world took notice of Nepal in a different way when the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist, or CPN-M), armed with antique rifles and 40 demands, ignited their revolutionary People's War in 1996. Winning support and participation from poor and oppressed rural peasants, in an offensive marked by audacious ambushes of police stations, the Maoists ultimately won near-total control of Nepal's countryside in less than a decade - leaving the king little more than the mayorship of Kathmandu. After a palace massacre intrigue in 2001, the Royal Army joined the police in its campaign of disappearances, rape, and torture against actual and claimed Maoist supporters, bolstered by Bush's new global "war on terror" matrix.

As reported in LT #21, after king Gyanendra declared martial law in 2005, his twin enemies united. The communist Maoists and democratic Seven Party Alliance led a mass mobilization - marked by bandhs (no-business-as-usual shutdown strikes) - that undermined the monarchy's legitimacy for good and forced a transitional process within a year. From April to August, 2008, the Maoists won an overwhelming plurality in the elections for a Constituents' Assembly (a body charged with drafting a new constitution), abolishing the monarchy in favor of a republic. Chairman Prachanda (a nom de guerre meaning "fierce one") was chosen Prime Minister.

The US ambassador met with Prachanda in May, and the embassy in Kathmandu sent congratulations upon his August election, though CPN-M remains on the US State Department's "terrorist exclusion" list (but not its "foreign terrorist organizations" list). Jimmy Carter, who supervised the election and also met with Prachanda, called for direct US engagement with CPN-M, while the Bush Administration had sent M-16s and military advisers to prop up the monarchy. It's certain that the US will keep watch, though for now, the global policeman will probably rely on India to be much more scared, and serve as the bad cop on the beat.

Nepal has been in India's shadow since the days of the Raj, and India's state is most uneasy about the current Maoist ascendancy, having sent rifles and other support to defend the monarchy. With low-intensity nationalist-separatist or revolutionary-communist wars simmering or blazing in most of its 28 states, India's political class has enough trouble on their hands as it is. More than Mao's China or Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, Prachanda and his followers' chief inspiration was India's Maoist movement, the Naxalites, born in the village of Naxalbari in 1967 and rejuvenated in the 1990s.

In 2006, Prime Minister Singh called Naxalism "the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country." As resistance grows to India's neoliberal Special Economic Zones, and tens of thousands of farmers crushed by debt commit suicide (the state of Andhra Pradesh is a leader in suicides as well as Naxalite activity), India's political class has good reason to fear that Nepal's Maoists might further ignite India's revolutionary sentiment, by collaboration or by example.

What kind of change will this turn out to be for Nepal?

Though certainly steeped in a stale, mixed-bag of Leninist orthodoxy, which dominates and informs Maoists worldwide, these Maobadi (Maoists, in Nepali) have shown flexibility in both line and sensibility - alienating the support of some Maoists in other countries. Without (yet) fully embracing a revisionist road by abandoning socialist revolution in favor of capitalist reform, they have, unusually, embraced participation in a multi-party, multi-tendency state. While sticking to the "Prachanda Path" officially, the party publicly aired a dispute between the leader and politburo member Baburam Bhattarai in 2005 over questions of centralization and leadership. Both the substance of the debate and its publicity indicate an openness that offers a counterweight to the pull of an unchecked cult-of-personality or tendencies towards Stalinism, historically found in other Maoist groups.

A couple of immediate issues that face the Maoists should be followed as tests of their approach and our sympathy. First, Nepal is a fragile amalgam of scores of ethnic peoples across the hills, mountains, and plains. In the Terai plains of the south, forces among the marginalized Madhesi people demand greater autonomy. Madhesi groups' allegiances and alliances cut different ways - last year, one group massacred another Maoist-supporting one in the town of Gaur, inviting comparison to Washington's allies in Nicaragua two decades ago. A supportive response from the new government to legitimate claims and forces for self-determination will prove vital for healthy political survival on both sides.

A second consideration - though we must resist the desire to impose a US lens onto Nepali cultural identity and political priorities - is the situation of sexual and gender minorities. News agencies have reported incidents of Maoist persecution of individuals deemed homosexual, and quoted one CPN-M leader as calling homosexuality a "product of capitalism." As with questions of political violence, Madhesi incidents, etc, these reports may be colored by anti-Maoist opportunism, while simultaneously having truth - contradictorily if not monolithically. This year, CPN-M included sexual minorities' rights in its election manifesto. The LGBT organization Blue Diamond Society held its first public demonstration in 2004, and helped win "both" as the gender on a meti's (third-gender person, like India's hijras) citizenship card last year. The society's gay founder Sunil Pant has reported positive rapport with the Maoists recently - he'll join them in the assembly as a member of another communist party (eight metis also ran for office). Blue Diamond Society held a national consultation in May to prepare its demands for the constitution and legislative agenda.

The Maoists have identified this as a capitalist revolution against feudalism, in alliance with bourgeois forces - many of whom are concerned with winning uninterrupted cell phone service, not peasant women's liberation, and would be happy to betray the masses who elevated them. The kingdom has given way to a republic, falling short of the people's republic the 1996 war was gunning for. CPN-M's long-term strategy will reveal itself in word and deed in the coming years; for now, Prachanda's rhetoric is conciliatory towards domestic capitalists and powerful foreign states. The trajectory and aspirations of Nepal's mobilized masses and marginalized - Maoist and otherwise - emerging from a decade of revolutionary war and three years of vibrant civil resistance, will reveal itself too.

Other than the new constitution, the defining political issues for Nepalis now are the same as those faced by all of the two-thirds of humanity that live in Asia:  the decades-long life-or-death need for radical land reform, and the current moment's life-or-death twin crises of food & fuel. Some journalists noted the country's economic despair four years ago when twelve Nepalis were massacred in Iraq - humble guest workers desperate for cash.

Two intersecting struggles that perhaps most define South Asia are [in the Marxist lexicon] the woman question and the jati (caste) question - any course of radical social transformation must centralize these. From the jump, the Maobadi have been remarkable for the participation, leadership, and empowerment of women at every level - military and political, local and national - in a country where women's mobility and destiny is overwhelmingly repressed by the imprisonment and slavery that is religious and family oppression. Most girls are married off in their teens or younger; tens of thousands of them are trafficked for coercive sex work into India, with almost certain HIV infection and little hope for self-determination.

As in India, every single sphere of social intercourse in Nepal is defined by caste, with Brahmins of the hills (and other upper-caste Hindus) most privileged, and Dalits most oppressed. The Maoists have re-asserted their commitment to obliterating the caste system in theory and practice. Outside of caste but closely-related, the relationship of the new state to marginalized Janajati (indigenous) peoples - roughly correlated with India's Adivasi tribals such as the Tharu - will test both the degree of commitment to radical transformation as well as the character of that transformation from the center.

The Maobadi's autonomous "people's government" - reflecting what Lenin called dual power - of the past decade (already weakened by recent compromises), and the new state in the coming years, might prove the most significant experience of radical anticapitalist governance outside Latin America in a while. The recent past invites further investigation; the near future remains unwritten.

That an urgent people's movement rooted in the culture of this isolated country can irreverently oust a king they're raised to believe is a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, so that they no longer sing "May Glory Crown Our Illustrious Sovereign," but rather, an anthem that celebrates diversity and progress, "We Are Hundreds of Flowers" is a remarkable, historic achievement on the world stage. Others too might be inspired and challenged to upset their fossilized dogma and superstition, be it a simplistic anti-authoritarianism or Marxism-Leninism, in the humble and fierce quest for twenty-first century liberation.