Jed Brandt, a member of US Kasama Project, is in Katmandu reporting on the ongoing struggle between Nepal’s poor majority, led by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M), and the US and Indian-backed elite that removed the UCPN-M-led government last year.
The poor are struggling for a “New Nepal” based on popular democracy and social justice. This article is abridged from www.jedbrandt.net. A statement from a number of left parties in Asia and beyond in solidarity with the Nepalese people's struggle can be read here.
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The largest mobilisation of human beings in Nepal’s history brought hundreds of thousands of villagers into the capital Kathmandu for the May 1 protests — and the entire country to a standstill.
On May 1, this city belonged to members and supporters of the UCPN-M. Packed buses poured into the city. Young men perched on the roofs.
Bags of rice, lentils and vegetables were stockpiled in the schools, wedding halls and construction sites that served as makeshift camps for the protesters.
Business was completely stopped. Cars and motorcycles were called off the roads and so, for the first time in a month, crisp blue skies opened up as the veil of smog lifted.
On May 2, the Maoists began a nationwide general strike — called a bandh in South Asia. Their supporters closed businesses, schools and transportation in the capital and other centres.
It was a major show of power by the Maoists, and a daring political initiative that confirmed the Maoists’ genuine popular mandate.
No other force in Nepal could pull anything like this off. By contrast, the enemies of the Maoists were only capable of paranoid fear-mongering about country people entering the capital, threats of violent repression and their unsuccessful attempt to get merchants to defy the bandh.
Shutting down Kathmandu
Starting May 2, major intersections were blockaded, most with singers, dance performances and music playing throughout the day while protesters sat in knots with long single-file lines stretching out to the radial streets.
Each of these 18 sites was dubbed a “barricade”, though the only physical obstacles in the streets were the large excited crowds.
The main focus of the general strike was Kathmandu, but 10 other urban areas also mobilised, and rallies were held along the Indian border in Nepal’s southern Terai region.
On May 3, protesters completely encircled Kathmandu twice over, holding hands in two 28-kilometre human chains around the Ring Road belt — one of Nepal’s only modern roads.
As we walked that road, we passed a papier-mache effigy of the “puppet government”, one of many burned throughout the city.
Cries of Lal salaam! (Red salute!) went up from the rows of people lining both sides of the road. There were smiles, raised fists and pride.
Simple people held the city, and the power of the day was lost on no one.
When UCPN-M chairperson and former prime minister Prachanda, and other Maoist leaders drove the length of the “Red Revolution” Ring Road, shouts and raised fists rippled the entire way.
Whatever they claim in the government halls, the Maoist connection to Nepal’s vast, impoverished people is unmistakable.
The governmental parties predicted violence and chaos. The Maoists displayed overwhelming people’s power and sobriety — despite repeated violent provocations from the pro-status quo Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML)-allied Youth Force, Hindutva gangs in the south and the tensions which accompany any bandh.
This political crisis in Nepal has at times seemed slow and festering. But now aggressive forces are pushing for resolution. There is impatience all around.
It has become the kind of crisis that can suddenly rupture into a military coup or a lower-class revolution.
The deadlocked Constituent Assembly has not met in more than a month. The May 28 deadline for writing Nepal’s first democratic constitution is rapidly approaching.
“We are in mobilisation now, non-stop until victory”, said one student leader manning a barricade near the government ministries. “Our strategy is direct to socialism, our tactics will not be simple.”
The isolated Prime Minister M.K. Nepal, from the CPN-UML, stubbornly resists Maoist demands he resign. Backed by military commanders and encouraged by foreign advisers, he demands the Maoists to drop their agenda for radical change and disband both the Maoist-led People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Young Communist League (YCL).
The Maoists reject new talks with the governmental parties until the PM steps aside. And so the spotlight shifted from negotiations to the streets — where the festivity of May 1 increasingly gave way to tension and street clashes.
Even then, this Janandolan (people’s power uprising) put dancing in front of fighting.
At each of the 18 barricades, where thousands held key junctions through sheer numbers, dance troupes encouraged participation and popular ballads brought the young crowds to their feet.
Leaders of governing parties called on merchants to defy the shutdown. On May 5, the Youth Force fired shots at a group of YCL cadre. Luckily no one was injured.
Despite such provocations, the Maoists kept their promise to keep this round of protests unarmed and non-violent.
Then on May 7, upper-class Nepalis staged the largest non-Maoist rally of the week — about 20,000 gathered in Kathmandu for a “peace rally”.
The stated purpose was to urge a non-violent conclusion to the constitutional process. Sponsors, such as the Chamber of Commerce, insisted they were non-partisan and the rally was not in defiance of the strike.
But then anti-Maoist groups emerged from the rally to attack the large encampments of Maoists. The “peace rally” quickly proved to be anything but peaceful.
I arrived in the area just as the rally ended. Breakaway groups marched towards the Maoist barricades. The counterrevolutionaries chanted: “Prachanda's head in a noose.”
The Maoists responded by turning up their music and encouraging people to dance rather than be provoked.
Swanaam, a Maoist leader, said: “We will not act against those people only because they disagree with us.”
That 200 YCL cadre defended the intersection, armed with fighting sticks, didn’t hurt either.
Wiping his eyes, swollen from police tear gas, YCL commander Pun told me another breakaway group threw rocks into the protesters’ mess hall at the City Hall convention centre.
Bystanders and protesters were hit with sticks. When the YCL and others responded, police fired tear gas into the mess hall and baton-charged those on the street.
Light clashes between Maoists and the police erupted around the city center for two hours. Police also gassed the law campus of Tribuvan University, which had been taken over by a revolutionary student faction and offered as housing to protesters from the villages.
As I interviewed people, we could hear the street fighting just a few blocks away.
Diwash, an earnest young communist and student body president at one of the national university’s satellite campuses, dismissed the vigilante attacks, saying they were distractions.
“We are strong, steady”, Diwash said. “We can put hospitals, all the schools to the people and not as businesses. A new constitution means land reforms and people’s government that [can] develop to communism.”
The fighting in the capital was clearly threatening to escalate. The Maoist leadership decided they were not yet ready for a showdown with the military.
Prachanda appeared on television late May 7 to announce that the strike would be suspended.
He called for a rally the next day. He said “decisive struggle” would continue — to topple the government and replace it with one led by the UCPN-M, which had easily won the largest number of seats in the 2008 elections.
On May 8, I joined one of the hundreds of feeder marches into the city centre. The tension was palpable.
The prime minister had not stepped down. There had been two days of escalating confrontations. And the crowd was clearly braced for new provocations.
I ran into Madushi Bhattarai, a student leader at Tribuvan University. “Do you know what's going on”, I asked.
“We will know today”, Madushi said. “A step back, I think, for two steps forward.”
She confided that she didn’t know what to expect, but saw this as a “twisting path towards May 28”.
“The Janandolan hasn’t been called off. If you look at Nepali Maoists from the eye of past communist movements, you won’t be able to understand us.
“Our goal is socialism, that is constant and we are not confused. Whether elections or people’s war — or this general strike — we find our tactics from our goals.”
When we arrived at the rally, the waiting crowd was sober. Everyone was waiting for Prachanda.
“We made history with the most peaceful strike in Nepal’s history”, Prachanda began.
“We felt the pressing need, as the largest party, to be sensitive to the plight of the people”, he said, even as the government ignored the just demand for the PM’s resignation.
“People who supported us have started to suffer. We have called the strike back for now.
“The ball is now in the government’s court.”
Prachanda rejected negotiations with the government so long as the prime minister refuses to step down.
“If we don’t have the peace and constitution we want, the patience, non-violence and civility of this strike will not be seen the next time.”
Prachanda told the crowd: “The strike is suspended, but this struggle has not ended.
“The strike was only a dress rehearsal.”
Nepal’s Maoists don’t cling to rigid models from China or Russia. They are famous for their non-dogmatic ways.
But Prachanda’s words clearly echo Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin’s famous description of Russian street clashes during 1917 as a “dress rehearsal” for the final seizure of power that October.
Since 2006, the Maoists have been working towards a powerful new upsurge of popular struggle. The struggle is now being waged for their radical program of a “New Nepal”.
By calling this last week of strikes and protests a “dress rehearsal”, Prachanda is saying that the curtain may rise on a long-prepared opening act.