Friday, December 23, 2011

Nepal: The radicals in the Maoists

By Post Bahadur Basnet
December 2011

A political agreement signed on 1 November was finally supposed to allow former Maoist combatants in Nepal to move ahead with their lives. Instead, the response has been mostly anger and accusations of duplicity.

Bhaktaraj Thapa Magar, of the Maoist Third Division cantoned in Shaktikhor, in south-central Nepal, limps as he walks. He lost his left foot in surgery after being seriously injured during an aerial blitz by then-Royal Nepalese Army (now Nepal Army) at a Maoist rally in Thokarpa, east of Kathmandu, in March 2005. Now 29 years old, Thapa Magar is dejected – not because he lost one of his feet during the insurgency, but because he thinks he was cheated by the Maoist leadership, which promised a ‘heavenly’ communist state and instead seems to have left him and thousands others in the lurch. For him, those at the top echelons of the party have built their political careers at the cost of the grassroots cadres, ‘selling out to regressive forces’ and ‘betraying the promise of the revolution’. Says Thapa Magar: ‘Wallowing in the blood of 15,000 people, [the leaders] have finally achieved what they wanted, but left us nowhere.’

With a 1 November seven-point agreement on the nitty-gritty of the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, the ‘protracted people’s war’ launched by the Maoists in the spring of 1996 is formally coming to an end. Of course, theoretically, no party can claim to be embracing Maoist ideology without its army, one of the three ‘magical weapons’ for revolution. But leaving aside the promised revolution, what has angered the combatants most is the seven-point deal, which outlines the terms and conditions of the integration of a portion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a directorate of the Nepal Army for activities like industrial security and disaster relief. The ex-combatants have taken especially strong exception to their ‘disarmament’: First, each combatant is separated from his or her weapon; second, the combatants are being integrated on individual basis, not unit-wise; and third, the combatants will have non-combat roles. ‘How can you call the personnel at the directorate “soldiers”, as they won’t have guns in their hands?’ asks one Maoist commander. Indeed, it was the Nepal Army that proposed this model of integration.

The radical faction of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), led by Senior Vice-Chairman Mohan Baidya, is cashing in on the compromise made by UCPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’), telling excombatants how Dahal is deviating from the revolutionary path. Challenging Dahal, the radical faction has urged cadres to opt for voluntary retirement, not integration. ‘This is purely disarmament, not integration,’ Baidya has said. ‘It is humiliating for the party that evolved through a people’s war. So it is natural for the PLA personnel to choose voluntary retirement.’ This group has threatened to go back to the ‘protracted people’s war’ as a last resort if the party’s ideological goals cannot be fulfilled, perhaps through an armed urban insurrection, and worries that integrating combatants into the Nepal Army directorate would not be helpful for such an insurrection – hence, the call for voluntary retirement.

No future

Some provisions of the 1 November deal are objectionable to UCPN (Maoist) members close to Dahal, as well. The agreement states that the level of education at the time combatants joined the PLA will be taken into account during their recruitment into the Nepal Army directorate. This is a significant issue for the Maoists, as most combatants were still primary-level students at the time, including the top echelons of the PLA brass. Of the seven PLA division commanders, only three have even an intermediate-level education; of the 16 division vice-commanders, only three have attained their bachelor’s degree.

The commanders raised this issue during a mid-November meeting with Dahal, accusing him of betraying them. ‘You asked us to quit bourgeois education and devote ourselves to the causes of a promised egalitarian society. How can you now agree to such a proposal of the other political parties?’ a division commander from the Dahal faction, who did not want to be named, quoted himself as asking Dahal. The division commander accused the chairman of lying when Dahal retorted, ‘Who told you that I have made such an agreement? The education level you currently have will be taken into account during the integration process.’ The PLA commanders could not argue with their supreme commander but they remained unconvinced, for the sevenpoint agreement unambiguously states the opposite.

Similarly, combatants’ length of service is to be counted from the date of entry into the PLA. For this reason, a majority of them will be eligible to retire in a few years without making it to the higher positions in the Nepal Army hierarchy. Thus, Dahal, while argaining for a greater number of combatants to be integrated into the army – 6500 is now the agreed-upon number – failed to ensure a better future for his former fighters. He also failed to make separate arrangements for combatants who were disabled during the war, numbering more than 1000 as estimated by the Association of the Injured Fighters of the People’s War. ‘I don’t know how I will be able to take care of myself and my family – without a regular source of income I will soon be penniless,’ said Lal Bahadur Oli, 30, from the PLA’s Fifth Division, who was injured in March 2003 and later lost his vision completely. As a low-ranking combatant, Oli will get NPR 500,000 as a voluntary retirement package.

In fact, the integration-and-rehabilitation deal should have come as a relief for the combatants, most of whom have been languishing in two dozen cantonments under difficult conditions. Since the 1 November signing, however, the opposite has proved true: Some cadres find the process ‘humiliating’, while others see it as the final proof of a revolution betrayed.

A war already begun

While deciding to end the ‘protracted people’s war’, in 2006, Dahal had told his party’s cadres and combatants that they were only making a tactical shift; in closed-door meetings, the chairman had asked them to be ready for an armed urban insurrection. Senior party leaders close to Dahal accept in private that they had realised at the time they would never be able to seize state power through the insurgency and, after suffering mounting defeats in the field, they were compelled to quit the war. But it was not easy to convince the cadres many of whom had been indoctrinated to the level of believing that victory was inevitable and that it was a ‘crime against the people’ to lay down their arms before achieving the party’s ideological goals.

‘After initial success in creating “liberated zones”, the party leadership soon realised that Mao’s warfare tactics of encircling cities from villages was impossible in an age where global is more powerful than the local,’ says Raju Adhikari, at the UCPN (Maoist)’s central office. But the war had already begun, and the leadership was in no position to stop it so quickly. ‘So, there was no option other than to make lies – that they could still seize state power through the Russian model of an urban insurrection,’ Adhikari adds. While Chairman Dahal and Vice-Chairman Baburam Bhattarai (now prime minister) wanted to forget about the armed insurrection slowly and lead the party towards a plural society, the radical faction, led by Baidya, clung to the idea of urban revolt.

Over time, Dahal began to argue that the party had completed a ‘bourgeois revolution’ and that, after institutionalising this gain, the UCPN (Maoist) should be prepared for a socialist revolution. But Baidya argued that the party had achieved next to nothing, and thus the leadership needed to prepare to establish a ‘people’s democracy’ as per Mao Zedong’s vision. While Dahal wants the cadres to integrate into the masses, Baidya wants the PLA to keep up its militant character. ‘With such fundamental differences, the party cannot get along in a unified manner. There will soon be two Maoist parties with different ideological and political orientations,’ says Rosan Gautam, a Maoist cadre well-versed in Marxism.

Baidya is backed by UCPN (Maoist) General Secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa and has a sizeable following of the wartime party rank and file. With very little prospect of reconciliation, this faction now issues separate press statements, holds separate gatherings, and accuses Dahal and Bhattarai of ‘capitulating to regressive forces’. Says Indra Roka, company commander in the Fifth Division close to Baidya: ‘We strongly disagree with the whole spirit of the integration deal. So we opt for voluntary retirement, not integration.’ Roka believes that Dahal has ‘ditched’ the ideals of revolution and ‘betrayed’ the people. Such rhetoric is infectious. But Udaya Chalune, a vice-commander from the Third Division says, ‘What is happening now is absolutely against what we PLA personnel learned over the years. It is, indeed, betrayal to our dreams.’

Still, others close to Dahal and those among the more independent-minded Maoists argue that whatever has taken place following the 1 November agreement has been for the best. ‘The combatants were languishing in the cantonments under sub-human conditions and without any certainty of their future,’ says Rosan Gautam. ‘So this is like being released from jail. And it is wrong to argue that the party leadership has betrayed the people: it did what it could do.’

The decade-long insurgency was undoubtedly instrumental in transforming Nepal into a secular republic state, but there exist wildly differing opinions over the need for bloodshed to effect that change. Similarly, the Maoists are divided over their party’s ‘future course of revolution’. Baidya believes that his faction should take to the streets after forging an alliance with those who stand left of the political centre, patriots and ‘intellectuals’, and then attempt to unleash an urban insurrection. But it is yet to be seen how his faction will make its move. The future of peace in Nepal hinges on many factors today, including still-evolving identity politics; but few factors could be more central than how the Maoist radical faction decides to act.

~ Post Bahadur Basnet is a reporter for the Republica daily in Kathmandu.

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