[Marxism] Maoist Rebellion Shifts Balance of Power in Rural Nepal

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Thu Feb 5 07:06:34 MST 2004

*****   The New York Times
February 5, 2004
Maoist Rebellion Shifts Balance of Power in Rural Nepal

BARDIYA, Nepal - Until two-and-a-half years ago, Rachna Sharma and 
her husband lived as zamindars, or landlords, in this district in 
western Nepal, presiding over an ample estate just as their forebears 
had done.

As members of a high caste, they did not dirty their hands working 
their land. That was left to the Tharus, a landless and powerless 
ethnic group indigenous to this plain area. Until 2000, when the 
government, under pressure, freed them, thousands of Tharus - 
including 15 families on Mrs. Sharma's estate - lived as bonded 
laborers, equal to slaves.

But today Mrs. Sharma, an aristocratic beauty, lives as a refugee, if 
a cosseted one, in the town of Nepalganj. Maoist rebels are living in 
her former house and cooking in her kitchen. The Tharus are farming 
her lands - and keeping all of the crops.

When they come to see her in town, she tries, futilely, to wheedle a 
share, making requests where she once issued commands.

"Now we have to be polite to them," Mrs. Sharma, 36, said.

The guerrilla insurgency that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) 
began against the constitutional monarchy eight years ago has wreaked 
great damage in this country of Himalayan scenery and epic poverty. 
More than 8,500 people have died, including more than 1,500 since the 
end of August, when a cease-fire broke down.

The insurgency has also, in parts of rural Nepal, wrought changes in 
the balance of power between the landed and the landless that 
multiparty democracy - ushered in with great expectations in the 
early 1990's - failed to bring.

That dynamic helps explain why a rebellion that many say has become a 
criminal enterprise as much as a political movement still finds 
support among the Tharus and other disenfranchised ethnic groups and 
the country's low castes.

In the villages of Bardiya, young Tharus talk happily about how the 
landlords have had to flee the Maoists' wrath. "All the zamindars are 
scared of us now," said Bal Krishna Chaudhary, an intense 18-year-old 
Tharu student from a family of former bonded laborers.

His eldest sister, Sita, was a Maoist supporter taken by the army 
more than two years ago. They said she was carrying a bomb, a charge 
he denies, but he does not dispute her Maoist sympathies.

"They speak for the people," he said, explaining why. "They speak for 
the Tharus."

Like a creeper wrapping itself around a tree, the Maoist movement has 
used the entrenched poverty and discrimination of this Hindu 
kingdom's deeply feudal society to build its insurgency. Nepal has 
perhaps the most rigid caste hierarchy remaining today.

This country has been, and still is, dominated by two high castes: 
the Brahmins - called Bahuns in Nepal - or priestly caste, of Mrs. 
Sharma; and Chhetris, or warrior caste, of her husband.

The two castes hold the highest positions in government, politics and 
business. They control the army and the press. And perhaps most 
crucially in a society still reliant on agriculture, they own the 

Much of that land was once farmed by the Tharus, an aboriginal group 
in Nepal's lowlands. With a population of about 1.2 million, out of 
Nepal's 24 million, they are one of the country's largest ethnic 

Once self-sufficient farmers, the Tharus were gradually dispossessed 
as the government granted land to high castes to secure their loyalty 
and expand its reach. Then, the eradication of malaria - to which 
Tharus are believed to be immune - drew in large numbers of hill 
migrants to claim Tharu lands.

Tharus, little educated and ill-equipped to battle for their rights, 
went from being owners to landless tenants. For several generations, 
an estimated 20 percent or more of Tharus in western Nepal - some 
20,000 families - were indentured, usually with no hope of escape.

The Maoists did little or nothing to free the Tharus from bonded 
labor; the pressure on the government came from domestic and 
international organizations.

But the Maoists have woven the uplifting of the Tharus - and of 
Nepal's other downtrodden groups - into their tapestry of slogans, 
and it has resonated among a people who believe that both royalist 
rule and multiparty democracy have failed them.

"We work with them because we think they can help raise our issues 
and get us our rights as citizens," Bal Krishna Chaudhary, the 
student, said. He knew seven people who had joined the Maoists, he 
said. Most are dead or missing.

Ekraj Chaudhary, a Tharu radio journalist based in Nepalganj, said he 
believed that most Tharus were involved with the Maoists, even if 
only passively. But even in the movement, he said, they were still 
relegated to low-level militants, and thus easy prey for the army.

Col. Dipak Gurung, a spokesman for the Royal Nepal Army, said the 
Maoists were exploiting the Tharus. "Tharus are very meek people, 
they normally don't resist," he said. "By nature, by culture, they 
are submissive."

No longer, as Mrs. Sharma could testify. At 45, Mrs. Sharma's husband 
is working in Nepalgunj as a computer instructor - the first job he 
has ever held - to support their family. "Zamindars never worked," 
she said. "It's very strange."

But if the undoing of nobles like Mrs. Sharma has cheered some Tharu 
hearts, the cost of the insurgency has troubled many others. This is 
a war with no winners.

As a result of the rebellion, the state is pulling out of many 
Maoist-controlled areas - generally the country's remote and 
desperately poor rural regions.

The police have been pulled back to district headquarters. Teachers 
and doctors, often singling out the Maoists for extortion or worse, 
are in some cases refusing to serve in villages. The swollen military 
budget, required to sustain an army now close to 80,000-strong, has 
crowded out development spending.

The government calls most of the dead Maoists, but human rights 
advocates, journalists and ordinary Nepalis say many are civilians 
caught in the crossfire or Maoist sympathizers mislabeled militants.

Support for the Maoists by some Tharus has placed the entire 
community under suspicion. The army has come down hard on the Tharus 
- harassing, beating, detaining and sometimes killing them, often 
with little or no evidence.

On a recent afternoon, four parents, faces wan and weary, sat on a 
bench in the front yard of a village home, clutching photographs - 
and in one case simply a negative - of their missing children.

Thirty-seven Tharus have disappeared into army custody from this 
district alone, said Mr. Chaudhary, the journalist. Across the 
country, 709 Nepalis have disappeared in the last eight years, 200 
into Maoist control and the rest into the custody of security forces, 
according to the National Human Rights Commission.

Colonel Gurung disputed that the army had taken people without 
accounting for them. "We're not that irresponsible," he said. He said 
it was "very rare" that anyone would be killed in army custody.

But Phool Kesari, a Tharu and a former bonded laborer, whose husband 
was taken by the army a year and a half ago, is almost certain that 
he is dead. The army came three days after he was taken to say that 
he was a Maoist, which she denies. There has been no word of him 

She has no relatives to rely on. She depends on a 15-year-old 
daughter still working as a bonded laborer, for about 4,000 rupees, 
or $60, a year.

She sat in her one-room house, the possessions inside countable on 
two hands. Three small children clung to her, their eyes watering 
from the thick, stinging smoke of a cooking fire, their noses running.

"How am I going to survive?" she asked. She had no land, no property, 
no education, no husband, no income and three children to feed.

Without waiting for an answer, she offered one. "Maybe I'll go back 
to the zamindar," she said.


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