The battle lines are drawn for the 19 November Constituent Assembly elections as Maoist leaders contemplate their next move amid pre-poll clashes and strident calls for boycott.
Near the bottom of a steep gravel road in Kathmandu sits a three-storey house. A red flag with a white crossed hammer and scythe symbol droops from a pole on the roof. A group of blue-uniformed Nepalese soldiers sit by the road watching everyone who comes and goes.
This is where Nepal’s hardline Maoist leaders have ended up; holed up in rooms, bare but for a few cheap leather couches, the odd desk and computer, and a handful of amateur paintings full of red Himalayan mountains, raised fists and Zen-like figures resisting arms decorated with India’s national colours.
Barely seven years ago these leaders were hidden in Nepal’s forests, fighting the ‘people’s war’ to overthrow the Monarchy.
Now they sit in the capital at a crossroad. On the left: letting go their communist ideology for multi-party politics. On the right: going rogue, and continuing the ‘people’s struggle’ on the sidelines.
Like most of Nepal’s political parties, within the hardline faction, opinion is greatly divided as to which direction to take.
But with the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections bearing down on Nepal and the party accused of resorting to guerrilla ‘terrorist’ tactics to disrupt the vote – a candidate’s wife had acid thrown on her, dozens of people, including children have been burnt in petrol bomb attacks after doing nothing but catching the wrong public bus at the wrong time, and numerous bombs have been planted around the country — it seems more and more they are being driven to the extreme.
The question now remains: what will become of Nepal’s hardline Maoists?
** THE SPLIT
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) surprised many when, after ditching mainstream politics in 1996, it went on to pretty much achieve its dream of getting rid of the country’s 240-year-old monarchy and sweeping to power in Nepal’s first election as a republic in 2008.
But things did not go so well for the party after Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, commonly referred to as Prachanda, became Prime Minister.
Living in a luxurious mansion with a swimming pool and badminton court in Kathmandu’s exclusive Lazimpat, Prachanda soon faced accusations from within his party that he had lost touch with his revolutionist roots and adopted the lifestyle of the billionaire royals he always loathed.
In June 2012, Mohan Baidya — Prachanda’s political guru and fellow traveller during the decade-long People’s War, which saw 15,000 people killed, 4500 at the hands of the Maoists and 8200 by the government — gathered his hardline faction and walked away from the party.
Baidya accused Prachanda of making a major mistake when he signed the 2006 peace deal (while Baidya was jailed in India) and accepted the “democratic republic” line. Baidya also attacked the integration of the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army into the Nepali Army as “disrespectful”.
Promptly launching his own party — the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, dubbed the “Dash Maoists” — Baidya called for revolt instead of peace and a constitution, saying his group would pave the way for a new revolution.
Meanwhile, Prachanda used the 7th Maoist party Congress to announce his plan for an “economic revolution,” suggesting his days in the forest were firmly in the past. He also spoke out to media, claiming he wanted to down arms and join the “election battle” long before the historic peace deal was signed in 2006, but the hardliners would not let him.
When a second consistent assembly (CA) election was called for 19 November, after the first CA spent more than four years bickering and failed to produce a constitution, Baidya announced his party would boycott the poll.
The Dash Maoists formed an alliance with 33 other parties, who turned their noses up at Nepal’s attempt at multi-party democracy take two – instead announcing a 10-day strike to disrupt the 19 November poll.
** THE VIOLENCE
Short, with thin-rimmed glasses, grey-flecked hair and generous cheeks, 51-year-old Pampha Bhusal looks more like a grandmother than a revolutionist fighter.
The senior Dash Maoist leader and alliance spokeswoman tells me she has been involved in politics since she was a schoolgirl, and saw many of her friends and comrades die fighting in the people’s war.
Now she sits in a sparse office fielding non-stop calls from local journalists asking whether the alliance is stepping-up its alleged campaign of violence to disrupt the election.
When I ask her if the alliance is responsible for the attacks she scrunches up her face in outrage.
“On our side, we will not do any violence, but in the side of the state, they are using Nepal army and so many armed forces, and so many political parties use the vigilante – they can make violence … but we will oppose very peacefully,” she says.
Other alliance leaders have been quoted as saying heightened security and the arrest of party cadres has forced them to resort to guerrilla tactics.
“We are compelled to move ahead in guerrilla-style… we may even need to target road vehicles,” Mani Thapa, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, told local newspaper MyRepublica.
Dash Maoist secretary Dev Gurung said leaders are devising plans to hit the streets as the poll draws closer, realising “the need for stronger protest programmes”.
Supporters of all political stripes have been accused of getting their hands dirty in pre-poll clashes in which scores of party supporters and cadres have sustained injuries.
But dozens of innocent citizens have also been injured in attacks on public transport, including a four-year-old girl and her mother who were among nine people burned when a petrol bomb was hurled at a bus in Kathmandu and two Indian tourists who were injured when their jeep was ambushed and set alight near the tourist town of Pokhara. Before the strike, a candidate’s wife had acid thrown on her, while each new day brings fresh reports of violence.
On Friday, 15 November, police put the number of arson/vandalism incidents at 147, road obstructions at 34, petrol bomb attacks at 10, explosions at 12, planted explosives at 38, suspicious planted objects at 139 and looting of election materials at 20.
Local media and police have painted the Dash Maoists as the perpetrators behind the majority of the attacks, despite the fact that charges have not being laid in most cases. An editorial in My Republica on Sunday asserted: “It was common knowledge that these inhumane acts were being carried out by the leader of the 33-party agitating alliance, CPN-Maoist, under the guise of ‘unidentified groups’.”
The government has warned alliance leaders are now facing arrest, while 191 people, mostly party supporters, have been detained in connection with the violence.
After the strike was called it was announced that the Nepalese Army would be called in to police the election for the first time in the country’s history. The 62,000 army personnel will be joined by 110,000 Nepal Police personnel, 45,000 temporary police personnel and 32,000 Armed Police Force personnel.
There will also be upwards of 74,000 international and local election observers deployed across the country to watch for disturbances at polling stations.
David Pottie, Associate Director for The Carter Centre, an NGO that has been monitoring Nepal’s post-war struggle and will be observing the election, believes the alliance will fail to disrupt the polls.
“I don’t think it will be on a sufficient scale to derail, if the election is well conducted on its own terms, I don’t think that this boycott will raise a question mark about its legitimacy,” Mr Pottie said.
Furthermore, he believes the boycott will ultimately fail to achieve its objective.
“I think it will ultimately fail in its political aim, at least in terms of trying to convert any who aren’t already a believer in the cause of the boycott,” Mr Pottie said.
“The political objectives really amount to, well this is a way to get attention, and I think that message has been heard and the vast majority of Nepalese aren’t convinced by it.”
Mr Pottie said The Carter Centre tried to convince Baidya to join the poll but he is not sure the Maoist leader is truly interested in being involved in Nepal’s multi-party system.
“It’s difficult to say to what extent that ever was good faith bargaining on the part of Baidya,” Mr Pottie said.
“We have met with him many times and he says two things at the same time. The Baidya-led Maoists [want to stop the election but then] say ‘Oh and we want to participate too but we want the following conditions to be met’.
“Ultimately it’s quite open that it’s merely a transitional tactic to participate when the true goal is to overthrow the system. So that makes it very difficult, to then bargain with someone who says, ‘I’ll participate in your club for now but when I get a chance I’ll burn the house down’.”
** THE TROUBLE WITHIN
When I ask Ms Bhusal about media reports that some Dash Maoist members and 24 of the 33 parties in the alliance have cut ties with the party due to unease about the violent strike tactics she is quick to respond.
“That is a rumour,” she says. “The government ordered them [the media] not to give positive reports about us.”
“On the first day when we called the boycott came 33 parties… and so it was established in the name of 33,” she says.
“Now 42 parties are with us.”
But reports of rifts within the party refuse to die.
My Republica quoted an unnamed alliance member in a 14 November report as saying there are divisions over the nature of the protest and whether to continue the strike.
“We stood against the 10-day protest right since the beginning, but our friends from the CPN-Maoist have pressed ahead with the strike, arguing that the major political parties have sidelined them even in the CA election,” the source said.
Ms Bhusal talks of the Dash Maoists being sidelined by the main Maoist party, of being pushed to the outside and not getting enough time to register as a party and make arrangements to join the election.
She says the party wants to rejoin democratic politics, take part in the CA election and have a hand in the constitution building process.
But when I ask her what the Dash Maoists next step will be after the election, she tells me this:
“We’ll organise the national liberation movement,” she says.
“We want to stop foreign intervention in our nation – so this is the movement of national sovereignty and national liberation.”
“Will this be a violent struggle like the People’s War?” I ask.
“A peaceful movement,” she tells me.
“All the patriotic forces, leading by us, we’ll make an independent country, then the peoples of [the] independent country will become democratic.”
** THE END?
CK Lal believes the hardline Maoists’ ideology will drive them to continue to wage their “struggle”, in some form or another, after the election.
“Indoctrinated Maoist theology believes that power flows from the barrel of the gun,” he says.
“If the presumption is the election is a bourgeoisie exercise and a sham then of course you continue with protest in different forms, and you may even become more violent after you are challenged by free and fair elections.”
On the other hand, he says the main Maoist party, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, has transformed since its days fighting in Nepal’s rugged Himalayan terrain, and more so, it has landed up in a pretty comfortable position politically.
“The problem is when you are fighting one of your own it doesn’t do any good to your image – the CPN-Maoists (Dash Maoists) declaring the parent party a traitor may damage their chances at the ballot box.
“But compared to the competition, which are even more fragmented, it’s going to be a close call. I would not be surprised if UCPN-Maoist remains the leading political party.”