‘Speak With Respect, Otherwise We Shall Pull Out Your Tongue’: Tales from People’s War in South Asia

“The oppressed countries constitute the storm centres of world revolution.” – Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia, 2001.

“Hoist the Revolutionary Flag on Mount Everest in the 21st Century!” – Prachanda, 2006.

The following is a collection of anecdotes and firsthand accounts from the Nepalese People’s War (1996-2006) and the ongoing people’s war in India led by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI (Maoist)]. I hope you find them enlightening and inspiring or use them as a jumping off point for your own research.

I will first introduce the source, then the quote, then provide a bit of background and context. Passages are organized by country (Nepal first, then India) and source document.

Nepal

Paudel, D. (2019) ‘Prismatic Village: The Margin at the Center in the Nepali Maoist Revolution’, Critical Sociology, 45(4–5), pp. 729–743. doi: 10.1177/0896920517708340.

Since 2006, Thabang has remained at the center of national political transition during the postrevolution period. The Maoist central leadership in Kathmandu frequently visited Thabang and the upper Rapti area to demonstrate the continuous political backing of the Maoists from the rural area. For example, on 13 February 2011, Comrade Prachanda, the chairman of the Maoist Party, along with his deputies and the chief of the military wing, landed in Thabang to celebrate the 16th anniversary of the Maoist revolution in Nepal. But Thabang leaders lambasted Prachanda for compromising on the revolution’s agenda, and threatened to take up arms once again if the people were not genuinely liberated through the ongoing peacetime political processes. “In our history of struggles, we have changed the Party many times,” a local commander reminded Prachanda.

Paudel, 740.

Thabang, a remote municipality in Nepal, is a tenacious communist stronghold and home to some of the fiercest revolutionaries in the country. It has been at the forefront of liberation in Nepal for the latter half of the 20th century and continues to be a hotbed of agitation today. The Thabang leaders quoted here are not exaggerating in the slightest: the villagers of Thabang have continuously shaped the communist movement in a revolutionary direction and continue to do so in the post-People’s War context.

Acharya, K. and Muldoon, O. T. (2017) ‘Why “I” became a combatant: A study of memoirs written by Nepali Maoist combatants’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 29(6), pp. 1006-1025. doi: 10.1080/09546553.2015.1105797.

The excerpt from Lama (extract 5) exposes the role of a spreading political context. The revolt of 1979, which started with a few hundred students heading to the Pakistani Embassy to lodge a protest letter, grew more intensive after Nepali police blocked the students forcefully. Within a few days, the protest not only became more violent but also escalated throughout the country. This context influenced Lama substantially in the sense that it transformed him from an apolitical adolescent to a politically oriented man. Two characteristics of the revolt—destruction and mass mobilization—appear to have accentuated his journey toward revolution as a meaningful self category:

Extract 5: I was fascinated by politics after the revolt of 1979. The protest led by students was against the decision of Pakistani military government to execute Prime Minister Julfikar Ali Bhutto with the death penalty. The protest grew more intensive than expected. I was 18 years old then; politics was totally unknown to me. I had never witnessed scenes such as torching government buildings (Royal Nepal Airlines Company, Gorkhapatra Corporation) with fire in any of the mass movements before. . . . I participated in the revolt as I saw many people joining it.

Acharya and Muldoon, 1014.

This passage highlights a Maoist guerillas awakening during the 1979 Nepalese student protests. These protests led to a 1980 plebiscite on the implementation of multi-party democracy, but the vote ultimately failed. Nevertheless, this moment marked a turning point for the new democratic revolution in Nepal which finally boiled over into armed conflict with the start of the People’s War in 1996.

Davis, P. et al. (2012) ‘Public Support for the Maoists in Nepal’, in Understanding and Influencing Public Support for Insurgency and Terrorism, RAND Corporation, pp. 119-150. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg1122osd.13.

Heavy-handed police measures in the initial years of the insurgency provided vital fuel for the Maoist movement. Many villagers joined the movement to avenge the death of their kin. After joining the movement, many were indoctrinated in Maoist rhetoric that positioned all Maoists as kin and the state as the enemy. Hence, as more Maoists were killed, Maoist cadres’ desire for vengeance grew. Thapa and Sijapati (2004) quote one Maoist:

Yes, my brother has been killed. But we have another 1,000 brothers of the same kind. We will all come together and take revenge. We will not spare those responsible for our grief.

Davis et al., 127.

As J. Sakai tells us: “They have our class understanding actually. They’re just on the other side.” This research funded by the RAND Corporation is a great example of this fact. While the ultimate goal of the authors is counter-insurgency, the paper still recognizes the incredible mass support the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(M)] held during the People’s War. Though the authors frame this as “indoctrination,” the quote from the Maoist cited remains powerful.

Lecomte-Tilouine, M. (2009) ‘Fighting with Ideas: Maoist and Popular Conceptions of the Nepalese People’s War’, in Gayer, L. and Jaffrelot, C. (eds.) Armed Militias of South Asia: Fundamentalists, Maoists and Separatists. London: Hurst, pp. 65-89.

The life story of the two sisters Adhar and Ilaka (meaning “Base” and “Region”), who enrolled during their 16th and 14th year respectively, also suggests that they primarily see the party as an instrument for revenge, their revenge for the killing of their paternal uncle and their father by the police in 1999. Ilaka says: “If there were no Maoists, the enemy would kill innocent people. In order for them to be able to take their revenge, the Maoists must exist: this seemed right to us and we started to walk in alongside the party”. The sisters add: “We have also acquired the same rights as men and we have challenged the macho ideas that women can’t do anything”. Comrade Anupam was born in 1981. In 1997, her maternal uncle’s son, a PLA soldier, became a martyr. At that time she was an activist in the All Nepal Women’s Organisation (Revolutionary), the women’s organisation in the CPN (M). “I told to myself: I shall avenge my beloved cousin killed like that. I understood that to avenge him, I needed to join the organisation, so I joined it”. She then participated in many attacks, and “cleansed” seven RNA soldiers with her SLR, and fourteen others with her grenades. “When the enemy learns that women are coming to fight, what is their behaviour?”, asks the journalist. “They underestimate us. They abuse us verbally. They fire a lot in our direction, thinking that we are weak. But we don’t think that we are weak”.

Lecomte-Tilouine, 75.

Women were a sizeable minority of the Maoist fighting force during the People’s War, making up approximately 40 percent of the CPN(M)’s guerilla forces. While male chauvinism plagued the Nepalese communist movement in certain aspects, the People’s War opened up tremendous space for gender egalitarianism.

Ogura, K. (2008) ‘Maoist People’s Government’, in Gellner, D. and Hachhethu, K. (eds.) Local Democracy in South Asia. Delhi: Sage Publications, pp. 175-231.

I saw evidence of the existence of the naya satta (new power) in some of the infrastructure built by the local Maoist People’s Government when I trekked from Salyan to Rukum in March 2003. From Balchour VDC in Salyan, to Kholagaun in Rukum, we used a 20-kilometre footpath, which had just been completed by the local people under the direction of two Village People’s Governments. We crossed some wooden bridges built by the naya satta and saw a small hydroelectric power plant providing electricity to a bazaar in Kholagaun. The CPN (Maoist) adopted a district annual budget which they implemented in the People’s Governments of Rolpa, Salyan, Dang, and the Vishes Jilla (Special District) and these passed budgets of Rs 5,200,000, Rs 2,300,000, Rs 3,500,000, and Rs 7,000,000, respectively. The Rukum District People’s Council Government had just passed an annual budget of Rs 2,300,000 at their council meeting for the first time. Sarun Batha Magar said: “We will do additional work equivalent to the budget by making use of voluntary work from the people”. He told me that the revenue would be collected through taxes. They passed regulations requiring government officers, including schoolteachers, to pay one day’s salary per month to the naya satta and the villagers to pay 2 per cent of the land price at the time of buying. Businessmen, mostly shopkeepers, also have to pay 5 per cent of their self-assessed income. The council will spend this budget mainly on building infrastructure, such as irrigation canals and roads. They also had plans to build five more small hydroelectric power plants to add to the existing two in Kholagaun and Kotjahari and to open three more schools in the district.

Ogura, 184-185.

Naya satta refers to the CPN(M)’s strategy of power-from-below and the organization of the Nepalese masses towards not only the overthrow of the existing system, but the creation of “Naya Nepal” (New Nepal). This took the form of political education, cultural revolution, and infrastructure development in the long-ignored villages of rural Nepal.

Shneiderman S. and Turin, M. (2004) ‘The Path to Jan Sarkar in Dolakha District’, in Hutt, M. (ed.) Himalayan ‘People’s War’. London: Hurst, pp. 79-111.

‘In 2053 v.s. [1996/7], we heard that Maoists were starting to break into the houses of wealthy people, tax collectors and moneylenders, stealing their money and property and distributing it to the poor. What amazing news, we had never heard anything like that before! I was also happy when I heard this rumour, but I was afraid that this struggle would end badly. But I put those thoughts aside when I heard the wonderful news about sharing out the wealth of the rich landowners. The Maoists had even burnt all the papers and accounts kept in some banks… We heard that the Maoists were break­ing the arms and legs of moneylenders and tax collectors in the west of the country and were taking control of villages. How amazing!

Shneiderman and Turin, 89.

This is a quotation from a rural peasant interviewed by the authors used to demonstrate the power of violence against ‘class enemies’ as a recruiting tool. “2053 v.s.” refers to the traditional calendrical system of Nepal.

The final stage in the humanisation of the Maoists came when villag­ers actually met them face-to-face, and realised  that-apart  from their heightened motivation and devotion to a cause-there was lit­tle that separated them from other villagers. We should not underes­timate the importance of this process for engendering support at the village level: the Maoists had transformed from unknown and dan­gerous beings far from Dolakha to motivated and powerful humans meeting villagers in their own homes. Many villagers spoke of their sense of incredulity that such brave and powerful individuals should come to speak with them, ask them for their opinions on weighty issues, and address them with respect. This last element of the equa­tion is crucial: villagers expected to be frightened into submission when the Maoists finally came, but instead they were addressed hu­manely and respectfully by people who seemed to understand the predicament of their lives. A logical extension of such experiences is a sense of empowerment. As one man put it, ‘If the Maoists are like us, does that also mean that we are like them?’

Shneiderman and Turin, 91.

Speaks for itself.

‘Last year in Magh 2057 v.s. [January-February 2001], the Maoists staged a fake wedding procession through the hills. Starting somewhere near their northern stronghold of Lapilang, an entire procession was put together including the bridegroom, musicians and porters to carry the bridegroom’s sedan chair. In full Bahun style, the wedding procession approached the police post in Charikot. There were perhaps thirty participants altogether. The police had no idea that they were Maoists, and complimented them on their dancing and music! The procession continued to Phasku, out of Charikot on the way to Sailung. Once they reached Phasku, they gave up the wedding disguise and changed into their guerrilla uniforms. In Phasku, another group was waiting to meet them , who had come with guns and other necessary equipment. Then a large mass meeting was held in Phasku. The purpose was to make fun of the police and show us how witty they [the Mao­ists] were, as well as how brazen they could be.’

Shneiderman and Turin, 97.

A (perhaps embellished) story related to the authors, though they make sure to note they believe the general details are correct. A quintessential aspect of the CPN(M)’s ability to recruit was due to their familiarity with various traditional customs, and cultural performances put on by the Maoists were considered so engaging even villagers who were not invested in communism enjoyed them.

Pettigrew, J. and Shneiderman, S. (2004) ‘Women and the Maobadi: Ideology and Agency in Nepal’s Maoist Movement’, Himal Southasian, 17(1), pp. 19-29. Available at: https://ulir.ul.ie/handle/10344/3868.

Among a group of 450 Maoist combatants encountered by Pettigrew during their two day stay at her field site, approximately 25-30% were women between 16 and 25 years old. Of the seven-member section with whom she talked in depth, two were women. While a man led, one of the senior members was a 19-year-old dalit woman who gave orders to her junior colleagues. Both the dalit woman and her younger female colleague, a 16-yearold chetri, were responsible for cleaning their own guns, maintaining their equipment, washing their clothes and participating in sentry duty. They did not help in preparing food nor in repairing uniforms, both jobs which were carried out by men.

After the food was cooked, the four members of the section not involved in sentry duty received a plate of meat to share. Pettigrew watched as the multi-ethnic group consisting of bahun, chetri, dalit, and magar men and women forewent the usual caste and gender conventions and hungrily ate together from the same plate.

The 16-year-old chetri woman spent much of the morning cleaning her gun. Shortly after beginning, the cork she inserted to clean the barrel became stuck. She tried several physically demanding methods to dislodge it by herself, which involved using her body in ways which would have been unacceptable for a woman within most other social contexts. After several attempts she realized that she needed someone with greater physical strength to help. Only then did she request assistance from her male colleagues. They did not seem to consider her exertions as anything out of the ordinary and paid no attention to them.

Pettigrew and Shneiderman, 10.

This is an excellent look into the progressive social upheaval of the Nepalese People’s War and the creation of Naya Nepal. The ethnic and caste egalitarianism of the revolution was just as total as the gender egalitarianism, at least in certain instances.

India

Gupta, T. D. (2006) ‘Maoism in India: Ideology, Programme and Armed Struggle’, Economic and Political Weekly, 41(29), pp. 3172-3176. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4418465.

Although according to official sources [the CPI (Maoist)] has spread its influence to 12 states, its real strongholds are in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa among the adivasi peasantry and dalit labouring classes in particular. However, the party and the various mass organisations it has built have been banned by the governments in all these Maoist-affected states and they are unable to openly organise any propaganda or agitation on popular demands. The Maoists in Andhra Pradesh were, however, able to show their popular support when they were briefly allowed legality during peace talks with the government in July-October 2004. During that period they organised a series of large rural meetings and three massive rallies at Warangal, Hyderabad and Guntur that were widely reported in the Andhra Pradesh media as well as a section of the national media. The ban on the CPI (Maoist) and its affiliated mass fronts was reimposed in Andhra Pradesh after the failed peace talks.

Gupta, 3174.

The 2004 unification of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) People’s War and the Maoist Communist Centre of India into the CPI (Maoist) marked the highpoint of revolutionary politics in 21st century India. This merger was allegedly facilitated by the CPN(M), and during the CPI (Maoist)’s brief period of legality they were able to show their immense support among the masses. Of course, this immediately led to increased repression by the government as this segment recognizes.

Navlakha, G. (2006) ‘Maoists in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 41(22), pp. 2186-2189. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4418285.

The annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) 2005-06 says that “(n)axalism…is not merely a law and order problem but has deep socio-economic dimensions” (p 23). The Ministry of Defense in its annual report for 2005-06 claims that “left wing radicalism and extremism (is) motivated by prevailing socio-economic deprivation…” This gives the impression that the government is walking on two legs; fighting a “low intensity war”, as well as promoting good governance and development. Officials executing the policy on the ground in Bastar district, Chhattisgarh, however, describe this to be an “un-declared war”. The language of war, if not a war effort is evident in the statement of the Union Minister of Home Affairs, Shivraj Patil, in the Lok Sabha on March 1, 2006: “Sir… 26 battalions have been given to the states which are affected by Naxalite movement…(which) mean 26,000 men and officers. It is equal to an army of a small state… (W)e have said that if they need air support, we will give…(we are ready) to supply medicines, supply food grains required by the police for the purpose of evacuating injured persons or any other purpose…. Initially they (Maoists) were using axes and swords. Then they started using pistols and guns. Then they started using AK-47 rifles and now they have started using hand grenades and landmines… Yes they are also using rocket launchers”.

Navlakha, 2186.

The Indian state’s counter-insurgency strategy against the CPI (Maoist) is often framed in humanitarian terms, i.e. the state is developing Maoist-controlled areas for the purposes of ending the root problem. There is a kernel of truth here, but the primary mechanism of counter-insurgency against the CPI (Maoist) and their sympathizers remains brute force.

Roy, M. S. (2009) ‘Magic Moments of Struggle: Women’s Memory of the Naxalbari Movement in West Bengal, India (1967–75)’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 16(2), pp. 205–232. doi: 10.1177/097152150901600203.

To perceive the magical qualities of the period of activism for middle-class women, it is necessary to understand the constraints within which their activism was circumscribed. Let me quote from the oral narrative of P.B., a woman from a lower middle-class family in Suri town of Birbhum district. P.B. explained why she had been motivated to join the [Naxalite] movement:

From childhood I was headstrong and self-confident. My elder brother never liked this and after my father’s death he tried to impose his decisions on me. When I was in the final year of high school I was attracted to Naxalite politics and started working for the Naxalite group in Suri. My brother was terrified by my activism and refused to pay the examination fees for my final examination to stop me from going out of our house. I had to flee because I believed in the brave new world promised by the Naxalite leaders and was determined to work for it. I believed that in the liberated society nobody would be able to stop my education and nobody would threaten me only because I was a young woman. Leaving home was not difficult as staying back would have ended my political life. I never wanted to be the good, homely housewife and so I had nothing to lose.

Roy, 217-218.

Woman participation in the CPI (Maoist) is even more established than the CPN(M), with reports placing women at 40-60 percent of all cadre members. This was preconfigured by the Maoist-inspired Naxalbari revolt of 1967 in which gender (and caste) norms were at times completely abandoned: a “clap of spring thunder over the land of India” as the Communist Party of China described it at the time.

Kunnath, G. (2021) ‘Janathana Sarkar (people’s government): rebel governance and agency of the poor in India’s Maoist guerrilla zones’, Identities, pp. 1-18. doi: 10.1080/1070289X.2021.1928981.

During my fieldwork in Jehanabad, an elderly landless Dalit labourer once told me that prior to the Maoist armed struggle in his village in the early 1980s, labourers suffered many forms of injustice and discrimination under upper caste landowners. Yet he and others used to plead before the landlords, malik, peet pe marieye magar pet par nahi [Sir, hit us on the back if you wish, but not on the stomach], meaning that they were willing to bear any violence as long as they were not deprived of their work and livelihood. After their successful campaign of armed resistance, he said, this attitude of compliance was replaced with one of defiance. Then they would say to the landlords, tameez se pesh aayie, nahi to zuban kheench lenge [speak with respect, otherwise we shall pull out your tongue].

Kunnath, 7.

Again, the CPI (Maoist) did not arise in a vacuum but trace their lineage back to the various Maoist-inspired struggles of the 20th century. Here, Kunnath gives us a glimpse into what this meant for oppressed peoples within areas where these movements had a presence.

In Krantipur, people confided to me that they wanted to vote, not because they believed that electoral democracy would better their lives, but out of fear that if they did not vote, the state would block all welfare schemes on which their lives depended. And when forced to vote, either through violence or incentives, most people tend to cast their votes for NOTA (None of the Above) to reject all candidates. The data on election turnout shows that the largest percentage of NOTA votes are polled in the Maoist guerrilla zones (Bansal and Marathe 2019). Thus, NOTA has become another manifestation of insurgent consciousness, and an arsenal of protest. Repressive violence thus gives rise to new forms of resistance by the poor.

Kunnath, 13-14.

The famous Maoist election boycott makes its appearance in this piece.

In the year 2001, as the head of the village committee, I had to deal with a complaint lodged by a working class widow from the Kahar caste… whose daughter was sexually assaulted by a Kurmi man. I convened the janadalat. Poor peasants and the Kurmis were present, the latter because one of their caste-men was being put on trial. In spite of some Kurmi protests, the people decided that the girl should slap him five times with her chappals [sandals]. They also decided that his head be shaved of hair and chuna [lime power] applied, and then made to run 1 five times round the village. However, this public shaming of the offender had to be abandoned as the police arrived in the village before punishment was carried out. Yet I managed to have the girl slap the accused five times with her chappals. He then asked her pardon with folded hands..

Kunnath, 106-107.

This final passage demonstrates an interesting approach to anti-carceral forms of punishment envisaged by the CPI (Maoist). There is another story in the same article where the punishment for transgression was to build a fence around the village without help. In both cases, the punishment is meted out in consultation with the victim, the people of the village, and the local CPI (Maoist) cadre. The “People’s Courts” of the Maoists in India, Nepal, and the Philippines are generally described to be much more trusted than state alternatives among exploited and oppressed peoples.

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