Off the Record 041: The Maoists, then and now
Issue 041 • 18 February 2022
It’s February 18, 2022, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from tumultuous Kathmandu. The past week has seen a slew of political developments, with confrontation over the much-maligned Millenium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Nepal Compact finally coming to a head. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba appears hell-bent on tabling the Compact in Parliament for ratification while the Maoist Center’s Pushpa Kamal Dahal appears hell-bent on disrupting it, regardless of anything he might have said privately to the Americans. The Compact was supposed to be tabled in Parliament on Wednesday but at the last moment, the Maoists, a key coalition partner in the Deuba government, threatened to quit government. This led Deuba to scurry immediately to Balkot, where CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli resides. Oli’s UML is the primary opposition and it looks like Deuba is willing to break with Dahal and ally with Oli if it means the Compact will finally be put to a vote in Parliament.
Deuba even attempted to gain Maoist support by tabling an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana. The judiciary and the Nepal Bar Association have been protesting Chief Justice Rana since October last year, over what they say are numerous controversial decisions and his attempt to seek a political role. I won’t be going into detail over the chief justice as I discussed the issues surrounding Rana in a previous edition of this newsletter. You can read it here:
Suffice it to say that the impeachment motion looks to be solely politically motivated. After all, lawyers and even Supreme Court justices had been protesting Rana for months and the parties barely made any noise regarding a crisis in one of the three primary organs of the state. To table an impeachment motion now, simply to satisfy the demands of a few political actors, is brazenly dishonest. Time and again, Nepal’s politicians show that they are not at all concerned about the state or its people. If they were, they would’ve acted when the Supreme Court had been rendered all but non-functional with thousands of cases affected. October or November would’ve been the right time to act, but no, the politicians waited until they could gain the maximum political advantage from an impeachment motion.
As such, it is unlikely that Chief Justice Rana will be impeached. It will take months for the motion to even get a hearing as there are numerous procedural hoops to jump through, as outlined by Binod Ghimire of The Kathmandu Post. Even if the motion comes to a vote, the ruling coalition does not have the numbers to pass it. Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority vote, which the combined strength of coalition partners Congress, Maoists, and CPN (Unified Socialist) cannot muster. The opposition UML will need to come on board if impeachment is to be passed and that is unlikely. Rana was behind the Supreme Court order that removed Oli and placed Deuba in the chief executive’s chair so Oli definitely has an ax to grind with Rana. But Oli is a wily politician and he is not going to give the ruling coalition the satisfaction.
The filing of an impeachment motion means that Rana has been automatically removed from his post until the motion is concluded. He will not be able to discharge his duties, and that probably brings some measure of relief for the judges and lawyers opposed to Rana. But the impeachment motion itself is unlikely to go through. Impeachment will most probably drag on until the end of the year when it is Rana’s time to retire. The motion will then be withdrawn and Rana will be allowed to retire quietly with no black mark on his record.
Impeachment has been tried before, with Chief Justice Sushila Karki and Chief of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority Lokman Singh Karki. In each case, it’s come to naught because each impeachment has been politically motivated and without constitutional basis. In Sushila Karki’s case, the parties withdrew the impeachment motion a day before her retirement and in Lokman Singh Karki’s case, he was relieved of his position by the Supreme Court on the grounds that he lacked the “moral standing” for the position.
In both earlier cases, and in the current impeachment case, political expediency has trumped any attempt to uphold the rule of law or due process. The political parties will ally with anyone as long as it suits them and then oppose them if and when it serves their interest. One of the primary points of contention against Chief Justice Rana is that he lobbied to get a ministerial position for a relative of his. Deuba had duly appointed Gajendra Bahadur Hamal, Rana’s brother-in-law, as minister for industry, commerce and supplies. Hamal resigned ignominiously a few days after the appointment due to criticism but it still stands that Deuba was willing to appoint an unknown individual who wasn’t even active in politics simply on Rana’s recommendation. But now, Deuba is willing to throw him under the bus.
And this is largely because Deuba’s coalition government is teetering, just a few months before elections. I do not envy the position that Deuba is in, although it is one of his own making. He must keep Dahal happy if his government is to last at least until the polls but giving in to Dahal’s demands will mean pissing off the Americans further and possibly causing long-term damage to Nepal’s foreign relations. Even if Deuba is able to gain Oli’s support in tabling the Compact in Parliament, it is unlikely that the UML will join Deuba’s Congress government; after all, Deuba was made prime minister by removing Oli.
Last week’s phone call from US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu appears to have galvanized Deuba into action. He is looking at the longer term. The current coalition might collapse but that is a minor inconvenience compared to the fallout of losing the support of the Americans. Deuba might be 75 and a five-time prime minister but he is eyeing another term or two as prime minister. He might be ineffectual as an executive head but you can’t deny that the man has staying power.
On Friday, Deuba made a final attempt to reach consensus on the MCC. But to no avail. This time, it was Madhav Kumar Nepal’s Unified Socialists who refused to relent, asking for two more days to discuss things. The Nepal Compact, which was supposed to be tabled on Friday, has now been pushed to Sunday, but even then, there’s no guarantee that it will be placed before the House. Deuba is fast running out of time and he needs to take a decision quick — ally with the UML, remove Speaker Agni Sapkota, and pass the MCC Nepal Compact or to provide enough concessions that the Maoists and Unified Socialists agree to table the Compact. Whichever way he goes, Deuba is not likely to come out on top. But he will bide his time and if history be any guide, will be back in the prime minister’s chair for the sixth time.
But enough about contemporary politics and enough about the MCC. This debate is likely to continue well into next week, until the self-imposed February 28 deadline arrives. So I am pretty sure I’ll have to devote another newsletter to those developments. For now, let’s take a step back and reflect on what is perhaps the most significant event in modern Nepali history. It’s not something that dominated the news cycle this past week but nevertheless, it is an issue that bears discussing.
The deep dive: The Maoists, then and now
(l-r) Sita Dahal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai, and Hisila Yami in 2004.
On February 4, 1996, Baburam Bhattarai presented then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba with a 40-point list of demands, threatening armed conflict if the demands were not met by February 17. But on February 13, four days before the deadline, the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led seven simultaneous attacks on police posts in six districts. That day marked the official beginning of the 10-year Maoist insurgency — a conflict that would claim over 17,000 lives and irrevocably change the face of modern Nepal.
What started out as an ember with a ragtag bunch of guerillas camped in rural Rolpa would turn into a roaring flame that would consume the entire country, leading almost directly to the fall of the 200-year-old Shah monarchy, a new constitution, and the radical restructuring of the unitary state into a federal model. There are, of course, numerous complications and additional factors that led to these end goals, including the role of the Madhes Movement, but it is safe to say that the Maoist conflict was decisive in giving rise to these issues.
But over the decades since the war begin and over a decade-and-a-half since it ended, the legacy of the conflict remains complicated. There are many who decry the very need for a violent conflict while others argue the necessity of armed revolution against a state that was deaf and blind to the needs of its peoples. I am not going to argue either side in this newsletter. For many who didn’t lose family or friends in the war, it can be easy to argue ideology and necessity. But for those who still await justice for fathers, brothers, and sisters killed, for mothers and sisters raped, and for many more family members disappeared, war is less abstract and much more visceral.
No, let’s talk about the Maoists, who they were during the war and who they are now. After all, the Maoists didn’t just go away when the war ended. They joined mainstream politics and are now some of the most influential actors in Nepal. Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ once a mere shadow who many didn’t know even existed is a mainstay in politics, the primary mover-and-shaker, some might argue. Baburam Bhattarai ‘Laldhoj’, Dahal’s second-in-command during the war, has broken with his erstwhile commander, given up his nom-de-guerre, and gone his own way. He still professes communist politics but his ideology has softened over the years. I would argue he is more democratic socialist than communist. Hisila Yami ‘Parvati’ has joined Bhattarai, her husband.
Nanda Kishor Pun ‘Pasang’, one of Dahal’s ablest commanders, is the vice-president while another commander Barsa Man Pun ‘Ananta’ has been minister several times. Onsari Gharti Magar ‘Usha’, a prominent Janamukti Sena soldier and Pun’s wife, was the first female Speaker of the House. Janardan Sharma ‘Prabhakar’ is the current minister of finance while Ram Bahadur Thapa ‘Badal’ has chosen Oli over Prachanda. I’m not quite sure where Chandra Prakash Khanal ‘Baldev’ the fourth commander — in addition to Pasang, Ananta and Prabhakar — is. Agni Sapkota is Speaker of the House, replacing Krishna Bahadur Mahara. Both are long-time Maoists.
Veteran communist Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’ has also broken with Dahal, his erstwhile student, and leads the CPN (Revolutionary Maoist) but has pretty much gone into seclusion. CP Gajurel ‘Gaurab’ has joined Baidya. Meanwhile, Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’, the last holdout of the Maoist insurgency who had claimed to take up the mantle of the war from Prachanda, recently joined mainstream politics and has stayed away from his former party.
And these are just the leaders of the insurgency. Most footsoldiers have abandoned the party, growing disillusioned with the path that the Maoists were taking. Many felt betrayed and even joined up with Chand to continue the revolution. But even that came to naught.
The Maoist movement, by all estimates, is finished. And by that, I don’t mean completed, I mean that it’s over. The leaders of the revolution have cozied up to the same people they once branded enemies and they’re now part of the same structure that they once called bourgeois and feudal. It would be ironic if it weren’t so tragic. The real revolution, as they say, begins once the war is over, and on that front, the Maoists utterly failed. A new constitution might have been written but it is a pale shadow of what was envisioned; the monarchy was resigned to the garbage dump of history but nothing fundamentally changed in the way power was exercised; federalism came but its opponents are actively attempting to sink it before it’s even got its sea legs.
Dahal, the fearsome Prachanda, is now allied with Deuba, his opponent during the beginning of the war. Oh, how things come full circle.
And yet, Dahal cannot stop posturing. No one believes him to be a revolutionary leader anymore. One thing that most people will agree on is that Dahal turned out to be a chameleon, changing ideologies and partners as it suited him. The revolutionary zeal to change Nepal for the better is gone. Some would say that it was never there in the first place but I would disagree. No one spends 10 years fearing that they could be killed at any moment if they don’t believe in the cause.
Ever since emerging onto the mainstream, Dahal has occupied a central space in Nepali politics. He often appears as the dealmaker, allying with this party or that. But it is no secret that the popularity of his party is waning. His alliance with the UML to form the Nepal Communist Party was a bid to maintain relevancy but Dahal the supremo chafed under Oli and sank that ship. Now, on his own again as chief of the Maoist Center, he is still looking to get his way, sometimes proposing that federal elections be held before local elections, and at other times, publicly opposing the MCC Nepal Compact while privately supporting it.
In his regular column for The Kathmandu Post, Amish Raj Mulmi points to the “ideological wasteland” of the Nepali communists. This is a fair assessment, but it applies to almost all of Nepal’s parties, not just the communists. But perhaps it applies more so to the communists because they’re the ones who like to wax poetic about ideology. Once staunch opponents of American and Indian imperialism, they’ve since changed their tune. In private, Pushpa Kamal Dahal writes to the MCC stating his full support but in public, he claims to be against it and acts as a roadblock. Baburam Bhattarai, former Maoist ideologue and opponent of imperialism, openly supports the MCC. We’ve now arrived at a place where Bhattarai and Mary Des Chene, the leftist academic who once sparred with Bhattarai, are once again on opposite sides. Only this time, Bhattarai is not the anti-imperialist — Des Chene is, especially in her opposition to the MCC. These are indeed strange times.
Let’s get this straight though. I am no one to judge how communist someone is. I just believe in some sort of consistency, an internal logic that allows outsiders to discern motivations, beliefs, and end goals. This is particularly difficult to do when there is so much prevarication. Dahal, as the representative Maoist, has an image to uphold and he is playing to that anti-imperialist image, only no one’s buying it. His loyalties seem to lie with himself (and also with the Chinese Communist Party).
The wasteland that Nepal’s Maoists find themselves in is not just of Dahal’s making. It is just how things progressed when the revolution itself was coopted by the existing structure. The ideology went the way of the revolution. One thing that feudal, capitalist, and imperialist structures are very effective at doing is coopting. All of the revolution’s leaders must shoulder some of the blame as it is a collective failure on their part that they failed to live up to the ideals of their own revolution. Just take a cursory look through the 40-point demands and see how many of them have been met.
I doubt that many would protest if I said that the Maoists of today are no different from the UML or the Congress. A former Maoist soldier once told me, “Prachanda believes that he is a Communist and that’s the problem, only he believes that. No one else does.” I think that quote pretty much applies to all of Nepal’s bampanthi politicians. No one’s really a communist or a socialist. Ideology is abstract. When it comes down to it, pretty much everyone’s a capitalist.
All of this has been exposed time and again, the most recent instance being the MCC funda. The MCC’s Nepal Compact is bringing up all the old ghosts — hegemony, economic imperialism, even straight-up invasion. All the talking points for those opposed to the MCC are ones that the Maoists once employed. Only, they’re acting as if preventing the MCC will stave off hegemony and imperialism. All the other thousands of projects/grants/loans being run by the US, UK, India, China, the EU, Japan, etc have all been conveniently forgotten. That’s why this current ‘protest’ against the MCC is hollow.
To sum up, the Maoists are no Maoists.
On The Record this past week:
Shuvam Rizal on how climate change can drive child marriage
Raju Syangtan on his writing journey from a Maoist soldier to a poet and journalist
Shristi Sherchan on how animal carcasses get disposed of in the Kathmandu Valley
Happenings this week:
Sunday - Three of the ruling coalition parties — Nepali Congress, Maoist Center, and Unified Socialists — filed an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana. With the filing of the motion, Rana is automatically suspended until a vote is taken.
Monday - The government announced local elections for May 13, five days earlier than the proposed date of May 18. There are now 91 days for the Election Commission to prepare for elections to 753 local bodies in a single phase, a gargantuan undertaking, no doubt.
Tuesday - Writer and editor Taranath Sharma died at the age of 85. Sharma won the Madan Puraskar for his travelogue Belayat tira baralinda in 2026 BS and was also the former editor of the government-run newspaper, The Rising Nepal.
Wednesday - The MCC Nepal Compact was supposed to be tabled at Wednesday’s Parliament meeting but was abruptly called off after the Maoist Center threatened to quit the government if the compact was tabled in its current form.
Thursday - Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba met with CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli in a bid to gain support for the MCC Nepal Compact. One of Oli’s preconditions is to impeach Speaker Agni Sapkota. US Ambassador Randy Berry too reportedly held a phone conversation with Oli about the MCC, according to The Kathmandu Post.
Friday - A 10am meeting of the ruling coalition parties failed once again to reach consensus on the MCC, with the Unified Socialists now asking for two more days to discuss the matter. The MCC Nepal Compact was thus not tabled at Friday’s Parliament meeting.
Article of the week:
‘Whether in Nepal or the US, caste persists’ — Marissa Taylor and I speak to Prem Pariyar about his work getting an American university to recognize caste as a protected category and what lessons that provides for institutions of higher education in Nepal.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes next Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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