For the first time since the insurgency started in these mountains of mid-western Nepal nine years ago, a women-led anti-Maoist uprising has spread across Dailekh in the past week.
"Down with Maoism," the demonstrators shouted at a big rally in Dullu on Monday, "Down with Prachanda." Most demonstrators were surprised at their own audacity, wondering where they got the courage to be so defiant.
The protests were started by women, the men joined in and some came from as far as a day's walk away. They were protesting rebel demands for money and food. Krishna Shahi, 42, says she and others in her village had complied fearing they would be killed: "When they said every family had to give one son, that is when I lost all my fear. We told them, kill us but you can't take our sons. We had nothing left to give them, we couldn't take it any longer."
Indeed, the rebel threat to take away young sons and daughters appear to have been the main reason the women spearheaded protests in Dullu, Salleri and other towns in northeastern Dailekh.
The villages have mostly women, young children and the elderly because the men have all fled. And despite the traditionally low social status of women here, something seems to have snapped.
The uprising was triggered by the killing of Raju Bajracharya earlier this month by the security forces. He had been forced by the Maoists to head Dullu's \'people's government\'. When the rebels came to drape his body in a Maoist flag, Raju's relatives beat them up and chased them away.
Anger was already seething when the rebels prevented locals from observing Tihar and forced young boys and girls to become WTs ('wholetimers'). Villagers thrashed Maoists in several villages and protests began. There was swift retribution. In Salleri, the Maoists killed three people, including a eight-year-old boy, who were organising a resistance meeting on 20 November. Twenty-two others were abducted and villagers say six of them have been already killed. Nearly 1,200 people have fled Salleri and arrived in Dailekh Bajar.
Nara Bahadur Basnet from Salleri says local women and citizens has started to organise protests since Tihar. Women from 13 VDCs in the area have been organising small village gatherings in open defiance of the Maoists since 9 November.
But 19-year-old Babita BK of Nauli, who delivered a baby a week ago after escaping to Dullu, says villagers are now afraid they may have stirred a hornet's nest. "We are really afraid what they will do to our village now," she says.
In Kathmandu on Thursday, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba said Dailekhis would be protected and announced a Rs 30 million aid package. He also gave the Maoists a deadline of 13 January 2005 to come for talks otherwise he would announce elections.
The unprecedented uprising in Dailekh appears to have been a result of the unusually brutal methods that the comrades in this district have used to cow down the people. The rallies were a spontaneous outpouring of anger and they don't appear to have been government-instigated. However, security forces and Home Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka did go to Dullu on Monday to attend the rally. Khadka even made a speech, assuring locals of security and relief support from the government. "We fully support the people's uprising," Khadka said amidst applause. An army base has been set up in Dullu to prevent Maoist attacks.
The Maoists appear to have realised that the negative publicity from Dailekh could spread across the country and its Western Command in-charge, Comrade Dibakar, issued a statement Wednesday apologising for the Dailekh killings and the setting up of a three-member investigation panel. But that seems to be for outside consumption, in the district itself the retalitation has already begun: local rebels cut off two water supply pipes of the district headquarters on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the army appears to have scored a military victory by overunning a Maoist supply base in Pandaun in far-western Nepal this week. Journalists taken there on Wednesday saw bodies and blood littering the jungles. Piles of socket bombs and grenades were scattered over a wide area. The battle for Pandaun lasted six hours on Saturday night and commandos engaged the guerrillas in hand-to-hand combat on a steep slope. The army admits losing 10 soldiers with 18 wounded and says 300 Maoists were killed.
(With reports by Rameswor Bohara in Dullu and Shiva Gaunle in Pandaun)