Tuesday, January 4, 2011

From the Ivory Tower the Himalayas Cannot be Seen

Addressing academic depictions of Nepal's Maoists on the ground

by Noaman G. Ali / December 12, 2010, Kathmandu
Reporting for basicsnews.ca

Noaman Ali is the Assistant Editor / Vice Chairperson of BASICS Community News Service. This article was written directly from Nepal, on the second day of the 18th National Convention of the All Nepal National Independent Students' Union (Revolutionary).
"No, we do not accept that," says Prabha Kini, lecturer of sociology at Tribhuvan University. She is referring to an academic article that argues that the Nepali Congress and  Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) or, UML, relied upon the heavy-handed oppression of landlords to gain votes.
These two parties are considered to be the leading status quoist parties in Nepal, in opposition to the revolutionary Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

"Yes, this is true," say our Maoist student handlers -- one a student of law, another a student of agriculture and the third a student of public health. They are referring to an academic article that argues that cadres of the Maoists used force to prevent free campaigning of Congress and UML in certain districts.

The stark contrast in the reactions to academic articles on Maoists could not be more surprising.

I am in Nepal as one of many international observers of the 18th national convention of the All Nepal National Independent Students' Union (Revolutionary), or, ANNISU-R. This student union is associated with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). After a People's War that lasted from 1996 to 2006, the Maoists put down their arms, became a legal party and have since been attempting to further the revolution through establishing a new and more just constitution.

I have with me an academic book on the Maoist insurgency, from one of the most reputable scholarly presses in the world that I picked up from the University of Toronto's library the day before I left for Nepal. The Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Revolution in the twenty-first century is edited by Mahendra Lawoti and Anup K. Pahari, and published by Routledge. I figured I would test the reactions of various Nepalis to contentious arguments in the book's various articles.
By any account, Nepal is one of the poorest and most inequality-rife countries in the world. In an economy heavily reliant upon agriculture, control over land is a key factor in political power. Land ownership is highly concentrated, or at least, it was before the People's War -- its current state is a matter of confusion I hope to clear up. Feudal landlords exercised oppressive and exploitative control over dependent peasants, and Maoists have attempted to undermine the landlords.

Bourgeois academics

Kini, who obviously cannot stand the Maoists, argues that their interventions were completely unnecessary. "Congress also started land reform," she notes. Though, without noting that the previous government's land reform had gone nowhere.

"Maoists won't consider other views," she says. Like what? "Like caste movements, gender," they do not take these into consideration, focusing too much on class. I try not to scratch my head in utter confusion, as in the discussion we had held with these very academics all had to agree that it was the Maoists who were at the forefront of raising issues of caste and gender.

I ask her if it wasn't true that Maoists had even given back land they had seized earlier as a compromise with traditional parties. Does this not mean that they are willing to consider opposing views? Not really, she says, because the Maoists had not returned substantial amounts of land.

(The Maoists we speak to about this are all adamant that they only returned the land they did due to international and oppositional pressure.)

"Maoists are too dictatorial, they don't consider public opinion," says Bishnu Bandhari, previously a lecturer in social agriculture, and now involved in environmental conservation. "Communists are power hungry. They are only concerned with making their party strong, instead of the national interest."

For whatever reason, Bandhari fails to note that Maoists willingly resigned from government in 2009 when the supremacy of parliament was being challenged by status quoist parties who wanted to retain a hold over the military. Rather than taking over the country by force of arms, which they perhaps can do, the Maoists have been attempting to negotiate with opposition parties and persuade the unconvinced masses of their politics.

"Maoists opened our eyes to exploitation," Bandhari says. "But what is their delivery?" The Maoists may have brought issues to the public consciousness, but Bandhari argues that they cannot resolve them. Certainly not through what he considers their dictatorial practices.

"In fact," Bandhari declares, "Prachanda was a student of mine." Prachanda is the nom de guerre of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the leader of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

"I guess you didn't teach him well enough," I say to laughter.

"No!" Bandhari retorts, "He wanted to teach me!"

"We don't agree with armed struggle, with terror," says Kini. For her, the Maoists had recruited cadres and massive political support largely out of fear and coercion. Did the status quo parties not use fear and coercion? "No, they did not."

When I whip out the academic piece on how Congress and UML relied on oppressive landlords for their power base, she says, "No, we do not accept that."
Madhav Joshi's article argues that Congress and UML relied upon clientelistic ties with feudal landlords to gain votes. The landlords would force dependent peasants to vote for these parties, and in exchange the landlords would get favours from the party. When the Maoists removed the landlords from power, peasants could vote according to their class interests, and therefore overwhelmingly voted for the Maoists.

These academics we spoke to are critical defenders of the status quo parties. That is, they agree there are problems in Nepali society, but think they can be resolved in a liberal, capitalist democratic framework. They also cannot seem to accept that a plurality of Nepalese people genuinely support the Maoists.

In the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections, Maoists won half of the first-past-the-post seats, and won 38% of the popular vote, emerging as the largest party in the CA. They formed the government, but resigned in 2009. Since then, the Maoists have been pushing to complete a new democratic republican constitution to replace the constitutional monarchy of the 1990s.

Revolutionary students

Our meeting with these anti-Maoist professors was, ironically enough, organized by the ANNISU-R activists. "It is not easy to meet with the bourgeois leaders," says Suman, one of our ANNISU-R handlers, "So we have arranged this meeting with bourgeois professors."

If the Maoists are intent on us not considering opposing views, they are not doing a very good job of it.

I raise the article by Mahendra Lawoti, who argues that Maoists used force to prevent Congress and UML from campaigning who the Gorkha district. "Yes, this is true," says Suman. Lokendra and BJ also agree. Then, quickly, BJ says this was not true of the districts he is from. So I have Suman read the relevant sections of Lawoti's article.

The article, Suman argues, is only a surface-level analysis. "There is a difference between the appearance and the reality, the appearance and the essence." Suman knows his dialectical materialism. The article does not actually go to the root of the problem.

The problem is that the status quoist parties are known for distributing money in exchange for votes, "money mobilization." "In naked language," Suman says, "This is buying votes. Is it acceptable that someone should by the sovereignty of the people?" For this reason, cadres of the Young Communist League obstructed the free campaigning of the Congress and UML cadres.

"Violence is the surrogate mother of history," Suman quotes Marx.

What about Maoists opposing other views? "They say we want to take over the country and establish socialism. We openly say that, we intend to overrule them. There is no question about it."

The question is about how to proceed, and there is vigorous debate within the Maoist party about this. However, it was the Maoists who pushed for an end to monarchy and the beginning of democratic republicanism.

"When they say pluralism, they want each and every idea to be represented," Suman says. "But is it acceptable that in a republican democracy, monarchist parties are pushing for monarchy?"

Well, why not? In Canada, for instance, there are monarchist groups that want a return to monarchy. If they wanted to start a political party, no one would oppose them. But imagine someone attempting to start a monarchist political party in the aftermath of the American revolution against the British monarchy in 1776 -- and you start to get an idea of the situation in Nepal.

The monarchy is not a figurehead, but an actual force that commanded the military and ensured the oppressive and exploitative rule of feudal landlords. It required the Maoist People's War to put an end to some of the most exploitative practices, and an end to the monarchy – although there is much yet to be done.

"We want to restructure each and everything in society," socially, culturally, politically, economically and so on. The Maoists plan on taking power and establishing communism. There is no confusion over this.


Fundamentally, for Maoist students I am talking to now, it is a question of underdevelopment.

We discuss the frequent load-shedding blackouts in Kathmandu. "In India and Pakistan there is also frequent load-shedding," I note.

"In India and Pakistan if there is load-shedding, this is not a matter of shame for them. It is a matter of shame for us, as we have the second-largest potential for hydroelectric power in the world," Suman says, and his comrades agree. There is forty hours of load-shedding per week.

In fact, most buildings appear to have no provision for heating. It gets pretty cold here.

"Nepal's economy is not doing well," Bharat Pokharel tells us, sounding depressed, as if he is speaking of an ailing relative.

Pokharel is the Executive Director of the Center for Economic Development and Administration. He is also an advisor to the Maoist central committee, and was active in the finance ministry of Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai when the Maoists formed the government between 2008 and 2009. (Earlier, before we had met with the "bourgeois professors" we had met with "proletarian professors," also at Tribhuvan University.)

Although Nepal has the potential to generate over 80,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power, it currently generates under 800 MW. This is one of the many statistics told to us by Pokharel's younger colleague and comrade, Kahagendra Katuwal, a lecturer in economics and also secretary of the professors' union.
Per capita GDP, at $580, is the lowest in South Asia and one of the lowest in the world. The rate of unemployment is very high, and disguised unemployment even higher. About 20% of the GDP comes from remittances of unskilled labour in India, the Gulf, and other places. That said, Pokharel says, the Nepalese have one of the highest levels of social and political consciousness in the world.

For the Maoists, it is not economics that commands politics, but politics that commands economics. They want to build a self-sufficient and modern economy that can sustain the population, lift them out of poverty, and suppress inequality.

"With efficient management of our resources, foreign aid and capital will not be necessary," says Pokharel in response to a question from an observer from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Foreign capital comes with its own interests, and where it attempts to undermine Nepalese interests, it will be rejected.

Suman and the other students agree with this sentiment, likening foreign investment to worms that infect one's stomach. Only, there is no medicine for this parasite.

Pokharel outlines the three-pronged strategy outlined by the Maoist party for economic development: First, government involvement in industry. Second, cooperatives, largely in agriculture. Third, public-private partnerships (PPP).
The last point elicits a question from one of the Bangladeshi observers. In most of the world, PPPs are seen as a way for governments to privatize public goods.
Pokharel notes that in Nepal, they cannot jump straight to socialism but have to work through capitalists as well. The Maoists want to use private capital for certain projects, but ultimately the goal appears to be to socialize them, "We want to emphasize the public aspect."

Later, I speak to Lokendra, who studies agriculture. He hopes to get an MA in agriculture, and go back to his village in mid-western Nepal to establish agricultural industry. "We have a specialization in apples. With agricultural industry, we can produce cider, jam, dried apples, and so on."

Agricultural industrialization would produce jobs, and when the harvest is done the farmers can work in local industry rather than migrating elsewhere to supplement their livelihoods. The farming ought to be done collectively, so that irrigation and mechanization can be shared among various farmers, reducing conflicts that arise from land fragmentation and increasing economies of scale.
"One village, one product," Pokharel says. By having villages specialize in certain agricultural products, the Maoists want to have self-reliant exchange within the country.

During the People's War, the Maoists had to organize production collectively in order to produce dried fruits and meats for the People's Liberation Army, as well as to generate economic activities for the base areas. The exigencies of a People's War, however, are different from those of running a national economy. 

Nevertheless, many of the experiences of mass mobilization can be transposed to building this new economy.

But the Maoists had a very short period in government, and were unable to implement any of their plans, although they took some initial steps.

The question for the Maoists now, and the debates that are raging within the party at the moment, are about the immediate program to establish the basis for taking the power.


I spoke to Suman, BJ and Lokendra the most during dinner. As we ate, the lights went out again. Since backup generators power the emergency lights, this was hardly noticeable in the restaurant we were in. But we walked back to Tribhuvan University in pitch blackness, motorcycles and autos providing occassional illumination.

We waited outside the convention hall for the vans to take us back to the hotel. Suman began singing a beautiful Nepali revolutionary song for us, and many Nepali students joined him. There was then a bit of a circle that formed as we exchanged songs. I sang The Internationale in English, and many comrades sang along in their own languages. The Tamil comrades then sang two fantastic songs, one seemed to be their standard bearing song, and the other was an ode to Nepal.

Then some Nepali students whipped out their cell phones, which we were using for light any way, and started playing songs to which one student sang along and danced. Soon, one Tamil comrade jumped in and started dancing with him, as the rest sang along or clapped along. It didn't quite turn into a massive dance party, but that might happen just yet.

I have much yet to learn about Nepal, about its revolutionary party, and its politics. But I get the feeling that these students may be the ones who build a new Nepal from the ashes of the old, with their revolutionary theory, revolutionary practice and their revolutionary music. And with that, inspire change in South Asia and the world at large.

[December 12, 2010]

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