Nepal: Roots of Revolution

Excerpts from A World to Win

Revolutionary Worker #906, May 11, 1997

Surprise and No Surprise

The initial actions, although moderate from a strictly military point of view, stunned the ruling class like a blow to the head. For more than a millennium, the upper classes of Nepal had considered it their god-given right to rule over and exploit the working people. In fact, the King of Nepal promotes himself as the living reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu! The feudals and bureaucrat capitalists who rule over Nepal in league with imperialism and neighbouring India found it almost impossible to believe that the workers and especially the poor peasants, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population, were daring to use force against the guardians of the old regime.

But although the actual outbreak of hostilities came as a jolt to the rulers, the intensification of the conditions giving rise to revolution had been at work for a long time and had been accelerating at a rapid pace in the last few years especially. Two significant scholarly articles had appeared which had as subject matter the widespread support in Nepal for the Communist Party of Peru and Chairman Gonzalo and the possibilities that a People's War might erupt from the smoldering class conflicts there.

Furthermore, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had made no secret of its determination to prepare and launch the People's War. Numerous public documents, articles and speeches had been made along that line, and many, many thousands of people were aware of or participating in the Party's active preparations. So why then such a shock?

This is because, in all countries, the class outlook of the reactionary classes leads them to underestimate and have contempt for the oppressed. While they do fear the possibilities of explosion from the lower depths of society and do institute numerous repressive measures aimed at preserving the status quo through force and violence, the exploiters nevertheless believe that they alone are really capable of running society. This viewpoint is also deeply ingrained in Hinduism, the religion of Nepal's ruling class. The more that the revolt of the masses takes on a conscious revolutionary form, the more that the target of the struggle is the seizure of power, and the more thoroughly the revolution aims to uproot and replace the old reactionary social relations--the more the ruling classes consider the revolution an impossible, unthinkable nightmare, even while they spare no effort to oppose, sidetrack, slander and, when all else fails, smother it in blood.

Another particularity of the revolutionary movement in Nepal is that for more than a generation communist leaders had been advocating in words armed struggle for a new democratic revolution while finding one reason after another not to take up the serious preparations and launching of such a struggle. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) also had to discard the heavy weight of non-revolutionary goals, methods of work and forms of organization, which had characterized the whole of the communist movement in Nepal for decades. The daring initiation of the People's War is also a stinging refutation of the revisionist and opportunist lines.

Some Background

Nepal is located in a wide swath covering much of the Himalayas, which separate the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau (part of China). Although the Himalayas are the highest mountains in the world (the world's highest peak, Sagarmatha, known in the West as "Mount Everest" after a British colonial official, is located in Nepal), they are not impregnable, and numerous passes have been used since antiquity as trading routes. The capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, is located on the principal trade route that historically has linked Tibet (and beyond it China proper) with India.

Although a relatively small country, especially compared to its giant neighbors to the north and south, Nepal is a mosaic of different peoples, languages and cultures. Most of the peoples and language groups in Nepal can be traced either to what some anthropologists call the "Tibeto-Burman" groups from the east and north of the Himalayas or to the "Indo-Aryan" peoples from the west and south. The cultures coexisting in Nepal also reflect varying influences. Nepal is the reputed birthplace of Buddha, and that religion, largely but not exclusively in its Lamaite, or Tibetan variety, is still practised by close to twenty percent of the population.

About half the population of Nepal is made up of different janjati (or minority nationality) groups. The Nepalese ruling class counts the entire janjati population as "Hindus" to justify their treatment of these masses as part of "inferior castes" and to buttress their claim that Nepal is a "Hindu nation." In fact, most of the janjatis reject the label "Hindu" and follow various animist (or naturalist) religious practices.

The geography of Nepal has favoured this mosaic pattern of peoples and cultures. The mountains as well as numerous rivers composing the three distinct water basins in Nepal tended throughout history to keep different populations isolated from each other. Peasants have always managed to eke out a living from terraced farming in the hills, or grazing in higher mountainous Himalayan regions, and the Mahabarat Lekh (the middle mountains between the lower foothills and the Himalayas proper) include some valleys well suited for rice cultivation and other agriculture at between one and two thousand metres above sea level. These areas, such as the fertile Kathmandu valley, became home to many Hindu feudals, who came north from what is now India to escape the Moghul invaders in the 11th-13th century. They subsequently were able to establish a number of feudal fiefdoms and suck the wealth of the successive generations of peasants. Later, as the British presence on the Indian subcontinent began to take shape, the most successful of these feudal principalities, the Gorkha kingdom ruled by Prithvi Narayan Shah, was able to establish a unified state in Nepal and extend its borders well beyond the present borders of Nepal (all the way to Punjab far to the west and Bengal in the east) by using mountain warfare.

The defeat of the Gorkha kingdom by British India in 1815 and the subsequent Sugauli Treaty established the present boundaries of the country and codified the clear domination of British India. The various janjati peoples living in isolated hills and valleys of the country had their own local authorities and maintained their own cultural identities even while paying tribute to the king.

All along the southern border with India which runs for the entire breadth of the country lies a swath of land from 25 to 50 kilometres wide known as the Terai (or plain) which is not much above sea level. Today, the Terai is a wonderfully productive agricultural region with good soil, generally good water resources and an abundant labouring population (more than forty percent of the country's people live there). However, until the last century the Terai was a lightly populated, forested swamp so malaria-infested as to make it dangerous even for invading armies, let alone farmers who might want to reclaim the land for agriculture. Indeed, the king of Nepal discouraged the settling of the Terai, precisely to keep it as a barrier against British India to the south. But as Nepal came more and more under the sway of Britain in the mid-nineteenth century (without, however, ever being reduced to a colony), the colonial authorities of British India and the Nepalese rulers agreed to open up the Terai to settlers. The rulers profiteered from the logging of the then forested Terai, while the masses poured their sweat and blood into making the region productive, only to be shackled with a strict feudal system. In addition to peoples from the hill regions of Nepal and descendants of the original forest dwellers, a large percentage of these new settlers came from different regions of India. Together they make up the Terai's current population.

Today the Terai, like the rest of Nepal, is still a checkerboard of cultures. Many of the inhabitants are still considered "Indians" even after generations of labour to reclaim and work the land. Taking advantage of the cleavage between so-called "Indians" and "Nepalese" is one of the standard games of both the Indian reactionary regime and the Nepalese rulers to divide the people and to further reactionary interests.

More than half of the population of Nepal are officially considered (by the Nepal constitution) as janjati. This category is used to distinguish these masses from what is sometimes referred to as the "mainstream" Nepalese nationality. While many of these janjatis live in remote areas under more primitive conditions, the term is also applied to the Newars, for example. They were early Buddhist inhabitants and traders in the Kathmandu valley who still occupy key posts in commerce and public life in the capital. Although the Nepalese language has been imposed throughout the country for two centuries, only thirty percent of the population of the country speaks it as their mother tongue (it is a Sanskrit-based language linked linguistically to Hindi, Bengali and many other languages spoken in northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Life is difficult for the peasantry of Nepal, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of the population (close to ninety percent). Despite some token land reform that has taken place in the period since World War II, feudal ownership of the land is strong in the Terai and the principal mid-mountain valleys such as Kathmandu and Pokhara. Primitive farming on the hillsides is carried out by janjatis who can barely eke out a living but who are still subjected to different forms of exploitation, both from the central state and traditional janjati authorities.

All of the "yardsticks" regularly used to measure impoverishment consistently show Nepal among the world's poorest countries. In a country where annual income is only a few hundred dollars per year, chicken and eggs can cost as much as in Europe. This means that a large percentage of the population is under-nourished by any standard. Industrial products are rare to non-existent for most of the population. Despite the fact that the Nepalese masses have, through hard labour, constructed housing stock and rudimentary sanitation that compares favourably to the widespread squalor prevalent in many Third World countries, health conditions are abominable for most people. According to the World Bank's Social Indicators of Development estimate for 1988-1993 (the latest available) only 1,290 doctors were registered in the entire country--most of whom were in the capital, leaving a tiny number of doctors to serve about 18 million people in the outlying areas! All of this translates into an average life expectancy of 54 years for men and an even lower life expectancy for women (52.2 years). These averages mask the large disparities between the city dwellers and the impoverished countryside.

This lower life expectancy for women is particularly striking, given the trend observed in all countries for women to outlive men. It is testimony to the extreme conditions of oppression and hard labour that Nepalese women face and the high incidence of death during childbirth--one in one hundred. Marriages by kidnapping (after which payment to the bride's family is often negotiated--the opposite of the traditional Hindu dowry arrangement) is still found among some sections of the population. As even remote areas of Nepal are drawn tighter into the market economy, a flourishing trade has resulted in large numbers of women being forced into the horrors of the brothels of India. Yet in some janjati areas, women enjoy more equality, a result of a less strict division of labor and the influences, in some cases, of primitive communal social structures. For all these reasons, it is not surprising that large numbers of women are participating in the revolutionary struggle.

In the last few decades, a large-scale tourism industry has developed in Nepal. For the imperialists, the "specific advantages" of Nepal are its beautiful scenery and excellent climate and, especially of course, its very low wages. Much of the "development" that has taken place in Nepal has been aimed at turning the country into a vacation paradise for tourists from Europe and Israel and rich Indians.

For generations, the difficulties of surviving have forced millions of Nepalese to migrate in search of work. Most have gone to India, where they are employed in menial work and super-exploited. The back-and-forth movement of millions of Nepalese to India is vital economically for both India and Nepal and is an important feature of political and social life. Despite the great hardships, it has helped expose the Nepalese labouring masses to foreign culture and world affairs and especially to the liberating ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Throughout India, large numbers of Nepalese workers have taken part in revolutionary struggles, and a great many are organized under the leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) through the different mass organizations the Party leads in India. There are also millions of people living in the Indian hill areas bordering Nepal who speak variants of the Nepalese language and identify closely with the masses in Nepal. These are some reasons why the revolutions in Nepal and India will be intertwined.

Traditionally, many Nepalese men have enrolled in foreign armed services, particularly the British Army (and since independence, the Indian Army as well). These forces, often misnamed "Gorkha regiments" (after only one of the many peoples in Nepal), played an important role in the British and now Indian war machines. During World War II, as many as 500,000 Nepalese served in the British Army, only to be discharged without a penny at the war's end. Their massive return to Nepal was one of the important factors of the large-scale democratic upsurge that took place in the country in 1950-51. One positive aspect of this thoroughly disgusting practice of press-ganging oppressed peoples to serve their masters in war has been that some knowledge of military affairs and handling of modern weapons is widespread, even in the most remote corners of the country.

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