Inside a People's War

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Review of 'Forget Kathmandu', Manjushree Thapa, Penguin India

The political crisis in Nepal reached a new, highly unstable point at the beginning of February 2005 when King Gyanendra seized total power with the aid of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). He dismissed the government and declared a state of emergency. Almost all dissident opposition in the capital, Kathmandu, has been squashed for the time being and the fledgling parliamentary democracy abolished. Meanwhile the Maoists, who control an estimated 80 percent of the countryside, are not being routed as the RNA has difficulties operating beyond the relatively small Kathmandu valley.

The semi-feudal monarchy of a caste-ridden society is trying to fend off a revolt from below. Gyanendra had rehearsed the 1 February coup in October 2002 when he seized power and ended 12 years of multi-party parliamentary democracy. Since then the government has been run by appointed politicians. Gyanendra became king after the previous crown prince Dipendra assassinated many members of the royal family, including the previous king, in June 2001. High on whisky and drugs the crown prince allegedly shot his father, mother and several other family members before turning the gun on himself.

In this fascinating new book by Manjushree Thapa, the Nepali novelist and human rights activist, we get a rich source of clarity on the recent past and the development of Nepal since its creation in the 18th century. Manjushree Thapa is well known in Nepal and India for her novel The Tutor of History, which records the lives of ordinary village people in the context of an election campaign, weaving together the struggle against the caste system and that for the emancipation of women. In Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, she turns from novelist to journalist and historian.

Essentially the book is in three parts. In the first she reflects on the massacre of the royal family and asks how the inebriated crown prince could have pulled this off, having been put to bed in a blind stupor minutes before. Was Gyanendra, the king's brother, the man behind the plot and why wasn't he there when it happened? In Kathmandu no one knows. No one is accountable.

In the second part she leads us through the history of Nepal and its rule by despotic kings. Nepal was a closed country until 1950, with little communication with the outside world. Two high caste families, the Ranas and the Shahs, had ruled the country since 1768, and these families continued to do so from 1950 to 1990. She explains how a People's Movement to reinstate democracy began in the winter of 1989. There were demonstrations and police crackdowns but the movement grew. Finally King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah reached a settlement with the Nepali Congress Party and the United Left Front, and removed the ban on political parties.

Manjushree Thapa explains how in 1990 more than 40 percent of Nepalis were living below the poverty line. There was systematic discrimination against women, the 'low' Dalit castes and the ethnic minority nationalities. Millions of Nepalis led desperate lives, or left the country to find work abroad, in India, Korea or the Gulf.

Aspirations had been built up by the People's Movement, but people's lives did not seem to be changing. In February 1996 the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched a 'people's war' in the poverty-stricken countryside. It raised popular demands for an end to the caste system, for women's emancipation and for land reform.

Within Kathmandu and in other towns in the valleys general strikes, or bandhs, took place on a regular basis after 2001. But there was little connection between the strikes and the action of the reformist political parties pressing for a return to parliamentary politics. Meanwhile the RNA, increasingly backed by the US, Britain and others, lashed out wherever it could with widespread killing of Maoist suspects and non-aligned peasants.

In the third part of the book the author takes us into the countryside on a trek in Western Nepal in spring 2003. Here she meets Maoist peasants, talks to them, and argues, listens and reports. She meets young idealistic women, as well as stern comrades. While she finds the arguments of the Maoists unconvincing, she is clear about their appeal to people with few, if any, options.

Nepal is a country trapped between the US's backing for a despotic anti-democratic regime and a widespread popular revolt. It is a country where history is being made. And that is why this engrossing book should be widely read.