There were quite a few influential politicians and leaders at the National Assembly of Dalit Citizens this past weekend, but Prachanda, the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN or Maoists) definitely made the most fans. His speech – and even his mere presence at the event – was the highlight for scores of people who attended. I observed him closely for most of the day on Saturday, scrutinizing his every facial expression and reaction to the various speeches and cultural performances. I was also lucky to have a colleague help translate most of his address later that afternoon. At the end of the day I had to admit, the man deserves credit… for a former guerrilla military leader who violently changed the course of his nation, Prachanda has charm and is a darn good politician. (I have yet to decide whether I will offer a better compliment than that.)
When I heard that he was going to “participate” in the assembly, I imagined his involvement would be short and unceremonious. I pictured him making a few cliched remarks about the importance of equality, followed by a 20 minute press photo shoot (baby kissing optional), and then, with the proper amount of fanfare, he would leave. I was floored when he stayed there for the entire day on Saturday – apparently canceling a CNP meeting scheduled for late in the afternoon – and listened patiently to all of the speakers. He made it clear to me that he understood the political importance of the Dalit community.
His speech was certainly memorable. According to the translation I got from a colleague, he started out by making a promise – that he would keep it short. He said that Nepalis hear enough from the politicians, and that one of the great aspects of this event was the fact that it was the people who were making their voices heard. (The speech ended up being about 45 minutes – so in Nepali standards, he did keep his promise. There were a few speeches that lasted hours!) His actual remarks contained the basic necessities. He thanked the organizers and complimented them on their ability to unify a diverse group of people for the large scale event. He then made a few jabs at the former monarchy and emphasized the role of the CPN in the positive changes that are about to occur. He gave examples of how the Dalits and Maoists have worked together in the past and spoke against the tensions between certain Dalit groups and Maoists in the Terai. He also encouraged Dalits to remain active in the political process and make their voices heard.
These aspects of Prachanda’s address were well received but somewhat expected. The part of his speech, however, that won the respect and appreciation of many were the personal accounts of loyalty and friendship that he experienced with members of Dalit communities. In particular, he spoke fondly of a Dalit childhood friend and playmate, mentioning that the food that his friend’s mother served was the tastiest he’d known. He also spoke of how his parents discouraged him from associating with his friend… but the good company and food kept drawing him back. He then went on to refer to the Dalit people as the “real Nepal”. According to Prachanda, the Dalit communities ate true Nepali food and spoke the language. From my perspective, he was quick to emphasize the importance of the Dalit population in Nepal’s history, culture, and (of course) the current political process.
After the day’s sessions and festivities, questions about Prachanda’s impact on the assembly arose. As mentioned, I think he is very good politician. But the fact that he is a politician (and one with a colorful and controversial career at that) made me question whether he was genuine or just feeding the people what they want to hear. Did he stick around the event for the day and cancel his upcoming CPN meeting out of a real interest in the speeches and topics covered? Or did he only make his time concession after he realized the scale of the event? Did he in fact cancel a legitimate party meeting at all? Did he really have such a close childhood friendship with a young Dalit, or did he exaggerate a few cordial interactions? And does he really feel the need for Dalit upliftment, or does he see this population as another voting block that will help him achieve his goals at election time? Only time and Prachanda’s future actions will really be able to answer some of these questions. But in the meantime many of the Dalits who heard him speak, can at least appreciate a guy who is trying.
Posted By Ted Samuel
Posted Jun 20th, 2007