Jagat Bahadur Rawal used to be a UML party worker at Chaphamandu in Achham. This month, he stood as an independent candidate for the head of the 'people's government' in his village, defeating his Maoist rival by 125 votes.
"I am not a member of the Maoist party, and I contested in the elections because I wanted to protect the interests of my constituents and this was the only way I could do it," Rawal told us. But it doesn't look very likely that Rawal can do what he wants in his new post. Election or no election, it is only the Maoist writ that runs here.
Across the villages of Achham, Kalikot and Bajura in the Maoist-controlled heartland of mid-western Nepal, it is election time this month. The Maoists are filling the vacuum left after the Deuba government declined to extend the terms of elected local councils two-and-a-half years ago.
To counter the government move to nominate VDC members, they are conducting their own elections for village and district 'people's governments'. Sixty-two of the 75 VDCs in Achham have held elections, of which 23 polls were held with votes being cast, in 30 the Maoists won unanimously, and in eight villages, local representatives were appointed by the Maoist party. In Kalikot to the north, independent candidates have won some positions in four village-level elections while the Maoists have swept all positions in 13 of the VDCs.
These are not 'normal' elections. The Maoists have their own election commission which drafted guildelines for the polls. One of the rules bars "capitalists, middlemen, civil servants, cheats, spies and anti-people elements," so that only "anti-imperialist, nationalist, pro-people, pro-democratic, progressive and independent candidates" can stand for elections. And since it is the Maoists who decide who fulfill these criteria, it is clear that unless candidates have support of the party they cannot run.
For some, this smacks of Panchayat election rules in which only candidates vetted by the Back to the Village National Campaign and who were members of various class organisations, and therefore conformed to the Panchayat ideology, could stand for elections. Few local political party leaders have ventured to their villages in the Midwest in the past four years. Interestingly, it was Maoist leader Prachanda who entreated political parties last month not to doubt his group's commitment to competitive democracy.
In Achham, local Maoist cadre point to the victory of independent candidates as proof that the elections have been free and fair. Asked about the lack of development in the villages, a member of the Seti-Mahakali National Liberation Front, Gopal Chand, tells us that the priority now is the revolution. "We are at war. We are preoccupied with fighting, not with development, and we are still learning about governance."
The local people's governments are using local voluntary labour to build bridges, maintain trails and construct public latrines. "We have done more than what they did in 12 years after spending six million rupees," says No. 4 Area Secretary, Prashant. But a government-nominated VDC secretary of one of the few villages where they still remain, is skeptical about development taking place just with voluntary labour. There has been no money from the government and NGOs for years now, he says, and there us no money to buy equipment and for maintenance.
The District Development Committee of Achham is gearing up to re-start road construction. DDC chairman Dipendra Raj Poudyal says he doesn't mind who builds the road, as long as it is built. "Our experience is that the Maoists themselves laid down their guns to participate in the food for work programme," he tells us.
Aside from the belt between the district headquarter of Mangalsen to the airfield in Sanphebagar, there is no government presence in the rest of Achham, except for teachers and health workers. No outsiders are allowed into the Maoist 'base areas'. Any outsider entering a village is either a Maoist or a teacher. Everyone else is presumed to be a government spy. In village after village, there are only the very old or very young. There are no teenagers, no young adults. Any young men and women remaining are either Maoists or connected somehow to the party.
Maoist militia walk around openly with their guns. Most schools are empty, and have been converted into barracks or area offices. Accham's long-suffering villagers had got used to government neglect, now to have got used to being forced to feed the Maoists. "We are really sick of this, we have to give them food, we have to do what they say," says one elderly villager in Kalagaun. "I don't even feel like working in the fields anymore."
Whatever the Maoists may say about enthusiastic local support for their cause, there is a great war-weariness among the people. Most don't think the Maoists will ever win the war to form a government, but they are not ready to help the security patrols who come by occasionally, either. "You see what we are like: we are like little insects, we have no worth," says Ram Bahadur Buda in Maikhsthan. "Where can we go? We take each day as it comes."
The Maoists are busy using the school system to their advantage. The strategy is to "turn schools into barracks, students into battalion members and teachers into commissars," in the words of one cadre. Most schools are empty, and teachers are resigned to their fate: "They tell us to attend a Maoist program, we go, we don't ask questions."
Hari Bhakta Bajgain is a well-respected educationist in Achham. Recently the Maoists took him and a group of students and teachers on an 'Education Campaign' tour of the district. "We had to go," Bajgain told us. "We have to go wherever they tell us to go. This country can't continue like this. How long will this killing industry go on? The government must resume talks."
Twelve-year-old Mahendra Rawal wants to study, but hardly gets the chance. "Sometimes there is no teacher, sometimes there are no students, sometimes they say there is a program, how can we study?"
There is an English word that has entered the lexicon of the Achhmaese, and they say it with dread: 'Dumping'. It is the most extreme form of execution among the brutal methods used to eliminate class enemies.
After listening to the verdict against him, the victim is forced to dig his own grave in which he is then buried alive while being beaten and forced to answer questions from interrogators. An eye-witness to a 'dumping' execution says he watched an ex-Maoist guerrilla, Bishu Saud, being executed by this method last year. He was accused of being a traitor.
The Maoists also run a hard labour camp in Shantada where inmates are forced to break stones all day. They include six Maoists accused of rape and a prisoner.
M-16s in Maoist hands
They are dressed in combat fatigues and present lal salaams. Comrade Shyam, vice commander of the first battalion of the first brigade of the Maoist Western Division, gets up on a stage festooned with red banners
to proudly display his captured M-16 rifle (see pic).
This is the first time that Maoists have shown that they have captured some of the army's newly-acquired American rifles. Army sources admit the Maoists have taken away some M-16s after ambushing security patrols, but say they do not have supplies of the 5.52 calibre ammunition that the guns require. The army has also lost a few Israeli Galil rifles which can use the same calibre bullets as SLRs for which the Maoists have plenty of bullets.
In a press conference two weeks ago in which the military announced an amnesty for Maoist who surrendered, the government said it would pay Rs 50,000 for every M-16 or Galil returned.
Present Maoist strategy is to attack security patrols where they are most vulnerable-on mountain trails or on the highways-with landmines and wire-detonated booby-traps. The army says that after suffering serious defeats, the Maoists have abandoned frontal assaults on military and police bases, and credits its better intelligence and the ability to intercept and cut Maoist communication links.
However, the Maoists hold sway over large areas of the country where government presence is non-existent, where they are strengthening their political work. Security analysts say the Maoists could be running short of weapons and ammunition for their new recruits and don't rule out a big attack on a base in the near future to loot an armoury or two.