Meeting Nepal's Maoist leader
A few days ago Nepal's Maoist movement marks its 10th year of insurgency in the Himalayan kingdom. In a rare move, the rebel leader, Prachanda, spoke out about the conflict that has claimed some 13,000 lives - and the possible exile or execution of Nepal's King Gyanendra.
It was difficult to believe that the man sitting modestly in the corner was Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known under his nom-de-guerre of Prachanda ("The Fierce One").
This is a man whose face, until a few weeks ago, was known only through a single photograph, taken in rural Nepal in 2001. In that photo his forehead is creased in a frown of concentration.
The 52-year-old man I met, with his speckled beard, was mild-mannered, shy, joking, laughing nervously - more humorous than intimidating and without the overt charisma of some revolutionary leaders. He looked more like a popular uncle than a communist who has been underground since 1981 and waging war for a decade.
His number two, Baburam Bhattarai, with a cloth cap and eagle eyes, and flanking Prachanda, looked much more revolutionary. But once seated in front of the camera, Prachanda grew more intense, periodically thrusting forward his tensely hunched shoulders as he spoke.
It was as if the words were inside him, waiting to be forcefully expelled. This former agriculture student, born in the idyllic Annapurna region of Nepal, is the undisputed leader of Nepal's Maoists, Supreme Commander of their army.
Despite their apparent closeness during the interview, a year ago he expelled Dr Bhattarai and his wife from the party for accusing Prachanda of being power-hungry. It took months for him to be reinstated.
His war has taken some 13,000 lives. More people have in fact been killed by the government side, but the Maoists have ruthlessly pinpointed and executed people. Much of the Maoists' behaviour nowadays is pragmatic rather than ideological and suggests they may be preparing to move towards peace.
An agreement they recently signed with mainstream parties opposed to King Gyanendra reflects this, and so did many of Prachanda's remarks. For instance, his statements that the Maoists now accept multi-party democracy; that they are unlikely to try to take Kathmandu by force; that a future government involving them could work with America, and that if there can be elections to a constituent assembly, the Maoists are ready to "call off the war".
Most notable of all, if the assembly so decided, Nepal could "theoretically" remain a monarchy. But at other times, pent-up rage seemed to come to the fore - most notably when Prachanda said the king might face a future of exile or even trial at what he called a People's Court, leading to possible execution. Many Nepalis, whatever their political view of the monarch, regard him as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Nepal has in any case abolished capital punishment. Before the king seized political power a year ago, the Maoists used to say they would only talk to the palace, as the centre of real power.
Now, by contrast, Prachanda gives the impression that his party has totally given up on the idea of reconciling with the monarch, at the same time talking with ever-growing warmth of the opposition parties - despite the Maoists killing many of their cadres in recent years. He also said that any permanent unilateral ceasefire, building on their recently expired temporary one, would under present conditions amount to surrender.
Prachanda made it clear, too, that his party is a long way from abandoning its violent practices. Yes, he was "saddened" by the war's death toll and by what he called the "accidental" death of children through bombs planted by the Maoists.
Yes, the Maoists were "investigating" the shooting of a municipal election candidate and the killing of a taxi driver during a Maoist general shutdown. But another election candidate had been an "informer", he insisted, liable to be tried by a Maoist court and possibly "executed".
The same applied to villagers whom the Maoists deemed to be helping the army. The interview gave some interesting insights into the Maoists' current thinking. Some regional analysts have speculated on growing ties between Nepal's Maoists and India's ones, the "Naxalites" fighting for communism in impoverished states such as Andhra Pradesh.
Prachanda said that although there were ideological ties, his party did not believe in exporting revolution, despite its affiliation with the Revolutionary International Movement - an umbrella body dedicated to spreading communism.
"Ideologically we want to move the global revolution forward but in practical terms we do not believe one country's army should go to another country and fight for it." And Prachanda's vision of a future Nepal is one he says is already being built, eroding class, caste and gender barriers.
It is also puritanical, outlawing alcohol, gambling, and "vulgar literature" from India and the US. And militarised: "A poor village woman with a gun feels her life as a woman has been elevated". Prachanda, like Baburam Bhattarai, is a revolutionary to the core. At one point he said to Dr Bhattarai that he wished we would ask some ideological questions.
Prachanda told us his son, Prakash Dahal, and three daughters were all in the movement, as was his wife, Sarita, whom he had met through the party. Dr Bhattarai told us that his wife, Hisila Yami, news of whom remains sketchy, has, like him, been rehabilitated and is in an advisory role to the Central Committee. But they would not reveal much more.
Periodically, Nepali journalists go and interview Prachanda's widowed 77-year-old father, Muktiram Dahal, who lives near the famous Chitwan national park. Mr Dahal, who has not met Prachanda for 11 years, urges him to lay down his arms.
His son does not yet seem ready for that, and his rhetoric is still fiery. But maybe he is inching closer to it.
This article was first published in bbcnews.com
(R) thedailystar.net 2005