The largest mobilization of human beings in Nepal’s history brought hundreds of thousands of villagers into the capital Kathmandu for May First protests – and the entire country to a standstill.
On May First, this city belonged to the Maoists.
From Kalinki to the Old Bus Park, packed buses poured into the city. Their every seat and aisle was filled. 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.
Since I arrived in Kathmandu, it has been a remarkable thing to see the hammer and sickle waved so proudly across the city. But on May First, seeing thousands of union workers walk across the shuttered city to greet villagers, many of whom were seeing a city for the first time – all that put flesh and blood to the old communist symbol. Hammer for the workers, sickle for the peasants.
Business as usual 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.
Then the Maoists implemented a nation-wide general strike – called a bandh in South Asia. Their supporters closed business, schools and transportation in the capital and other centers. It was a major show of power by the Maoist party. And it was more – it was a daring political initiative that confirmed the Maoists’ genuine popular mandate.
Six months ago, the Maoist vice-chairman Dr. Baburam Bhattarai described the plan:
“Now we [can] really practice what we have been preaching. That means the fusion of the strategy of protracted peoples war and the tactic of general insurrection. What we have been doing since 2005 is the path of preparation for general insurrection through our work in the urban areas and our participation in the coalition government.” (Interview, October 26, 2009)
Now, in May, we are all seeing the results of those preparations. No other party, no other force in Nepal could pull anything like this off. By contrast, the enemies of the Maoists were only capable of 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 a Capital
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 eighteen sites was dubbed a “barricade”, though the only physical obstacles in the streets were the large excited crowds of rebels.
The main focus of the general strike was in Kathmandu, but ten other urban areas also held mobilizations, and rallies were held along the Indian border in Nepal’s southern Terai.
On May 3, protesters completely encircled the city twice over, holding hands in two 28-kilometer human chains around the Ring Road belt – one of Nepal’s only modern roads.
As we walked that road, we passed a paper mache effigy of the “puppet government”, one of many burned throughout the city.
Prachanda and other Maoist leaders reviewing the Ring Road
Cries of “Lal salaam!” (Red Salute!) went up from the rows of people lining both sides of the road. Smiles, raised fists and pride. Simple people held the city, and the power of the day was lost on no one.
When Prachanda, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Kiran 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 umistakable. Prachanda is their leader. Even second-string Maoists command more respect on the street than the unelected parties sitting in the government.
Violence and chaos were predicted by the governmental parties. The Maoists displayed overwhelming people’s power and sobriety — despite repeated violent provocations from the UML-allied Youth Force, Hindutva gangs in the South and the tensions which accompany any bandh.
Breaking out of a Stalemate
This political crisis in Nepal has at times seemed slow and festering. But not 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 over a month. Their May 28 deadline for writing Nepal’s first democratic constitution is rapidly approaching.
“We are in mobilization 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 stubbornly resists the Maoist effort to push him from power. Backed by commanders of the Nepali military, encouraged by foreign advisers whispering in his ear, he demands that the Maoists to drop their agenda for radical change and disband both their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Young Communist League (YCL).
Dancing at Kathmandu’s barricades
For their part, the Maoists reject new talks with the governmental parties until this prime minister steps aside. And so the spotlight shifts from negotiations to the streets – where the dancing and festivity of May First increasingly gave way to tension and open street clashes.
And even then, the tactical array of this Janandolan (people power uprising) put dancing in front of fighting. At each of the eighteen barricades, where several thousands held key junctions through sheer numbers, dance troupes encouraged participation and popular ballads brought the young crowds to their feet. Some contingents would practice running in files back and forth through the streets, rushing forward to stop on a dime. But they too would cheer and dance with each sprint.
Leaders of governing parties openly called on merchants to defy the Maoist shutdown. On May 5 the UML-allied Youth Force fired shots at a group of YCL cadre. A semi-automatic pistol was found on the scene, with spent cartridges. Luckily no one was injured.
Despite such provocations, the Maoists kept their promise to keep this round of protests unarmed and nonviolent.
Police fired tear gas canisters into the occupied law school, where hundreds of protesters eat, sleep and rest. Several were injured.
Then on May 7, upper class Nepalis staged the largest non-Maoist rally of the week – about 20,000 gathered in Kathmandu. Their official purpose was to urge a non-violent conclusion to the constitutional process. Leaders of the sponsors, from the Chamber of Commerce and Nepal Bar Association insisted they were non-partisan, and that the rally was not in defiance of the strike.
But then anti-Maoist groups formed out of that rally to launch provocations against the large encampments of Maoists. Kathmandu’s “peace rally” quickly proved to be anything but peaceful.
I arrived in the area just as their peace rally had ended. Several breakaway groups had marched towards the Maoist barricades.Several hundred anti-Maoists marched up to the Sunhara barricade where roughly 1,000 Maoists held the intersection. The counterrevolutionaries chanted they would put “Prachanda’s head in a noose.”
The Maoists responded by turning up their music and encouraging people to dance instead of allowing themselves to be provoked. “We make a singing revolution, a dancing revolution – a new type of revolution,” said Swanaam, a Maoist leader who is involved with ideological work. “We will not act against those people only because they disagree with us.”
Meanwhile, the fact that the 200 YCL cadre defended that intersection and were each armed with fighting sticks – well, that also didn’t hurt.
Wiping his eyes, swollen from police tear gas, YCL Commander Pun described another of the breakaway groups as “vigilantes.” He told me they threw rocks into the protesters’ mess hall at the City Hall convention center. Bystanders and protesters were hit with sticks. When the YCL and others responded, police turned loose with tear gas into the mess hall and baton charges at those on the street. Roughly a thousand Maoist protesters broke through two weak police lines to protect their encampment, and were repelled with more tear gas. They threw rocks back at the police as they scattered into the Old Bus Park.
Light clashes between Maoists and the police erupted around the city center for two hours. The entire area between the convention center and Singhadurbar was shaken. 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.
Clusters of revolutionary protesters massed near the Singhadurbar ministries that the Maoists have been blockading for days. Dozens were lined up along the sidewalks rinsing their eyes, red and swollen from the gas. Many smeared white toothpaste over their faces to cool the burn.
As I interviewed people, we could hear the streetfighting just a few blocks away.
Diwash, an earnest young communist and student body president at one of the national university’s satellite campuses, was cool in the face of the provocations. He told me:
“Obviously their motive is to lengthen the strike to the end of the interim constitution. They want to bring presidential rule by Yadav. This is only the bad dream of the government parties. We are strong enough to make revolution. We cannot capture only the state. If we get Prachanda as prime minister, there are many in the army who are in our hand.”
An older man yelled out “80 per cent!”
Diwash dismissed the vigilante attacks, saying they were distractions and not the “main contradiction.”
“When their psychology is down, we capture the state. We are strong, steady.” Diwash continued. “Ready to put communism, not pure communism in the abstract, but socialism. We can put hospitals, all the schools to the people and not as business. A new constitution means land reforms and people’s government that develop to communism.”
The fighting in the capital was clearly threatening to escalate. And, though the detail of their calculations are not known, the Maoist leadership decided that they were not yet ready, at this moment, to ride the tiger all the way to a showdown with the military.
Prachanda, chairman of the Maoist party, appeared on Nepali television late Friday night, May 7, to announce that the strike would be suspended.
He called for a rally to converge on the next day. He said “decisive struggle” would continue — to topple the current government and replace it with one led by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
An Orientation for Ongoing Confrontation
On Saturday, May 8, I joined one of the hundreds of feeder marches into the city center. I was surrounded by a couple of thousand Newari people marching from the north side of town.
The drummer corps leading us kept the pace. But the rest of the marchers were more involved in conversations over the events of the last days than chanting. The tension was palpable. The Prime Minister had not stepped down. There had been two days of escalating confrontations. And this crowd was clearly braced for new provocations. We passed through the Durbamarg shopping center. All the expensive stores of the elite were again open for business. There was obviously little satisfaction for us in that.At the Martyr’s Field in Ratna Park, I ran into Madushi Bhattarai, a student leader at Tribuvan University.
“Do you know what’s going on,” I asked.
“We will know today. A step back, I think, for two steps forward,” said Madushi. “In the people’s war we had two ceasefires, and used them to advance. We will have a new tactical phase.”
Madushi speaks English with uncommon fluency, having studied in London,. 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. Not the agitations either,” Madushi said. “If you look at Nepali Maoists from the eye of past communist movements, you won’t be able to understand us. Since our movement’s earliest years, no one has been able to predict how we will go. This defines our leadership. 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.”
“We have confidence in our leaders,” Madushi said, shaking her head in acknowledgment that her own parents are among those leaders of the Maoist party.
“Many of the cadre in my arc were injured yesterday and are very frustrated with the stop of the strike. People were recovering from injuries and heard the announcement on television without meetings inside the party.”
Wrapping Up a Dress Rehearsal
When we arrived at the rally, the waiting crowd was sober. A low buzz of talk rose from the many groupings of people. Comedians and musicians took turns on the stage until the last of the feeder marches entered. Several party leaders spoke. But 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” – even while the government had remained indifferent to the just demands for the prime minister’s resignation.
“People who supported us have started to hurt. Laborers were starting to suffer. We have called the strike back for now.”
“The ball is now in the government’s court,” Prachanda said. “We will respond only after it comes back.”
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 then told his assembled cadre:
“The strike is suspended, but this struggle has not ended. Janandolan III has started. The strike was only a dress rehearsal. We will show you the entire drama before May 28 if our demands are not met.”
Nepal’s Maoists don’t cling to rigid models from China or Russia. They are famous for their non-dogmatic ways. But Prachando’s words here do clearly echo Lenin’s famous description of early Russian street clashes as a “dress rehearsal” for the final seizure of power in 1917.
Since 2006, the Maoists in Nepal have been working to supplement their rural People’s Liberation Army with a powerful new upsurge of popular combativity.
Janaldolan I was a 1990 uprising that gave birth to this generation of revolutionary leaders. Janadolan II was the 2006 uprising that brought down the monarchy. Janadolan III is the Maoists’ term for the third uprising that 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.
JED BRANDT is an American reporter writing from Nepal. His reports and photographs appear on jedbrandt.net. He is a participant of the Kasama Project.