Our stay in Nepal began rather unexpectedly. After less than 24 hours in the country, Stacey and I joined our new colleagues at the Jagaran Media Center and donned blue human rights monitor vests at a historical rally down at Kathmandu’s exhibition grounds. Here, more than 200,000 Nepalis, fully-fledged cadres and curious onlookers alike, convened for the first-ever demonstration of Maoist strength in the capital with the direct participation of the insurgency’s most senior leadership.
From the early hours of the morning, columns of people streamed in from all corners of the Kathmandu valley and marched into the city’s central business district. Reports that Maoists commandeered buses and vans and forced villagers to attend the rally seemed to be confirmed by the lukewarm enthusiasm of the vast majority of the protesters that we saw as we negotiated the chaos that is Kathmandu traffic. Still, for every hundred exhausted and uneasy marchers, there was a truckload of zealous young men shouting slogans and sporting t-shirts of Maoist leader Prachanda gazing at the hammer and sickle.
This sense of mixed feelings continued at the rally itself. As is often the case, most of the crowd seemed to be much more interested in the festive atmosphere and the dance and martial arts demonstrations than the long-winded and inflammatory speeches. From what we saw, the event was very peaceful—more than anything, people were curious to see, in the flesh, some of the legendary figures of the Maoist movement, many of whom have not set foot in Kathmandu for many years. Indeed, local newspapers reported the extreme disappointment of many local volunteers that Prachanda himself did not make an appearance.
For Stacey and I, the rally was a great opportunity to get some sense of how Dalit civil society perceives the Maoist movement. On the surface, Dalits have many reasons to sympathize with the insurgents: Maoists have been at the forefront of demands to dismantle the religious basis of the Nepali state and demote Hinduism from its exalted position. Moreover, Maoists have been known to punish caste discrimination both within their ranks and in the areas they control, as well as declare certain villages caste-free zones.
Still, as one of my colleagues pointed out, whatever its policies and promises, it is difficult to support a violent movement that has wrecked such chaos and destruction throughout Nepal. The gap between rhetoric and reality is clear even here in Kathmandu, which has remained relatively isolated from the war. Friday’s massive demonstration leaves one to wonder how long this isolation will last.
Posted By Nicole Cordeau (Nepal)
Posted Jun 6th, 2006