Chasing the People’s Liberation Army

(1) Nepalgunj: our base for the trip (2) Tila, Dang: where we originally planned to hike to Rolpa from (3) Thawang, Rolpa: our main destination, the “red fort” of the Maoists (4) Khalanka, Rukum: Where we ended up hiking to Rolpa from

1 – Come, let’s go

Rukum, Nepal, March, 2006

We’re traveling during the week of municipal elections, an occasion the Maoists have decided to celebrate with a week-long bandh, a closure of the roads. We could’ve entered the rural district of Rolpa by driving up to Tila from Dang, and from there hiked north to our destination, Thawang, but given the bandh’s schedule our vehicle wouldn’t have been able to  return for an entire week. So we fly from Nepalgunj to Musikot Khalanga, Rukum, instead.

There’s a significant difference in trying to leave for Rolpa from Dang vs. Khalanga. Dang is in the terai, the southern plains, and has electricity, a dense population, proper hotels with hot showers, a variety of shops, and access to wide roads, which means that your encounter with the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and the police is expected to be limited to check posts. Khalanga, on the other hand, is one of the few areas of Rukum—a rural hilly district north of our destination—that’s generally sympathetic to the Maoists, but under the government’s control. Within minutes, or perhaps seconds, of having entered the village of Khalanga after a 40-minute walk from the “airport,” we have ourselves an unsolicited escort. We tell him the name of our “guest house,” and he leads us there, following us inside. He’s dressed in civilian clothing and identifies himself as a policeman. He’s standing in our room, and wants us to give him our names and the names of the publications we’re affiliated with. He wants to know, though his mannerism is polite, why we’re here and where we’re headed. We say we’re going to explore the area and its surroundings with the two foreign journalists we’re with, and by the way, we also need to find a porter for our luggage.

In the evening there are two more rounds of knocks. One is a visit from RNA soldiers, the other from someone who is also dressed in civilian clothing and says is the police. I’m half asleep, so which came first, and how many hours apart, is a blur. They both want the same: a list of our names and our affiliations, and a request to pay the Chief District Officer (CDO) a visit. Perhaps it would be impolite to make an appearance in this territory and not greet the officers holding it, or perhaps Khalanga is the wrong place to land in if your intention is to leave for Thawang, the “red court” of the Maoist movement, or perhaps the CDO is generally bored in these parts and needs to be entertained with guests, or, finally, perhaps the government thinks we have a lead on the whereabouts of Maoists. At some point the first policeman, the unsolicited escort, comes back with a porter, but my friend is suspicious. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of your robust Nepali porter, and his haircut looks awfully like a policeman’s. He is a student, we are told, so we ask him to present himself in the morning with a student ID.

The village is quiet at night. There’s a self-imposed curfew. We take a short walk and are excited to find a photocopy center, of which we intend to make great use. The government presence gives them business, we assume. Gun shots are heard over dinner—it’s the way Maoists inform of their presence, a show of power. “A bomb has gone off,” the locals conclude in the eating area, frantically but briefly. Like most food in Nepal, the curd surprises you with its rich flavor. The water tastes ten times better than the one I get, scarcely, at our home in Kathmandu.

“Are you sure the army came to our room?” my friend asks in the morning. Of course I’m sure. It must’ve been around 4 or 5 AM when they paid us yet another visit, but my friend suspects he dreamt it. This morning we are woken up by another knock, around 7 or 8 AM. We’re told the visitors are downstairs, waiting to take us to the CDO. Looking at the landscape in daylight, the gun shots seemed to have come from one of the many surrounding hills. We are now inside the heavily-fortified army barrack, situated on the top of a hill, and it looks out to all other hills, a splendid 360° view at our disposal. The barrack is practically a neighbor to where we’re staying, and and is home to all the government workers in the area. We’re seated by a badminton court where young soldiers are taking turns playing a round. Conversation in English ensues over tea—Maoist threats, difficulties, the village, the future, families, and so on. Thankfully we have more questions for him than he has for us. His are redundant: what are your names, which publications do you work for, why are you here, where are you heading? By now we’re making no attempt to hide, “We’re heading to Thawang,” the “red court” of the Maoists.

The gentleman is originally from Palpa, and has served the government in Kathmandu. He’s happy to be here, he says, “to serve the people.” The only downfall, if any, is the perpetual possibility of a Maoist attack. “There was some gun firing just last night,” he says gravely. Yes, we heard. He’s curious to know what the two journalists think of Nepal’s political crisis, if they see any hope, and puts forward the question intently. He sits patiently through the Italian photojournalist’s candid rant in favor of democracy, managing to reveal no sign of defense or objection. Democracy is the future, he’s told, the king’s power must go, it’s only a matter of when, nobody wins a war, a battle is a loss for both sides, there’s plenty of room in Nepal for everyone to find a common solution, unlike some of the other places where he’s been to recently, such as Kosovo. The other one, a French reporter, joins the soldiers on a round of badminton. He loses somewhat miserably and blames the sunlight.

The porter never shows up with his student ID, but the women running the guest house—a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter-in-law whose husband works in Kathmandu—find us two that fit the stereotype: indifference towards the torturous road ahead, standing on hardened legs, and asking impatiently with a sturdy face, Come, let’s go?

2 — The Missing PLA

Rolpa, Nepal, March 2006

Of that which belongs to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), not even a strand of hair can be found here. Comrade Inkar assures us of this, briefly bringing himself to a standstill as a way of gesturing certainty. We are in Thawang, Rolpa, the small village that is a headquarter to the Maoist movement. Comrade Inkar, who was on a horse when we first saw him, is the People Government Village Chief here.

We’ve been walking through the rural districts of Rukum to Rolpa for over three days, passing through villages where Maoist party workers roam about freely. But we have so far failed to encounter a single member of the PLA. There are two foreign journalists with us, actively searching for the Maoist army without which the story they’re working on is incomplete. The Maoist movement is a myth, the photographer jokes. There is barely even a militia here. We find one armed resident who is about to fire a blank for ceremonial purposes, but his gun is in a miserable shape. He fires, finally, after a failed attempt. “This is not even from World War II”, the photographer says, “This is from World War I.”

There’s a new face in sight the next morning. He’s wearing a green camouflage shirt with a tag that reads in Nepali, P.L.A. “Who’s this?” the journalists want to know immediately. The 22-year-old PLA soldier is here accompanying one of the party’s Dalit intellectuals passing through Thawang. He is unarmed, the soldier informs us, and though he is heading back to his formation, he confirms with a reserved smile that we cannot follow him. Can he tell us which region he’s heading towards? He neither wants to nor is he allowed to.

The Maoists would normally organize some sort of a program here on Falgun 1 in celebration of their movement’s anniversary. At least a few members of the PLA would be present. Comrade Inkar tells us, however, that the annual programs have been moved to five days later this year because his athletes have been invited elsewhere. Normally there would also be high-ranking party workers here, but they, too, are currently absent. We learn from the radio that night that Dhankuta has been hit. Right before we’d left for Rukum, clashes had occurred in Nepalgunj. A week earlier, Tansen had been hit. It’s clear that the PLA is dispersed in and around urban centers, far from here.

In Tila we are in the company of someone from the Maoists Central Military Academy. He speaks of the movement’s last decisive war, expressing the need to move past a stalemate, and for the course of events to progress. “Don’t travel in the first week of April,” he warns us, “Whether the Maoists win or lose, Kathmandu will be hit for that final war.” A decision, be it victory or defeat, will have to be made.

We are back in Nepalgunj, taking advantage of an internet connection, hot showers, and full menus. The PLA seemed to have had a notable presence here while we were in rural parts looking for them. Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, the two main leaders of the movement who had so far been underground, have given an exclusive interview to Kantipur/Kathmandu Post editors. Prachanda wants to see things clear up by April 6. Later that night, we hear an explosion go off in the distance. Apparently such incidents have become routine enough to shrug, “This is Nepalgunj.” According to a human rights activist based here, there are at least a thousand cadres stationed in the area.

We wake up to a BBC exclusive interview with Prachanda on TV. Today is the Maoist movement’s 10th anniversary. Though this is an area with a heavy Royal Nepal Army presence, Maoist workers have been at work through the night: posters of the anniversary are plastered everywhere, including the gates of our hotel.

3 — Barsagath with the Maoists

Nepalgunj, Nepal. March 2006

Today is Falgun 1, and the Maoists are celebrating their 10th anniversary with a cultural show at an undisclosed location. We drive out of Nepalgunj, a city well guarded by the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). Within 5 or 10 minutes of the last soldier we come across, tiny Communist flags appear along both sides of the road. The number of flags increase as we get further deep into the outskirts of the city, flags in bunches adorning trees. Red banners congratulate you on the occasion of the anniversary and invite you to their celebration without mentioning specific details. Finally one big, red gate constructed out of bamboos, newspaper, and more red banners does the same.

The dynamics in the flat lands of the terai are notably different from that in the hills, especially regions like Rolpa, where the roads are either scarce or non-existent, and whatever exist of the trails are challenging. In the terai, on the other hand, where the roads are smooth, wide, and uninterrupted, any Maoist gathering, especially one so close to an urban center guarded by the army, is vulnerable to an attack. The venue and the time, therefore, are subject to a last-minute change.

We arrive, after a one-hour drive, at another, more concrete, welcome gate set up in a village. It’s one big celebration here. Young folks are running around and laughing with bright magenta abhir all over their faces. It looks like the festival of holi. Older Maoists at the gate are shouting at others, hustling and bustling, to find some abhir so that the guests can be welcomed in. Quite a bit of red abhir is smeared on your forehead to indicate respect and camaraderie, just as intrusive as when religious folks put tika on your forehead unasked. The meaning is different here, but the ritual is the same.

A decent-sized stage has been setup. The venue, with colorful pieces of fabric defining the open space above us and decorating the stage, looks much like a Nepali wedding. We’ve been told the Maoists’ national team of performers is here. Next to the stage are seated some high-ranking party workers, including the bearded Comrade Athak, who is the chief of the Banke and Bardiya districts. There are quite a few people in the audience. I can’t guess the number, but almost 50% of it are small children around the age of 5-10. They are here for the songs and the dance, I assume.

Our guide here tells us that an attack is unlikely because of the presence of so many civilians. Several armed PLA soldiers dressed in civilian clothes guard the event as well as spots further out onto the road. We are surrounded by big, open rice fields, and the soldiers on duty look out to them watchfully. The young man in charge of the soldiers here is soft-spoken and eager to show respect. The speeches, dances, and the songs begin.

At some point during the show, a wave of the audience rises in panic, mostly children and adults seated on the ground with them. They seem to have misheard that RNA soldiers had arrived. Panic spreads instantly. The volunteers settle them down, the MC announcing on the stage that there is no need to worry. The entire venue is secured by our dear, trusty brothers of the PLA, he says. Two more instances of tension occur when, much later in the show, we hear an army aircraft humming, hovering somewhere above us. RNA helicopters have come and checked out Maoist shows before, but our guide assures us that no air-strike has occurred in such instances here, though strikes have occurred elsewhere during cultural shows.

The dancers are good and dressed colorfully in coordinated wardrobe. They dance to songs being performed live next to the stage. The musicians and singers are not without talent either. The style is the same old, only the lyrics to the songs have changed.

The curfew in Nepalgunj begins at 7 PM, so some us must be on our way at around 5. Comrade Athak has promised an interview with the two journalists after the show. I decide to skip the interview and head back — days of walking through daunting trails of Rolpa had been bearable, and exciting, but the thought of sitting through the remaining however many hours of this show (it turns out to be three) is not.

On our way back, a comrade confirms that RNA soldiers had come up to a certain point on the road on foot earlier in the day, so the rumor that caused panic must have had some ground. By now all the red flags have been removed, but the gate is still standing. She also confirms the arrival of two helicopters in the area where the show was taking place. Out the window of our jeep, the sun is setting, the sky is orange, the open rice fields are glistening, and in a long trail, little silhouettes of RNA soldiers are trotting back home.

4 — Mixed Feelings for the Elusive

Nepal, March 2006

Despite Thawang being the “red fort” of the Maoist movement, and Comrade Inkar the chief of this fort, he has never met Prachanda. His one-way communication with the supremo occurs over Republic radio, a public broadcast through which the party leadership’s messaging is spread. Prachanda is everywhere, Inkar says with glee, as if aware of the humor in this; when we talk, Prachanda is present, when we drink tea, he is present. This is before the first public interviews the two Maoist leaders have given to Kantipur Publications and BBC. When we get to Nepalgunj, and the interviews are out, the Maoists there are possibly the last ones to see the BBC segment, since they have no access to cable television. They want to know what the supremo has said, and perhaps what he looks like on TV, but Nepalgunj is a busy town, so at least Kantipur and Kathmandu Post are easy to come by, unlike in Thawang, where no national publications arrive except when you’ve made a special request to Maoists who are passing through.

When the party leadership changes its rhetoric, Maoists on the ground have been able to reflect it quickly across the board, most likely thanks to the radio. In Nepalgunj, during a time when Prachanda has just given a major public interview, and it happens to be the movement’s much anticipated 10th anniversary, the supremo’s statement is urgently sought after, knowing it exists somewhere, though not sure of what it says, and downloaded and printed just in time to share it at the festivities.

A month later, senior leaders Rabindra Shrestha and Comrade Anukul criticize the ideological deviation in these interviews, the “softness” of the idea that Constitutional Monarchy would be acceptable if that were to be the outcome of a free and fair election. They are expelled from the party, but people like Comrade Inkar have updated their rhetoric—the immediate need for ousting of the king, the suitability of multiparty democracy, and the eventual goal of becoming a Communist nation—but they also expect their sons and daughters to be able to lead the government some day.

It’s been more than a decade since Comrade Inkar joined the party, which taught him how to read, and about Communism, possibly a topic he considers himself to be most knowledgeable of. The experience of trying to run an organized movement would have to have seasoned him, and others like him, a bit. Their children have grown old enough to join—and are now serving—the PLA. Meanwhile, Prachanda’s son has gotten a double promotion while everyone else got a one-step demotion, Baburam Bhattarai’s daughter is studying abroad, acquiring a “bourgeoisie education,” which people like Comrade Inkar were told is too corrupt for their children, and both the leaders have lived abroad this whole time, away from the everyday sacrifices and violence that unfolded here. Prachanda’s face, which had so far only existed as painted next to Marx, Lenin, and Mao, looks ordinary on TV.

Squatting on the floor by the bed on which Inkar is seated, an elderly Maoist supporter, who had previously served in the government from an independent party, suggests that if the Maoist government fails, or does not live up to its promises of a better life, there would have to be an internal struggle. He says this with a nod and a smile, as if what he has just said is very obvious.

Originally published on (2006)


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