Perhaps no other political issue in Nepal is as hotly debated as the legacy of the 10-year-long civil war. For its supporters, the ‘people’s war’ brought an unprecedented level of awareness among marginalized groups like women, dalits and janajatis. For them, all the big political achievements in Nepal in recent times (federalism, republicanism, secularism) are primarily the result of ‘people’s war’. Were it not for the armed conflict, the argument goes, it would have been impossible to break the stranglehold of a handful of elites over state power. For its detractors, the war achieved nothing of the sort. With the level of literacy rising while poverty steadily went down, it was only a matter of time before the marginalized sections stood up for their rights on their own.
Likewise, they are quick to credit all progressive changes in recent times to the 2006 Jana Andolan, 2007 Madhesi Uprising and subsequent rights-based movements, rather than to the brutal ‘killing spree’ of the Maoists which left 15,000 dead, thousands injured or maimed, over 1,5000 ‘disappeared’, and thousands more displaced.
The 18th anniversary of ‘people’s war’ on Tuesday elicited conflicting emotions among the people. Since the war’s official end in 2006, the then CPN (Maoist) has splintered into four separate parties. Among the two main Maoist parties in existence, the Baidya-led CPN-Maoist claims to be the true successor of the revolution, accusing Dahal-led Maoists of betraying the people. During its general convention in January, the ‘dash’ Maoists stuck to the line of ‘people’s revolt’ which it would apparently carry out by building on the foundation of the decade-long ‘people’s war’. Whether or not it is a betrayal of Maoist ideals, it does look like UCPN (Maoist), after its general convention, is well on the way to transforming itself into a parliamentary party that firmly believes in peaceful politics.
All those who are serious about consolidating the changes since 2006 must internalize the fact that the truth lies somewhere in between, and trying to corner the Maoists for their violent past could badly backfire. The ‘people’s war’ undoubtedly played a part in bringing out issues of marginalized communities. The active role played by women in ‘people’s war’ showed that if given a chance, women are capable of doing jobs traditionally thought of as men’s preserve. Most importantly, the civil war, for better or worse, played an instrumental role in bringing identity politics to the forefront. But the necessity of a savage war to establish a political ideology, with all its attendant costs, without first exhausting all peaceful alternatives, must also be questioned.
It is great news that UCPN (Maoist) has formally abandoned violence: the ‘armed phase’ of the revolution is purportedly over. But unless the words are translated into actions, people will continue to doubt the flip-flopping Maoist leadership. In order to heal the conflict’s wounds, both Maoist outfits must show the commitment to form credible transitional justice mechanisms. For its part, CPN-Maoist should realize the futility of another armed revolt, for which people have no appetite whatsoever. If there is one lesson to be learned from the decade-long civil war, it is that while brute force might serve a certain ideological purpose, the huge costs it incurs in terms of both people and property can be very hard to justify