You see the colour red everywhere in Nepal: in the roadside shrines and intricately carved temples that edge the streets; in the saris women wear and the vermilion powder that fills the parting in their hair; in the woven caps that men sport; and in the sacred forehead mark almost everyone carries after morning prayers.
And now there’s a new twist to this. In the last four years nearly half of the Nepali countryside has metaphorically turned red under the influence of a young and passionately committed group of Maoists. The resulting violence - from the revolutionaries and from government retaliation - has left more than a thousand dead and a trail of blood across the countryside.
Four years ago the ‘People’s War’, as the militants call it, was limited to three districts in this isolated, mountainous nation. Today it has spread to 45 of 75 districts. Predictably, the movement is strongest where people are poorest and where the state’s role is virtually non-existent. The guerrillas have set up parallel governments, collecting taxes, running schools, dispensing justice.
The curious thing is that Nepalis are overwhelmingly a religious people. So how has atheistic Maoism found such a hospitable environment here? Will Nepal offer a new model for the marriage of religion and revolution?
Nepal is the only self-proclaimed Hindu state in the world. For most Nepalis the day begins with prayer - and even popular songs played in the streets are religious. I remember watching a march in Kathmandu with the hammer-and-sickle banner waving prominently while marchers sang a Hindu religious hymn. Later in a restaurant the same hymn played in the background as people dined on traditional cuisine. The Nepali King is believed to be an incarnation of God - which is why there was widespread grief when the king and his family were murdered in their palace a year or so ago.
But for all its religiosity Nepal is also a poor country. More than half the men have migrated from the countryside in recent years in search of work, either to Kathmandu or to India. More recently, many of those same migrants have been enticed to join the Maoist movement. In the heart of rural Nepal there are villages where there are no men, and it is here that the revolutionaries find their most fertile recruiting ground.
As a result, says Hisila Yami, the wife of the well-known Maoist leader Prachanda, ‘in Nepal today, every third guerrilla is a woman.’
The women stay behind in the villages when their men disappear to look for work. They are the ones who run households. And in more recent times they’ve been the ones to break the traditional Hindu taboo on women touching the plough. In Nepal’s primarily agricultural economy women have been forced by poverty to take up the plough.
Maybe that’s why women make up the critical cadre of Nepal’s new revolutionaries. But will the ‘People’s War’ wind up treating women any better than most other male-dominated revolutions?
The Maoist movement as a whole, and women in particular, take Peru’s Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path as their model. But they’re determined not to replicate the patriarchal structure that characterized male-female relations in the Shining Path. There are women guerrillas, area commanders and female officers - although none have as yet made it to the top echelons.
Poverty drives women to throw in their lot with the Maoists (who are seen as local Robin Hoods in many places) but it is often revenge against the brutality of the State that prompts them to attack. Sita Kumari Pun was 11 years old when her brother was killed: ‘Yes, my brother has been killed. But we have another 1,000 brothers of the same kind. We will come together and take revenge...’ In the Maoist-dominated districts of Nepal, it’s not only women but also children, both boys and girls, who are ready to give up their lives for the revolution.
Will Nepal’s relatively young revolutionary movement grow and give the world a new model of revolutionary politics? One which doesn’t suggest postponing the women’s question till after the revolution?
What does the movement do when women revolutionaries become pregnant? How do they deal with rape? Perhaps the most telling statement here came from Hisila Yami, speaking of men surrendering their arms to return to civilian life: ‘Sons will be welcomed back with open arms. But for the daughters, can there ever be a return? When they become guerrillas the women set themselves free from patriarchal bonds. How can they go back?’
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