The ancient temples around Durbar Square in Kathmandu flutter with pigeons and prayer flags as tourists mill around and hippies blow smoke down Freak Street. Then a slow rumbling builds from the alleyways and suddenly bursts forth in a raucous crescendo – thousands of people dance and sing through the streets, waving red flags jubilantly and taunting the nearby security forces.
It is Republic Day, the first ever, as Nepalis celebrate the end of their 240 year old monarchy and the beginning, they hope, of a new era for their impoverished Himalayan nation.
As one happy bystander, Surendra, put it to me: “I am happy because today Nepal belongs to its people, not its elite. I voted for the communists because we need change here and since we are really at the bottom, economically speaking, the only way from here is up.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
That the godless hammer and sickle should now fly so completely over what was once the world’s only Hindu kingdom and the birthplace of Buddha is a measure of how deeply aggrieved Nepal’s people felt towards their ruling elite.
It is also symptomatic of a wider geopolitical trend that will have old cold war warriors falling out of their rocking chairs: communism is making a comeback. From South America and the Philippines to India and Nepal, the appeal of socialist ideals and revolution is biting back – partly as a response to US hegemony but also as an alternative resistance to the capitalist forces of globalisation. The difference this time seems to be that communist leaders are combining both democracy and brute force to take power: by winning open elections they are handed a legitimacy they never had before.
In the case of Nepal, such a victory has come at a heavy price: a decade of civil war, 30,000 dead and the nation officially languishing as the poorest country in South Asia. This is no mean feat when you consider that Bangladesh and war-torn Sri Lanka are part of the region.
What makes the Nepali takeover so compelling is that its communist leadership and cadre are not young pinko socialists re-packaging themselves as a friendly leftish alternative for the 21st century. They are hardcore, unreconstructed Maoists who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, and have kept the flame burning ever since. Listening to firebrand leader Prachanda or his ideologue deputy Baburam Bhattarai speak was like closing my eyes and hearing a rant by some 1930s Russian commissar straight out of Dr Zhivago.
Decades of polite democratic banter in parliament run by leaders unwilling to address fundamental issues made “democracy” increasingly irrelevant to millions of people who slipped steadily into poverty. Nepal’s monarchy, especially under the widely reviled and increasingly corrupt King Gyanendra, had done little to alleviate daily hardships for most people. Time and again Nepalis told me that they voted for the Maoists not because they were communists but because they saw them as the real agent for “radical change” in a country still mired in feudalism and riven by caste divisions.
This societal structure, however, produces odd contradictions within the Maoist party. Many of the Maoist rank and file are those of lower castes, particularly Dalits (untouchables), who would prefer to embrace a godless and classless manifesto than spend their lives – as well as those of their future descendents – doing the Brahmins’ dirty work. However, many of the Maoists’ senior cadres are from Brahmin, Chettri and other high castes.
China has denied it has supported the Maoists in any way, but it is hard not to see the Maoist takeover as anything other than a strategic advantage for China and a considerable setback for India. China wants the high ground so it can fully surround its Tibetan provinces and deny support for independence activists in neighbouring places like Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. China is busy building roads and railways that pour its goods into Himalayan nations (and India) at a time when India has failed to do the same.
Nepal has few resources and relies heavily on tourism, but it has a major resource that is growing in value year by year. With snow-capped mountains everywhere and running streams, Nepal is sitting on a mother lode of fresh water that will increasingly be fought over as global warming intensifies. Clearly, water security is another reason why China is asserting its influence over the Himalayas.
For India, already trying to contain a home-grown Maoist guerrilla insurgency (called the Naxalites) in half a dozen provinces, Nepal’s Maoist takeover is causing strategic concern, not to mention the loss of religious pride, as Nepalis increasingly shed their Hindu heritage from India.
The Naxalites are thought to have at least 20,000 armed guerrillas plus another 50,000 supporters, active in 11 of 28 states. Last year casualties from the Naxalite insurgency were estimated at 837, making it more deadly than the Kashmir conflict for the first time. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently outlined the seriousness of the situation by calling the Maoist insurgency “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.”
Maoists may have some trouble consolidating their position, though. While the Maoists won the most seats in Nepal’s 2007 election, it did not win the outright majority needed to form government. So there have been months of horse-trading to form a coalition government, and as recently as July 22, the Maoists threatened to pull out of agreements – and some fear the entire peace process – unless its leader Prachanda is made Prime Minister. Another sticky question revolves around demands by the Maoists for the Nepali Army (“Royal” has now been dropped) to absorb thousands of Maoist guerrillas into their ranks, something Army chiefs remain reluctant to do.
Religious leaders are naturally concerned about whether godless Maoism will try to “eradicate religion from the minds of the people”, as one Maoist leader said to me. Already a Hindu militant group has claimed responsibility for several bombs that were detonated among crowds of Maoists who had gathered to celebrate in public, leading to fears that the next phase of Nepal’s instability could be a Hindu militia leading an insurgency against the Maoists, particularly if any attempts are made to “re-educate” the religiously minded or if temples are destroyed in the Maoists’ secular zeal. Tibetans living in exile here are already living in fear and several of their public demonstrations to highlight the on-going Chinese crackdown in Tibet have been violently broken up by security forces.
While the resurgence of communism in India and Nepal has come as an initial shock, a deeper analysis suggests that the appeal of communism to poor and neglected communities throughout the subcontinent has never really gone away and will continue to thrive as these communities have a better grasp of the vagaries of globalisation and the inequalities of the Hindu caste system.
Ben Bohane is a photojournalist, author and TV producer