Deep in the red jungle

Adhikari’s book not only makes for a gripping read, but also provides human faces to the revolution, which have been sorely lacking in other similar accounts of the People’s War

To provide the social context in which the Maoists launched their war against the state, Aditya Adhikari, in his book The Bullet and the Ballot Box, uses a novel, The Music of the Fireflies, by a popular leftist writer, Khagendra Sangroula. The novel is about the fraught relationship between high-caste villagers and their Dalit neighbours during the waning years of the Panchayat regime and the early years of multi-party democracy in the 1990s. The village chief during the Panchayat years in the novel is a Brahmin man who exploits the death of his sick buffalo to ultimately seize land from a Dalit family. After the restoration of democracy, the social stratification does not change—once a Panchayat loyalist, the opportunistic village chief later joins the Nepali Congress to retain his power over land and people from the lower caste. This was typical across the country, Adhikari suggests, and the Maoists believed only a violent revolution would uproot feudalism and ensure classlessness.

Adhikari could have summed up the state of the countryside and the exploitation the powerless suffered in a paragraph and moved on. By choosing not to do so and devoting a few pages in retelling the story of the novel and analysing it, Adhikari gives a better picture of the inequality the rebels vowed to fight. Therein lies the author’s strength. Throughout the book, Adhikari uses such sources—poems, novels, memoirs and diary entries—to portray, not just tell, the history of the Maoist revolution. Such a strategy not only makes the reading gripping, but also provides human faces to the revolution, which have been sorely lacking in other similar accounts of the People’s War.

And there have been plenty of these accounts, from Deepak Thapa and Bandita Sijapati’s A Kingdom under Siege to Manjushree Thapa’s Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy and Sudheer Sharma’s Prayogshala. For those who have read these books and followed mainstream media coverage, the political history in Adhikari’s work will seem like regurgitation, but a rehashing that is nonetheless necessary to provide an overall picture of the war. Where Adhikari excels is in telling the military and social history of the Maoists’ struggle for power. As with Sangroula in Fireflies, Adhikari does not just throw a block of texts and leave the readers to come to their own conclusion; he pauses to analyse them himself and shows readers the complexity of the narratives. The chapters Among the Believers and the Fish in the Sea: the Vignettes are his own bright red stars precisely because of this.

For instance, in the chapter Among the Believers, Adhikari examines love and marriage among Maoist comrades. He uses a Maoist cadre member, Manju Bam’s, novel, The Path of Struggle, to get into the subject. The novel is about a young woman who joins the rebel party to escape and change the stifling social order, and she rises higher up the party ranks. But her promotions come at a price: her husband, whom she had persuaded to join the Maoist movement, later leaves her for another woman. Adhikari calls the novel Bam’s attempt to highlight the prevalence of male dominance within the party and to show that women, more than men, remained more committed to the party’s ideology.

Unlike with Sangroula’s Fireflies, however, Adhikari goes beyond Bam’s work to explain and critique the nature of sexual and marital relationships between comrades during the war and how the party viewed them. In order to fight the traditional structure of marriage, which required lavish ceremonies showing one’s class standing, which prohibited inter-caste and inter-ethnic marriages and which frowned upon divorce, the weddings conducted by the party were defined by their simplicity and freedom to marry across ethnic and caste lines, with couples being allowed to divorce if needed. But, using the example of a party member, Lekhnath Neupane, who was advised to remarry soon after his wife and fellow comrade’s death for the good of the party, Adhikari questions whether the Maoists “simply replaced the pressures and obligations of the traditional marriage with [those] of the party”.

Adhikari also uses Bam’s work as a springboard to launch into the state of women in the Maoist army—a topic most writers, especially men, have avoided getting into. In just a few paragraphs, Adhikari boldly agrees with researcher Satya Shrestha-Schipper that although women joined the rebellion with a “sense of purpose and confidence” to fight patriarchy, they remained fighting not out of “deep commitment to the cause”, but because they were fearful of “what lay outside”, as society was slow to change and held strongly to its prejudices.

Although sympathetic to the Maoists, such measured criticism of the war—especially in the following chapter, where Adhikari studies sensitive issues of caste and identity and the ambivalence the oppressed groups felt towards the People’s War—helps Adhikari avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality and needless romanticisation of the conflict. In the chapter, the Fish in the Sea, Adhikari tells the story of the exclusion Janajatis face, with the help of Rajan Mukarung’s Hetchhakuppa, a novel about a young Rai man who rejects the lahure lifestyle only to end up working in a lahure-funded magazine. Excluded from Kathmandu’s circle of upper-caste Hindu men, Rai finds solace in being around people from his own ethnicity, while becoming increasingly attracted to Marxist ideology. But while showing how caste/ethnicity and class are intertwined and that the Maoists used it to gain support from Janajatis, Adhikari, in the same chapter, also shows how Gurungs in a village in Lamjung refused to help a wounded Ganga Bahadur Lama, a Maoist activist, as he lay in a jungle for three days and nights.

The use of such vignettes, from literary and non-fiction sources, to show both sides of any issue, and the war at large, is what makes Adhikari’s work a powerful one, and not just for those who have never read a book on the Maoist movement. What might seem frustrating for some readers, however, is the lack of Adhikari’s personal voice, of his refusal to tell us where he stands vis-a-vis the revolution—does he think it was inevitable, like some of the comrades did, or does he think the violence was needless? Does he believe the Maoists were really for reform and empowerment or were they really after power and that the quest led to the war?

But then, perhaps these are difficult questions to answer. History can be interpreted in more than one way and as the abundance of literature suggests (as evidenced by the bibliography at the end of the book), there is no one definite answer. Besides, as Adhikari says in the preface, the book is not about how he feels about the war or whether it was inevitable or not, but about the extraordinary rise of a seemingly obsolete ideology to gain state power in Nepal, despite the fall of communism elsewhere. To that end, Adhikari succeeds.

Posted on: 2015-01-17, The Kathmandu Post