Skip to comments.Maoist guerrilla insurgency wreaks havoc, and change, in Nepal
Posted on 02/06/2004 12:34:02 AM PST by Tailgunner Joe
BARDIYA, Nepal Until two and a half years ago, Rachna Sharma and her husband lived as zamindars, or landlords, in this district in western Nepal, presiding over an ample estate just as their forebears had done.
As members of a high caste, they did not dirty their hands working their land. That was left to the Tharus, a landless and powerless ethnic group indigenous to this plains area. Until 2000, when the government, under pressure, freed them, thousands of Tharus - including 15 families on Sharma's estate - lived as bonded laborers, virtually the same as slaves.
But today Sharma, an aristocratic beauty, lives as a refugee, if a cosseted one, in the town of Nepalganj. Maoist rebels are living in her former house and cooking in her kitchen. The Tharus are farming her lands - and keeping all of the crops.
When they come to see her in town, she tries, futilely, to wheedle a share, making requests where she once issued commands.
"Now we have to be polite to them," Sharma, 36, said.
The guerrilla insurgency that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) began against the constitutional monarchy eight years ago has wreaked great damage in this country of Himalayan scenery and epic poverty. More than 8,500 people have died, including more than 1,500 since the end of August, when a cease-fire broke down.
The insurgency has also, in parts of rural Nepal, wrought changes in the balance of power between the landed and the landless that a multiparty democracy, ushered in with great expectations in the early 1990's, failed to bring.
That dynamic helps explain why a rebellion that many say has become a criminal enterprise as much as a political movement still finds support among the Tharus and other disenfranchised ethnic groups and the country's low castes.
In the villages of Bardiya, young Tharus talk happily about how the landlords have had to flee the Maoists' wrath. "All the zamindars are scared of us now," said Bal Krishna Chaudhary, an intense 18-year-old Tharu student from a family of former bonded laborers. His eldest sister, Sita, was a Maoist supporter taken by the army more than two years ago. They said she was carrying a bomb, a charge he denies, but he does not dispute her Maoist sympathies.
"They speak for the people," he said in explanation. "They speak for the Tharus."
This country has been, and still is, dominated by two high castes: the Brahmins - who are called Bahuns in Nepal - or priestly caste, of Sharma; and the Chhetris, or warrior caste, of her husband.
The two castes hold the highest positions in government, politics and business. They control the army and the news media. And perhaps most crucially in a society still reliant on agriculture, they own the land.
Much of that land was once farmed by the Tharus, an aboriginal group in Nepal's lowlands. With a population of about 1.2 million, out of Nepal's 24 million, they are one of the country's largest ethnic groups.
Once self-sufficient farmers, the Tharus were gradually dispossessed as the government granted land to high castes to secure their loyalty and expand its reach. Then, the eradication of malaria - to which Tharus are believed to be immune - drew in large numbers of hill migrants to claim Tharu lands.
Tharus, little educated and ill-equipped to battle for their rights, went from being owners to landless tenants. For several generations, an estimated 20 percent or more of Tharus in western Nepal - some 20,000 families - were indentured, usually with no hope of freedom. The Maoists did little or nothing to free the Tharus from bonded labor; the pressure on the government came from domestic and international organizations.
But Ekraj Chaudhary, a Tharu radio journalist based in Nepalganj, said he believed that most Tharus were involved with the Maoists, though perhaps only passively. Even in the movement, he said, they are relegated to low levels and thus are easy prey for the army.
Colonel Dipak Gurung, a spokesman for the Royal Nepal Army, said the Maoists were exploiting the Tharus. "Tharus are very meek people; they normally don't resist," he said. "By nature, by culture, they are submissive."
No longer, as Sharma could readily testify. At 45, Sharma's husband is working in Nepalganj as a computer instructor - the first job he has ever held - to support their family. "Zamindars never worked," she said. "It's very strange." Support for the Maoists by some Tharus has placed the entire community under suspicion. The army has come down hard on the Tharus, harassing, beating, detaining and sometimes killing them, often with little or no evidence.
Thirty-seven Tharus have disappeared into army custody from this district alone, said Chaudhary, the journalist.
Around the country, 709 Nepalis have disappeared in the last eight years, 200 into Maoist control and the rest into the custody of the security forces, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
Gurung disputed that the army had taken people without accounting for them. "We're not that irresponsible," he said. He said that it was "very rare" that anyone would be killed in army custody.
But Phool Kesari, a Tharu and a former bonded laborer, whose husband was taken by the army a year and a half ago, is almost certain he is dead. The army came three days after he was taken to say that he was a Maoist, a charge she denies. There has been no word of him since.
She has no relatives to rely on. She depends on a 15-year-old daughter still working as a bonded laborer, for about $60 a year.
She sat in her one-room house, the possessions inside countable on two hands. Three small children clung to her, their eyes watering from the thick, stinging smoke of a cooking fire, their noses running. "How am I going to survive?" she asked. She had no land, no property, no education, no husband, no income and three children to feed.
Without waiting for an answer, she offered one. "Maybe I'll go back to the zamindar," she said.
And a small cameo on the caste system: even in the trekking areas used by Westerners, Nepali guides avail themselves of Western-style comforts, while the porters (all of lower caste) are left to fend for themselves.
E.G., I had a guide who refused to buy gloves, hat, and socks for a porter (about $5.00 expense), just before we were to ascend to higher and colder altitudes. This was not the first instance of his disregard for the porters for whom he was technically responsible, so I fired the ba**ard right there on the spot.
Recent examples: Cambodia and Vietnam.