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Maoists at the Hearth

Maoists at the Hearth details the ways that inhabitants of a hill village in central Nepal managed their everyday activities following the arrival of Maoist insurgents in the late 1990s, exploring their changing social relationships with fellow villagers and the parties to the conflict both during and after the civil war.

Maoists at the Hearth
Everyday Life in Nepal's Civil War

Judith Pettigrew. Foreword by David N. Gellner

2013 | 200 pages | Cloth $59.95
Anthropology / Asian Studies
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Table of Contents

—David N. Gellner

Chapter 1. The Village of Kwei Nasa in 1991-92
Chapter 2. No Place to Hide
Chapter 3. Return to Kwei Nasa
Chapter 4. Maoists in the House
Chapter 5. "Our Government Is the Maoists"
Chapter 6. "All We Need Is Peace": The People's Movement and Its Aftermath
Chapter 7. After Words


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

David N. Gellner

The Nepalese civil war/the Maoist insurgency/People's War in Nepal—what you call it depends on the assumptions you approach it with—lasted ten years, from 1996 to 2006. As Judith Pettigrew describes in these pages, more than 13,000 people were killed, often in brutal ways, and many more were maimed for life, physically, psychologically, or both. The rise of the Maoists was a shock both to ordinary nonpolitical Nepalis and to almost all foreign scholars of Nepal. The Maoists had come from nowhere (so it seemed) to dominating the country in a few short years. In the 2008 elections for the Constituent Assembly they won the biggest share of votes and exactly half of the 240 seats contested on a first-past-the-post basis (the Congress Party, which came in second, won only 37).

Those of us who work on Nepal are frequently asked four questions about the Maoists: (1) How is it possible that in the 1990s, with communism in retreat all over the world, you suddenly get a successful Maoist revolution in Nepal? (2) Does the Maoists' success have anything to do with China? (3) Are they really Maoists? (Perhaps they are just pretending to be Maoists?) (4) How were the Maoists, at the height of their military success, able to gain control of up to 80 percent of the country (though not the fortified district capitals)? Was it because ordinary people supported them?

Question 1 is large and complex. Anthropologists, political scientists, and political economists of Nepal—initially as taken aback as everyone else—began to turn their minds to it as soon as the seriousness of the conflict became apparent. Social science—the best efforts of economists notwithstanding—is not predictive in the same way as natural science. It is only now, as the dust is starting to settle, that the war is beginning to be grasped in all its complexity.

The simple answer to the second question is a rather paradoxical negative, though if one takes a sufficiently long view, it is possible to say that there is a Chinese connection. The immediate inspiration of the Nepali Maoists comes from India. It is in India, not China, that they have spent long periods training, being educated, recovering from battle, or just hiding from the Nepalese state. It is with Indian Maoists that they have the closest personal contacts. The border with India is completely open for Nepali citizens: they may travel and work in India without any required documentation. There are also many ethnic Nepalis who are Indian citizens and this makes it easy for Nepalis to travel throughout India. Revolutionary communist movements have a long history in India and parts of India have had Maoist bases long before they developed in Nepal. Yet it was almost certainly the example of Maoist success in Nepal that inspired the various Indian factions based in north and south to unite into a single Indian Maoist party in September 2004. At the same time, Maoist groups are part of a wider landscape of armed insurgent groups that encompasses also ethnonationalist movements, as in the northeast of the country, Kashmir, Punjab, and Hindu nationalist groups that seek to intimidate Muslims and others (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2009).

The rise of Maoism in Nepal is multiply paradoxical because at the time when China was most interested in exporting revolution to Nepal and elsewhere (the 1960s and 1970s), when Marxist-nationalist peasant revolutions were occurring in Vietnam and Mozambique, no one in Nepal seemed to be interested (there was in fact an underground movement, but most were not aware of it). Today, by contrast, China's Communist Party is deeply enmeshed in neoliberal global capitalism. It believes in a strong state and is intensely hostile to revolutionary movements (it supported King Gyanendra and his authoritarian attempt to suppress dissent, described in Chapter 6, until the very end). In the 1990s, when China, in all its actions, had rejected revolution, a true-believing Maoist movement was launched in Nepal and now (2012) provides the country with its second Maoist prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai. The top leaders of Nepal's Maoists were shunned and dismissed as shameful traducers of Mao's good name as long as they were revolutionaries. Only once they had achieved power, following the election of 2008, were they invited to China as honored guests.

The answer to Question 3 is unequivocal: yes, they are Maoists. The leaders and many of those in the movement have studied Mao's works in detail. The military strategies adopted in the civil war, the terminology used to describe it, and the ideological framework within the whole project was understood were taken straight from the Maoist archive. Of course, many young recruits were ignorant of ideological subtleties, and at the outset no doubt of much else, but this is necessarily true of any such movement. There may be more than a whiff of elitist essentialism lying behind the question (as when Western aficionados of Tibetan Buddhism claim that ordinary Tibetans understand nothing of Buddhism). However, the question may also be posed in a more sophisticated way: are the Nepali Maoists, like some armed groups in Africa or the JVP in Sri Lanka, adopting an off-the-peg ideology as the most convenient cover for self-interested armed revolt? Of course, there are or have been "opportunists" (khauvadi, avasarvadi) who join the Maoists for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology or idealism, a possibility recognized and allowed for both in popular Nepali and in Maoist understandings. But the empirical record in the Nepalese case is clear: Maoist ideas and ideology have played a highly important role in training and motivating those who have joined (and suffered) in the movement. Without these ideas, the willingness of so many to face death for the future of their country, the millennial hopes that inspired a generation to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, throwing themselves against the barbed-wire encampments and superior fire power of the Royal Nepal Army, cannot be explained or properly understood.

With Question 4, we reach the nub of the issues to which Judith Pettigrew's pathbreaking ethnography is addressed (though it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that her historically rich and nuanced account is just an explanation of how some villagers came to be Maoist supporters). No other anthropologist of Nepal, whether foreign or Nepali, has returned so often and so devotedly to the same place throughout the course of the conflict. In doing so, she has gathered the material for a highly poignant and unique record of village Nepal. She knew the village intimately before the Maoists arrived, she tracked the Maoists' first encounters with the villagers, she saw them become the local sarkar or legitimate government in the eyes of the villagers, she was present at the election of 2008, and she has seen the Maoists become just one political party among others, with members in the village.

Furthermore, the village may have been spared the full horrors of the war. But Pettigrew was not. She traveled to Nepalganj, one of the worst-hit areas. Her vivid and painful descriptions bring the full horrors of the Emergency back to life: the narrow escapes, the beatings, the random killings. Her account reminds us how Nepalis had to learn to read the smallest sign in order to work out who was a Maoist and who the army. In the village too it was necessary to train children not to speak carelessly, to avoid adults who didn't know how to guard what they said. The village is the focus but we also learn about Kathmandu, Pokhara, and other towns. It is worth stressing that though Pettigrew's villagers did not experience the depths of suffering of some other locations in Nepal, they did live with the terrifying uncertainty that every day could be their last and that their end could come at the hands of either side. They all knew people who had been badly beaten, and others who had been killed.

Pettigrew's detailed and person-centred ethnographic description conveys lessons about the war that can perhaps be learned in no other way. Dhan Kumari, one of Pettigrew's closest friends, used to be deeply impatient of her father's endless stories about foreign wars. Now she and her age-mates have their own war experiences, much closer to home. Maoists at the Hearth brings out the complex reshaping and remaking of relationships both during the war and afterward.

Personal narratives, when properly framed and insightfully chosen, convey understanding in a way that no abstract statement ever could. I was invited to be present as a discussant at a Social Science Baha meeting in Yala Maya Kendra, Patan Dhoka, less than a week after the historic Constituent Assembly elections of April 2008 (I had been a Carter Center election observer and was sent to Parsa district). Pettigrew told the story of Lek Bahadur, and his gradual conversion from hostility to the Maoists. When they first arrived in the village, he resented their demands to be fed and housed, but eventually he got to know them, learned what they stood for, and—finally—became a party member. This story made a deep impression on the urban Nepalis in the audience. It demonstrated, as only a good narrative can, how affiliation and commitment—whether to parties, ethnic groups, or any other social unit—are part of a continually negotiated process, not a fixed attribute that can be captured by ticking a box. The audience at the talk that day—essentially urban intellectuals—had been struggling with the question why rural Nepalis might support the Maoists. Pettigrew's example brought it home to them and made it real. This book should do the same for a wider audience.

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