Nepal: From Maoism to Fascism in the Himalayas?

maoist nepal

It is an October replete with irony. The most definitive treatment to date on Mao Tse-tung’s final crime against humanity, his “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” is out to solid reviews. Peru, in confirming the life sentence of Marxism’s self-proclaimed “Fourth Sword,” Comrade Guzman, has ensured that the country will not have on its streets a “democratic politician” whose only tangible achievement was to unleash the Maoist nightmare that left 60,000 of his countrymen dead. In Thailand, amidst the buffeting of democracy, the 14 October anniversary passed with hardly a thought. It was on that date, in 1973, that the authoritarian state crumbled, beginning the process whereby democracy defeated Maoism. And in Nepal, the Maoists, sensing power just ahead, again issued a slew of statements denying that their Maoism and the catastrophe it has brought to the country has anything to do with the bloody 20th Century crimes of Marxist-Leninism.

It is striking how much similarity there is structurally between the Thai and Nepali cases, with the profound exception that the monarchy proved a bastion of strength in Thailand, a source of weakness in Nepal. If one includes in a comparison other Maoist people’s wars, such as those in the Philippines, Sri Lanka (the JVP twice tried to carry out armed struggle), and Peru, we see the same structural patterns play themselves out but with the Maoists on the losing side. What is fundamentally different in the Nepali scenario has been the crucial role played by the clueless united front allies of the Maoists, especially groups that bill themselves as “civil society” or even as “nonaligned.” They have lent critical strength to what otherwise would be a political movement in much the position of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) prior to its participation in the peace process, when its front Sinn Fein at peak garnered less than a fifth of the electorate.

What remains ill understood is that the Maoists are not using even the same vocabulary, much less the same game plan, as the present political system. They continue to see themselves as a people’s war on the offensive. They simply are proceeding along an avenue of approach complementary to armed actions. Violence and non-violence are but two facets of a unified struggle, very much as, in boxing, feints and movement of the body are as necessary as punches thrown.

A Strategy of Armed Politics

People’s war is a strategy for armed politics. The mistake is to think it is merely “war,” by which we normally mean action between armed forces. To the contrary, people’s war is like any parliamentary campaign – except violence is used to make sure the vote comes out in your favor. Significantly, sub-state rebels such as the Maoists claim they are merely doing what the state itself has been doing all along. In Nepal, they claim there never has been “non-violent politics.” Rather, they assert, echoing Lenin, that democratic politics practiced by the “old-order” – ancien regime – is but a facade for oppression, oppression that is carried out using the violence of the state through its armed component, the security forces, as well as the “structural violence” of poverty and injustice.

Thus the Maoists see themselves as engaged in a struggle for liberation, of self-defense even. Such a struggle will proceed along different but orchestrated lines of operation. There will be many campaigns carried out in myriad ways. Use of violence, now “in support,” was but one line of operation. Within that line of operation, there were many forms of violence, from assassinations – such as that of APF head Mohan Shrestha in 2003 – to main force attacks – the large actions that seek to overrun district capitals. These forms of violence, in turn, were “bundled” into campaigns. We can speak, for instance, of the campaign of terror that the Maoists used to eliminate all who opposed them in local areas, whether individuals or police. The family of Muktinath Adjikari, for instance, the teacher hanging in the best known image after he was assassinated in early 2002, has recently surfaced to demand justice.

Yet such terror occurred for a reason: to clear the space for political action, to eliminate competitors. This is why UML activists were such particular targets. They advanced a competing program which had won a majority of seats in Nepal’s 3,913 VDCs, or Village Development Committees. They had to be driven out so that the Maoist cadres would have uncontested access to the electorate. Only in this way could the Maoists mobilize a mass base using their own electoral platform, if we may call it that – they call it their “mass line.”

Of course, such methods are anathema, even as certain portions of their (Maoist) party platform are attractive. It is for this reason that the Maoists have sponsored a multitude of front organizations, the wide variety, for instance, of ethnic and community rights organizations. On the surface, they are not Maoist, but in reality they are controlled by the Maoists. The student and labor organizations are especially prominent in this respect. The important thing about fronts is that they can present themselves as independent, even as they are being used to enhance Maoist strength. Lenin called those who unwittingly join such fronts, thinking they are acting on their own, “useful idiots.”

Even as this goes on inside the country, the Maoists work outside. States tend to focus upon the tangible links, such as the Maoist presence in India. Much more important is their information campaign, designed to present their movement as almost benign. As states make mistakes, such as seen in instances of indiscipline when military units are deployed, these are exploited to claim the state itself is the problem, terror as but a natural component of the solution. As seen in the Nepal case, the sheer level of terror inflicted by the Maoists has been quite forgotten in the rush to attack the army, the APF (Armed Police Force), and the hapless police (who, recall, at one point in the conflict, had actually suffered a majority of all dead when considered as a proportion of the total victims).

Power as the Goal

For a Maoist movement, the goal is always power. This has been stated quite openly by all major Maoist figures. They must have power, because their “end-state” is to refashion society. They are not seeking reintegration. That would be to accept the structure that exists and to play by that structure’s rules. Quite vocally, they reject the legitimacy of that structure and its rules. That is why they are adamant that there must be a constitutional convention. They see themselves as in the driver’s seat. They are like any political machine in a rough neighborhood – they can “deliver” the vote. It is what occurs in many areas of India during parliamentary elections but carries the jostling to an extreme. It is “boss politics” played by “big boy rules” – the film, “The Gangs of New York,” provides useful visualization.

In seeking “peace” and holding that they are “not for violence,” what the Maoists mean is that they would much rather the state delivered to them (the Maoists) power rather than making them (the Maoists) fight for it. They are not fools. They are not interested in dying. They are interested in building a new world. Yet they hold that violence has been the indispensable tool for creating a new correlation of forces, a new electoral map, if you will. That is why they will not give up their weapons (alternatively, they say all forces must lock up their weapons, but this does not include their local forces, their “militia”). They have run the opposing parties out of the neighborhood, and now they are demanding a vote. They do not see this as hypocrisy – they see it as doing precisely what the state has been doing in years past. But they hold that their motives are superior, because they aim to revolutionize society, to make Nepal a “true” or “authentic” democracy, because they are carrying out the will of history, “of the people.”

Have they worked out the details of what this new democracy will look like? No, aside from vague notions of “sectoral” representation. They have stated, as Prachanda recently did, that they oppose “parliamentary republicanism,” by which they mean democracy as Nepal had but with the parliament sovereign. But they have not laid out what their “real democracy” alternative will be. That is the beauty of being the political challenger. Today’s realities are opposed with tomorrow’s promises. This is what politicians always do, even those who run “on my record.” The danger of left-wing ideologues, such as the Maoists, is that their worldview dramatically constrains their view of possibilities.

They tend to think of fantasies, such as “self-reliance” and “independence,” as ends that can be achieved if only “will” is harnessed. It was just such fantasies, implemented through violence, that gave us the astonishing crimes of the past century – crimes, it must be noted, the Maoists deny occurred. Yet there is no doubt what went on under Lenin, Stalin, and Mao (photos of all these individuals are used as veritable deities by the Maoists), any more than there is any question as to what occurred under Hitler or Pol Pot. What they shared was a worldview startlingly similar to that held by the Maoists.

The Maoists’ way of dealing with this is, first, to deny reality (just as the leader of Iran seeks to deny the Holocaust); second, to claim that Nepal will be different (which is easily claimed, since there is a startling lack of knowledge in Nepal of what has gone on globally in similar previous situations to that of Nepal now); and, finally, when all else fails, to claim that the critic has no right to speak. This is a favored tactic of my activist internet correspondents, who purport to find all Americans responsible for everything from US foreign policy to the decimation of the American Indian tribes. None of these three ways, it bears reiterating, addresses the issue: the Maoists really have no answers to the challenges facing Nepal. They simply claim that they will do better than the bumbling (and bloody, they claim) incompetents who have preceded them.

The Maoists have used the monarchy as their foil, as a surrogate for what they claim is its role in the old-order. If the “feudal monarchy” is swept away, they endlessly repeat, all will be right with Nepal. In this, they certainly have been assisted by the tragic circumstances which placed the incumbent, Gyanendra, on the throne. Similarly, they have been assisted by his mistakes in maneuvering through the maze of Nepali politics. However, having forced the monarch to a position most claim he should occupy, that of a ceremonial monarch in a parliamentary democracy, the Maoists are still left with the fundamental issue: what to do about Nepal? They see structural issues that can be addressed by “will.” Most of us see a population that has exceeded the carrying capacity of the land.

Though marginal in an objective sense, Nepal and its troubles have implications for the region and beyond. The decimation of a democracy, the turning over of a people to the same tired solutions that have led to tragedy after tragedy, is of concern enough. Just as serious are the regional implications of allowing an armed, radical movement to force its way to power through terror.

Role of India

India is the ultimate arbiter in Nepali affairs for reasons of geostrategic interest and Nepal’s geo-fiscal realities. From Nepal’s standpoint, this has not always worked out well. From India’s standpoint, it has worked out reasonably enough. Nepal has steered clear of engaging in behavior that threatens India’s interests, and Nepalis have proved a valuable component of the Indian labor pool (especially militarily, where Nepalis apparently comprise one-eighth of the manpower of India’s infantry battalions). India’s interest in the current situation is in having a stable neighbor, especially one that does not contribute to India’s own growing Maoist problem. To achieve this goal, New Delhi desires in Nepal a functioning democracy committed to addressing the needs of its people. How to balance the elements of this general prescription just related has long been the challenge of Indian regional foreign policy and, apart from Nepal, has led to some real flies-in-the-ointment at times. Sri Lanka leaps to mind.

Irony again surfaces, because it is India (not the Maoists) that has seen its policy of the past decade go awry. Hence it finds itself in bed with Maoist insurgents and in search of a “soft landing.” New Delhi’s strategy is to get one by facilitating in Nepal creation of a “West Bengal” or a “Kerala” – states where the tamed Indian left challenges and even rules, where it continues with its nasty verbiage and bizarre worldview, but where it must respond to the realities of power and hence stays within the lanes on the national political highway. What New Delhi has overlooked is that such realities occur in India only because of the capacity of the national state to force compliance. Subtract the Indian military, paramilitary, and police forces from the equation, and India would be anarchy. Not surprisingly, that is the very term being used by many to describe the situation in Nepal.

As has been discussed previously by any number of sources, it is difficult to tell precisely where “our Indian friends,” as Prachanda has taken to calling them, fit in. A number of elements figured into New Delhi’s calculations. First, as the hegemonic power in an unstable subcontinent, India wants restoration of order. This is necessary for precisely the reasons stability is desired in Sri Lanka. Disorder produces refugees, unleashes intra-Indian passions, transfers elements of the conflict to Indian soil, and sucks New Delhi into foreign policy nastiness. Second, having opted for order, India has played a hand well known to its smaller neighbors: intervention. The only question has been how to intervene.

Here, there are several schools of thought. My past work in Sri Lanka has led to my being less than charitable as to Indian official motives. In the Sri Lankan case, New Delhi was into everything from supporting terrorism to running covert ops in a friendly, neighboring democracy. Only when the Frankenstein it helped to create, LTTE, turned on its former benefactor did logic and morality reassert themselves in New Delhi’s policy. In this case, in Nepal, it is perhaps too early to speak in such terms. What we know at the moment is that is that the weak position of the coalition government in New Delhi, combined with its normal “Great Game” psychology and the eagerness of certain Indian personalities, especially on the left, to expand their own role and spheres of involvement, led to a policy shift that supported SPAM (the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists). It seems equally clear that India, as it did previously in Sri Lanka, went into the present endeavor quite misinformed by its alleged experts, not to mention its intelligence organs, and that it is quite ignorant as to the actual nature of the Maoists – no matter the efforts of those same personalities just mentioned to claim how wise, thoughtful, and caring Prachanda and other members of the Maoist leadership are.

In once again misreading the situation in a neighboring state, India was virtually pushed by the nationalism of the king. Whatever else he is, the monarch is a Nepali who does not think it is for India to dictate Nepali realities. Ironically, this is a position also held by the Maoists. They have simply realized, of late, that it is a position best relegated to the shadows. Better to rail against the old bugaboos of Indian politics, especially in unison with those who think the Cold War is still going on, “America and world imperialism.”

As the US Ambassador has made quite clear – and the cases of Hamas and Hezbollah illustrate well – there are consequences connected with actions that seek to talk peaceful politics but engage in behavior labeled terrorist by virtually the entire world. It is noteworthy that in their quest to carve out an identity as “independent” actors, the Maoists claim to see exemplars in very unsavory types – Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, North Korea. One can understand why these odious regimes are “picked” – on the surface, they stand for a divorce from the present world-order, which Maoist dogma holds responsible, in league with the Nepali local representatives of world-capitalism (that is, anyone who owns anything and makes a decent living), for the lack of development that is present-day Nepali reality. In reality, Cuba and North Korea have long been economic basket-cases noted for their political repression, while Venezuela and Iran are political basket-cases determined to remain such by exploiting a single resource, oil, something Nepal certainly does not have. Cases such as Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia also offer a certain fascination for the Maoists, since these states claim to be “socialist.” Each, though, has particulars not relevant to Nepal. Indeed, the most apt comparison for Nepal would seem to be to the Albania of the Cold War, when its lack of resources and close affinity with Maoist ideology reduced it to a complete backwater.

What now looms for India in Nepal is what Israel has faced with Hamas and Hezbollah. Whether events play themselves out as we are witnessing in the Middle East depends quite upon what the Maoists are actually up to. Hamas and Hezbollah, for example, thought they could be both respectable and disrespectable, that they could be both in government and carry our terrorist actions. Their fellow citizens have paid a terrible price for such folly. Hamas is particularly tragic, because the Palestinians thought they could elect a group that both wanted to defy world norms and be supported by its money. The similarity to the Nepali case is compelling. Hamas and Hezbollah, one could argue, have behaved as the Nepali Maoists seem determined to behave, to participate in “the system” only to use it for their own ends. Those “ends,” obviously, have now made life even worse for the Palestinian and Lebanese populations.

PIRA in Northern Ireland, to the contrary, has reintegrated, worked to move beyond what it was and to build a better Ulster. Ulster today is an improvement upon the Ulster that existed when the civil rights movement erupted in the late 1960s over ill-treatment of the Catholic minority. In the Nepal case, it was disappointing and tragic that the SPA and the Palace could not have a meeting of minds. Parliamentary democracy should have been the ultimate bulwark against the Maoist challenge, but the very nature of Nepali parliamentary democracy, with its corruption and ineptitude, led to its marginalization. The increasingly bitter split between SPA and the king became all but inevitable in such circumstances, but personalities also played a central role, as they do in all that occurs in Nepal. It was the nastiness between Congress personalities, for instance, that incapacitated government at the moment when focus and response were most needed to insurgent challenge. India has sought to alter this reality long after the fact, by coming down squarely on the side of “democracy.” Yet, as happened in Sri Lanka, New Delhi’s political class seems to have seriously miscalculated.

Though certain Indian commentators hold there are no connections between the Indian and Nepali Maoists, this has never been the case. Indeed, the two sides previously discussed openly their linkages, and individuals from the two movements were apprehended or killed in operations “on the wrong side of the border.” Only with a move to exploit the nonviolent line of operation did the Nepali Maoists stop claiming to be integrally linked not only with South Asian Maoism, through CCOMPOSA, but also with global Maoist forces through RIM. Of course, these were never “command” relationships, only liaison and, in the case of the Indian groups, some presence. It is naive to claim the radical wing of a radical Maoist movement will simply salute and call it a day, even if the leadership decides reigning in the combatants is the best tactical course of action. Further, it is inevitable that any Maoist government would encourage the usual flocking of left-wing groupies that we see – and have seen – in every other case of a radical government. Indeed, there already are here in Nepal the usual international activists engaging in “revolutionary activities” and supplying information to the Nepali left-wing press and even to the Maoists themselves.

The Future

On the one hand, there is hope for the Nepalese future. What is happening now politically should have been the response to the Maoists, with the security forces providing the shield. Though a plan was in fact drawn up in the pre-April 2006 period, it was mechanical, devoid of substance, precisely because the mobilization that occurred in April was not used by Nepali democracy as its weapon. That is the irony of Nepali parliamentary democracy – it proved incapable of using mobilization of democratic capacity to defend itself. It did not do what the Thai, the Filipinos, the Peruvians, and the Sri Lankans did to defeat their Maoists. They brought reform to imperfect systems and made them better. They are still imperfect, but so are all systems. And they are not man-eating systems as desired by the left-wing, of which the Maoists are the premier representatives.

It should be obvious that the claim that there is “no military solution” to insurgency is simply a canard. One heard it endlessly in Nepal, most often from “the foreigners who would be gods,” as one acquaintance was apt to put it. Armed capacity enables the campaign of reform, because armed capacity is what enables the challenge to the old-order. In circumstances such as Nepal, no army can be committed simply to defend the status quo. It must be committed to defend transformation. That transformation, though, must look rather more like what can be seen in India and a lot less like that witnessed in Mao’s China.

If Nepal wishes to move forward, it has all the pieces right before it on the table. This has been said before. What separates the sides is the Maoist notion that revolutionary transformation will now be delivered by surrender when force of arms could not take it. “The people have spoken,” goes their claim. In reality, the people have spoken, but they have not at all supported what the Maoists have in mind, precisely because the Maoists have worked so hard not to let their vision and plans get out into the open. What Nepal needs now, more than ever, is equitable representation and good governance. What the Maoists keep demanding is retribution and marginalization of all who do not see a solution in their terms. There seems to be the idea that one can simply one day announce a decision has been reached, which will include a declaration that, in effect, a significant slice of the Nepalese old-order should present itself at the chopping block. To say that will not “just happen” is not to be a pessimist or even a realist, only to reiterate a point I have made previously: hope in not a method.

For reconciliation, all elements of society need to be engaged. At the moment, the Maoists and some misguided elements of SPA are proceeding in much the same fashion as did the government of Sri Lanka when it marginalized its Tamil population. Half of all Nepalis, in recent polls, said they would be content with a ceremonial monarchy. The security forces number more than 160,000 individuals in intact units. Yet there has been little effort to involve the forces represented by those statistics. For Nepal to move forward, to use a constitutional assembly as a basis for more equitable new arrangements, is a laudable goal. To think a socialist reshuffling of Nepal’s demographic and physical pieces will produce a panacea is a pipe dream. To the contrary, in advancing their “triumph of the will” solution, the Maoists seem quite unawares that they have fixed upon, as course of action, the very title of Hitler’s most powerful fascist propaganda film.

Dr. Thomas A. Marks
Dr. Thomas A. Marks is a political risk consultant based in Honolulu, Hawaii and a frequent visitor to Nepal. He has authored a number of benchmark works on Maoist insurgency.