The Maoists’ willingness to learn from history and induct Hindu priests into the fold is itself quite revolutionary
The countdown to Nepal’s second Constituent Assembly has begun. Parties are busy finalising candidate lists and election manifestos, while those trailing behind try to catch up to retain their role and relevance in Nepali politics in the days
Despite the failure of the first CA, and despite disillusionment with politicians, Nepalis are still generally upbeat about elections. In the remaining 60 days of campaigning, there will be intense debate among candidates and the electorate about the kind of Nepal the next CA will, or should, deliver. The contentious issues of secularism and identity-based federalism will once more dominate that discussion. These values were enshrined by the 2006 People’s Movement, the Madhesh Uprising of 2007 and the strong mobilisation by Janajatis and Dalits inside and outside the last CA. But the grievances and conflicting aspirations also created faultlines, dividing the nation and creating serious tension between communities.
In the last five years, the growing rift between the hill caste Hindus and other ethnic groups became politicised, polarising the CA and dividing society. Janajati CA members formed a cross-party political caucus demanding recognition of identity (historical,cultural, linguistic, geographic and ethnic) as the basis for carving out a future federal state.
The demand was actively supported by a loose network of indigenous and ethnic groups led by scholars, academics and professionals from various backgrounds.
The ethnic and indigenous communities who follow various forms of Shamanism and Buddhism, felt robbed of their vibrant linguistic traditions and cultural practices to be co-opted into a monolithic Hindu zeitgeist of the Gorkha Empire, organised themselves across political ideologies inside and outside the CA, calling for recognition of identity as the basis for carving out future federal states.
The Maoist leadership understood these underlying grievances during the early years of their ‘People’s War’ and exploited it to mobilise fighters. But they also provided a foundation and strength to a Dalit movement which created political and social awareness against caste-based discrimination, which legislations have failed to deliver even after decades.
A small but organised mobilisation by Muslims also strengthened demand for secularism in a country that was perceived to be predominantly Hindu. The aspiration for a secular republic was built on historical exclusion and an expression of resistance against the hegemony of the traditional ruling class and castes. The conflict and the 2006 movement provided the necessary articulation and expression of this demand.
During the conflict, revolutionary Maoist guerrillas desecrated temples, harassed Brahmin priests and bombed Sanskrit schools. This attempt to emulate the Chinese cultural revolution has now come full circle with the induction this week of priests into the party rank and file. The party seems to have realised that secularism is not just about non-discrimination between the faithful, it is also about being tolerant of them.
The fact that the comrades are ready to unlearn badly interpreted Marxist dictum is no less a revolutionary act. It is also the cold electoral calculus of reassuring influential, conservative forces in society that the party is not necessarily anti-religion.
This isn’t as incongruous as some may think: the most prominent leftists in modern political history have been unapologetically religious, from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to leader of American black movement Martin Luther King Jr, to the liberation theologists of Latin America. In his own words, Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama calls himself ‘half-Marxist’ and ‘half-Buddhist’.
Leftist intellectual Shyam Shrestha feels that UCPN-M’s acceptance of multi-party democracy, right to private property, and secularism in its real sense is an indication that Nepal’s left movement is finally coming out of the ideological corner it had painted itself into. "It was not part of their original plan but a political recourse taken in line with larger social realities. The global left movement has learned from the failure of Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, and it is time Nepal’s communists realised that too," reckons Shrestha.
More than a return to religion, it is the culture of corruption that has damaged the party and its leaders more in the run-up to the 19 November elections. However, the political actions of a party or moral degeneration of a leader can neither undermine nor discredit aspirations of the millions they champion, or pretend to.