Feyzi Ismail interviews Indra Mohan Sigdel (aka Basanta), a politburo member of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and part of a left faction beginning to question the trajectory of the party.
The last major political upheaval in Nepal that made international headlines – that once again revealed ongoing and widespread support for the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – was the general strike of May 2010 called by the Maoists, in which hundreds of thousands participated. Class divisions were exposed in stark terms on the streets of Kathmandu and brought back visible levels of polarisation in society not seen since the 2006 movement for democracy.
Much of the rank and file of the party, as well as masses of supporters, had high expectations of the general strike; that perhaps it would culminate in a stand-off with the security forces that would pose the question of dual power, or at least that it could be sustained until the government backed down and opened up the space for the Maoists to consolidate their movement. But following the general strike and demonstrations of 2010, the Maoists’ attention has focused on consolidating their position in the mainstream: securing power in government, drafting the constitution, and dealing with the so-called reintegration and rehabilitation of thousands of former Maoist fighters.
This focus reflects the dominant line of the party, led by Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and Chairman Prachanda, which is that the revolution cannot be taken forward at the present historical conjuncture because Nepal must focus its attention on national development and strengthening its industrial base. This is indeed why the Maoists agreed to enter into the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) with the mainstream political parties, facilitated by India, in late 2006.
After Bhattarai’s election as prime minister in August 2011, the Maoists have gone further: they have been responsible for negotiating trade deals with India, returning property seized by the party during the people’s war and handing over the keys to weapons containers in Maoist cantonments to a committee tasked with overseeing reintegration and rehabilitation. Sections of the leadership are now questioning these moves, and a left faction within the party – calling itself the revolutionary faction – has emerged under the leadership of Mohan Baidya (aka Kiran) and others. They have been re-seizing land returned to landlords and returning it to the peasants. And they have called for a break with current thinking and a potential reconsideration of aspects of the theoretical basis for revolution.
The last few weeks have seen students stage days of protests over fuel price hikes, and 13 student unions – including the Maoists’ own All Nepal National Independent Students’ Union (Revolutionary) – enforced a one-day general strike demanding the government scrap the price hikes altogether. Meanwhile, there is continued deadlock amongst the three main political parties over finalising the constitution. As differences within the UCPN (Maoist) grow deeper, it is an open question as to whether these differences will lead the left faction to adopt a radically different strategy. Despite calling for a break with the dominant line, the left faction still appears to be committed to a peace process aimed at containing the movement entirely.
How did you come to join the Maoists?
I come from the remote countryside of Nepal, from a village in the district of Tanahun. When I was a child I had a difficult life and I noticed several things that enraged me. My mother had to visit feudal lords, and had to work for free. I also noticed very poor people, who didn’t even have food to eat. These things shocked me. When I went to high school, there was a road being constructed near my school by the Chinese; we heard that these Chinese communists worked together, ate together and that there was no discrimination at all. So we went to visit the big camps where they lived, and they had a big impression on me. This was in the late 1960s. The other thing that impressed me was the pictorial magazines the Chinese used to distribute widely in Nepal. I felt they showed what a different but egalitarian society could look like. It was then that I got involved in left politics. I joined the Communist Party in 1972 and was one of the initiators of the people’s war in 1996.
What was the calculation when the Maoists agreed to the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) with the UML and Congress, ending the war and beginning a peace process?
We adopted the Constituent Assembly and the establishment of a democratic republic as tactics to move forward to a new democratic republic. But these tactics have not remained as tactics. They have become a strategy. They have become goals in themselves, as if we should stop there. The CPA effectively signaled the end of the people’s war in 2006, but this wasn’t necessarily agreed within our party. The party line was to carry forward the revolution through a peace process.
What was the thinking at the time of the general strike in 2010? Why did the Maoists not take it forward?
The idea was to go as far as people’s insurrection in order to establish a people’s federal republic in Nepal. One of the immediate demands was the resignation of Madhav Kumar Nepal as prime minister. But he didn’t resign, and we found ourselves lacking the preparation needed to take it forward. We found ourselves dancing in the streets for days. So we had to retreat. We couldn’t have beaten the armed forces encircling parliament without a huge massacre and we wanted to avoid that. We weren’t prepared to have a fight so we had to come back. It is true that the propaganda was ‘fight to the finish’ but we couldn’t finish with what we thought would be a bloodbath. Many Maoist cadres were deeply disappointed when the general strike was withdrawn. Now we need to assess why the leadership did not pay sufficient attention to make those preparations. This has its roots in ideology and politics. The party has to have an ideological and political breakthrough.
What is your view on how the constitution drafting process is playing out?
We don’t see that people’s aspirations are being written into this constitution. The Maoists make up 38 percent of the Constituent Assembly. That is one of the main strengths we have. We do not have a two-thirds majority, but nor do other parties together make up that majority in parliament. But to write every clause requires such a majority. That means consensus is a must in the Constituent Assembly. This is one aspect. The other main aspect is that nowhere and never in history have reactionaries agreed to write a people’s constitution. If the constitution is written it will be a reformist constitution, not a revolutionary constitution. This will not resolve the problems that people are facing. Related is the issue of integrating former PLA soldiers into the Nepal Army (NA). Integration has brought virtually no benefits to our movement. PLA soldiers are being recruited not as a single unit but on an individual basis. It amounts to capitulation to the ruling establishment, mere recruitment for the NA.
In recent months differences within the party have been revealed. On what basis have these differences emerged?
In any communist party there are differences. But the differences in our party now are serious. One of these differences is the sub-stage theory. Baburam Bhattarai has put forward the argument that there is a sub-stage between the monarchical system and the new democratic system; a sub-stage of democratic republic. Our chairman, Prachanda, has now indirectly supported this argument. This is the root of the political difference we currently have. The Marxist position is that either there is a joint dictatorship of feudal, comprador, bureaucratic and bourgeois forces or a people’s dictatorship. In between these two there is no other form of dictatorship. A sub-stage means the dictatorship of compromise, which is ultimately a bourgeois dictatorship. Whether to stop at a bourgeois dictatorship or to go ahead with establishing a people’s dictatorship is the crux of the difference we have in our party now.
Are you operating as two separate parties? What are the consequences of a split?
We are not split; we are a single party. But we have serious differences. The struggle is whether to carry out a revolutionary line or not. We are struggling to establish a revolutionary line within the party. It’s not a question of splitting but how to take the whole party forward along the path of revolution. This is an ideological struggle involving all comrades. But if some comrades cannot go ahead then the revolutionaries must go ahead to accomplish the revolution. Currently the dominant line of the leadership is reformist. But the whole country and the people want revolution; the nation wants liberation – this is still the principle aspiration. That is why we are striving very hard to establish a revolutionary line in the party. We do not want comrades to be content with a democratic republic. Rather we want to take all of them together towards revolution.
At what point are you forced to organise separately?
The government led by our party returned to feudal landlords, with compensation, the land that was seized during the people’s war. Our faction disagreed with this move. We re-seized the land from landlords and returned it to the peasants. In addition to this, there are altogether 12 further issues that we have placed before the leadership. We want our leadership to correct these mistakes and re-establish a correct line. But if these mistakes are not corrected and the future of the revolution is jeopardised then the revolutionaries must take the revolution forward. If we can establish a revolutionary line within the party then we can go ahead in unity, and we want this. But in that struggle, if comrades do not want to progress along a revolutionary line, as in the present situation, then a revolutionary section will go ahead and the reformists will be left with their reforms. But the potential for unity is still there; the whole party has not turned revisionist yet, and the revolution hasn’t been completely defeated. We have to reorganise and reorient the party on a revolutionary basis.
What exactly is the revolutionary faction proposing? You spoke about a rupture, a complete break from previous thinking – what does that look like?
What we are working for is revolution, which is qualitative change. Quantitative change doesn’t make a revolution, but reform. We are working for a qualitative change, a revolution. But, there is a dialectical relationship between quantity and quality. For the past few years our practice has been to engage in quantity and forget quality, which has been an ideological basis for reformism. We have to make a break from this kind of understanding. This is the struggle going on inside the party now in the ideological arena.
Are there differences within the revolutionary faction?
There are no major ideological differences within the revolutionary faction. But nor are we a monolithic unity. On the question of taking the revolution forward there are no theoretical differences inside the revolutionary faction now. In the course of the people’s war we have acquired much experience of revolution, both in terms of quantity and quality. But we don’t have anything with us today. We have to reflect on why we lost all these past achievements. This will guide us for the future. The revolutionary faction will not go against the law of unity and struggle of opposites but will have to have a debate in order to reach a correct synthesis of the past.
How much support do you have within the party?
Ultimately every revolutionary will support us, provided we develop a correct ideological and political line, which decides everything. The main challenge before us is not to garner wider support inside the party but it is to re-establish and develop a revolutionary line that guides our party to complete the unfinished task of revolution. If our line is correct, even if we are an insignificant force now, we will ultimately win. There have been political changes but these changes have not brought about any socio-economic change in society. Rather, those problems are further intensifying.
Is the situation getting worse because people had hopes that were betrayed? Or is it becoming worse in absolute terms?
It’s becoming worse because the government has not been able to address people’s demands. People expect so many things. We were the party that led people in revolution and that promised fundamental change in society. In the course of the revolution we promised so many things to people. Now our party is in government and the prime minister is leading it but people are not getting anything. People’s consciousness has matured but they have not got anything concrete. So this contradiction is sharpening.
Do you think people still believe that the Maoists are the only force that can bring liberation to the country?
Some confusion and doubts exist about whether the Maoists are capable of liberating the country and the people. This is mainly because the present government, led by our party, instead of addressing people’s aspirations, has taken up anti-people and anti-national steps to serve the reactionaries. But the two-line struggle in the party and also the street struggle initiated by the Maoists themselves have again raised hopes among people. People know the Nepali Congress and the UML – parties that did nothing in the past for the people and the nation. People still remember the sacrifices the Maoists made during the course of people’s war. In fact, the problem is not whether people support Maoists but whether the Maoists change their reformist course and keep up the revolution or not. People still believe that the Maoists will keep their promises.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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