Nepal: The Improbable Maoists

Maoist supporters at a rally in Kathmandu Subhakar, June 2, 2006 (Photo: Subhakar)
Maoist supporters at a rally in Kathmandu Subhakar, June 2, 2006 (Photo: Subhakar)

A deathly internecine warfare imploded in a land where a common first name is Love (Prem and Maya), or a variation such as Flower Love (Phulmaya) and Heart Love (Dilmaya), and upwards of 15,000 people were killed as Nepal turned on itself for a decade. The term Maoist elicits a visceral, negative reaction in most people and the rebels became an easy target for the media and commentators. Nepal’s insurgents neither intended this nor to convey an image of platoons of Che Guevera lookalikes, flowing hair under red-star berets led by legions of Mao Zedong facsimiles in collarless, dull jackets.

They are radically typical Nepali hills people, as pleasant as anyone across rural Nepal, a country legendary for hospitality. They waged a ten-year revolution (1996-2006) foremost against apartheid (despite names of factions and supplementary rhetoric); in other words, stratification along ethnic lines, and endemic corruption.

The rebels chose an inflammatory title that brought international powerhouses of the UK, USA, China and India against them in support of a reviled king and the autocratic rulers who for centuries have impoverished Nepal financially and morally.

Unfavorable reports about the Maoists came in from around the globe. Did they deserve it? The reality that I personally experienced is different than what I read. My story was gathered from visits to actual combat grounds and complemented by former rebel commanders (one a member of parliament, another became Nepal’s female Youth and Sports Minister), guerrillas, spies, weapons makers, medical staff and police and army personnel.

Of course, to spend time with any group is to be exposed to their views and risk being influenced by biases. Such are the odds in my case. I have attempted to view the facts as impartially as possible (that said, not one of the Maoists engaged me in political discourse. They never broached the subject; only a few Nepali acquaintances in Kathmandu and nearly all foreigners, no matter how briefly they have been in Nepal, take up the subject). This is a lightning rod subject that has a tendency to be manipulated by sound bite redux. As eminent mathematician John von Nuemann aptly stated, “truth is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations” and such might be the case with this war, its precursors and aftermath.


The subterfuge of Nepal’s political backdrop is well camouflaged. Caste supremacists often mislead the uninformed, including aid workers from abroad and some of them tend to make Nepal an amusement park while only scratching the surface of its culture, if that. Because of ignorance of the ground reality, the top-heavy foreign ‘aid’ paradigm often engenders more problems than it solves and tends to have the opposite effect on development while reinforcing corruption and the sense of entitlement by caste chauvinists in disguise.

Supremacist rulers are behind the enduring underdevelopment and poverty of Nepal; they have control of all sectors and also profit from unwitting aid agencies patronizing them while they siphon off funds to support a lifestyle denied to the general people. Foreign aid specialists might be appalled if the veil was lifted to reveal that they are being hoodwinked by the extreme right wing of the polity.

Caste elitists outwardly argue that education sets them apart and elevates their customs, culture and preferences. The lower social strata just need education, and the lack thereof is holding them back from rising to higher levels. This misdirection underpins a sense of superiority that pervades the upper echelon, many of whom truly believe they were born with better genetic material (yet these lackluster, self-anointed chosen ones have nothing to show for centuries of mis-governance and much of which to be ashamed).

The educational system is appallingly biased in favor of upper caste Aryans, namely Brahmin and Chhetri. The makers of the textbooks and teaching materials, exams, educational structure and methodology as well as the teachers and school administrators themselves are dominated by the privileged ruling class. They tend to score higher (with abundant cheating) in Nepal’s shoddy education paradigm, a relatively innocuous fact; if it weren’t that these test results are the basis for favoritism in filling the bureaucratic, academic, military, and business ranks as well as administrative positions with NGOs and INGOs. Flouting misleading school performance, the ruling elite justifies casteism.

Foreign officials are especially gullible to the specious education argument and unsuspectingly jump into bed with supremacists who espouse it. Having infiltrated the highest positions in society, their privileged rank is used to an advantage while plaintively pitching justifications to unknowing expatriates. They define the prevailing circumstances to their favor and are copiously rewarded.

Aid workers at the helm of large funds often understand strikingly little about Nepal and most of their exposure is with the higher social strata and its limited perspectives and vested interests and thereby, the foreigners are vulnerable to partisan influence. They inadvertently patronize the extreme right wing. The two groups form unholy social alliances, frequenting the same bars, spas, restaurants, hotels and haute culture events, not to mention the official day to day interactions and endless meetings where behind closed doors these well-paid comrades discuss Nepal’s situation from a biased viewpoint and decide in what direction to release funds. Unsurprisingly, money gets siphoned off to preferentially selected groups, usually with family connections with advisors getting kickbacks.

As for the media, it is centered around power and Nepal’s Maoists had little clout or support, especially with foreign journalists, while, in-country, English language media-houses are owned and operated by families of high rank, arch-adversaries of the plebs. They have the printed and social power to influence the aid and diplomatic clique into believing what they were already inclined to believe, that a group by the name Maoist deserves to be crushed without mercy.

The  International Criminal Court  defines the crime of apartheid as “systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Foremost, the Maoists led a rebellion against deep-rooted apartheid (despite names of factions and supplementary rhetoric and aspirations); in other words, cleavage, segregation and discrimination based on ethnic lines and the corruption that permeated the ruling ranks.

If supremacist leaders, had not squandered centuries of misrule with unrelenting incompetence, exploitation and subjugation (continuing to a large degree today in the bureaucratic ranks) that did much for themselves but shamefully devastated Nepal, then there would have been no possibility to recruit congenial, resilient and passive people in the mid-hills and convince them that they were wronged. It took little convincing.

The slow simmering eruption was exacerbated during the panchayat era from the middle of last century when rulers reigned unhindered and their ad-hoc whims were tantamount to law. In the early 1990’s, there was hope for change at the advent of democracy. Ominously, the traditional rulers became more embedded and self-serving. At the time, Maoists politicians were blocked from government on trivialities and consequently boycotted polls. Operation Romeo (as in Montague of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) was initiated “to win the hearts and minds of the people”; the suitor chosen to do the courting, the Armed Police Force. Disobedience was quelled by thrashing dissenters into submission. The rebellion was thus sparked as a long compliant people finally fought back against the state and an autocratic ruling class.

Class Enemies

“Shit rolls downhill” goes the saying, and Nepal’s king and rulers had a toilet throne atop the world’s highest peak. Turds had nothing to do but trundle downhill creating an avalanche of excrement that bowled over the common people who eventually had enough and rose in fury.

The so-called ‘class enemy’ was the monarch and pampered elites with plenipotentiary powers. They ruled by hierarchical patronage; in other words, sucking up. How far up someone was on the social ladder was determined not by talent or merit, but birth and family relations. They are by and large Brahmin and Chhetri who make up over a third of Nepal’s population. Although, it must be kept in mind that many Brahmin and Chhetri were appalled at the uppity attitude of their leaders and the unjust situation that pervaded the state. Many were among those who felt persecuted and joined the rebellion against the corrupt patronage that has held Nepal back for ages.

For their part, Maoists mistakenly perceived the rest of the world as no better than their local ‘class enemies’ and grouped all together. Perhaps the error can be understood in context by looking at Nepal’s closest neighbor with similarities in culture, geography, religion and ideology. India is the so-called “largest democracy in the world” but with millennia-old social stratification and a disenfranchised ‘untouchable’ caste.

To their fault, Maoists did not realize that unjust social hierarchy in the Subcontinent backed by the state apparatus is a modern-day anomaly. At the time, the information age was still a distant reality in Nepal. China, although beyond the mighty Himalaya was the nearest available prototype of a caste-free society, democracy or otherwise, and taken as a role model for an egalitarian republic (overlooking brutal subjugation of Tibetans and their culture).

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Alonzo Lyons

Alonzo Lyons is an avid Himalayan trekker and author of several guidebooks on Nepal including The Best Little Guidebook for Trekking the Everest Region, The Guerrilla Trek and Yarsa Trails--Off the Beaten Path in Rugged Western Nepal and Nepali for Tourists (his Nepal Insider Editions are self-published and available on Amazon and Kindle). Please find more information about Alonzo Lyons on his personal blog and here

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  • Gautam Sakya

    Alonzo Lyons has correctly observed that the Maoists are the typical hill people across rural Nepal. It is also true that information age in Nepal is still a distant reality. Nepal is naturally and predominantly influenced by her easily accessible Southern neighbor,India, the largest democracy in the world (officially rather than privately). The alternative is Mao’s revolution and Deng’s evolution in China, her northern neighbor separated by formidable Himalaya. So, it might still take a few decades to to build a federal democratic society in Nepal. Nepal does have experiences of the extreme right regimes. She may unfortunately pass through the extremes of left regimes before she is capable to stand stable for a peaceful and prosperous middle regime.

  • Harka man Tamang

    its somewhat true but also somewhat baseless……we should also understand that brahmins and chettris have large population, so they are seen everywhere….in a room filled with red ants its natural to see red ants everywhere..but in kathmandu…Newars are elite class..they are rich..also the Manange people are also elite class..infact the richest people of Nepal are Gurungs and the Newars..

    • DBG

      Ninety percent of bureaucrats are Brahmin, Chetri, and upper class Newar and this ruling class has controlled Nepal for centuries.
      Tragedy what they have done to her…misusing her for personal and family gain.

  • BBD

    Very well written. While I don’t think the Maoists are innocent by any means, I think that the government forces were far worse. Almost all of the violence I heard of came from them. If those long in power had not squandered the good will of the people, and if development organizations hadn’t been careless in the distribution of aid money, the Maoists wouldn’t have emerged.

  • Kpbnepal

    Biased, prejudical and baseless. All cultures and traditions can not be interpretedand explained by those educated, trained and acculturated in alien culture. The standards applied by the writer to explain situation in Nepal is out of context.Sorry for misrepresenting the facts and situations in such way.

  • no name

    I’m a Nepali student studying Political Science abroad. I strongly supported (and still do) federalism on ethnic lines. But I have been deeply disappointed by the reluctance of two other major parties, NC and UML, to accept federalism of such kind. They had a strong backing from high caste elites (It’s so unfortunate that Nepal – like India – has caste system). All the powerful positions in government ministries and political parties are occupied by high caste people. Even all newspaper editors in Nepal belong to high caste. I, as somebody born and raised in this poor country, experienced how my family being low caste was badly treated by so called high caste people in the neighborhood. It is in fact infuriating that those high caste people who are less than 30% in population are able to dominate the rest. And when others demanded their proportional share in government, the high caste people strongly came against this. Nepal seriously needs international solidarity in the battle against the high caste people.

  • RjnR

    informative (and fittingly points to his own govt’s lethal faults), shedding light on Nepal’s rebellion and Subcontinent’s underdevelopment: apartheid reigned for aeons (fascinating no one dared call it what it is)…Nepal’s rulers too clever at fashioning false position to world/donor organisations, equals enormous funds while oppressing others… people suffered donkey’s years under extreme poverty and ill-health from poor leadership and corruption.shame on those entrusted with governing the country, they have made it paradise lost (but hopefully one day regain integrity and become paradise found).

    “This paradigm is the precise reverse of the Robin Hood legend, and in this case, the chronically poor get looted while the rulers procure a lifestyle stolen from the destitute public!”

  • Rani

    good people simply want to govern themselves for once (federalism) which no one can condemn them for, especially after suffering too long under self-serving rulers who bankrupted the country morally & economically.

  • freedom fighter

    Communists helped defeat fascist Rana Regime (condoned by British India) that brutally oppressed good people of Nepal for a century.
    They also overthrew the 240 yr old Shah Dynasty (dictator kings).
    Upper Class despots have ruled for hundreds of years subjugating those “below” them.
    Diplomats and aid officers pander to them as they beg for financial support which is used for personal gain. These villains have bankrupted and nearly ruined this beautiful Himalayan country.
    Honest people finally stood up for rights but ruling class is trying to maintain dominance by all means possible, abetted by unwitting foreign envoys who have fits and spasms at the name Maoist.
    “Maoism was chiefly a tool used to chip away at the walls of state-sponsored social and ethnic discrimination and administrative malfeasance.”

  • Mohan

    impressive hehe:

    “Cultural and generational biases based on perception run deep. For some people, Che Guevara was a vicious killer and others a liberator. Nowadays, Guevara is ubiquitous as a handsome T-shirt image cum savior of many a young person’s fashion world. He has become an iconic pop-hero for perhaps unknown reasons, other than symbolizing an anti-establishment ethos despite a ruthless violent streak.”