A book review of The Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Revolution in the Twenty-First Century published in Journal of South Asian Development, October 2010 5:300-303.
[Mahendra Lawoti and Anup Kumar Pahari (eds). 2009. The Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Revolution in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge. 354 pp. $150. ISBN 978-0-415-77717-9 (HB). DOI: 10.1177/097317411000500208]
The book aims to explain the dynamics and growth of the violent decade-long insurgency, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which started in 1996 from rural districts in Nepal. Various aspects of the rebellion are explored in an attempt to provide a diverse picture of the nature of the insurgency, its modus operandi, and success in recruiting and keeping intact a sizeable support base.
There are 15 chapters, with contributions ranging from the Maoists’ tactics in recruiting cadres by mobilising a plethora of means such as cultural programs, indoctrination, and political education, the governance of a growing parallel bureaucracy, the role of ethnicity in inciting conflict to the comparison between the PLA and the security forces in flaring up the violent movement. The role and consequences of external actor’s engagement and the quest for identification of causes behind the growth of insurgency are also explored. The two editors of the book, Lawoti and Pahari, delve into what is at stake for the nation and the CPN-M in the post-insurgency era, that is, after the successful revolution in 2006 that culminated in the end of the two-century long monarchy and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with democratic parties. Given the breadth of issues explored by the authors, from various perspectives, the book is not only useful to researchers interested in the nature, causes and consequences of a home-grown insurgency but also to a general audience having interest in conflict studies and conflict resolution professionals interested in understanding and solving ideology-based insurgencies.
Despite presenting rich information, the contributors of Part II, which deals with the extensive use of indoctrination and political education, cultural programmes, the use of student unions and the mobilisation of landless rural poor against elites to generate popular support for the insurgency, fall short of making their point convincingly. There is little analytical rigour in their analysis as all of them are informational and interpretive in nature. Readers would have benefited tremendously had there been analytical examination of the Maoists’ tactics and the level of success in methods used to recruit insurgents and enhance the support base.
While attempting to explain why the Maoists were successful in recruiting rebels through indoctrination of Maoists ideology, Eck just explains the modes of indoctrination while failing to convincingly explain why indoctrination was successful and to what extent it contributed to the growth of Maoist support bases in rural areas. Eck’s claim that the focus on ‘local knowledge and the understanding of local grievances’ (p. 45) was the main reason for enticing recruits is partially refuted by Acharya, who shows that grievances, caste and ethnic divisions and ideology are insignificant variables (pp. 264–84). In fact, using econometric analysis, Acharya shows that the main cause of longevity of the insurgency and its mass appeal are incentives, that is, the opportunity cost of joining the rebellion is low due to limited employment opportunities, difficult physical geography and personal security amidst the absence of state. Meanwhile, Tiwari asserts that initially development inequalities and poverty increases the likelihood of conflict, but once conflict kicks in, the intensity is guided more by social variables, that is grievances are not primary causes (pp. 243–57).
Mottin’s contribution on the use of cultural programmes such as dance, theatre and songs that circulate through tapes, CDs and videos to keep cadres intact and tempt more people to join the rebellion is largely based on observations and anecdotes from fieldtrips in the Maoists’ strongholds. Mottin, however, falls short in explaining how the Maoists’ songs and dance were any different, if they really were, from that of the United Marxist-Leninist (UML), which were once very popular among the rural impoverished masses. In Chapter Four, despite providing valuable insights into the evolution and contribution of the Maoist student’s union in raising awareness about its parent party’s rebellion, Snellinger struggles to justify how the All Nepal National Independent Student Union-Revolutionary (ANNISU-R) is a ‘scientific organization’. By blindly following the CPN-N’s ideology, restricting the upward mobility of competent members in the management body of ANNISU-R and using violence to put forward their demands contradicts the author’s claim that the student body is a scientific organisation.
In the next chapter, Joshi looks at the tussle between poor landless people and rural elites, and the effect of liberalisation on rural households. Joshi’s claims that the insurgency is mostly related to the grievances of rural landless poor and the apathy of the political establishment in reforming the feudal economic system that only benefited the ‘landed elites’ are not fully backed by convincing evidence. Nepal has been feudal since its inception as a sovereign state. Why the revolution after two centuries of the existence of feudalism? Plus, it is quite wrong to attribute the continuation of feudal land holdings as a trigger. Unequal distribution of land cannot be solely attributed for the disgruntlement among the poor during and after the insurgency in Nepal. Nepali people are fiercely individualistic in nature, which is evident from their dissatisfaction with collective production units and communes in the Maoist’s model village, which were considered as breeding grounds of the Maoist insurgency. Not even in the Maoist’s model village—Deurali—were residents satisfied with collective production units and communes, as is shown by Lecomte-Tilouine (pp. 116–32). They were forced to follow the Maoist’s utopian model of governance that consisted of Marxist education in schools, communes and kangaroo courts.
Examining the trajectory of insurgency with the participation of indigenous groups and the role of the Madhesi community during and after the insurgency, Lawoti and Kantha do an excellent job to fill the void on the ethnic dimension of the insurgency. The Maoists raised issues such as language equality, secular state and self-determination rights, and incorporated proportionally high indigenous representation in their organisational structure, leading to an increase in support from the indigenous people. In fact, the insurgency began from the land of one of the indigenous groups, the Kham Magars. By comparing Maoist movement in Nepal with that of Peru and India, Lawoti shows that the latter countries’ inclusive policies helped blunt the growth of insurgencies. One important implication of this finding is that alienating and excluding ethnic groups is a recipe for disaster. This is further confirmed by Kantha, who argues that due to the Maoist’s hostile attitude towards the Madhesis’ interests, especially on instituting a single Madhes state with a right to declare autonomy and their pro-India stance, they could not garner popular support in the Terai region. Kantha, however, fails to explain whether the leaders of Madhes, most of whom once belonged to mainstream political parties that ignored ethnic minorities’ rights, are genuinely interested in securing the rights for Madhesi people or are they simply seizing the political opportunity and creating a niche for ethnic politics? The higher echelons of the newly formed Madhesi parties are virtually void of lower caste people, which indicate more of a repackaging rather than a genuine push for empowerment of marginalised Madhesis by the upper caste Madhesi elites.
On the military dimension, comprehending the inability of a large, well-trained and equipped state army to contain effectively an insurgency is always intriguing and surprising. Mehta and Lawoti fault the fickle political situation; the coup in
2005 leading to withdrawal of support to the security forces by India, the United Kingdom and the United States; and the inability of the army to win the support of the public for the weakness of the state army. The Maoists emerged triumphant due to their ‘political foresight and strategies and not through military victory’ (p. 191). They, however, do not talk about the moral and material support pro- vided by India to the Maoist insurgents. They also do not talk about the political will, which was at best halfhearted, to fight the Maoist insurgency. Pahari compares the Maoist movement in India and Nepal and argues that the Maoists gained an upper hand because of the extreme centralisation of political, administrative and governance powers in Kathmandu. Upreti looks at another important dimension of the conflict—the role of external actors, who showed ‘inconsistency and duplicity’ while dealing with the government and security forces. The international actors severely criticised the state for violating human rights during the insurgency. Meanwhile, they also supported the security forces by supplying arms, logistics and training before the royal takeover and imposition of state of emergency.
Most analysts were surprised when the Maoists gained the largest number of seats in the 2006 CA election. In a forward-looking chapter, Lawoti unravels the causes of this surprising election victory—projecting themselves as the only agent for change; creating an environment where other parties could not freely and fairly seek votes; and the undemocratic intra-party culture among the democratic parties (pp. 287–303). This strategy worked once, however, if the Maoists employ the same strategy again in future elections, then ‘democracy, freedom, and the Nepali people will be victims’ (p. 301).
Despite populist talks, the Maoists have not formulated policies for economic transformation. The economic policies they formulated when they were in government backfired because the economy saw a negative growth in manufacturing sector. Meanwhile, domestic and foreign investment nosedived. Several factories closed down due to threats from the Maoist-affiliated militant youth wing and trade unions. Looking at the Maoists’ method of operation even after their emergence as the largest party in the parliament, there is very little evidence that the Maoists will reform and do things differently. From the Maoists’ perspective, it however makes little sense to do things differently, when their current modus operandi is paying hefty political dividends. The book does not include studies on crucial issues such as the economic cost, the stagnation of income growth and the effect of Maoists ideology on private sector investment and growth during the insurgency.
[Reviewed by Hari Bansha Dulal, The World Bank, Washington DC, USA, and Chandan Sapkota, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, USA.]