The People's War in Nepal
A short background
In 1996 the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) launched its ‘People’s War’, waged against the government and what its instigators saw as over 200 years of feudal exploitation. The Maoist campaign lasted for a decade and was aimed at overthrowing the Hindu monarchy and the existing unresponsive political system and replacing it with a new democratic platform. The war left a legacy of some 16, 000 dead1 and around 1,400 people unaccounted for.2 Initially dismissed by the political centre as a peripheral phenomenon, confined mainly to a few areas in the far-western region, the Maoist movement started to grow at a staggering speed. By 2006 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the CPN-M and the government of Nepal, the CPN-M was in control of approximately 70 per cent of Nepal’s countryside.
As the strategy of the CPN-M was to wage the war through politicising Nepal’s rural population, the movement instantiated complex changes in social and cultural structures (de Sales, 2003; Zharkevich, 2019). The CPN-M established ‘base areas’ and ‘people’s governments’ where it had defeated the state forces (Adhikari, 2014; Shneiderman and Turin, 2004). The movement drew most of its cadres from the rural youth and historically marginalised ethnic and caste groups, and between 30-40 per cent of those who fought in the People’s Liberation Army were women. As part of its strategy, the CPN-M propagated an agenda of women’s liberation that over the course of the war evolved into a nuanced gender ideology, translating to concrete campaigns aimed at mobilising rural women (Yadav, 2016; Riley, 2022).
The People’s War had a disproportionate impact on Nepal’s already marginalised populations – not only because the war was mainly fought in rural areas – but also because people from marginalised ethnic and caste groups were perceived to be potential ‘sympathisers’ of the movement, and as a result became targets of the violence perpetuated by the state forces, including enforced disappearances, extra judicial killings, and sexual violence (Robins, 2013; Rawski and Sharma, 2012). Whilst persons were also made to disappear by the Maoists, the majority of disappearances were the responsibility of the state forces, appearing to have been used as a strategy by military commanders at several levels in the hierarchy (Robins, 2013: 68; OHCHR, 2008).
The Maoist movement had not only succeeded in taking over most of Nepal’s countryside but had also illustrated the extent of the historical inequalities between urban and rural Nepal, between the Tarai (the southern plains) and the Kathmandu Valley, and along the lines of caste, ethnicity and gender (Gellner, 2008; Sijapati, 2013; Tamang, 2009; Hangen, 2010). The extent of the change that followed the war was exemplified in the Constituent Assembly that was elected in 2008, and which in its first sitting abolished the over 240 years old monarchy. The CA was the most representative elected body in Nepal’s history and the CPN-M gained a clear victory in elections moving from a fringe party of the radical left to one of the major political forces in Nepal. Whilst the 2008 was in many ways a watershed moment, the promises laid out in the Peace Agreement to address the issue of transitional justice, including the fate of the disappeared, did not materialise (Bhandari, Chaudhary and Chaudhary, 2018).
After the Peace Agreement was signed in 2006, Nepal witnessed an increased international presence, including initiation of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) charged as part of its mandate to ‘verify’ Maoist combatants (Bleie and Shestra, 2013). The contested questions of what to do with the two standing armies (PLA and the Nepal Army) and how to confront the violent past (structural violence stemming from historical forms of exclusion as well as wartime human rights violations) were increasingly approached through familiar frameworks and activities that constitute ‘peacebuilding’.
It is against this background that the podcast explores the stories of women who fought in the PLA and the women who are active in the victims’ movement, organising around the issue of disappearances. By 2013 when the interviews were conducted, the women activists I met had spent often a decade waiting to know about what happened to their loved ones – and a decade organising. The women I met who had fought in the PLA had recently left the ‘cantonments’ – semi-temporary camps that had been set up as part of the peace agreement. Many of them had spent a nearly seven years in an out of the cantonments, before taking on ‘voluntary retirement – a cash package – and were no starting to rebuild their lives.
1 The exact figures are contested. Academic sources give figures between 13,000 and 16,000, see e.g Robins (2013); von Eisendiel et al. (2012).
2 The figures for ‘disappeared’ vary depending on the definition of the term in the reports. See e.g. ICRC (2014); ICTJ (2013).
References and further reading
If you are interested in learning more about the Maoist movement in Nepal, and the ongoing legacies of the war, here are some interesting works to start with (including the ones referred to above).
Adhikari, A. (2014) The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The story of Nepal’s Maoist revolution. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company.
Bleie, T. and Shrestha, R. (2012) DDR in Nepal: Stakeholder Politics and the Implications for Re-integration as a Process of Disengagement. Tromsø: Centre for Peace Studies, University of Tromsø. Retrieved August 2016, from www.uit.no/Content/307292/Nepal_Report_Final.pdf
de Sales, A. (2000) The Kham-Magar Country: Between Ethnic Claims and Maoism. European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 19, 41-72.
Einsiedel, S. V., Malone, D., Pradhan, S. (2012) Introduction. In Einsiedel, S. V., Malone, D., Pradhan, S. (Eds) Nepal in Transition: from People’s War to Fragile Peace. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gellner, D. (2008) Introduction: Transformations of the Nepalese State. In D. Gellner (Ed.), Resistance and the State: Nepalese Experiences. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Hangen, S. (2010) The Rise of Ethnic Politics in Nepal: Democracy in the Margins. London: Routledge.
Hirslund, D.V. (2015) Militant collectivity: building solidarities in the Maoist Movement in Nepal. Focaal (72): 37-50.
ICRC (2014) Missing Persons in Nepal – the Right to Know: updated list. Kathmandu: International
Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved September 2015, from https://www.icrc.org/en/document/missing-persons-nepal-right-know-updated-list-2014
ICTJ (2013) Beyond Relief: Addressing the Rights and Needs of Nepal’s Wives of the Disappeared. Kathmandu: International Centre for Tansitional Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ-Briefing-Nepal-WivesofDisappeared-2013.pdf
Lecomte-Tilouine, M. (2006) Kill One, He Becomes a Hundred. Social Analysis, 50 (1): 51-72.
Ogura, K. (2008) Seeking State Power: The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.
OHCHR (2008) Conflict-related disapperances in Bardiya district. Kathmandu: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations.
Rawski, F., & Sharma, M. (2012) A Comprehensive Peace? Lessons from Human Rights Monitoring
in Nepal. In S. V. Einsiedel, D. Malone, & S. Pradhan (Eds.), Nepal in Transition: from People’s War to Fragile Peace. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Riley, H. (2022) Rethinking Masculinities: Ideology, Identity and Change in the People’s War in Nepal and Its Aftermath. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Robins, S. (2013) Families of the Missing: A Test for Contemporary Approaches to Transitional Justice. London: Routledge.
Shneiderman, S. and Turin, M. (2004) The Path to ‘Jan Sarkar’ in Dolakha District: Towards an Ethnography of the Maoist Movement. In M. Hutt (Ed.), Himalayan ‘People’s War’: Nepal’s Maoist Rebellion. London: Hurst&Co.
Sijapati, B. (2013) In pursuit of recognition: regionalism, Madhesi identity and the Madhes Andolan. In M. &. Lawoti (Ed.), Nationalism and ethnic conflict in Nepal: Identities and mobilization after 1990 (pp. 145-172). New York: Routledge.
Tamang, S. (2009) The Politics of Conflict and Difference or the Difference of Conflict in Politics: The Women’s Movement in Nepal. Feminist Review, 91: 61-80.
Yadav, P. (2016) Social Transformation in Post-conflict Nepal: A Gender Perspective. New York: Routledge.
Yami, H. (2007) People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal. Kathmandu: Janadhwani Publication.
Zharkevich, I. (2019) Maoist People’s War and the Revolution of Everyday Life in Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.