Evolving Nepal

May 09 : The Strike has lifted – Kaveri Rajaraman
May 07 : Day 6 – Strike continues – Kaveri Rajaraman
May 03 : Nepal’s May First Events: People Besiege a Government – Jed Brandt
May 02 : May Day in Kathmandu – Kaveri Rajaraman
May 01 : May First Update: General Strike is On, the People are Charged – Jed Brandt
April 29 : Nepal’s Streets for May 1: “We Make the Power” – Jed Brandt

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The strike has lifted.

by Kaveri Rajaraman

09.05.2010

Initially, like an overly tight belt, it was relaxed a little bit, with the hours of permitted business have expanded from 6-8 pm to 6-10 pm, and everyone is palpably breathing more freely. Food trucks were now being permitted to enter the city, so that the vegetable vendors have fresh vegetables instead of the small piles of rotting produce on display over the last week.

The next day, yesterday, the party, acutely aware that the strike was inflating prices of essentials, that the rallies were generating violence, lifted the strike.At the pro-business peace rally, which had an estimated 40,000 attendees, it was no longer just the opposition to the Maoists being violent, there was stone-throwing and vandalism by the party cadre as well. The party is walking a tightrope with their strategy – responsive to and needing the full support of their base for this final push for power, where the fringes of the base were tiring of the strike while the party members, poor farmers bussing in from all over the country, swore they wanted to push until a decisive victory: at the very least, a concrete plan to draft the constitution.

Hence. The rallies continue, but the strike has stopped. Among the broad base of poor people in Nepal, the rallies are popular, the strike not so popular, the violence less so; however, the effectiveness of the tactic increases with unpopularity. But! The lifting of the strike is temporary, a breather. It will begin again, within two days, or a week. And strike or no strike, the rallies continue with gusto. Supposedly, until the people get a constitution, if that ever happens. In many ways, much like the struggle to abolish the monarchy, this short-term goals of this struggle are to realize the most basic things that even bourgeois democrats can not begrudge them. A constitution, a federal structure, ration cards.

[Note: for those who were interested, photos of Mayday are up on
http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/album.php?id=743022490&aid=171730&s=0&hash=06360205a9805537636113f970c1244a
and the large rally on May 6
http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/album.php?id=743022490&aid=172771&s=60&hash=fdf5162595366f15b667311163430a3e
]

The cars and trucks are back, swarming the streets like territorial alligators while people scuttle out of their way. The people have resumed wearing the gas masks from which they had a breather for the days of the strike. They make me realize the whole world could do with a breather from the poison of burning fuel. This is not the only way Nepal shows advanced consciousness in environmental issues. Instead of fume vomiting generators, buildings bear large solar panels to back up the general electricity system.

In the middle of the cars the comrades continue assembling and marching. With fewer numbers but the same indefatigable spirit, in a voice everyone shrugged off my worries about the struggle losing steam. When I ask if they were, like me, deflated by the strike being called off without any of their demands being conceded, they smile broadly and shake their heads. Why? They ask. Now is the time to double our efforts, change our tactics, and anyway the strike will resume soon enough. And the party had called for a big rally, where the leadership would address the base.

This rally was in the same location as the previous one on May Day. Attended by about one-third the number of people as the previous rally, it nevertheless had the same air. The sitting crowd shooed away press people standing and blocking their line of vision. While the base sat on the ground in the sun, the party leadership sat on chairs in the shade on a stage, the visible front row being one of well-groomed, light-skinned men in suits. Speeches were punctuated by comedic interludes, and music. Many stood up to dance, this time more women than men. The speakers were C P Gajurel, who spoke of keeping the struggle going, estimating the need for another 15 days of struggle, Sarvottam Dangol, a Newari speaker, who congratulated the group on the massive rallies held in the previous days. The Newaris, native to the Kathmandu valley, had led the largest march Kathmandu has ever witnessed on May 6, where I had marched next to Timila Yami, to prove the support of the local people of Kathmandu for this struggle. Next spoke Amrita Thapa, of the Akhil Nepal Mahila Sangh Krantikari, the revolutionary women’s group, in a fiery speech against the parliamentarians, acting like the monarchy on their thrones, on the rapes, beatings, and killings perpetuated by the old state, on the need for education, health, and security for women, and for the constitution’s role in overall societal change. Finally, Prachanda spoke, to many cheers, raptly heeded this time around. His speech was simple and direct. “What records we have created in the course of 6 days of general strike!”, he said, to roars of applause. “You can see assemblies of lakhs of people from all over the country”. He spoke of the need for the creation of a constitution, the need to change their tactics in the face of the violence and the hardship for people that had followed the strike. He said “We have the dual responsibility of safeguarding the constitution and keeping the peace… If the government is not responsible to its people for keeping the peace, our party will have to take that responsibility”. He denounced the vigilantes (that word has entered the local language), the gundagardi, blocking the change they were trying to bring to Nepal – to the oppressed communities, the laborers and farmers, with the need for special rights to adivasis, dalits, women, Muslims. He acknowledged that for the sake of a constitution, and a republic, oppressed people from all over Nepal have sacrificed and come to Kathmandu, and saluted their bravery and self-respect. He also acknowledged the international support, and asked for those visiting from other countries to extend their support at this time. He concluded by saying “the football is in their court now”, “we are being peaceful and responsible, now I challenge the other parties to be peaceful and discharge their responsibility”.

And finally, for the words of Timila Yami, sister of Hisila Yami, member of the Central Committee of the party, from the historic May 6 march where we marched together, my hand firmly clasped in hers, through sun and rain. Timila ji was born into a family of six sisters, where both parents were involved, jailed, in a 60-year old struggle to bring a constitution to Nepal. When Hisila joined the underground struggle, 12 years ago, the sisters barely saw anything of her, but understood what she was doing and why. Timila, educated at IIT Kanpur, is now teaching IT at Tribhuvan University, where the Maoist party has won a huge victory in the student union elections. She is involved with an intellectual forum within the party, where the difficult questions of implementing socialism are discussed. I peppered her with all my questions about the party leadership, which she answered with great grace and patience.

On the question of the representation of women and Dalits in the party, Timila said that amazing women leaders were arising out of the village level party leadership, and that she confidently expected these women to transform the party structure. She marveled at the strength of these women, not formally educated, but strong, smart, and gutsy. She said that the electoral structure had become a means by which women were quickly rising through the party hierarchy, with 30% of the people elected from the party at the village level turning out to be women – exceeding her own expectations given the lack of a quota system. However, she said that the leadership was now practicing a quota system for Dalit representation among leadership. She was unsure of the percentage of Dalits, but did say that the situation for Dalits was somewhat different from India, since the concept of caste came in with the Hindu kings of Rajasthani blood who formed the current Nepali monarchy. Since they brought caste into their dealings with local people, assigning castes based on the occupations of people serving them, but because their reach was limited, Timila said that the influence of caste on village politics was much less than in India. She also spoke of the link between Hindutva, the monarchy, and the imperialist influence from India. All the daughters of the Nepali royal family continue to be married into the Indian royal lineages, creating a strong bond between the monarchy and the Indian government which continues to have strong monarchic influence in the party structures – especially from the Rajasthani royal family. A member of the royal family had also apparently visited Birganj two weeks ago, distributing a total of 3 crore rupees among supporters to shore up support against the Maoists, which was already strong in a town near the border with India. Now, two days ago, it was in Birganj that the strongest outbreak of violence against the Maoists took place, with many cadre injured by Hindutva goons. Apparently, much like the US funding of pro-imperialist social forces via “NGOs” like USAID, the Indian embassy’s budget contains references to many projects to promote democracy in Nepali villages, which turn out to be fronts by which to channel money to anti-Maoist forces. The resentment against the Indian government by Nepalis is very strong, with one speaker in the rally drawing huge cheers when he said Madhav Kumar Nepal, the prime minister, might as well be named Madhav Kumar Bharat (Madhav Kumar India).

When I asked what the political platform of the party’s vision for a Maoist-governed Nepal was, in terms of details, she pointed me to several articles by Baburam Bhattarai, and also said that a lot depended on the will of the people. She also reinforced the role of elections in keeping the party responsive to the people’s needs. She said that the party’s policies do reflect the wishes of the people, and that there is much debate within the party about how to make decisions on changes that would anger some and bolster others. For example, the land distribution that already took place under the Maoists has so far only been of land that had been illegally retained by landlords, and the party was not yet sure of moving ahead with redistributing land held in large but legal plots by landlords. She also said that much healthy debate and discussion remains within the party around issues of the political sustainability of different models of socialism, around ways to successfully implement minority rights and protections, and around questions of livelihood generation given the paucity of Nepal’s natural resources. Specifically, she said that a lot of Nepalis were angry over their best natural resource, water, being signed over to India, especially the latest deal signed by Madhav Kumar Nepal. This question over the role of imperialism and economic development with respect to water, she said, was paramount. When I asked about the people being given primary rights over local resources and development, she agreed that this should be part of the new structure, and when I asked about ecological concerns, she said they were worried about that as well.

Meanwhile, the cadre I have met fall into different groups. Most of the cadre from the city are young men, with about 1 woman for every ten men. Most have been with the party, by their account for 2-4 years, although a few like Dhiraj have been with the party for 5-6 years – from the time when the party was underground. Most are very sweet, many jaunty, many curious about the state of movements India. When I ask what made them join, the simplest answer I got was from a young boy named Suresh, about 17 years old, who said “my poverty”, in English. Others have said “humare liye yehi party hai, we have only this party”, or “other parties betrayed us but this one has stuck by us”, or “the party has helped us a lot”, or “my family was with this party”. Those with a more Marxist understanding talk about class struggle and how this is the party that encourages the struggle that will liberate their class. But when I ask what are the details of the change the party will bring, beyond insisting on justice and socialism, most cadre do not say what the new system will exactly consist of. One party member, Shyam Kumar, a 30 year old laborer from Kathmandu, said simply and honestly “we do not know what will happen, but we think it will be better”. When I ask them if they trust the leadership, or what they will do if the leadership betrays them, most stoutly claim the leadership is trustworthy and would never betray them – but a few said that if the leadership betrayed them, they would replace their leadership!

Most cadre speak Nepali or Newari or Hindi, and I have not yet met lower level women cadre who speak Hindi. But the women have always been very welcoming of my presence, holding my hand and taking me along with them, never letting go. The city women are almost entirely in track suits like their male comrades, with kurta shirts, with some older women in kurta pajamas. Interestingly, it turns out that Y in YCL is somewhat loosely defined. Dhiraj, a commander of a YCL unit from Kathmandu city, told me that the YCL includes people up to 45 years of age. That said, at this stage, with the YCL groups in charge of the food and housing of all party cadre, many of the older people with the YCL are non-YCL party cadre.

The cadre who have arrived from the villages for this mobilization constitute a more interesting group. When asked how long, people from this group would answer, 6 years, 8 years, most involved with the struggle when it was armed and underground, much more resolute, more stoic, but also more sweet, more shy with broad, genuine smiles. There is an interesting age dynamic here – most cadre are young, under 30, but there is a grouping of a few 40 ish year old men, very taciturn and wary, and then another grouping of visibly older people, with both genders traditionally dressed, the older women in Nepali saris (with the pallu tucked around their waists, not covering their blouses), and the younger ones in salwar kameez. A woman named Savita, with an even gaze and a curious, confident smile, and a man named Sandesh were especially remarkable. The suspicion of the YCL cadre towards any one they do not know has gone up in the last few days as the marches have been infiltrated. At one point, several people surrounded me and asked if I didn’t mind if they asked if my backpack contained a bomb. At this stage, Savita spoke up and said “it is not alright for so many men to surround a woman and interrogate her. Move away and then ask”. I was impressed by the way she stood up for me. Sandesh piped up and asked everyone indignantly to trust their hearts and their feeling about me, instead of being suspicious. Given the infiltration of the cadre by disrupters, I completely understood, smiled, answered all questions, showed them my bag, and in time we were all friends. Sandesh repeatedly expressed his solidarity with the people of India, and asked me to convey it. He said if we the people of India ever needed solidarity for any struggle, we should contact him.

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Day 6 : The strike continues.

by Kaveri Rajaraman

May 7, 2010

This simple situation implies radically different states of living for different groups of people. For the hundreds of thousands of people intimately engaged with the party’s agitations across the city, this has meant six days of tireless mobilization, still defiant, still hugely energetic. For those who watch these mobilizations from the sidewalks, who are either not convinced, not politicized, not galvanized, or too busy selling their wares on the street, the strike consists of bland, peaceful timepass punctuated by the periodic entertainment (and business) of a passing march. These people shrug or sigh and wait for things to change. For those who are decidedly anti-Maoist, the day mostly consists of sitting in front of the television, growing increasingly indignant based on the hysterical and distorted footage playing on repeat on their television screens. What is certain for all is that the hope that the strike would conclude quickly has perished.

The major change over the course of the strike has been the outbreak of violence against the Maoists. No deaths, mostly serious beatings
causing injuries, and some vandalism. Most notably in Birganj, near the border with India; in Sathungal and Thanau; and in Narandhan, Jorpatty, Bhaktabor and Sundarjol in and around Kathmandu. The violence began on May 5. The perpetrators were characterized as “local people angry about the strike” by some media channels. However, human rights activists from the organization Cahurast (Campaign for Human Rights and Social Transformation), ubiquitously present at the rallies in their light blue jackets attested that the perpetrators were Hindutva goons in Birganj and members of Youth Force, the youth wing of the CPN-UML, major component of the current government (along with the Nepali Congress Party) in the other places. In Sathungal, the Youth Force broke water trucks, in Bhaktabor, they confronted the Maoists while bearing arms, while in Birganj the Hindutva youth beat and injured several people, and set ablaze and destroyed stores of food for the Maoist cadre. Our hotel owner laughed a classic movie villain laugh with alarming glee as images of dished being smashed and food overturned played over and over on the “National” cable TV channel … her best friend slapping at the TV screen when Prachanda’s face appeared. Meanwhile, police have begun lining up around the massive rallies and the cultural demonstrations that accumulate at every chowk, initiating the first lathi charge against this strike today at Ratna park, the site of the massive rally celebrating May Day. The Maoists have maintained strict discipline and no violence has been attributed to them yet. Their greater worry has been the infiltration of the rallies by disrupters, since this has happened before, and the outlines of each march consist of YCL cadre holding hands, and only letting people they think they can trust inside that human gateway of marchers. This was why we were initially greeted with such wary looks while photographing the march, but were joyously accepted when we were clearly braving the heat and later the rain to stay with, talk to, and understand the goals of the people out on the streets.

This is the situation, coarsely described, but nuance exists aplenty for the honest and the curious to observe. Over the last few days, marching kilometer after kilometer, trudging till my chappals finally gave way, meeting people, asking everyone I could everything I could think of, I have swallowed a mountain of knowledge. Yet again, most of what I learn is the magnitude of how little I can know. Each person changes my perceptions so much that I feel I can not represent anything without talking to every single person.

Most TV and radio stations, most English and many Nepali newspapers avoid reporting on the actual marches, or the views of the marchers. They substitute this with front-page opinion pieces, or commentary, reserving any pretense at plausibly factual reporting for their side-stories:

Maoist cadre ill from contaminated water: Doctors issue warnings!
Maoist cadre stranded in city without food, housing, transportation!
Maoist cadre forced to march in rallies!

All these are entirely plausible, but are not obviously representative. The tap water in Kathmandu is decidedly yellow and murky. The party houses marchers from outside the city in camps, of which the ones we visited contained large cisterns of treated water and good food, but it is possible and likely that some cadre from the villages drank tap water, fell ill, or were lost in the city away from the camps. The camps themselves constitute an interesting story. Run by the YCL, the youth communist league, these are large halls that the Maoists rent at subsidized rates. Each YCL unit is in charge of 70-100 people who have arrived from out of town, feeding them and housing them together, sometimes with many units together at one YCL camp. Every meal is served out of a communal kitchen, with mostly men cooking up large vats of food and solemnly handing out generous portions to the cadre who eat on the floor, wash their dishes, and then head to the camps to sleep. The party has planned to have resources to feed the people it has mobilized for up to two months, based on their longest estimate of how long this push will take.

Despite their foreswearings, one of the earlier days in our hotel we awoke to the sound of pounding. A YCL youth knocked on our door, checking if we were visiting this hostel, and when we went down, our landlady, fervently anti-Maoist, was stoutly blocking the entry of about 20 YCL youths into the building. According to her, they asked her why she was open, and if she was secretly operating a restaurant on the roof – which she wasn’t. They checked that she was in fact just running a hostel – which is allowed, during bandh time- and then after she claimed they asked her to feed all 100 of their group. She refused, saying she was barely making ends meet, and they left.

Everybody describes this as the “final push” of the Maoists, the Maoist cadre fervently swearing that they will not step down, the opposition declaring that after this strike fails, the Maoists will lose support forever. While the Maoists have massive support, both people within the party and outside know that the bandh is endangering that support among those who are more on the fence, because of the rising price of vegetables, because of the lack of transportation being prohibitive to medical care even though the clinics and medical stores remain open, because of lost wages and lost opportunity to work.

For the street vendors, the strike means good business, but difficulty traveling to places where their wares will sell, leading to mixed reactions to the strike. The number of street vendors had tripled, with many who once had shops taking to hawking their wares on the streets. We decided that we would observe the bandh on entering the shops but continue to buy from the informal street vendors during the day. Shop-owners as a group, of course, disliked the strike intensely, but some explicitly said that their potential losses due to vandalism if they stayed open were less than the loss due to low business. Many shop-keepers bemoaned the fate of Nepal if it kept staying on strike all the time. They have begun to organize pro-business rallies, the first one held, after some waffling based on their security fears, today morning at 10 am. It is when the right begins to use leftist tactics (such as in Venezuela, Honduras, etc.) that one knows that they feel cornered, because the leftists tactics of rallies and marches are the tactics of those with no other recourse. The rally in Kathmandu, which I regrettably missed because the last I heard was that it had been canceled, was widely broadcast on TV, with images of well-groomed, well-dressed protesters, a sharp contrast to the Maoist rallies. A few shops were openly defying the strike, most noticeably one wide open restaurent under a giant sign of Aishwarya Rai downing a well-moistened bottle of Coca-Cola, and a few others with half raised shutters, with dimly populated interiors. Every other shop remained tightly shuttered, cars continued to be absent from the road, and kids playing soccer and cricket continued to occupy nearly every street. Mixed gender groups, in some cases, warming my heart.

As for the final claim, that of cadre being forced to march in rallies, the closest we found to an example of this was one man, clad entirely in red, with a Maoist party bandana. He told me under his breath that he wished he didn’t have to be at the rally and that he could be home and the strike could be over. When I asked why he came, he said that his entire family from the village was with the party, and they and some party members at his workplace had socially pressured him to come. Everyone else we met at the rallies was there based, it seemed, on conviction. Most people at the rallies were exuberant, jumping, chanting, pumping their fists, enjoying themselves, and showed off about how far they had traveled to be able to be there and push for this change.

However, we never know what people truly feel, because many people might not have told us what they felt. If you ask ordinary people on the street what they think of the bandh, the commonest response is a shy “theek hai”… “its ok”, and one has to draw out what people truly feel by asking the same question in a roundabout way – how is it affecting your business? Do you think the bandh would lead to something better? Most eventually came out in support of the strike, but again, it is clear that the division between those supporting the strike and those who do not is not clear cut across class lines. Some of the poorest people one meets in Kathmandu, informal sector hawkers, are not supportive of the party or the general strike, because they need daily business, they need low vegetable prices, etc. The essential division remains basically similar to what I described earlier, based on the question of hope. Those who are strongly supportive of the strike are contract laborers – farmers who till the land of other people, and employed workers in antagonistic relationships with a boss – people who face class antagonism in their daily lives, who are cut off from the fruits of their labor. Those poor people who oppose the strike are those who are self employed and need their daily business, or need transportation to peddle their wares in the expensive parts of town where they can not live, or need the price of essential food to remain low, more than they felt they needed the character of the state to change. However, even these complicated lines of division between the poor people who support and oppose the strike blur when one talks to individuals. One vendor said he was against the strike, not because he was narrowly worried about his own business, but because he didn’t like a party which tells people what to do. He said “I don’t like socialist, I don’t like capitalist, I like freedom”. Meanwhile, supporters of the strike include many shop-owners, such as the managers of a trekking shop, who said they believe in the strike, they believe in the Maoist party, as well as the head of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries! Although there is a material basis, not strictly correlated with class, but with economic sector, of those who support and oppose the strike, there are exceptions based on ideology and trust in the party.

The cadre clearly trust the party. The YCL comrades we met said that each day, the party issues a circular on the strategy for the day, but that they feel that the party has also been responsive to their feedback. One human rights worker, a lawyer from Kathmandu, claimed that without this responsiveness, the party would not have had the electoral success it did. The party has directed its cadre into coordinated marching and rallying strategies each day. Rallies of unbelievable strength and resoluteness have continued each day with unending lines of people, as far as the eye can see. One day, all the cadre blocked the ring road; on May 6, a massive rally of all the units defied the press claim that all the cadre from outside Kathmandu had deserted the party and returned. This rally, the largest ever in Kathmandu, was a joyous procession with much music, chanting, and dancing by an estimated 400,000 people, which according to one observer, took three hours to pass by her! Every day, circles of YCL cadre gather to sing and dance energetically to revolutionary music set to folk tunes, played by some enterprising young musicians on dhols and an instrument that looked like a sarangi. The mood in the rallies and the gatherings is one of pure joy, of fervour, with no rancour, no aggression.

The question I ended my last dispatch with was that of whether this explosion of working class energy had placed its faith in a party that would realize their goals. I spoke to several YCL cadre who felt that they did, and also had the luck to end up marching arm in arm in one rally next to Timila Yami, sister of Hisila Yami, member of the Central Committee of the party (and partner of Baburam Bhattarai). I will transcribe some of what they said in my next dispatch for you to evaluate for yourself some of the answers to my questions on the true commitment, democracy, and transparency of the party to its cadre. I also hope to go to the rallies organized by the pro-business people, and to any events organized by the pro-government forces, if they organize any events not consisting of violent attacks – to get a sense of their opinions and present those to you as well.

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May Day

by Kaveri Rajaraman

What transpires here is an account of what I observed during May Day in Kathmandu, and the strikes and rallies of that day and the days following, as the CPN(Maoist) cadres aim to overthrow the current Nepal state which they feel has betrayed the people. This piece is a description of what I witnessed, quickly being sent off without the time to put it in the political context, which I will endeavor to do
with time. The events themselves leading to the impasse between the Maoists and the government can be found easily online, what is harder to find is a description of the mood of the people, the spirit of the rallies, and the class nature of the divide between its supporters and detractors.

I arrived in Kathmandu the morning of May 1st, 2010, International Labor Day. Crossing a border overnight to rush and be one of the
hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers pouring into the city. Bus held up four hours, inching its way through police checks of every
vehicle entering Kathmandu, while my bladder grew painfully full. Shortly after a group of us women on the bus led a mini-revolution to pull down our salwars and pee together out on the street, in full view of all the men, some of whom looked respectfully away, the buses shuddered to life and our queue began to move. My despairing mind raced to Kathmandu, the bus following, but I reached before the revolution had come to life. A very normal city, bit picturesque, bit Manali, bit Havana, bit Madras, with some of the world’s most
beautiful people, so many serene women walking the streets at all hours with big unafraid smiles, tan wiry boys whooping as they hang
from the bus doorways with one hand free, flying, long hair whipping faces.

The whoops are what signal the beginning. I had been asking around for where the big rally was to happen, with everyone pointing me to a big maidaan, a big field in the city where everyone would converge. What I didn’t expect was the random street I was on to suddenly come to life with yells and laughs and chants and shouts. This was no regimented march. This was people pouring out of every street, with a group of 200 or so hotel workers from our street, and another 200 people from another workplace on the next street, and yet another coming down the road joining our street, waiting, the boys jumping, not enough women at first, but then some animated groups of women joining, grabbing my hand, taking me along… one march joined another then another, and suddenly we were in a procession as far as we could see. Such a joy, some kids singing Nepali songs, everyone around dancing, other kids staging theater to the sounds of chants, everyone chanting “Mao-vadi Zindabad!”, “Lal Salaam!” and “Puppet governments- return to India!”.

Our march joined others and others until we poured into the maidaan. About 200 m by 800 m, the field was well-populated when we walked in and completely packed within an hour – with an estimated 300,000 people – a sizeable fraction of the Nepali population! This was despite the fact that some marchers left before the speeches began, such as Sabina, the hotelworker who held my hand firmly throughout the march and who invited us to her home, saying “it is very tiny, we are gareeb (poor), but I live there happily with my two children and my husband is not at home”. She joined the party a year ago because before that there was no union in their workplace. But she felt the speeches would be long and boring in the heat, so she left. We sat in the sea of people, the mahasagar as referred to by the speakers, squished with barely any leg room next to a stern but very sweet man in a Che Guevara shirt and fatigues (former militia member), who solemnly gave us the lal salaam fist, and two middle aged women with broad smiles. The music settled down, we had a moment of silence with fists raised for a martyred comrade, and the speakers rose to the podium draped in the red flag with white hammer and sickle, and addressed the crowd. Behind the speakers was a large banner that read “Vishaal Jan Sabha”, or “Large people’s assembly”, with photos of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao arrayed above, and a large picture of Prachanda below them!

What I understood of their speeches, or could note down of their names was patchy, with help from some of the people around me who spoke Hindi. The event was conducted by Hitmaan Sakya, member of the Constitutional Assembly. The speakers were Comrade Ajit, who spoke of the Indian government’s influence over the current puppet government of Nepal, then a speaker from the All-Nepal Federation of Trade Unions, then a forceful speaker who aroused the crowd’s applause by speaking of the sacrifice and work it would take to achieve true independence.

Musical performances punctuated every few speakers. The crowd was clearly enjoying the entire rally, its applause did not feel at all dutiful – they cheered heartily when speakers struck a chord of resonance – and many of the speeches were not solemn, but funny – and they stolidly stayed quiet when speakers paused at the end of a fiery or clichéd sentence, expecting applause, without having truly excited the crowd. During the musical performance, about 1 person in 100 got up and danced. Those who danced were really dancing, with soul, and jhatkas and matkas, more men than women, so I stood up with the mutual urging of the women next to me – and we danced as those who sat near us cheered. Slowly my friends joined, as the crowd around us went wild. We got several thumbs ups. Taking photos of the rally, we were seen as outsiders; sitting in the sun with everyone else, we were taken for supporters.

And the speakers resumed. A fiery speaker from the Nepal Dalit Mukti Morcha named Tilak Pariya spoke next, drawing many cheers, then a speaker who spoke of this as the last fight against slavery, followed by the biggest crowd pleaser – actor Yuvraj Lama, usually the villain of the movie. His speech reminded me the words of Subcomandante Marcos, about el mal gobierno. As the man sitting to my right said “bahut gaali de raha hai gormint ko”… he roundly abused the government, for killing people, for hurting people, for acting against the people, for being “nalayak, jan birodhi”, drawing great roars of support. Then the Young Communist League’s Ganeshmaan spoke, inciting the youth to come forth, congratulating the thousands of young communists there, for doubling the numbers of YCL in this short time.

Finally the first female speaker came up, speaking for the Akhil Nepal Mahila Sangh ( Krantikari). The women to my left perked up, listening intently as she spoke of strong punishments for the rape and killing of women, and condemning the state for speaking of violence of the Maoists, when they had incited violence against the people, especially women, against which the gun was the only weapon. She incited women,who hold up half the sky, to join the struggle. When she used the word “kitchen”, a word I understood, I wondered if she was speaking of women leaving the kitchen and taking the struggle, but the man next to me translated what she said as ”she is asking the women of Kathmandu to cook for the people who have come here from all over the country”. If this is true, and even if not, given the absence of women speakers except 1 token women to speak of women’s issues, the party has a lot to answer for, despite the obviously better status of women in the country which some attribute to the party and some attribute to Nepali culture. From what I could tell, there was likewise a single Dalit speaker on dalit issues, while the leadership is almost entirely Brahmin – at least Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai certainly are. But the party had clearly galvanized a lot of participating Dalits and women – one man said Baburam’s intercaste marriage had inspired him greatly.

Finally, Prachanda spoke, an event people were clearly waiting for. He spoke with less fire than many of the previous speakers,
emphasizing the peaceful, organized nature of the rally, and the party’s issues with the current Nepali puppet government, and their
expectations that the call for an indefinite general strike would lead the prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign and make way for the Maoists to take power without having to sacrifice their hopes for a people’s constitution and an integration of Maoist forces with the army. But the most interesting thing was that as he spoke, several people got up to leave. It was 5 pm and we had been there in the sun five hours. People were tired, they were told the rally would last till 5 pm, and now they wanted to leave. Some were clearly bored by the speech! While party cadre were vigilant about getting people to sit down on the ground and not stand, the people leaving in noticeable numbers as Prachanda began didn’t seem to feel any kind of pressure to be polite and wait until he was done. By the time Comrade Badal spoke, many people were standing, wandering around, speaking to one another. That said, both made points that drew much applause. Prachanda poked fun at Madhav Kumar’s press conference in Thimpu following the SAARC meeting, claiming that Manmohan Singh might well have called it himself. He called for people’s solidarity between India and Nepal against their governments. He thundered that the government has blocked revolution by its parliamentary games.

I want to give a quick, and possibly unrepresentative sense of what seemed to be to be the dividing line between those who supported the strike and rally and those who did not, because it was not clear to me for a while. Eventually, it seemed to me that those who supported the strike were workers, who did not own the means of their survival, who didn’t speak English, while those who were against the strike were of course the elite, but also the petty bourgeois, who owned small shops, or people who were lower clerical workers, those who spoke bits of English and could hope that the way forward would make them less poor, who didn’t like the stoppage of the opportunity to do business. But the dividing line seemed to be the question of hope – those who felt that the system was making life easier for them, personally, over time, or who even felt a sense of optimism about one day making more money… vs those who felt that there was no hope of betterment, who were fed up, who were either not seeing economic improvement in their lives, or who were working in jobs that left them feeling classical Marxist alienation, and wanted something else. Although many people who felt either way about the party expressed their views without much vehemence, almost amiably, others had strong opinions, and it seemed that everyone was well-informed about the issues at stake, although no one had very clear ideas of what would actually come to pass if the Maoists came to power, or if they didn’t – understandably, since neither the status quo government or the Maoists have spelt out these details.

We spoke to some party members after the rally. We learned of how they joined the party, the years spent underground, the formation of the party at the village level. We asked almost entirely unanswered questions on the internal democracy within the party, but we did learn that the proposed constitution of the Maoists has been 80% written, proposing a federal structure, proposing land reform, and popular power, but that they need to write the rest with the co-operation of the rest of the parliament.

Ten minutes after Comrade Badal spoke, the ground was almost empty. We drifted homeward, to quickly buy some food to cook the next day when the indefinite strike would begin in earnest. We spent our next day trying to support the strike by cooking, not eating at the little places operating in secret. But the general strike was remarkable, with every single shop shuttered down, with the sole exception of medical stores. The streets were populated by laughing, chattering children playing cricket. No cars, no trucks. It was almost as stunning in its placid, beauty as the exhilarated march the day before. Street vendors and fruit sellers continued as normal. I was impressed by the exceptions allowed for the bandh, which also included a 6-8 pm break for all purchasing of essentials.

I was curious as to how the strike was enforced, since most shop-owners clearly preferred to stay open. No one suggested the use
of violence, and shop-owners expressed their disapproval for the strike but said they shut down shops because they were worried about
vandalism and stone-throwing. Certainly at night, we saw shops hurriedly shut down when Youth Communist League cadre came running through the streets. Bearing large improvised torches of flaming rags borne on sticks, they ran and whooped, chanting YCL! YCL! We followed them for a while, then another group came running through, this time looking for some one… ordinary people on the street got scared and ran indoors. Finally, a big group converged on the local chowk where a big bonfire was held, and YCL comrades held hands and chanted around the fire. Excitement was in the air – the YCL kids felt it with an urgency and heat that I’d never seen before… but it has never been difficult to arouse groups of young boys – and the YCL groups were almost entirely male. Today, however, protests continued (this is day 3 now), with a sea of women this time, one with a baby clutching the red flag with white hammer and sickle. There is no doubt that the massive numbers of people participating in these rallies are here with a genuine aspiration for change, for equity, for democracy, for the new constitution around which this demonstration is ultimately organized, and the hope for a peace maintained by justice and not by repression. To not support the people in this endeavor would be criminal. But the hope is that these events will live up to the genuine aspirations and support of the people, and that the party that has organized around their aspirations this far, with fits and starts, will either deliver or be made by the people to deliver.