|Photo credit: Eric Ribellarsi|
By Jim Weill and Eric Ribellarsi
We have arrived in Nepal, the center of a radical Maoist revolution. We stood here last year, when half a million Nepalis declared their hope and determination to make a revolution. There has been a double stalemate since then, both in the constituional assembly and within the Maoist party. Every aspect of political life is marked by the need to break out, push aside roadblocks, and take a leap.
This time, our journey begins during the heart of the monsoon rains. Every night, dark clouds roll in and shower the city, mopping up Kathmandu’s thick, throat-burning pollution. When the morning comes, the clouds are gone just as quickly as they came. These rains muddy the streets and green the sharply rising hills that surround the city.
The monsoon season is also a time when tourist traffic is low in Nepal. Life generally grinds to a halt. Because the roads are muddy, travel throughout the country is very difficult.
In Kathmandu, near the center of the city, we often cross a bridge with the slogan ‘Welcome to you in land of contrasts’. It’s not clear what the contrasts are: the contrasts between Buddhist and Hindu religious cultures? The contrasts between the world’s highest mountains to the north and the hot plains to the south? The contrast between the old, crumbling caste system and a new egalitarian future yet to be realized? But if our taxi had stopped right in the middle of the bridge, and sat idling, to avoid a hazard only known to the driver, it would be an apt metaphor for the political situation.
One of the workers at our hotel, Manoj, is eager to talk politics. “This is a transitional period,” he tells me. “If we do not move forward now, if we do not use this opportunity, the chance for socialism in Nepal may be lost for 50 or 100 years.” Despite the precarious nature of the situation, he is confident of a positive outcome.
The cause of this anxiety is a political struggle within Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN[M]), the largest political party in the country. This is no ordinary ideological struggle, because it concentrates the debates of the whole society. Is the consolidation of a corrupt and conservative Indian-style parliamentary system, with capitalism at its core, the best that is possible for this time? Or is it possible to press forward on an insurrectionary road to a federated people’s republic in transition to socialism?
Between 1996 and 2006, the party waged a people’s war, that is, a guerrilla war based among peasant people at the grassroots, before driving out the hated king of Nepal. They then won their demand of a constituent assembly, a revolutionary democratic body with proportional representation of women, ethnic minorities, and oppressed castes. This body is charged with developing a new Nepal, drafting a new constitution to give that new society shape, and dissolving the old government.
Our newly arrived reporting team has already met with a few leaders of Nepal’s revolutionary peasant movement.
One peasant leader shared with us the stories of intense debate taking place over revolutionary land reform within the country’s constituent assembly. The other parties (The UML and the Nepali Congress, the former a status quo-ist party and the later a proponent of corrupt Indian style capitalism) have fiercely opposed revolutionary land reform This revolutionary land reform would include confiscation of large land holdings by a wealthy upper class, distribution of land to those who work that land, and the development of radical forms of collective work among the peasants – pooling their labor to make it possible to build schools, roads, irrigation and sanitation.
The other parties have threatened to quit the peace process, with even continuing rumors of an Indonesia-style military coup. They have disrupted the constituent assembly process, demanded “consensus” in the constituent assembly, claimed the people’s revolutionary aspirations to be devise, and created a stalemate. This has brought the people’s hopes for revolutionary transformation within the Constituent Assembly to a stand-still. And for this reason, he says, the people of Nepal will be ready for a new period of revolt.
August 31 is a key date, the deadline for Nepal’s parties to draft a constitution. As the date approaches, it seems less and less likely the process will be completed. People already tell us they know is it impossible. Another leader tells us that the other parties “want to take the whole Maoist party and drown them” in the “swamp” of the peace process. If that doesn’t work, he says, they may use force. After the end of August, “anything can happen,” he says.
The internal struggle over direction and goals that is commonly referred to as “line struggle” among the Maoists has become more public over the past several months. The mainstream press is wantonly fueling speculation and intrigue, commenting on the personal motives of this or that leader, and generally muddying the real political content of the situation.
We meet another young radical, Gopal, at a small eatery and share bottles of Nepali beer called Everest and a plate of spicy aloo (potatoes). “There will be big news in August,” he tells us. But what that news will be remains unknown. He speculates that perhaps the Maoist party will come to an agreement about their plans and road forward.
Or, he speculates, if they remain divided, right-wing parties may try to take advantage of the situation with a military coup d’etat, or even the re-introduce the widely-hated King Gyanendra, the monarch who was stripped of his powers in 2008. And, unfortunately, we have heard support for those kinds of plans from small (but real) minority here.
Gyanendra has been reduced to an idle, semi-public figure, fodder for conservative newspaper photo-ops. His return would be disastrous for economic and social justice in Nepal. It would mean a return to open caste-violence and suppression, censorship, political suppression, and the bitter suppression of Nepal’s oppressed ethnic minorities. It would also mean an end to hopes of land reform – and the transformation of Nepal’s impoverished rural areas into spaces where equitable and sustainable agriculture can flourish.
We are shocked when Gopal tells us that he is a member of UCPN(M), but hasn’t been given a directive from the party in months. This, he says, is because the line struggle has become the main focus of the Maoists. Party websites are not being updated, and we have heard the 2011 edition of The Worker is not currently being produced.
Maoist propaganda is still everywhere, but what we see is dated. The feeling is very different from what it was during our previous trip last year when the party was clearly on the offensive and where there was a sense that active insurrectionary preparations were being made.
Nepal’s revolution is clearly at a critical cross-road over how to go forward – or, more precisely whether to go forward to a radical New Nepal.
The three primary leaders of the UCPN(M) each have their loyal partisans. When we were here last year party cadre would rarely self-identify with a specific leader of the party. Now it seems almost everyone has an alignment as part of one of the party’s factions, and in some ways it is refreshing that the people here treat these line differences openly. It is refreshing because this very real conflict is finally emerging center stage for resolution, and because so many people are openly and actively fighting for a new revolutionary leap.
The debates are deeply nuanced, with different leaders of the UCPN(M) each representing different views and roads of the society as a whole. But while the party is fractured into opposing camps, it has not actually broken into different organizations, and we have yet to hear a single person from any camp who wants to see a split. “It would be a catastrophe,” a friend from the hotel says. One Nepali Maoist has described the question of armies as a dividing line question among the Maoists, but at the same time is enthusiastic that the line struggle will soon be resolved.
Difficult as this period is, it is part of the complex process of making a revolution. It is no easy task to completely transform a nation and a society, one with deeply entrenched hierarchies of caste, ethnicity and gender. Revolutions are never linear things, but processes always beset by unforeseen contradictions, and often frustrate the predictive abilities of everyone involved.
In between the intense bursts of monsoon rains, the noise of public conversations, street vendors, incessant honking – a courtesy here –continues. So does the widespread desire for revolution. So does the longing for freedom from foreign domination, patriarchy, ethnic oppression, and caste oppression. Small hatchbacks and motorcycles still speed and swerve around one another through the streets, a chaotic traffic dance that makes US freeways seem quaint. And the whole people of Nepali are on edge, debating the future of their society, and it is hard to know as outsiders just which ways the wind is blowing.