Chris Jamieson, Socialist Alternative (ISA in England, Wales & Scotland)
February 18th, 1990 saw the beginning of the fifty-day “Jana Andolan”, or People’s Uprising, which ended with the fall of the oppressive Panchayat political system in Nepal and acceptance by the monarch of multi-party elections. Rather than usher in a period of prosperity, the Nepalese continue to live in poverty. What happened during those fifty days? And thirty years on, what has this actually meant for the oppressed masses of Nepal?
Background to the uprising
In 1960, King Mahendra disbanded the government headed by the Nepal Congress Party, accusing it of corruption. He outlawed all political parties, and arrested the Prime Minister and other prominent figures, replacing them with the Panchayat system; a dictatorship with the monarch at the top under which all political parties were banned, and bands of violent thugs served to repress any subversive activities. Despite Nepal’s status as a feudal, agrarian nation, in which there was crushing poverty for massive numbers of people, along with the oppression of women and the existence of the caste system, left wing ideology began to gain a certain foothold amongst the people.
Popular discontent with the Panchayat system continued to grow however, and by the 1980s illegal political parties were organizing underground. These included the pro-Indian Nepal Congress Party and a number of Communist parties working under the umbrella of the United Left Front alliance. Although there were pro-USSR communists in this bloc, it was dominated by Maoists. In 1989, true to the Maoist ideology, the ULF launched a joint campaign with the NCP to fight for “multi-party democracy”. The “Jana Andolan”, or “People’s Uprising”, had begun.
The People’s Uprising
The first open protests took place in February 1990, when the opposition organized a counter-demonstration against the regime’s celebration of “Democracy Day”. Despite preventative arrests of its leaders and, during the protest itself, the killing of 12 participants, this was just the start of massive street protests, involving tens of thousands of people facing off against brutal repression from the forces of the state. Workers, peasants, and especially students, were involved in the movement; all schools and universities in Kathmandu were closed on the king’s orders, but this failed to halt the uprising in any way. Members of all of Nepal’s ethnic and caste groups were united in the protests, which lasted until April 9th.
It was not long after the beginning of the uprising that the working class entered onto the scene. On February 19th, a successful general strike closed shops and blocked traffic across many urban areas in Nepal. The next day, the Lawyers’ Association called for a general strike in response to state violence. On February 23rd, doctors went on a two-hour warning strike, and all staff at the Maharajganj Teaching Hospital struck to prevent the police from stealing and concealing the corpses of those killed in the uprising. On February 25th, — “Black Day” — tens of thousands of people across different cities and towns wore black scarves and ribbons or waved black flags in protest, while even more strikes were called, including another general strike at the beginning of March.
By mid-March, around 5,000 people had been arrested, with an estimated 20,000 in temporary custody, and the full weight of state censorship had been brought down on the country. Baton charges and tear gas were used by the riot police during demonstrations in urban areas, and the death toll was mounting, but this again failed to put down the uprising.
The Patan Commune
By the end of March, the town of Patan — very close to Kathmandu — was “liberated” by its inhabitants. Two protestors from the town had been shot by police, and they were chased into Patan. As the police started to search private homes, inhabitants built barricades. Ditches were dug to prevent vehicles from entering, and each neighborhood organized a self-defense force. The town was called a “liberated zone”. Mass rallies took place on most days, with people discussing strategy and tactics. The “Patan Commune” managed to hold out for an entire week before the army managed to gain entry, although other similar “communes” sprang up, inspired by Patan.
The mobilizations that had already sprung up, together with the fear of further sustained mass struggle, forced King Birendra to appoint a new cabinet, though this “concession” was nowhere near enough to placate the masses. Instead, protests continued and escalated, and even took on specifically anti-monarchist slogans and demands.
Two days of curfew imposed by the king following the army’s killing of protestors on April 6th had little effect, and pressure had become so great that King Birendra began to negotiate with the Nepali Congress and United Left Front. On April 16th, the Panchayat system was abolished, and a Nepali Congress-led government came into power.
The year 1990, while witness to a massive democratic revolution, did not immediately satisfy workers’ and peasants’ demands over living standards. On the contrary, the number of strikes and spontaneous mobilizations continued and increased, along with protests by different religious, ethnic, and caste groups, often organized by women who had come to the fore.
Unfortunately, the communist parties that played a major role in mobilizing the protests limited their strategy to establishing a bourgeois democracy. This was due to their adherence to the Maoist — Stalinist two stage theory, which states that underdeveloped countries like Nepal should first complete a bourgeois revolution to introduce capitalism, socialism can only be introduced at a later stage. Beijing and Moscow were also insisting they limit themselves in this way.
The Congress of the Communist Party of Nepal in 1991, for example said that “Our political strategy is to establish a new democratic republic of Nepal with a people’s democratic dictatorship against feudalism and imperialism and on the basis of an alliance of peasants and workers under the leadership of the proletariat”. But actually, they went even further — the phrase “under the leadership of the proletariat” proved to be no more than an empty phrase. Instead, they turned to guerrilla war. Condemning the movement against “Panchayat” as mainly an “urban and middle class based movement”, they turned instead to a “peasant revolution” to seize the rural areas, in an attempt to repeat what they viewed as the heroism of the Chinese revolution.
The new democracy established after 1990 did little to improve the economic and social conditions of either the working class, or the rural peasantry. The New Congress led government was in permanent crisis and over the next 14 years, the Prime Minister changed 16 times. Episodes of state repression of further protests, along with continued oppression of ethnic groups such as the Kham Magars, only served to fuel support for the Maoists and their continuing “People’s War”.
Maoist armed struggle and the second Jana Andolan
The Maoist insurrection lasted ten years. By March 2005, the new king, Gyanendra, who came to power after what is thought to have been a royal coup, dissolved parliament, and then declared martial law as a response to the growth of Maoist power in rural areas. Heavy censorship was brought in, and all public demonstrations and gatherings were banned. As before, something had to give.
On April 6th, 2006, the second People’s Uprising began; this time lasting for nineteen days and ending with the abolition of the monarchy. As before, the working class played a key role with the declaration of a general strike. Called by a coalition of the different communist parties and the Nepal Congress Party, it released the anger of the masses who went far further in their demands than the organizers wanted and inspired wider layers to take action. Once again turning their back on the power of the workers’ movement, the Maoist armed forces reached a peace agreement with the government. In the words of the Maoist Central Committee “We need to develop a mixed economy, through both the state and private sectors, based upon Nepal’s biodiversity and natural resources. We recognize this is a capitalist democracy but it can move towards a people’s democracy through the establishment of a republic and a democratic system of rights”. A further massive general strike took place in 2009. The “communist” government today continues to showcase Nepal as an attractive destination for large-scale foreign investment, further subordinating itself to global imperialism and opening the floodgates for further exploitation of its own people.
For all the heroic struggle of the Nepalese people, the tragedy of the 1990 and 2006 uprisings is in what they did not achieve — a complete break with feudalism and capitalism, and the socialist transformation of society. Nor did either movement fully reach out in solidarity to the oppressed peoples of India, China, or even Tibet, with whom they shared a common cause and struggle. The Maoist parties betrayed the revolutionary energy and determination of Nepal’s working class and poor peasantry.
Nepal today is a country in which poverty levels are dire; private healthcare, picking up where government healthcare and treatment facilities are lacking, is far too expensive for huge numbers of people. Despite Nepal being extremely prone to natural disasters, its disaster management infrastructure is sorely inadequate. Four years on from the devastating 2015 earthquake which killed over 9,000 people, many people are still waiting to be properly re-housed, while the ongoing problem of food shortages, diseases, malnutrition and maternal deaths are compounded by severely limited access to safe, hygienic, and affordable healthcare. High levels of air pollution also mean that Nepali children born today will live 30 months less than others.
On top of this, the various ethnic groups in Nepal, such as the Madhesi and Tharu people, continue to face discrimination and violence. A recent report by anti-torture campaign group Advocacy Forum found that there was a 5% rise in cases of torture of detainees between 2015 and 2018, with 22.2% of interviewed detainees tortured. The number was higher for juveniles, at 23.5%, and higher yet for ethnic groups from the Terai region, at 30.4%. Physical abuse, being beaten with lathis (wooden batons), waterboarding and psychological torture are the main methods used by the police forces. The government has also cracked down on the media and free speech with recent legislation.
Dire poverty drives huge numbers of Nepalese youth abroad in search of work, yet in countries like Malaysia, Japan, Qatar, and the Gulf States, they face appalling exploitation. While Qatar prepares for the 2022 World Cup, Nepali migrant workers are the backbone of the construction efforts, and make up the single largest group of foreign workers there. Physical abuse, refusal to pay wages, and the confiscation of passports are widespread problems. But the real situation is even worse than just being a case of modern-day slavery. In summer 2013, there was an average death rate of almost one Nepali worker a day in Qatar; many dying from heart attacks, heart failure, or workplace accidents, while Malaysia had a similar death toll.
What is the way forward?
The people of Nepal have already shown their determination to fight; not just in 1990 and 2006, but also more recently in strike action by tea plantation workers and government doctors. Massive protests in June last year against the so-called “Guthi Bill”, which aimed to establish centralized state control over the locally-run institutions which manage Nepal’s vast number of religious and heritage sites, forced the government to back down. The bill would have disproportionately targeted Nepal’s ethnic Newar people, who live in the Kathmandu Valley region.
What is needed is for the struggles of the Nepalese people to link up with the international fight against capitalism and imperialism. Nepal’s geographic position, surrounded by India and China, sees it dominated by both powers; “a yam between two stones”, as the Nepali saying goes. China is keen to further draw Nepal into its own orbit by providing infrastructure development to provide a counterweight to the forced reliance on India. In return, Nepal’s government has been all too happy to comply with Beijing’s orders, cracking down on pro-Tibetan protests within the country and arresting Tibetan refugees. The mass struggle of the Nepalese must be linked to the fight of the Indian masses against Narendra Modi and the BJP’s Hindu-supremacist agenda, as well as the struggles for self-determination and democracy in Tibet and Hong Kong.
The crucial component would be a revolutionary party, setting out the above task, putting forward the need for solidarity with all the oppressed of Asia, as well as a program of socialist demands. Instead of pinning any false hopes merely on an immediate “democratic revolution”, with the socialist transformation of society only a future goal, the latter instead needs to be the starting point. Trotsky’s theory of “Permanent Revolution” stands as a counterpoint to the Stalinist idea of “socialism in one country”; without an international struggle to decisively break with capitalism, landlordism, and feudalism, the working class, along with farmers and peasants, will face the ever-present threat of counter-revolution.
- No to poverty and exploitation!
- For safe, decent jobs with full trade union rights, pay, and conditions. End the nightmare of being forced to work and be exploited abroad.
- For an end to feudal land ownership, with all land to be taken into public ownership with cheap credit for small farmers to develop the land.
- No to discrimination and sectarianism! Full rights for women and LGBTQ+ people. End oppression on the basis of caste, religion, or ethnicity; for the voluntary right of self-determination for Nepal’s minorities.
- For fully-funded infrastructure and public services across all Nepal! Bring these, along with the economy, under public ownership; for the democratic control and management by rural and urban workers.
- Solidarity and common struggle with the oppressed peoples of Asia! For the joint struggle against the common enemies of capitalism and imperialism.
- For a voluntary federation of genuine socialist South Asian states!