Just what goes on in the mind of Pushpa Kamal Dahal? His Maoists have lost the reigns of power through their own refusal to foster reconciliation. Yet no sooner has his custom-made (Rs. 110,000) bed been moved out of the Baluwater official residence, than “Fierce One” claims that democratic process is “counterrevolution.”
For good measure, he throws in that the goal of the new leadership is to restore the monarchy, which would seem laughable were it not accompanied by the orders for the YCL storm troopers to take to the streets.
Is this method or madness? Is Robin Just a Hood?
Where to look for answzers? It seems we have but a single book to which we can turn.
In bringing out a biography of “the valiant one” – as per the author, Indian journalist Anirban Roy; “fierce one” as per the most common rendering in Nepal – Mandala Book Point has performed a service. As the only successful communist effort to seize power since the end of the Cold War, the Maoists and their leader require study.
Unfortunately, for anyone interested in something more than various personal details, “the revolutionary” will remain “unknown.” Roy’s book touches upon little of substance and thus leaves us with less than can be gained by reading the often accurate, insightful, and increasingly caustic assessments in the Nepali daily media.
If there is one subject which must be the essence of any book on an insurgent leader, it is the relationship between the leadership and the manpower of the movement. Not only is this critical for understanding the course of the CPN(M)’s people’s war, but also for understanding now the inability of Prachanda’s Maoist-led, pseudo-coalition government to produce little beyond chaos, declining livelihood, and intimidation.
Many have argued – certainly it seems to be the opinion of Roy and a fraction of the Indian foreign policy establishment – that Prachanda is “really” a larger than life version of Robin Hood who has sought only to address the myriad economic, social, and political grievances (as well as hopes and aspirations) of the marginalized Nepali masses. This “moral economy of the peasants” version simply does not consider the obvious: what if Robin is just a Hood?
For the central question of the nasty decade of Maoist insurgency in Nepal has been whether the dog wagged his tail or vice versa. How much that occurred – and it was a bloody decade between 1996 and 2006, with the dead augmented an order of magnitude by mutilations, disappearances, and the like – was planned or simply the result of being astute enough to exploit events as they were carried out autonomously or semi-autonomously by others?
What seems clear is that a fairly typical (in Nepali terms) party structure, the CPN(M), led by marginalized elites (the principal figures among whom, like Prachanda, were Brahmins), achieved traction through linkage with dissatisfied tribal formations, particularly Maggars (who appear historically to have provided a plurality of those recruited to the British Gurkhas). This was not unlike what occurred in the Hmong areas of the north during the unsuccessful effort of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) or in the northern Luzon homelands of the Igorots during the 1980s heyday of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
There, the leadership was Maoist, the manpower grievance guerrillas. Whether the CPT or CPP actually exercised command and control over the tribal formations remains unclear, as it does in the CPN(M) case.
How the Maoists Wages War
In Nepal, the tribal formations appear to have been the heart of the main forces, Maoist battalions, just as the so-called “Secret Army” of the US in Laos was built upon Hmong alienated by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao abuse. The Maoist battalions were in essence copies of the Indian Gurkha establishment (no surprise given the prominence in Maoist training of ex-figures from that establishment, which presently numbers more than 40 battalions). They were mixed gender, had good discipline, and fought effectively using standard though innovative tactical doctrine.
These forces, however, were a distinct minority amidst the violence that swept across Nepal. They were linked to the numerous local wars that raged in Nepal’s localities – theoretically, in the 3,913 Village Development Committees (VDCs, counties in Western terminology). It was at this local level that the atrocities largely took place.
Efforts to place the onus of human rights abuses on government forces do not hold up well, since they essentially sidestep the massive level of assault and maiming, not to mention destruction of infrastructure, that was carried out by Maoist local forces. Even as this debate has continued, what has not been touched – certainly not in Roy’s volume – is the connection between such local agency and Maoist central structures.
How much was ordered versus simply exploited?
The CPN(M) leadership throughout has claimed absolute control over the organization – except when it comes to owning up to widespread depredation. To the contrary, the Maoists continue to fall back upon denying that which is undeniable. They simply do not acknowledge that their movement wreaked havoc upon the country.
Yet the only defence is to claim that the main forces were the movement, and the rest occurred as commission by loosely affiliated fellow-travellers. This, of course, means they did not actually carry out the insurgency.
This is far from an idle issue, since lawlessness continues under the official umbrella of the Young Communist League (YCL; reflagged but the same organization), storm troopers drawn from the lumpen ranks but officered by the same Maoist chain-of-command that ran the main forces. As a consequence, the demoralized police, unable to act due to continuous political intervention, have been displaced by armed gangs linked to the major political parties.
It matters very much, too, as illustrated by “Prachandagate.” It is not that UNMIN “miscounted.” It is that the inspectors did not know what to count.
The Maoists packed both local and main forces into the camps, plus thousands of brand new recruits. In any Maoist structure, main forces (the battalions) are the tip of the iceberg. Most “combatants” are local forces, largely unarmed with high-powered firearms.
It is similar to the structure of any state security forces. In Nepal, the bulk of the armed representatives of the government are not in the army but in other forces, such as the police.
Hence – as Prachanda himself said in his defence – most of those in the camps were indeed “combatants” of sorts but not the “real guerrillas” that the world was hoodwinked into thinking it was counting. Further, while it could count weapons turned in, it had no way of knowing what was not turned in – and some of the best and most powerful pieces did not appear in the UNMIN inventories.
It has already been noted by one and all what happened next. The camps were used to expand the actual main forces (with the Maoists allowed to retain a proportion of their weapons), while the chain-of-command stood up new local forces – the YCL.
What, then, do the Maoists have in mind for the future of Nepal? Prachanda speaks constantly of the need to displace parliamentary democracy in favor of a people’s republic (though, as with the actual name of the CPN(M), a new formulation has lately been advanced).
Key elements in the Maoist leadership urge an outright power grab. Prachanda and his faction appear to feel that such would provoke, at best, isolation (not least from dominant India), at worst, external intervention (again, India is a prime candidate). Therefore, they urge caution, noting that the same end can be achieved without provocative action.
The Maoists themselves are rent by factionalism, with some truly odious characters not only urging but openly leading violent acts even as Prachanda consuls…what? As noted accurately in Nepali media, “Fierce One” seems all but schizophrenic in his shifts between conciliatory rhetoric and threats of vengeance to be visited upon any who seek to thwart the grandiose schemes of him or his party.
Revolution in the Revolution
Any student of the Nepali insurgency would have asked that such issues as discussed here be placed at the heart of a biography of Prachanda. Regrettably, they are not even raised much less addressed.
From knowledge, though, comes the ability to act. Would be that there had been an understanding of the basics of Maoist military structure. Key issues which remain for exploration by the media and academia:
- First, a discussion of the strategic thought of the Maoists is needed, especially of the factionalism that led to the fierce debates that occurred within the leadership ranks during the struggle. These offer the Rosetta Stone to Prachanda’s present conduct (and that of his faction).
- Second, how was operational advance during “the war” related to the individual positions of the Maoist leadership, especially Prachanda (who, judging from Nepali cell phone intercepts, spent much of the decade not in the theatre of operations but India)?
- Third, what were the actual mechanics whereby this advance was achieved? How, for example, did the urban commandos function in the Kathmandu Valley? Who gave the orders to kill those who were murdered and left hanging on poles throughout the country?
- Fourth, given the way events have been developing as concerns New Delhi, what was the relationship of Prachanda and his leadership to India? What was the agreement both thought they had reached? After all, it not only did not arrest him (Nepali security forces did provide to the Indians his whereabouts) but ultimately intervened decisively in favor of the insurgents.
- Fifth, what was the role played by fellow-travellers (both domestic and international) in the Maoist effort? At no time did Prachanda or the Maoists exist as isolated actors. They interacted with numerous Nepali political parties and individuals (e.g., elements of the press and the human rights establishment), as well as numerous foreign actors, official (e.g., certain embassies) and unofficial (e.g., certain INGOs). What was the end-game being pursued by these forces and how did it influence the conflict? Was Prachanda central or marginal to these activities?
- Sixth, how do the party factions relate to the present chaos and unwillingness of the Maoist movement to engage in good-faith reconciliation? To what extent is Prachanda a prisoner of the local forces that swept him to power or a shrewd politician playing the ends against the middle?
Certainly the author pegs him as the latter, though no disinterested observer would accept this position without a great deal of scepticism. Put bluntly, as stated above in slightly different terms: what does “the unknown revolutionary” really believe?
Regrettably, no answers to these and other questions are to be found in the book. What we do know from readily available sources is not encouraging.
Power is the end-game for Prachanda and the Maoists. All they do revolves around that one goal.
Power can be gained “peacefully” – by which the Maoists mean the system surrenders to them and their plans for societal dismemberment. Or it can be achieved violently – what the Maoists are preparing to do with their street thugs (they have announced it).
If Roy’s book provides no answers, there are thousands (literally) which do. Pick up any volume on the rise of Fascism between the great wars. There, a reader will find spelled out chapter and verse what is unfolding in Nepal. Only the name of the storm-troopers has changed to protect the guilty.