The ‘People’s War’

Pankaj Mishra reports from Nepal

In Kathmandu this March, I met a Nepalese businessman who said he knew what had provoked Crown Prince Dipendra, supposed incarnation of Vishnu and former pupil at Eton, to mass murder. On the night of 1 June 2001, Dipendra appeared in the drawing-room of the royal palace in Kathmandu, dressed in combat fatigues, apparently out of it on Famous Grouse and hashish, and armed with assault rifles and pistols. In a few frenzied minutes, he killed his parents, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, a brother, a sister and five other relatives before putting a pistol to his head. Anointed king as he lay unconscious in hospital, he died two days later, passing his title to his uncle Gyanendra.

Dipendra’s obsession with guns at Eton, where he was admired by Lord Camoys as a ‘damn good shot’, his heavy drinking, which attracted the malice of the Sun, his addiction to hashish and his fondness for the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger – all this outlines a philistinism, and a potential for violence, commonplace among scions of Third World dynasties (Suharto, Nehru-Gandhi, Bhutto). And it is not so hard to believe the semi-official explanation for his actions: that his parents disapproved of his fiancée. However, the businessman, who claimed to know the royal family, had a more elaborate and intriguing theory.

We sat in a rooftop café in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist centre, a few hundred feet from the royal palace. March, the businessman said, was a good season for tourists in Nepal. ‘But look,’ he continued, pointing to the alleys below us, where the bookshops, trekking agencies, cybercafés, bakeries, malls and restaurants were empty. In recent years, the tourist industry has been damaged by news in the international press about the Maoist guerrillas, who model themselves on the Shining Path in Peru, and whose ‘people’s war’ has claimed more than 11,000 lives since 1996. Even fewer tourists have ventured to Nepal since 1 February this year, when King Gyanendra, citing the threat presented by the Maoists, grounded all flights, cut off phone and internet lines, arrested opposition politicians and imposed censorship on the media.

A portly man wearing a cotton tunic, tight trousers and a cloth cap, the businessman had the prejudices of his class, the tiny minority of affluent Nepalese whose wealth comes largely from tourism and foreign aid; and that morning – the spring sun growing warm and burning off the smog over the Kathmandu Valley; the vendors of carpets, Gurkha knives, pirate DVDs and Tibetan prayer flags sullenly eyeing a stray tourist in tie-dye clothes – he aired them freely.

He said that Maoists had bombed the private school he sent his children to; he worried that his servants might join the guerrillas, who controlled 80 per cent of the countryside and were growing strong in the Kathmandu Valley. He said that he was all for democracy – he had been among the protesters demanding a new constitution in the spring of 1990 – but peace and stability were more important. What the country needed now, he declared, was a strong and principled ruler, someone who could crush the Maoists. He said that he missed Dipendra: he was the man Nepal needed at this hour of crisis.

According to him, Dipendra’s three years as a schoolboy in Britain had radicalised him. Just as Pandit Nehru had discovered the poverty of India after his stints at Harrow and Cambridge, so Dipendra had developed a new political awareness in England. He had begun to look, with mounting horror and concern, at his homeland. Returning to Nepal, he had realised that it would take more than tourism to create a strong middle class, accelerate economic growth, build democratic institutions and lift the ninth poorest country in the world to the ranks of modern democratic nations. As it turned out, he had been thwarted at every step by conservative elements in the royal palace. He had watched multi-party democracy, introduced in 1991, grow corrupt and feeble while enriching an elite of politicians and bureaucrats; equally helplessly, he had watched the new rulers of Nepal fail to tackle the Maoists. Frustration in politics rather than love, the businessman claimed, had driven Dipendra to alcohol, drugs, guns and, finally, to regicide.

It’s often hard to know what to believe in Nepal, the only Hindu kingdom in the world, where conspiracy and rumour have long fuelled a particularly secretive kind of court politics. Independent newspapers and magazines have been widely available only since 1990, and though intellectually lively, the press has little influence over a largely illiterate population easily swayed by rumour. In December 2000, news that a Bollywood actor had insulted Nepal incited riots and attacks on Indians and Indian-owned shops across the country. Little is known about Dipendra, apart from his time at Eton, where his fellow pupils nicknamed him ‘Dippy’. There is even greater mystery surrounding Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or Prachanda, the middle-aged, articulate leader of the Maoists, who has been in hiding for the last two decades.

King Gyanendra appeared on national television to blame the palace massacre on a ‘sudden discharge by an automatic weapon’. A popular conspiracy theory, in turn, blamed it on the new king himself, who was allegedly involved in smuggling artefacts out of Nepal, and on his son, Paras, much disliked in Nepal for his habit of brandishing guns in public and dangerous driving – he has run over at least three people in recent years, killing one. More confusingly, the Maoists claimed that they had an ‘undeclared working unity’ with King Birendra, and accused Gyanendra, and Indian and American imperialists, of his murder.

This atmosphere of secrecy and intrigue seems to have grown murkier since February, when Gyanendra adopted the Bush administration’s rhetoric about ‘terrorism’ and assumed supreme power. Flights to Nepal were resumed after only a few days, and the king claimed to have lifted the emergency on 30 April, but most civil rights are still suspended today. When I arrived in Kathmandu, fear hung heavy over the street crossings, where soldiers peeped out from behind machine-gun emplacements. Men in ill-fitting Western suits, with the furtive manner of inept spies, lurked in the lobby of my hotel. Journalists spoke of threatening phone calls from senior army officers who tended to finger as Maoists anyone who didn’t support the king. Many of the people I wanted to meet turned out to be in prison or in exile. Appointments with underground activists, arduously made, were cancelled at the last minute, or people simply didn’t turn up.

Sitting in her gloomy office, a human rights activist described the routine torture and extra-judicial killing of suspected Maoists, which had risen to a startling average of eight a day. Nothing was known about the more than 1200 people the army had taken from their homes since the beginning of the ‘people’s war’ – the highest number of unexplained disappearances in the world. She spoke of the ‘massive impunity’ enjoyed by the army, which was accountable only to the king. She claimed that the governments of India, the US and the UK had failed to understand the root causes of the Maoist phenomenon and had decided, out of fear and ignorance, to supply weapons to the Royal National Army: 20,000 M-16 rifles from the US, 20,000 rifles from India, helicopters from the UK.

She said that the ‘international community’ had chosen the wrong side in a conflict that in any case was not likely to be resolved by violence. Though recently expanded, and mobilised against the Maoists in 2001, the army was no more than 85,000 strong, and could not hold the countryside, where, among the high mountains, ravines and rivers – almost perfect terrain for guerrillas – it faced a formidable enemy.

She spoke with something close to despair. Much of her work – particularly risky at present – depended on international support. But few people outside Nepal cared or knew enough about its human rights record, and the proof lay in her office, which was austerely furnished, with none of the emblems of Western philanthropy – new computers, armed guards, shiny four-wheel drives in the parking lot – that I had seen in December in Afghanistan.

‘People are passing their days here,’ she said as I left her office, and the remark, puzzling at first, became clearer as I spent more time in Kathmandu. In the streets where all demonstrations were banned, and any protest was quickly quashed by the police, a bizarre feeling of normality prevailed, best symbolised by the vibrant billboards advertising mobile phones (banned since 1 February). Adverts in which companies affirmed faith in King Gyanendra appeared daily in the heavily censored newspapers, alongside news of Maoist bombings of police stations, unverified reports of rifts between Maoist leaders, promotional articles about Mercedes Benz cars and Tag Heuer watches, and reports of parties and fashion shows and concerts in Kathmandu.

Thamel opened for business every day, but its alleys remained empty of tourists. Months of Maoist-enforced blockades and strikes were also beginning to scare away the few foreign investors who had been deceived by the affluence of Kathmandu into thinking that Nepal was a big market for luxury consumer goods. Interviewed in a local newspaper, a Dutch investor described the Nepalese as an ‘extremely corrupt, greedy, triple-faced, myopic, slow, inexperienced and uneducated people’, and declared that he was taking his hair-replacement business to Latvia. Western diplomats and United Nations officials – darting in their SUVs from one walled compound to another – speculated about a possible assault on the capital by guerrillas.

But it is the middle-class Nepalese, denounced by the Maoists as ‘comprador capitalists’, who appear to live most precariously, their hopes and anxieties echoed in the newspapers by royalist journalists who affirm daily that Nepal needs a strong ruler and Gyanendra is best placed to defend the country, by means of a spell of autocratic rule, from both Maoist ‘terrorists’ and corrupt politicians.

Often while listening to them, I would remember the businessman I had met in Thamel and what he had told me about Dipendra; and I would wonder how the crown prince, if he had indeed been sensitised to social and economic distress during his three years in Thatcher’s England, had seen his strange inheritance, a country where almost half of the 26 million people earned less than $100 a year and had no access to electricity, running water or sanitation; a country whose small economy, parasitic on foreign aid and tourism, had to be boosted by the remittances of Nepalese workers abroad, and where political forces seen as anachronisms elsewhere – monarchy and Communism – fought for supremacy.

Histories of South Asia rarely describe Nepal, except as a recipient of religions and ideologies – Buddhism, Hinduism, Communism – from India; even today, the country’s 60 ethnic and caste communities are regarded as little more than a picturesque backdrop to some of the world’s highest mountains. This is partly because Western imperialists overlooked Nepal when they radically remade Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.[*]

While a British-educated middle class emerged in India and began to aspire to self-rule, Nepal remained a country of peasants, nomads and traders, controlled by a few clans and families. Previously dependent on China, its high-caste Hindu ruling class courted the British as they expanded across India in the 19th century. As in the so-called princely states of India, the British were keen to support despotic regimes in Nepal, and even reward them with territory; it was one way of staving off potentially destabilising change in a strategically important buffer state to Tibet and China. The country was also a source of cheap mercenaries. Tens of thousands of soldiers recruited by the British from the western hills of Nepal fought during the Indian Mutiny, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and in the two world wars. The Gurkhas also helped the British suppress political dissenters in India, and then, more violently, Communist anti-colonialists in Malaya in the 1950s.

As the movement for political independence grew in India, Nepal came to be even more strongly controlled by Hindu kings and the elites they created by giving land grants to members of the high castes, Bahun and Chhetri, which make up less than 30 per cent of the population. The end of the British Empire in Asia didn’t lead to rapid change in Nepal, or end its status as a client state. Indian-made goods flooded Nepalese markets, stifling local industry and deepening the country’s dependence on India. In the 1950s and 1960s, as the Cold War intensified, Nepal was the forward base of the CIA’s operations against China.

American economists and advisers trying to make the world safe for capitalism came to Nepal with plans for ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ – then seen as strong defences against the growth of Communism in poor countries. In the Rapti valley, west of Kathmandu, where, ironically, the Maoists found their first loyal supporters in the 1990s, the US government spent about $50 million ‘improving household food production and consumption, improving income-generating opportunities for poor farmers, landless labourers, occupational castes and women’.

Modernisation and development, as defined by Western experts during the Cold War, were always compatible with, and often best expedited by, despotic rule. Few among the so-called international community protested when, after a brief experiment with parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, King Mahendra, Dipendra’s grandfather, banned all political parties. A new constitution in 1962 instituted a partyless ‘Panchayat’ system of ‘guided democracy’ in which advisers chosen or controlled by the king rubber-stamped his decisions. The representatives of the Panchayat, largely from the upper castes, helped themselves to the foreign aid that made up most of the state budget, and did little to alleviate poverty in rural areas. The king also declared Nepal a Hindu state and sought to impose on its ethnic and linguistic communities a new national identity by promoting the Nepali language.

Such hectic nation-building could have lulled Nepal’s many ethnic and linguistic communities into a patriotic daze had the project of modernisation and development not failed, or benefited so exclusively and egregiously an already privileged elite. During the years of autocratic rule (1962-90), a few roads were built in the countryside, infant mortality was halved, and the literacy rate went up from 5 per cent in 1952 to 40 per cent in 1991. But Nepal’s population also grew rapidly, further increasing pressure on the country’s scarce arable land; and the gap between the city and the countryside widened fast.

What leads the sensitive prince to drugs and alcohol often forces the pauper to migrate. Millions of Nepalese have swelled the armies of cheap mobile labour that drive the global economy, serving in Indian brothels, Thai and Malaysian sweatshops, the mansions of oil sheikhs in the Gulf and, most recently, the war zones of Iraq. Many more have migrated internally, often from the hills to the subtropical Tarai region on the long border with India. The Tarai produces most of the country’s food and cash crops, and accommodates half of its population. On its flat alluvial land, where malaria was only recently eradicated, the Buddha was born 2500 years ago; it is also where a generation of displaced Nepalese began to dream of revolution.

In Chitwan, one of the more densely populated districts in the Tarai, I met Mukti Raj Dahal, the father of the underground Maoist leader, Prachanda. Dahal was one of the millions of Nepalese to migrate to the Tarai in the 1950s. His son was then eight years old. He had travelled on to India, doing menial jobs in many cities, before returning to Chitwan, which American advisers and the Nepalese government were then developing as a ‘model district’ with education and health facilities. In Chitwan, Dalal bought some land and managed to give his eight children an education of sorts. Though he is tormented by stomach and spinal ailments, he exuded calm as he sat on the verandah of his two-roomed brick house, wearing a blue T-shirt and shorts under a black cap, a Brahminical caste mark on his forehead.

He had the serenity of a man at the end of his life. And, given the circumstances, he had not done too badly. I had spent much of that day on the road from Kathmandu to the Tarai, shuffling past long queues of Tata trucks from India, through a fog of dust and thick diesel smoke, ragged settlements occasionally appearing beside the road: shops made of wooden planks, selling food fried in peanut oil and tea in sticky clouded glasses, mud houses with thatched roofs – a pre-industrial bareness in which only the gleaming automatic guns of young soldiers and the tangle of barbed wire behind which they sat spoke of the world beyond Nepal.

The jittery soldiers who approached the car with fingers on their triggers were very young, hard to associate with stories I had heard in Kathmandu – stories no newspaper would touch – of the army marching men out of overcrowded prisons and executing them. My companion, a Nepalese journalist, was nervous. He knew that the soldiers in the countryside attacked anyone they suspected of being a Maoist, and journalists were no exception. Many of the soldiers barely knew what a journalist was.

There are few places in Nepal untouched by violence – murder, torture, arbitrary arrest – and most people live perpetually in fear of both the army and the Maoists, without expectation of justice or recompense. Dahal, however, appeared to have made a private peace with his surroundings. He told me that he spent much of his day at the local temple, listening to recitals of the Ramayana. He said that he still believed the king had good intentions. He appeared both bemused by, and admiring of, his famous son, whom he had last seen at the funeral of his wife in 1996. The ideas of equality and justice, he thought, had always appealed to Prachanda, who was a sensitive man, someone who shared his food with poor people in the village. He couldn’t tell me how his son had got interested in Mao or Marx in such a place as Chitwan, which had no bookshop or library. But he did know that Prachanda had got involved with Communists when he couldn’t find a good job with the government and had to teach at a primary school in his native hills of Pokhara.

In his speeches, which claim inspiration from Mao and seek to mobilise the peasants in the countryside against the urban elite, Prachanda comes across as an ideologue of another era: he’s an embarrassment to the Chinese regime, which is engaged in the un-Maoist task of enriching Chinese coastal cities at the expense of the hinterland, and feels compelled to accuse Nepalese Maoists of besmirching the Chairman’s good name.

In the few interviews he has given, Prachanda avoids answering questions about his background and motivation, which have to be divined from details given by Dahal: the haphazard schooling, the useless degree, the ill-paid teaching job in a village school, all of which seem to lead inexorably to a conflict with, and resentment of, unjust authority.

The ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ of Nepal during the 1950s and 1960s created millions of men like Prachanda, lured away from their subsistence economies and abandoned on the threshold of a world in which they found they had, and could have, no place. Nepal’s agricultural economy offered few of them the jobs or the dignity they felt was their due, and they were too aware of the possibilities thwarted by an unequal, stratified society to reconcile themselves to a life of menial labour in unknown lands, and an old age spent in religious stupor. Educated, but with no prospects, many young men like Prachanda must have been more than ready to embrace radical ideas about the ways that an entrenched urban elite could be challenged and even overthrown if peasants in the countryside were organised.

Growing up in Nepal in the 1960s, Prachanda watched these ideas grow in the Naxalbari movement in India. Communist activists lived and worked secretly in parts of Nepal during the Panchayat era – in the 1950s, a famous Communist leader called M.B. Singh travelled in the midwestern hills and acquired followers among the Magars, one of Nepal’s more prominent ethnic groups now supporting the Maoists. But Prachanda says that the ‘historic Naxalbari movement’ of India was the ‘greatest influence’ on the Communists of Nepal.

In the late 1960s, thousands of students, many of them middle-class and upper-caste, joined an armed peasant uprising led by an extremist faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal and Bihar. Known as Naxalites, after the Naxalbari district where the revolt first erupted in 1967, they attacked ‘class enemies’ – big landlords, policemen, bureaucrats – and ‘liberated’ territories which they hoped would form bases for an eventual assault on the cities, as had happened in China. The Indian government responded brutally, killing and torturing thousands. Driven underground, the Naxalite movement splintered, and remained dormant for many years.

In the 1990s, when India began to move towards a free market, the Naxalite movement revived in some of the poorest and most populous Indian states. Part of the reason for this is that successive Indian governments have steadily reduced subsidies for agriculture, public health, education and poverty-eradication, exposing large sections of the population to disease, debt, hunger and starvation. Almost three thousand farmers committed suicide in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh after the government, advised by McKinsey, cut agricultural subsidies in an attempt to initiate farmers into the world of unregulated markets. In recent years, Naxalite movements, which have long organised landless, low-caste peasants in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, have grown quickly in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – where an enfeebled Indian state is increasingly absent – to the extent that police and intelligence officials in India now speak anxiously of an unbroken belt of Communist-dominated territory from Nepal to South India.

The Naxalite uprising in the late 1960s invigorated the few Communists in Nepal, who, like the members of the Nepali Congress, the main underground political organisation, sought guidance and encouragement from India. In 1971, some Nepalese Communists living across the border from Naxalbari declared a ‘people’s war’ against the monarchy. They killed seven ‘class enemies’ before being suppressed by the king. As fractious as their Indian counterparts, the Nepalese Communist parties split and split again over petty doctrinal or personality issues. In 1991, after the restoration of multi-party democracy, several of them contested elections, and even did well: a Communist coalition became the biggest opposition party, and briefly held power in 1994. In the early 1990s, however, few people in Nepal could have predicted the swift rise of Prachanda and the obscure faction he led.

The Maoists under Prachanda resolved as early as 1986 to follow Mao’s strategy of capturing state power through a ‘people’s war’. They did not start the war until the mid-1990s, however, when disillusionment with parliamentary democracy created for them a potentially wide popular base in the countryside. Still, hardly anyone noticed when on 4 February 1996 the Maoists presented the government with a list of 40 demands, which included abrogating existing treaties with India, stripping the monarchy of all power and privileges, drafting a new constitution by means of a constituent assembly, nationalising private property, declaring Nepal a secular nation and ending all foreign aid. These demands were not likely to be met; and as though aware of this, the Maoists began their ‘people’s war’ by attacking police stations in six districts four days before the deadline.

For the next five years, the Maoists forced their way into the national consciousness with their increasingly bold tactics. They financed themselves by collecting ‘taxes’ from farmers, and they exacted ‘donations’ from many businessmen in the Kathmandu Valley. They indoctrinated schoolchildren; they formed people’s governments in the areas they controlled and dispensed rough justice to criminals and ‘class enemies’. But much of the new power and charisma of the Maoists came from their ability to launch audacious attacks on the police and the army.

The military wing of the Maoists initially consisted of a few ill-trained men armed with antique rifles and homemade weapons. But they chose their first target cannily: the police, almost the only representatives of the central government in much of Nepal. Poorly armed, often with little more than sticks and .303 Lee Enfield rifles, the police retreated swiftly before the Maoists, who also attacked roads, bridges, dams, administrative offices, bridges, power plants – anything they felt might aid the counter-insurgency efforts of the government.

In recent years, the Maoists have grown militarily strong, mostly through conscription in the countryside, and regular training – allegedly provided by Indian Naxalites. They have acquired better weapons by looting police stations and buying from the arms bazaars of India; they have also learned how to make roadside explosives, pipe and ‘pressure cooker’ bombs. In November 2001, the Maoists launched 48 attacks on the army and the police in a single day, forcing the Nepalese government to impose a state of emergency. More than 5000 people died in the next 15 months, the bloodiest period in Nepal’s modern history.

But violence is only a part of the Maoists’ overall strategy. In an interview in 2000, Prachanda criticised Indian Communist groups for their lack of vision and spoke of the importance of developing ‘base areas’. Since 1996, the Maoists have spread out from their traditional home in the midwestern hills of Rolpa and Rukum districts. Their cadres – estimated to number as many as 100,000 – travel to deprived areas, addressing, and often recruiting from, the large and growing mass of people deeply unhappy with Nepal’s new democratic dispensation.

Some measure of democracy was inevitable in Nepal by the 1980s. In previous decades, the state’s half-hearted efforts at development had produced many low-level bureaucrats, small businessmen, teachers, students and unemployed graduates. This new class resented the continuing dominance of upper-caste clans and families. The conflict between the old elite and its challengers was aggravated by a series of economic crises in the late 1980s. In 1985-86, Nepal had negotiated a loan with the IMF and World Bank. The bank’s euphemistically named (and free-market oriented) ‘structural adjustment programme’, which was then causing havoc in Latin American economies, forced the Nepalese government to cut farm subsidies and jobs in the public sector. GDP grew as a result but the gains were cancelled out by inflation of up to 10 per cent and a trade and transit embargo imposed by India in 1989, which caused severe fuel shortages and price rises.

The protesters who filled the streets of Kathmandu in the spring of 1990 were convinced that the decaying Panchayat system could not deal with the shocks of the new world and needed to be reformed. In acceding to demands for multi-party democracy, the king appeared to acknowledge the strength of the new educated class and to recognise that the old political system needed a degree of popular legitimacy if it was to survive. It’s clear now that what happened in 1990 was less a revolution than a reconfiguration of power, sanctified by elections, among the old royalist oligarchy and an emerging urban middle class. Many courtiers and sycophants of the king managed to reinvent themselves as parliamentary politicians, often joining the Nepali Congress, the political party that ruled Nepal for all but one of the next 13 years. There were few ideological differences between the Nepali Congress and the main opposition party, the radical-sounding Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), both of which continued to be led by upper-caste men motivated largely by a desire for money and power. Elections were held frequently, and a procession of governments – 13 in as many years – made Nepalese democracy appear vibrant. But the majority of the population, especially its ethnic communities, went largely unrepresented.

In 1992, when democracy still promised much, and Maoism was no more than another rumour in the streets of Kathmandu, Andrew Nickson, a British expert on Latin America, wrote prophetically:

The future prospects of Maoism in Nepal will … depend largely on the extent to which the newly elected Nepali Congress government addresses the historic neglect and discrimination of the small rural communities which still make up the overwhelming bulk of the population of the country. As in the case of Peru, this would require a radical reallocation of government expenditures towards rural areas in the form of agricultural extension services and primary healthcare provision.

Needless to say, this didn’t happen. In 2002, Dalits, low-caste Hindus, had an annual per capita income of only $40, compared to a national average of $210; fewer than 10 per cent of Dalits were literate. The upper-caste men who dominated the new democratic regime were competing among themselves to siphon off the money pouring into Nepal from foreign donors. A fresh convert to the ideology of the free market, the Nepalese government dedicated itself to creating wealth in urban areas. Trying to boost private investment in Kathmandu, it neglected agriculture, on which more than 80 per cent of the population depend for a living. Not surprisingly, absolute poverty continued to increase in the late 1990s, even as Kathmandu Valley benefited from the growth in the tourist, garment and carpet industries, and filled up with new hotels, resorts and villas.

In such circumstances, many people are likely to be attracted to violent, extra-parliamentary groups. The Maoists in Nepal had their first ready constituency among rural youths, more than 100,000 of whom fail their high school examination every year. Unemployed and adrift, many of these young men worked for other political parties in the countryside before becoming disillusioned and joining the Maoists.

Mohan was one of the young men who joined a newly legitimate political party after 1990 and then found himself remote from the spoils of power. He then worked with the Maoists for almost five years, living in jungles, once travelling to the easternmost corner of Nepal, before deciding to leave them. He couldn’t return to his village, which lay in the Maoist-dominated region of Rolpa, and had gone to India for a while. He was now trying to lie low in Kathmandu, and although he didn’t say so, he seemed to be ‘passing his days’ and making a living through odd jobs, like so many other people in the city.

We had arranged to meet in Boudhanath, Kathmandu’s major Buddhist site. Sitting in the square around the white stupa, among monks in swirling crimson robes and often with white faces, Mohan spoke of ‘feudal forces’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’: their corruption had paved the way for the Maoists, whom he described as ‘anarchists’. He used the foreign words with a Nepalese inflection. He said that he had picked them up while accompanying a Maoist propagandist on tour; and it occurred to me, as he described his background, that he still used them despite having left the Maoists because he had no other vocabulary with which to describe his experience of deprivation and disappointment.

He was born and brought up in a family of Magar shepherds in a corner of Rolpa district that had no proper roads, schools or hospitals. Educated at a school in Palpa, a walk of several miles from his village, he had joined the Nepali Congress in 1992, when still in his late teens, and become a personal aide to a prominent local politician. There were many such young men. They received no money for their services, but slept in the politician’s house, ate the food prepared for his family, and travelled with him to Kathmandu. Mohan said that it was a good time, the early years of democracy. He liked being in Kathmandu, especially with someone who had a bit of power. But he couldn’t fail to notice that the politician returned less and less often to his constituency in the hills and often refused to meet people who came to his door asking for jobs, money and medical help. He was surprised to hear that the politician was building a new house for himself in Kathmandu. Soon, he felt he was not needed, and one day the politician’s wife told him to eat elsewhere.

Clashes between Nepali Congress activists and the Maoists were common in his area; he felt that he could be useful to the Maoists with his knowledge of politics. He was also attracted to the idea of ethnic autonomy that the Maoists espoused. He had seen in his time with the politician how the upper-caste-dominated government in Kathmandu possessed an unjust share of the country’s wealth and resources. Many people he knew had already joined the Maoists, and in 1995, one of his friends introduced him to the Maoist ‘squad commander’ in the region.

As he spoke, I wondered if this was the whole truth, if he hadn’t joined the Maoists for the same reason he had joined the Nepali Congress, the reason many young men like him in India joined political parties: for food and shelter. In any case, he joined the Maoists at a bad time: it was in 1995 that the Nepalese government launched Operation Romeo.

This scorched-earth campaign is described as an instance of ‘state terror’ in a report by INSEC (Informal Sector Service Centre), Nepal’s most reliable human rights group. The police, according to the report, invaded villages in the Rolpa and Rukum districts, killing and torturing young men and raping women. When I mentioned this to Mohan, he said that things weren’t as bad as they were made out to be by the ‘bourgeois’ intelligentsia in Kathmandu, who, he thought, were soft on the Maoists. He said the Maoists were simply another opportunistic political group; this was why he had left them. They were interested in mobilising ethnic communities only to the extent that this would help them capture ‘state power’; they weren’t really interested in giving them autonomy. He had also been repelled by their cruelty. He had heard about – if not actually seen – instances of Maoists punishing people who refused to pay taxes, defied their alcohol ban or were suspected of being police informers. Using rocks and hammers, they often broke all the bones in their victims’ bodies before skinning them alive and cutting off their tongues, ears, lips and noses.

Many of these stories appear in reports by Nepalese and international human rights groups. The Maoist leaders were, I often heard in Kathmandu, riding a tiger, unable to prevent their angry and frustrated cadres from committing torture and murder. Criminals had infiltrated their movement, and some Maoists now made a living from extortion and kidnapping. When confronted with these excesses, Maoist leaders deny or deplore them. They probably realise that that they are losing many of their original supporters, who are as tired of the organisation’s growing extremism as of the years of indecisive fighting. Nevertheless, these leaders can often seem constrained in their political thinking by revolutionary methods and rhetoric created in another time and place. Prachanda, for instance, is convinced that ‘a new wave of revolution, world revolution is beginning, because imperialism is facing a great crisis.’

When the subject is not world revolution but the specific situation of Nepal, he can be shrewdly perceptive. A police officer in India told me that many of the Indian Communists he interviewed confessed to learning much from the Maoists in Nepal, who were not as rigidly doctrinal as Communists in India and Afghanistan. As Prachanda put it:

The situation in Nepal is not classical, not traditional. In the Terai region we find landlords with some lands, and we have to seize the lands and distribute them among the poor peasants. But in the whole mountainous regions, that is not the case. There are smallholdings, and no big landlords … How to develop production, how to raise production is the main problem here. The small pieces of land mean the peasants have low productivity. With collective farming it will be more scientific and things can be done to raise production.

It is not clear how much collective farming exists, or what non-military use the Maoists make of the taxes they collect. In fact, there is little reliable information about what goes on in the countryside. Few journalists venture out of their urban bases, and the Maoists aren’t the only obstacle. Most of the very few roads outside Kathmandu are a series of large potholes, and then there are the nervous soldiers at checkpoints. And once you move away from the highway, no soldiers or policemen appear for miles on end. In Shakti Khor, a village in the Tarai region populated by one of the poorest communities in Nepal, a few men quietly informed us that Maoist guerrillas were hiding in the nearby forest, where no security forces ever ventured and from where the Maoists often escaped to India. At a small co-operative shop selling honey, mustard oil, turmeric and herbal medicines, two men in their mid-twenties appeared very keen to put in a good word for the Maoists – who the previous night had painted red anti-monarchy slogans on the clean walls.

In the other Maoist-dominated regions I visited, people seemed too afraid to talk. At Deurali Bazaar, a village at the end of a long and treacherous drive in the hills near Pokhara, a newly constructed bamboo gate was wrapped with a red cloth painted with a hammer and sickle and the names of Maoists either dead or in prison. The scene in the square appeared normal at first – women scrubbing children at a municipal tap, young men drinking tea, an old tailor hunched over an antique sewing-machine, his walking stick leaning against his chair – but the presence of the Maoists, if unacknowledged, was unmistakable. When I tried to talk to the men at the teashop, they walked away fast, one of them knocking over the tailor’s stick. The shopkeeper said that he knew nothing about Maoists. He didn’t know who had built the bamboo gate; it had simply appeared one morning.

When I got back to Pokhara that evening, the news was of three teenage students killed as they tried to stop an army car on the highway. The previous day I had seen newspaper reports in which the army described the students as ‘terrorists’ and claimed to have found documents linking them to the Maoists. But it now seemed clear that they were just collecting donations for Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. There were eyewitnesses to the shooting. The parents of the victims had exhumed their corpses from the shallow graves in which the army had quickly buried them and discovered that two of them had been wearing their school uniforms. Like much else in Nepal, this would not appear in the newspapers.

The bloody stalemate in Nepal may last for a long time. The army is too small and poorly equipped at present decisively to defeat the Maoists. In some areas it has recently tried arming upper-caste villagers and inciting them to take action against the Maoists. In the southern district of Kapilavastu, vigilante groups organised by a local landlord and armed by the government claim to have killed more than fifty Maoists in February. Such tactics are not only likely to lead to a civil war but also to increase support for the Maoists in areas where the government is either absent or disliked.

Though unlikely at present, talks may offer a way forward. The Maoists have shown themselves willing to negotiate and even to compromise: in July 2001 they dropped their demand that Nepal cease to be a monarchy. More recently, Prachanda hinted at a flexible stance when he called for a united front of mainstream political parties against the monarch. He probably fears that the guerrilla force might self-destruct if its leaders fail to lead their more extreme cadres in the direction of moderate politics. But any Maoist concessions to bourgeois democracy are unlikely to please Gyanendra, who clearly wants to use the current chaos to help him hold on to his power.

If he periodically evokes the prospect of terrorists taking over Nepal, Gyanendra can count on the support of India, the US and the UK. In late 2001, the US ambassador to Nepal, Michael Malinowski, a veteran of the CIA-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, said that ‘these terrorists, under the guise of Maoism or the so-called “people’s war”, are fundamentally the same as terrorists elsewhere – be they members of the Shining Path, Abu Sayaf, the Khmer Rouge or al-Qaida.’ The then Hindu nationalist government in Delhi, just as eager to name new enemies, also described the Maoists as ‘terrorists’.

The present Indian government has a more nuanced view of Nepal. But it is worried about India’s own Communist rebels and their links with the Nepalese Maoists, and it believes that, as Malinowski put it, ‘all kinds of bad guys could use Nepal as a base, like in Afghanistan.’ Responding to fears that the army in Nepal was running out of ammunition, India resumed its arms supply this year, partly hoping to contain the Maoists and wanting too to maintain its influence over Nepal in the face of growing competition from the US.

There is no evidence that bad guys, as defined by the Bush administration, have flocked to Nepal; the Maoists are far from achieving a military victory; and the Communists in India are unlikely to extend their influence beyond the poverty-stricken districts they presently control. The rise of an armed Communist movement in a strategically important country nevertheless disturbs many political elites, who believe that Communism died in 1989 and that history has arrived at the terminus of liberal-capitalist democracy.

A European diplomat in Kathmandu told me that although Western countries hoped the political parties and the king would put up a joint front against the Maoists, they knew they might at some point have to support the king and his army if he alone was left to protect the country from the Maoists and keep alive the prospects for democracy. I did not feel that I could ask him about the nature of a democracy that is protected by an autocrat. Perhaps he meant nothing more by the word ‘democracy’ than regular elections: the kind of democracy whose failure to contain violence or to limit systemic poverty and inequality does not matter so long as elections are held, even if, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, under a form of martial law, and in which the turnout of voters does nothing but empower and legitimise a native elite willing to push the priorities of its Western patrons.

Such a form of democracy, which is slowly coming into being in Pakistan, could be revived again in Nepal, as the king repairs his relationship with the mainstream political parties. It is possible, too, that the excesses of the Maoists will cause them to self-destruct. Certainly the international revolution Prachanda speaks of will prove a fantasy. Yet it’s hard to wish away the rage and despair of people who, arriving late in the modern world, have known its primary ideology, democracy, only as another delusion – the disenchanted millions who will increasingly seek, through other means than elections, the dignity and justice that they feel is owed to them.

[*] For an accessible account of the beginnings of modern Nepal, see John Whelpton's A History of Nepal, Cambridge, 2005. Some recent scholarship on the Maoists is collected in Himalayan 'People's War': Nepal's Maoist Rebellion, ed. Michael Hutt, Hurst and Co, 2004. The Nepalese novelist Manjushree Thapa provides an engaging personal account of Nepal's recent turbulent years in Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, Penguin India, Delhi, 2005'