Nepal: Student leader speaks on struggle for change

June 28, 2009

Ben Peterson is a Green Left Weekly correspondent in Kathmandu. He spoke with Manushi Bhattarai, who was part of the Maoist ticket that won student elections at Tribhuvan University —Nepal's largest. She discussed the revolution, recent developments, the international situation and the role of youth in the struggle for change.

A decade-long armed struggle led by the Maoists, and a mass pro-democracy uprising in 2006, overthrew Nepal's centuries old feudal monarchy. Standing on a platform advocating equality, democracy and pro-poor economic development, the Maoists won the largest number of votes last year to the new constituent assembly.

However, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist resigned from the government it led after a rebellion by the army high command made the government's continuation impossible.

The UCPN-M has called for a new "people's uprising" to continue the revolutionary process for genuine democracy and social justice.

A longer version of this interview can be found at Peterson's blog,

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The pro-Maoist All Nepal National Independent Student Union-Revolutionary (ANNISU-R) won the student elections at Tribhuvan University. What are some of your policies as a revolutionary student union?

The Student union elections were historically important. There have been student elections for many years, but for the first time the revolutionary student movement was allowed to participate. Previously, we were banned.

We won a real breakthrough. We were not just contesting for positions, but linking the student struggles to the political process. I think we were successful in spreading our message to the other students.

We were coming back into open student politics after a long time. We were new faces with a new agenda.
People knew about our commitment and the gains our party made during the "people's war". People can actually see the gains — we are now the Republic of Nepal.

What is the role of students in the political process?

The people's war was initiated in 1996. Students were at the forefront of the revolutionary process. Thousands sacrificed their education and their lives. They left their homes and families to participate in the revolution.

Students have been playing key roles in all fields.

In schools, we were able to maintain committees and continue our organisational work. We took up issues and, on certain campuses, we have been very successful.

We especially try to work in public education institutions. In Nepal, access to education is very unequal. Public institutions are in a very bad condition, but this is where poor people, from rural areas or marginalised groups, must go to study.

We have been seeking to end the privatisation of education and empower the public institutions. This is all linked to pulling Nepal away from feudalism and uprooting the old system.

Recently, the Maoist-led government was brought down and a new government formed by Madhav Kumar Nepal from the more conservative Communist Party of Nepal-United-Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML). Has this disrupted campaigns around education?

Of course! This is disrupting everything.

The people understand this new government exists as a puppet government, backed by forces that don't want the Maoists to be successful in implementing revolutionary policies.

It is aimed at pushing back the Maoists and what we have achieved.

It is aiming to force the Maoists back to the people's war. There are those that would like Nepal to become like another Sri Lanka.

It is against making public institutions a better place. It is against equal access to education for all, to ensure people from all regions of Nepal can get primary and secondary education in their own language, according to their own priorities and the necessities of Nepal, rather than being determined by and dependant on private institutions.

Anyone who comes to power in this way is bound to backtrack on the revolutionary policies our party tried to push.

In the education sector it will mean re-empowering the private sector. The Maoist-led government had started to gain some control over the private education sector, through a new tax policy. The new government will backtrack on this.

The new government is made up of 22 parties but doesn't have the support of the UCPN-M, the party that won the elections. How long can it last?

There is no basis for this government to exist for any significant time. It has been formed without any coherent agenda, program or common ground.

For a government to be formed, it should have some sort of common political ideal that is binding. For these parties it is like some invisible hand is holding them together. How long it will last, I don't know.

When, in the constituent assembly, Koirala [of the pro-capitalist Nepali Congress] proposed a leader of the CPN-UML to be the prime minister, the problems were clear.

Many parties supported the new government, but with ifs, buts and maybes. They joined with their own agendas.

There is no common agenda, policies or ideology — except a desire to "teach the Maoists a lesson".

How will this struggle between the revolution and the status quo be played out?

This is a continuation of the struggle we started with the people's war. We have achieved some gains and we need to sustain those.

We need to keep in mind the international and national situation, as we are faced with what is definitely a very challenging situation. We have a radical agenda. That's how we have been able to mobilise so many people — the whole country — and now we have to do so again.

In the struggle against the monarchy, we worked with forces that are status-quoist, that still have an attachment to feudalism, still have a tendency to look to expansionists [like India] and imperialists [like the US].

Now, Nepal is a republic, and this is a big thing. Some times people forget this and minimise the significance of it, but this is a big achievement in the history of Nepal.

Now we must move ahead. Just because the monarchy is gone doesn't mean feudal elements have all been uprooted.

For us, the fight is still a fight to establish a democratic republic in order to create a socialist system in Nepal. Our party has said very clearly that we are oriented to socialism.

To achieve this, we have wage a struggle for the sovereignty of the Nepalese people. The army issue was never about one general [refusing to implement government policy], it was about Nepal's sovereignty.

The challenge now is to internally fight the status quo forces and externally fight against expansionist and imperialist forces.

There are many fronts, but challenges always come with possibilities. So we are confident. The people's war was one front we fought on, this is just another.

The international situation makes revolutions difficult. The USSR no longer exists and China has abandoned revolution. What do you make of the international situation? In particular, are you looking to Latin America, where revolutions are also happening?

Our party has some links with parties and people there. I have been following the situation in Venezuela and Cuba. I would like my party to have more serious links with Latin America.

I think our party hasn't had as close links as we should have, but this is largely because there are so many differences between our situations. There are certainly similarities in our goals and ideals, and we are all waging an anti-imperialist struggle. But we are in a very specific situation.

The geopolitics of Nepal is very specific and different to Latin America. We are landlocked between India and China.

We need ideological links. We should be having discussions and learning from what they have been able to do — their policies and programs. We have a lot we can learn from the Latin American revolutions.

In Nepal, youth are playing a big role in the revolution. But in Kathmandu, there are also many Westernised youth who look outside for their culture and politics. Is there a cultural clash with revolutionary youth?

I wouldn't say there is a culture clash, but there is a community of upper-class pro-Western youth. I think it's not their fault, its just where they come from. They are more likely to look to the US, Britain or India for their education.

It all really starts with education, and then becomes cultural. I think it's more of an issue of class background. There isn't so much a cultural clash as a clash of class interests. This is bound to happen as they tend to look to the West, while the Maoists look to ourselves and the lower classes.

They are in favour of more privatisation of education, while we oppose this.

I think it is possible to talk to these youth and at least get them to listen to our agenda. There are some Westernised youth on this campus, and they really just want stability and peace. They have everything else, except peace and stability.

So if the Maoists can give them that, then for the time being there won't be such clashes. These youth are basically the product of the whole system. We should try to avoid antagonism between our generation at this time, given the political situation.

A lot of Nepalis study abroad. Does the student union have international organisations to try and organise them?

We have an international department that establishes links with Nepali students abroad. We believe it is not the fault of the students who leave, they just want a good education in a good environment. Right now, Nepal can't provide that. We seek to make links so we can encourage them to come back and use their expertise to develop the country.

Are you optimistic about the future of Nepal?

Definitely! Otherwise I wouldn't be where I am right now!

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