The People's War:
Maoist Insurgency in Nepal 

from Himal Magazine, Nepal news archives, and Dr.Chitra K. Tiwari.


There is trouble in paradise. In the very birthplace of Buddha, peace has proven to be elusive. At first glance, Nepal appears to be idyllic, but there is strife brewing beneath the surface, and it is wearing a red star. The media coverage of late has served to frighten and scare off desperately needed tourism and strike paranoia into the national psyche. But it has not focused on the real issues at hand the situation on the ground.

The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) ­ Maoist fired the first shots of the People's War on February 12, 1996 seeking to destroy constitutional monarchy and establish a people's republic. To date, over 1800 people have died with unofficial reports soaring as high as 4,000 mostly Maoists, police and innocent villagers caught in the crossfire. In the protracted fighting, both sides have been accused of gross human rights and extra-judicial killings. The continued success of this guerilla insurgency has lead to the present situation of 68 of Nepal's 75 districts affected to some degree, of them 32, by the government's own admission, considered to be hardest hit, and 5 districts where they have organized a parallel government: Rolpa, Rukum, Jajarkot, Salyan and Kalikot. In this region of five contiguous western districts, there is no indication or presence of any government aside from the Maoists. Access to these areas is strictly controlled by the insurgents and prior permission is needed to enter. They are also active in two areas close to Kathmandu, Sindhuli and Gorkha district, the latter being a symbolic victory for the Maoists as it is the birthplace and home of Nepal's first King Prithivi Narayan Shah.

Today, while much of Nepal continues to function, the insurgency has bled into the national consciousness and is at the forefront of everyone's discussions. Their avowed strategy is straight from Mao Tse Tung's writings ­ a peasant takeover in the countryside to surround and threaten elites in urban areas, selective use of violence and re-education of civilians and their movement is modeled on Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path.)

As of September 2001, things are hopeful for peace talks between the government and the Maoists have finally been intiated, but many question how willing and sincere the parties are and whether it is even possible to bridge the gap between them on fundamental issues.


The communist movement in Nepal that first appeared in 1949 after the formation of Communist Party of Nepal under the leadership of late Pushpa Lal Shrestha emerged in intellectual opposition to the Nepali Congress, though at times, they united against their common foes, first the Ranas, and subsequently, the monarchy. In 1960, Nepal's brief exercise in democracy was dissolved when King Mahendra seized sate power and banned all political parties. During this era of prohibition, the communist and congress parties continued functioning. Apparently unsure who exactly was their enemy and underpinned by the loosest of ideology, the communists began disagreeing amongst themselves and various units began acting independantly. Personality differences fractured them further, and as a result, Nepal saw at one moment as many as 19 communist parties.

In 1974, two radicals, Mohan Bikram Singh and Nirmal Lama succeeded in holding the historic Fourth Convention and their official declaration departed significantly from Shrestha's belief that the Communists needed to join hands with Congress to fight against absolute monarchism. They instead began a people's movement which could be easily converted into an armed revolt at the appropriate time. The Maoists top leaders were born of this movement.

Meanwhile, an armed communist revolution popped up quite unexpectedly in Jhapa in the south-eastern most corner of Nepal and across the border from the Naxalbari region in India. This romantic adventure was inspired by the Naxalite movement well underway in West Bengal, and led by young activists bent on eliminating 'class enemies' in Jhapa. It was easily suppressed by the King, due mainly to the inexperience of the leaders, the suppression of Naxalites in India, and the lack of militancy in other districts of Nepal.  The leaders of Jhapa movement even took to the constitutional path and participated in later Panchayat (the King's pseudo-democractic governmental structure) elections as "pro-people Panchas." The Jhapa movement was just one example of the extreme left continuously present in Nepal.

In 1983, Mohan Bikram separated and form the CPN ­ Masal, and only two years later, a faction within Masal broke away and formed the CPN ­ Mashal. At the its head was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, the military head of today's Maoists. This cacaphony of communist movements remained until 1990 and the Jana Andolan. The People's Movement was organized by a united Congress Party and a grouping of seven left parties, the United Left Front against King Birendra's Panchayat system and after only two months and a small loss of life, multi-party democracy was returned to Nepal. Both Masal and Mashal did not join the movement until street protests had gained momentum but were quick to capitalize on its success, forming the United People's Front (UPF) to act as force in the coming elections. A constitution was promulgated in November of 1990 and in the following elections, Congress took 110 seats, CPN- United Marxist Leninist (today's powerful opposition party) 69 seats, and UPF, 9 seats.

The factions still could not co-exist and by mid-1994, in further splintering, one group headed by Nirmal Lama was given official recognition in parliament while the other led by Baburam Bhattarai (the Maoists current mouthpiece and architect of political propaganda) was spurned. In March of 1995, Baburam's group held its 'Third Plenum' at which they renamed their group the CPN ­ Maoist and foreswore elections to take up arms.

The Shots Heard Around Nepal

On February 4, 1996, Baburam Bhattarai presented the Nepali-Congress led coalition government of Sher Bahadur Dueba (today's current Prime Minister yet again and ironically the best chance for peace) with a list of 40 demands cover the gamut of nationalism, democracy and livelihood. The demands included abrogation of existing Indian treaties, stripping the monarchy of all power and privileges, drafting a new constitution by means of a constituent assembly, nationalizing the property of capitalists, declaring Nepal a secular nation, an end to all foreign aid and a number of social reforms and development demands.  He stated that is the government did not take immediate steps towards fulfilling these demands byt Feb 17, they would "forced to embark on an armed struggle against the existing state." Four days earlier than the stated deadline, the Maoists struck simaltaneously in six districts.

The acrimony between the dominant Nepali Congress and the entire spectrum of the left provided much of the fertile ground for such an armed revolution. In 1991, shortly after taking over the government, left activists began to face harassment by local administrators at the behest of Congress party workers, and it was even worse in the rural areas where the Maoists are most active today. In Rukum and Rolpa, two historically communist areas, the congress-communist fight turned ugly and leftists began taking action against 'class enemies.' For their part, Congress, as the head of government, didn't hesitate to use the state machinery against their opponents. With abuses piling up on both sides, the CPN-UML entered the fray, determined not to lose left-leaning voters to the UPF (pre-Maoist) and it was round robin of political revenge, state terror and retaliation.

In the early beginnings of the insurgency, successive governments viewed the Maoists as a law and order problem and unleashed the police against them. In late 1995, the central government under Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka, elected from Dang district near the heart of the insurgency, responded with a police operation codenamed Romeo. Many believe that Khadka considered the rise of the extreme left in his home as an affront and thus the particular ruthlessness of Romeo. The only success was the thorough alienation of the local peasantry, as supression in those areas rose to the level of state terror.

In addition to these actions, there also arose the Janjati movements to avenge the historic mistreatment of Nepal's minorities, as much as 35% of the population. In a newly democratic era, their voices rose to the surface and many believe that this was the opportunity to win the hearts and minds of much of the rural villages by addressing their historic neglect and discrimination, but, the government's response was superficial. The Maoists were quick to identify this opportunity and gave their class struggle an ethnic flavor. Ironically, the Maoist leadership is dominantly Bahun, the highest caste, and the very group historically criticized for such discrimination, but the tactics workedand in Rolpa and Rukum, Magars embraced the Maoists enthusiastically. Later, ethnic activists and leaders were to part ways with the Maoists as power would remain with the Bahuns no matter who won.

A New Era of Governance

Much of the support for the Maoist movement lies in the general sense of discontent in the aftermath of the 1990 democratic movement. This is what successive generations of Nepalis had fought, died or went into exile for. It was not the instant magic cure-all many naively expected. As the democratic exercise proceeded, the social and economic situation did not improve and government was reduced to squabbling factions vying for power, and a new wealthy and corrupt elite emerged. Rich and poor grew further apart and in many rural areas, just beginning to flirt with literacy and political awareness, youths became increasingly restless as democracy failed to deliver. In the new modern age, Nepal became acutely aware of it's own short-comings both through contact with the increasing tourist trade and global media which presents a very different picture of what life could be for these disallusioned rural youth. When democracy was ushered in, a heightened political consciousness followed. Classic Maoist propaganda and ideological language was extremely appealing to politicized youth steeped in poverty.

If it seemed that mainstream communism might have been more conciliatory to the Maoists, they would have been proven wrong. The CPN-UML in partnership with other smaller opposition parties even tried to introduce laws giving police even more leeway in handling the Maoists. But the hallmark of the insurgency is the infamous Kilo Sierra 2, a police operation lasting almost a year. Begun in mid-1998, it was a brutal operation against the Maoists and their supporters, and many attribute much of the Maoist sympathy today to the police hard-handedness. It turned many a villager against the central government and the symbol of their presence, the men in blue.

The Evolution of a Fighting Force

As it has become increasingly obvious, direct force has been unable to quell the insurgency and in some cases, stregthened it. In the last two years, the tables have seemingly turned and it is now the police that are on the receiving end. The most disturbing situation for the counter-insurgency planners is that many of the Maoist affected areas are inhabited by a large number of well trained retired Indian and British Army Gurkha soldiers. Authorities suspect that some of these retirees are providing training to Maoist guerrillas as their organization and military activities seem increasingly sophisticated. Their strategy and fighting strength is at its height, and recent actions against under-manned and ill-equipped policemen in remote posts have been overwhelming. The death toll has risen dramatically since September of 2000, when they launched their most brazen attack yet at Dunai, in Dolpo district. It marked a turning point in their military strategy, to attack with large waves with fighters outnumbering police. In April, in one bloody week, 70 police died, some execution style in Rukumkot and Dailekh. They have come along way from romantic revolutionaries.

In the beginning, they fielded a pitiful armoury, a few looted rifles and some home-made weapons. But their arsenel has grown through the consistent looting of police forces during attacks, classic Maoist strategy and the development of explosive traps, grenades and 'pressure cooker' bombs. And they have begun to visit the extensive weapons bazaar in nearby Bihar. This arming has been financed through their other strategy of bank looting, robbery, and forced donations and taxes. Many business in the Kathmandu Valley pay 'taxes' to the Maoist under intimidation and the threat of violence.

Indeed the tables have turned. In contrast, the police have antiquated arms and a demoralized force. In the worst political twist, the Royal Nepal Army, itself reluctant to direct confront the Maoists, have denied the Nepal Police the modern arms it so desperately needs to fight a guerilla war. Their defensive strategy has been to abandon remote outposts and concentrate forces in defensible areas. With the spike in police killings, morale is at an all-time low. Sadly, the Maoists are striking the at the very heart of the people they proclaim to represent. Many joined the police as a way out of poverty, to support their family and serve their country. The plain fact is that the posting of police to rural and insurgent-hit areas is fraught with influence-peddling and corruption. The Nepalis that are dying are the poor ones without connections or money to pay for a cushy job in the capital. There have been mass desertions and a feeling of dread hands over the force. Some of the recent victims wrote letters to their families about such a possibility after being posted to the ill-fated stations.

While no one knows exactly how many guerrillas are there in the jungles of Nepal, some experts believe that number of full-time guerrillas under arms is around 2000 and another 10,000 irregulars or militias armed with homemade guns. While some captured Maoists have said that Maoists have acquired automatic machinery, none have been used in battle to date. As confrontation between the Police and the Maoists escalate, one can only imagine the numbers spiraling upward if this new dimension enters the picture. But, is force really the answer? The state has justified authoritarian policies in the name of suppressing the insurgency, but without addressing the basic inequalities that plague Nepali society. And this may be the root of it all.

Poverty as the Great Motivator

Deeply entrenched rural poverty and social inequality provide fertile ground for the rebellion. The Maoists are most successful in parts of the country with the worst development statistics - life expectancy in the midwestern area of Rolpa, a Maoist stronghold, is just 52 years, and per capita annual income is below $100. This contiguous area of western Nepal is one of the most backward and least accessible districts of Nepal. Other affected areas are spread out along Terai districts close to India, and allow the Maoists to regroup and seek shelter in Bihar. In these developmentally stunted areas, the Maoists appear to be the only force for improvement and that is garnering their grass roots support. They will build a few wells, erect some martyr gates, and hold kangaroo courts to punish social userers and deviants. And the central government is absent from the equation.

The money allocated for development of interior and remote areas never reaches there.  A large number of villages are totally ignored by economic planners.  There are no schools, no roads, no electricity, and no medical facilities.  At the national level, the educated unemployment is increasing at geometrical proportions.  Close to 100,000 rural youths failing high school examination every year have neither a job nor a school to go where they could be kept busy.  These unemployed youths, 15 to 18 years in age, are joining the ranks of armed guerrillas. Many of them are disillusioned with the inability of their leaders who have participated in parliamentary system telling the cadres that there is an alternative to armed revolution. The Maoists seem to be winning the 'hearts and minds' campaign.

This could have been done by means of massive economic development package to people in the early period of insurgency.  The relief package that the government has allocated after so much of killings has become irrelevant. Counter-insurgency measures require civil-military coordination in which clean civil administrators are expected to disburse economic development package. Here lies the problem.  Nepal's problem is not the Maoist war but an entrenched coalition of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats that profits from Maoist war.  It is very much likely that the economic relief package announced to combat insurgency could be yet another opportunity to corrupt civilian as well as military authorities for embezzlement. Counter-insurgency measure, if applied and executed by clean hands, will help minimize the distribution crisis, which in turn, will help to neutralize popular support to guerrillas. 

Confusion and Control

Throughout all this, one wonders about the status of the Royal Nepal Army, a modern, well-trained force that is sent across the globe to keep the peace, while violence rages in its own backyard. It fact, the Maoists and the Army has been dancing around each other, careful not to step on either's toes. Both seem loathe to confront each other. In Rukum District, the army is building a road and there seems to be an unspoken agreement between the two parties. On man occasions, the Maoists will pass an army camp en route to attack a police post and then return via the same route untouched. But criticism of the army came to a head when during the attack on Dunai, the army, though stationed nearby, failed to come to the aid of the beleaguered police when help was desperately needed.

The root of the matter lies with the control of the army appartus itself. The constitution is vague on who actually controls them, except for the mention of a National Security Council of governmental ministers to direct the army while the King himself is the commander in chief. There was a big controversy earlier this year, when General Prajjwal Shumshere Rana said to a newspaper, that the army would not be deployed with an all-party consensus. This opened the door to questioning civilian authority over the army. Many believe that the late King Birendra was opposed to utilizing the army because he was loathe to see Nepali soldiers fighting Nepali citizens on their own soil. And this has led to immense speculation and political opportunity by the Maoist who, in the wake of the Royal tragedy, have now claimed Birendra for their own, as a nationalist and liberal monarch who actually believed in the Maoist movement. They lay claim to having a secret dialogue and understanding with the King and that his progressive views led to his demise at the hands of reactionaries and foreign imperialists intent on smashing the Maoist movement. They have thrown the whole of their hate at Gyanendra, a man more likely to use the Army against them.

Insurgency as Political Opportunity

The government's response to the Maoists has never been unified and all parties attempt to politicize the matter to their own ends. Some even stand to gain from a protracted fight. The CPN-UML has consistently used the uprising as a stick to beat the governing Nepali Congress, blocking their every move and remaining resolutely in opposition to any solutions put forth by Congress. Especially any attempts to bring in the Royal Nepal Army and put in place a para-military police force, which is disingenuous at best. Their own history suggests that, were they in power, they would use all resources available to quell it. As people and politicians alike clamour for a 'political solution' to the situation, numerous feeble attempts at negotiations have failed through the insincerity of the parties. A recent effort at negotiations in October of last year failed over the bungled release of two leading Maoists. Beleaguered former Prime Minister G.P. Koirala, brought his own solution to the table with two highly controversial programs. The Armed Police Force Ordinance and the Integrated Security and Development Plan. The first was a plan to bring a para-military police force with modern weaponry on board and trained to tackle an insurgency. The second is a plan to carry out development activity in Maoist-affected areas with the Royal Nepal Army providing support and security. The army's part in the plan has been vague and undefined. Are they to just defend or pursue and attack? Many questions have been left unanswered in Koirala's push to get it through. King Birendra reluctantly agreed in the months before his demise.

Already Gorkha, the home of Nepal's founding father has been named a model district and the Army has been deployed and development activities begun. The possibility of the confronting the Army has no doubt taken the wind out of the Maoists sails, and could prove to be a big deterrent, no matter the amount of bravado put forth by Baburam or Prachanda. And then there was the fiasco recently when, the Maoists after kidnapping 70 policemen, were surrounded by the Army in a standoff. News media was blacked out and reports are still murky. Worse still, the whole matter has still not be resolved, rather it has melted away like it never existed, and no one questions it.

Hope on the Horizen

In late February, a surprise statement was issued after the Maoists' Second National Conference, declaring the new Prachanda Path that set out new guiding principles the for the Maoists. But it also indicated a slight backing down of their previous inflexibility to negotiate a solution to the insurgency. But any real progress on talks was continually hampered by scandel-ridden Prime Minister Grijia Prasad Koirala. Parliament was stalled for the entire winter session in the hopes of ousting him, but he steadfeastly clung to power and made moves to consolidate his position. The CPN-UML staked their political fortunes on forcing him out and no business was conducted. The country ground to a halt, as successful strikes were called to build pressure for his resignation. He seemed to want to resign but was awaiting a face-saving exit.

Then June 1st occurred. The entire Royal Family was massacred and swept the King's brother to power. Even the Maoists were taken by surprise, but they were quick to use it to their own ends, declaring a conspiracy rooted in their own uprising and praising a man they were vilifiying the week before. The government was in turmoil and confusionreigned in the streets. A curfew was called to restore calm and slowly things have returned to normal. Koirala, unable to forstall the inevitable, stepped down in hopes of helping the country navigate the stormy waters.

And it has seemingly helped. Sher Bahadur Dueba, the same PM when the Maoists came upon the scene, is now Nepal's best hopes for a resolution. Dueba has taken immediate steps to engage the Maoists in negoatiations and has made it his top priority. Senior Maoist cadres have been released from prison and a cease fire has been declared by both sides. After some rounds of peace talks, the Maoists abruptly pulled out and launched an attack against a number of remote police posts in the far West and a very daring one in the Solo Khumbu region surrounding Mount Everest. The airport at Phalphu was destroyed, and there was fierce fighting in the hills around there. With that, the government finally deployed the Royal Nepalese army to fight the insurgents and announced a State of Emergency, which allows the government to abrogate a number of issues of freedom of the press, privacy, etc. There have been numerous clashes in the far west, and surprise attacks throughout the country even in areas where the Maoists were previously inactive. Everyday, the papers report the arrest or death of rebels, but with new regulations in place, it seems hard to verify these facts. Having been burned, Dueba with the help of American military aid and high tech weaponry unleashed the strength of the army, and the body count has risen dramatically, almost all of it entirely in the remote, hardest hit areas with many an innocent villager caught in the crossfire. 

October 4, 2002

With various constitutional crisis building, the new King Gyanendra in a surprise move (maybe not so surprising to some) dissolved the elected Parliment, the Prime Minister and his cabinet and instituted a government of his own choosing, alarming many who feared a return to absolute monarchy. But with the squabbling political parties sidelined, this interim government was able to negotiate a new cease-fire announced in Febuary 2003 and a semblence of peace has returned. Raising everyone's hopes that the Maoists were indeed committed to a political compromise was the fact that the highest members of the Maoist have come out publicly from a life underground for the first time since the insurgency began, including the Maoist mouthpiece and idealogue, Baburam Bhattarai. My own personal feeling is that the government will be wary of getting burned twice. But I also believe that this probably won't be won on the ground. A guerilla war, unless the govt can stomach devestating losses of military and innocent villagers lives, will be long, drawn-out and demoralizing.


Whether the Maoists are ready to come above ground or not is a matter for conjecture. There are indications that this may be the case. Should they surface as a political force again, they could find far more success at the ballot box. There is room for an extreme left group in the political spectrum as the CPN-UML moves toward the center. They have a party apparatus in place, including media outlets. And they repeatedly have spared the capital and not targetted the main power players perhaps to avoid crossing some invisible line, from whence there is no return. hey have crassly using recent lull and pretense to peace to regroup their forces and return to the bush to launch new attacks. Such cynacism is devestating for the people of Nepal, the majority truly desiring peace and an end to the bloodshed. 

There are also many different factors since the last peace talks. The world is a much different place, with much less tolerance for activities seen as terroristic since September 11. With the US willing to go after terrorist groups or give substantial aid to governments who claim to be fighting their own internal terrorists. The Maoists were even recently declared a terrorist organization by the US State Dept lauching much criticism that the US was attempting to derail the peace talks. Given this changed world environment, there are many indications that the Maoists are genuinely seeking a political solution. First, the US has in the last year given substantial military training, financial aid and weaponry to upgrade the Royal Nepal Army, which no doubt led to the dramatic rise in deadly violence in clashes with the Maoists. They are facing a brutal and much more devestating battle with the army if they return to the jungle. Second, its become increasingly obvious that with the support of the western world, the maoists face an uphill battle in winning the war outright and are reluctant to return to fight a demoralizing stalemate. Third, the Maoists were a political party in the beginning and they ulimately desire a treturn to the political fold when the time is right. And lastly, the Maoist have been losing much of their ground support as the insurgency and body count continued and this might be the last chance they have of negotiating a settlement. 

The Maoist movement has affected so many aspects of daily life. The many strikes, the closures of public schools, the forced donations and taxes, the social repressions and regulations of women's clothing and hair, the ban on alcohol, the negative publicity for tourism, the death of innocents and the permanent feeling of paranoia. All these, they pray will be put to bed and that a brighter future is on the horizen.


from Himal Magazine, Nepal news archives, and Dr.Chitra K. Tiwari.
The People's War - Maoist Insurgency in Nepal 

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