Nepali Times
Letter to a young Maoist

Dear Comrade,

I don't know your name, but we met on the sunny veranda of a chiya pasal in Chomrong on a recent October morning. Far above us, the icy peaks of Annapurna were thrusting inexorably into the blue, and far below the jade-gray waters of Modi Khola were cutting patiently through the bedrock.

My friend and I had just hoisted our backpacks and prepared to set out upriver to Doban when one of our porters told us that two men sitting nearby wanted to speak with us. You looked to be in your early thirties, tall and lanky, and wore a soft-brimmed hat, windbreaker, business-casual clothes and running shoes. Consensus among observers was that you probably came from a bahun family. Your younger and shorter comrade looked like he was from a Magar or other janjati background. He was accessorised with a sub-machine gun of tubular metal stock.

My friend, who speaks some Nepali, went over to negotiate with you, while I watched from a few paces back. We knew what you wanted, having heard from other trekkers and porters of the 'toll' extracted from them near Ghorepani. They described how your fellows-in-arms cleverly closed a gate on the path when they tried to return from a sunrise climb up Poon Hill and refused to open it until they paid a per capita varying from Rs 300-1,000. Bargaining was possible and there seemed to be a special discount for young women. (What would Mao say?)

After a quarter hour of heated bargaining, it became apparent that no Golden Age tariff was available for us two middle-age men, and so we ended up paying retail. As Political Commissar, you spoke passionately in stentorian tones, and your demeanor nevertheless communicated that you believe in your cause.

When the transaction was complete, you wrote out a Donation Receipt from your notebook in the name of the Peoples' Liberation Army Nepal, Western Central Command Division, Basu Memorial 4th Brigade. It is printed in red and bears a flag with a hammer and sickle balanced by the assembled visages of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Beneath the slogans 'Unite, Workers of the World' and 'Long Live MLM and Prachandapath', it reads:

Received with thanks from ____ the sum of Rs ____ as donation for the fight against feudalism, American imperialism, expansionism and all types of reactionaries.

While you spoke, your companion said nothing but smiled occasionally, arms folded over his gun. Both of you were quite civil and you insisted on shaking our hands in parting. Why was it, then, that when we recounted our tale to the other members of our party who had started down the trail before us, my friend said he felt 'violated'? And why am I sceptical that our rupees will have any positive effect on the pressing problems that afflict Nepal?

On the way back from Annapurna Base Camp, we met some more of your people near Landruk and Tolka. Your fellow cadres spoke English quite well and were as polite and verbally unthreatening as you were. None of them were visibly armed. They said they used the 'donations' to provide medical care for people wounded in the conflict. Of the 10 or so in the group, about half were women, and no weapons were visible. They moved up through a field where local people were harvesting rice and passed us on the trail, faces sober, but the last woman in line smiled and said "Namaste". One young man sent us off down the trail with a spirited lal salam. Clearly, some of your people have a flair for public relations.

People who had been in Landruk said that at least 100 of your soldiers, mostly armed, had entered the town and conducted physical drills in a schoolyard, then melted away into small groups. Here and elsewhere, they said, you did not pay for your food or lodging. And your tolls on trekkers seemed to be subject to galloping inflation, as the going rate per head rose from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 in just a few days.

Reconstructing what was going on, it appears that your fighters took advantage of the Dasai holiday ceasefire to infiltrate into the Annapurna trail, among other areas. Not surprisingly, the army was not far behind. Returning to Chomrong from Base Camp, we learned from several sources that two army helicopters had flown over the Ghandruk area for at least an hour and had engaged your forces in a firefight.

You must be collecting a lot of money from trekkers, most of whom will not be seriously hurt by the loss of a couple thousand rupees. But will the trekkers keep coming? Still more important is how you treat your fellow Nepalis. People told us that you also exact payments from tea-house owners and trekking operators. Although they are afraid to tell you, many of your contributors resent you for this extortion. They also fear for their livelihoods if news of the fighting stops tourists from coming.

If I could talk with the army commander who ordered the helicopter mission, I would ask him: do you really think your helicopter gunners can tell combatants from civilians on the ground?

As a bideshi who has spent only three weeks in Nepal, I know that it is presumptuous for me to offer answers. You could easily write me off as an imperialist: I make a comfortable living in Seattle. As a journalist, I have covered political upheaval in Latin America and Europe and have been a community activist at home.

More than 8,000 Nepalis have died in the past eight years at the hands of fellow-Nepalis. The death toll mounts every day. People are being 'disappeared' by your side and the army. Competing body-counts aside, thousands of poor Nepalis and communities in the countryside have had their lives shattered. Your leader Prachanda announced this week that he will no longer target infrastructure and VDCs. That is a good move, but who is ever going to replace the ones that have already been destroyed?

It must seem self-evident to you that political power comes from the barrel of a gun, but does it really in the long run? What about Clausewitz's dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means? Guns can't create a new order. They can't even destroy an old order if it has a strong enough hold on the minds of enough people. Mao's China has long since turned hyper-capitalist.

Your leader Baburam Bhattarai says this is a 'democratic revolution'. But that requires more than being able to recite a memorised line, it needs listening to many kinds of people and responding to their needs.

Incidentally, if I had a chance to talk to our ambassador in Kathmandu, Michael Malinowski, I would ask him: why are you adding fuel to the fire by calling Bhattarai a new Goebbels? Can't the Bush administration come up with anything more original than warmed-over World War II hyperboles like the 'Axis of Evil'? How will it help ordinary Nepalis to give military aid to an army that can't tell fighters from civilians?

Beneath the politics, however, I want to ask you an ideological question: why Maoism? Read about the Khmer Rouge, the killing fields, Sendero Luminoso. Your leaders have rejected history books as so much bourgeois propaganda. But can it all be made up? Mao was a brilliant military leader, but read the 'scar literature' by the victims of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Or read the horrors of Stalin's purges. Try to comprehend the millions of lives they wasted.

If you were able to win militarily, what would Maoism have to offer your country beyond a personality cult and slaughter? Nepal, in its present impasse, would seem to need relentless empiricism and pragmatism, along with a healthy dose of imagination, qualities for which rigid Maoism is not known. Yet there is so much progressive experience beyond Maoism to draw on.

Take a look at Latin American popular movements like Emiliano Zapata, Augusto Sandino, Farabundo Marti or Salvador Allende. Some of the movements they inspired demonstrated that revolutions can respect human rights far better than dictatorships they overthrow. Read about them in the works of the Uruguayan historian, Eduardo Galeano. In your own subcontinent, investigate Gandhi's liberation movement and go visit Kerala next time your are in India.

Drag Nepali society out of it feudal past and help dalits, ethnic minorities and women achieve their just place in it. There is a wealth of experience of non-violent movements to draw on: from the African-American civil rights movement in the US to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, from Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala to Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Antonio Gramsci, the old Italian Marxist had challenging ideas about how dominant social forces manufacture the consent of subordinate ones.

How do you plan to help people in the countryside improve their lives? Nepal is at the forefront worldwide in successful application of small-scale hydroelectric power, water taps and tubewells, biogas and community forestry, in decentralised planning through VDCs and DDCs. Do you really need to destroy everything before rebuilding? Talk to the rural Nepalis who are leaders in these areas if they haven't been driven out of their homes by the war.

If you opened your mind, and looked around your country and the world for credible answers, you might save your fellow Nepalis a lot of suffering. And you just might find many more allies in the effort to build a peaceful, just and liveable Nepal for all Nepalis.

Sincerely yours,
Peter Costantini, Seattle

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)