8-14 April 2016 #803

A rebel village

Hira Bahadur Gharti Magar for Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) in Himal Khabarpatrika (20-26 March)

In May 1979, after a violent student movement, King Birendra agreed to hold a referendum on the monarchy. When staunch royalist Pashupati Shumsher Rana spoke in Thabang of Rolpa district during a nationwide pro-Panchayat campaign, village leader Barman Budha Magar told Rana to his face that they would vote against the absolute monarchy. Despite being charged with public offence, Magar went on to form a unanimous consensus in favour of democracy.

It’s that kind of anti-establishment psyche that gave this tiny hamlet the moniker ‘rebel village’. It has a 60-year history of rising up against the Kathmandu rulers, and was also the birthplace of the Maoist movement in the early 1990s.

Resham Kumar Shah, a local school teacher, says Thabang’s roots go even further back, before the unification of modern Nepal. “In 1869, when the rulers of Rukum came to collect taxes in Rolpa, Thabang people chased them away,” he says, “locals are proud of their rebel legacy.”

And when the village acts politically, whether to vote in or boycott elections, it is often unanimously. In 1959, when Nepal held its first parliamentary election, every citizen in Thabang voted for Khagu Lal Gurung, a communist candidate.

The next year, after King Mahendra dissolved Parliament, villagers boycotted elections. In 1981, during elections for the National Panchayat Council, instead of casting ballots, villagers replaced pictures of the king and queen with images of communist leaders like Marx, Engels and Lenin in local government offices.

Because of its proclivity towards rebellion, people in Thabang are also used to resisting security forces often sent in to quell ‘anti-system activities’. In October 1996, the government launched ‘Operation Romeo’ to nip the Maoist movement in the bud, but the failed operation in which police randomly barged into houses, destroyed food and raped women only radicalised villagers even more. “That really fuelled anti-establishment sentiment here,” recalls Shah.

At the height of the Maoist war, Thabang suffered the wrath of the state more than any other village. In March 2002, a Nepal Army unit burnt down 13 houses in Thulogaun of Thabang. “We survived by hiding in the woods,” says Radhika Roka Magar, whose house was also reduced to ashes.

Thabang has also historically been a victim to oppressive policies that have hurt the village economically. Prior to the government ban on marijuana farming in the 1970s, cannabis was one of the major sources of income for many there. And according to a 2003 conflict assessment report by Mercy Corps, people in Thabang were pushed into the communist fold after the ban went into effect.

Moreover, former lawmaker Ram Bahadur Thapa Magar (not to be confused with the former Defence Minister) writes in a research paper that though 96 per cent of Maoist party members in Thabang have little knowledge of the nuts and bolts of communist tenets, they are anti-establishment because the state has always tried to suppress them by seizing land or deploying the police and army against them.

Nanda Bahadur Gharti Magar, a student of political science in Thabang, says: “People are not born rebels here, they are angry because the state does not represent them.”

Over the years due to its tendency towards collective action, Thabang has garnered political clout. In the first Constituent Assembly elections of 2008, all 3,600 villagers voted for Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal. But after Dahal quit the Rolpa constituency people in Thabang decided to teach him a lesson by switching allegiances to the Mohan Baidya-led Maoist faction.

Of late, Netra Bikram Chand, who split from the Baidya faction, is rising as the new communist leader in Thabang, continuing the anti-establishment trend.

Bar Man Budha Magar, the icon of Thabang’s rebel attitude, says: “It is our identity to take collective decisions, and we are proud of it.