An increasing number of antennas are popping up on rooftops all over midwestern Nepal. They aren't for tv, but radio aerials to help people in the western tarai catch the FM broadcasts of the Maoists' clandestine Radio Janabadi Ganatantra.
The broadcasts are feeble and not regular since the mobile transmitters are always on the move to avoid detection. But people listen anyway, more to find out the Maoist partyline than out of a desire to get information.
"We don't really believe what they say on the radio, it's mostly political slogans, but it is interesting to find out what they are saying and planning," says one Gulariya resident, who did not want to be named. A year ago, the rebels launched the broadcasts without much fanfare. The Maoists are currently broadcasting on 100 mhz and say they have a transmitter mast with a capacity of up to 500 kilowatt. This would make the station as powerful as Radio Sagarmatha in Kathmandu. Locals need to hook their battery radio to an aerial to be able to catch the signal properly. The broadcasts began last year from the Maoist heartland of Thawang in Rolpa. The Bheri-Karnali Broadcasting Service followed, and now they have also begun the Seti-Mahakali Broadcasting Service.
A typical news broadcast this week went as follows: "Because of a courageous ambush laid by the brave people's liberation army, 22 Royal American Army soldiers have been killed and a huge quantity of arms and ammunition have been recovered." The rest of the news contained excerpts of speeches by various leaders of the autonomous regional 'people's governments', information on those on whom a sentence of 'safaya' has been declared as well as announcements on forthcoming bandas and blockades.
Locals are not very surprised by the propaganda-laden style and language of the Maoists broadcast, and tell us it is not so different from what state-owned Radio Nepal broadcasts in its news about "so many terrorists killed and a large amount of explosives, detonators and documents captured". But the rebel radio is one notch ahead in the use of jargon and derogatory labels like "killer king" or "Royal American Army". Lately, there is also a lot of abuse hurled at the "reactionary Indian government for supporting the fascist regime" in Kathmandu.
For programs that are supposed to create awareness and win over public opinion, the language is crude and provocative, but it does seem to work in some places. One recent evening, the radio announcer repeated in a shrill voice: "We must uproot any state power responsible for discrimination." Some dalit listeners nodded their heads in agreement. Rebel leaders told us they have been trying to improve their radio presentation skills by being less propagandistic and more persuasive. "We have already begun giving journalism training to our correspondents and program producers," says Maoist Banke-Bardia in-charge, Anal.
The Bheri-Karnali service broadcasts three times a day on 100 mhz. From 6-7AM there are discussions, current affairs and liberation songs with a news bulletin at the end. The afternoon transmission airs 'people's songs' and a news bulletin. In the evening, transmission begins at approximately 6PM and usually goes on for three hours with the day's news in Nepali and local languages. Agriculture, health, education, communist philosophy and rousing liberation songs are also aired. The radio targets minorities and ethnic communities, and exhorts them to rise up against oppression.
A rebel journalist told us their studio equipment is still rudimentary, and none of the programs are aired live. The broadcasts are irregular, and sometimes the transmissions stop for weeks without explanation. The Maoists' regional communication in-charge, Biswajit, explains that this is because their transmitter has to be moved often to avoid detection. The stations have their own correspondents across the midwest. One of the senior Maoists looking after the broadcasts, Hari Das 'Prakhar', was killed in action three months ago, an event covered in detail by Radio Ganatantra.
Ironically, the first people to notice the Maoist's Bheri-Karnali broadcasts were the security forces. Sentries guarding the television tower in Surkhet intercepted the signals but were not able to pinpoint the location of the transmitter accurately. The most dedicated listeners in fact seem to be the security forces, who say they tune in to find out what the enemy has to say.