by Shrishti Rana
Many of us have forgotten Rolpa, the birthplace of the Maoists, but the Rolpalese themselves have not. On the one hand, the pain of seeing the state security forces kill 700 innocent villagers is too strong ever to be forgotten. Only the Rolpalese know what it is to have your own sons and brothers killed on the mere suspicion of being Maoists. On the other hand, the memories of Maoist violence are no less painful. Assault, extortion and abduction by the Maoists, mere news items in distant Kathmandu, were part of the daily grind in Rolpa.
During my recent visit to Rolpa, Shiva Chettri, proprietor of the Shiva Shakti Hotel in Liwang (Rolpa district headquarters), showed me the barbed wire surrounding some buildings. “Behind that wire is a Tar Bar,” he explained. The Tar Bar was the area housing many government buildings, party offices and private schools, and it enjoyed the protection, such as it was, of the state security forces during the civil war. Shree Maya Magar remembers, “We often had to stay at our neighbour’s house outside the Tar Bar. We could see our house from there but the police would not let us go to our own house, citing inexplicable security reasons.”
The Tar Bar may have enjoyed state security, but that security was largely illusory. Madav Acharya, District Chairman of the Nepali Congress, confessed, “My wife never used to let me go to the terrace, fearing that the Maoists would attack me from the surrounding heights. Though we were protected inside the Tar Bar, we felt that we were under house arrest and did not dare go outside our rooms.”
For the Maoists, the Tar Bar was meaningless; it did not inhibit their movements and activities. Even in the presence of security forces, the Maoists always managed to collect taxes and threaten and even abduct residents. If anyone refused to make the required “donations,” the Maoists abducted him and imposed a ransom ten times as large. This Tar Bar, avowedly a safe haven, was in practice a trap. The continued presence of the Tar Bar in Rolpa is a grim reminder of the violence and senselessness of the years of civil war.
Are things any better now?
Prem Bahadur Buda, a Liwangi, is cautiously optimistic: “Things are much better but the Maoist activities are almost the same. We do not have enough food, yet we have to pay the Maoists – two different taxes of 5 and 50 rupees monthly.” Hari Khadki opened up to me: “In spite of the peace process, the Maoists still force us to construct roads, leaving our own work undone. The alternative is to pay 5,000 rupees as compensation.” A shop owner vented his ire: “We have been troubled by both the Maoists and the police. Our problem is that we have no one to turn to.”
If the high-handedness and brutality of the security forces have been contained, it looks as if the Maoists’ threat of violence is a continuing fear for many. The descriptions of events by some party men were revealing. Madav Acharya, the Congress man, averred: “We are really happy with the ceasefire. We do not fear for our lives any more.” However, he admitted, his party workers still have no access to the villages. Curiously, the Maoists invite them to their rallies. Asked if they could campaign in the villages for anything that clashes with the Maoists’ ideas, his answer was a straightforward “No.” Yet, he seemed to believe, somewhat naively, that elections to the constituent assembly would be fair.
According to Man Singh Dangi, a veteran United Marxist Leninist leader who has been a facilitator of the Maoist–Seven Parties negotiating team in Rolpa, “Living in a conflict zone teaches many things. The government needs to decide quickly about the model for the constituent assembly. Otherwise it could be delayed up to 30 years, as has occurred in India.’
Krishna Gharti, District Chairman of the Democratic Congress Party, mused that the only good thing about the Maoists is that they have made the Rolpalese aware of many things beyond Rolpa, and have made the Nepalese aware of Rolpa. He maintained that since Rolpa has suffered more than any other region during the conflict, the government owes us better roads, hospitals and jobs. Nepal will never develop without developing Rolpa!
Most of the party men in Rolpa seem convinced that the Maoists are genuine about the peace process but want peace on their terms.
The Maoists have a different story than the local inhabitants and party men. According to Nava Raj Acharya, a district-level Maoist leader, “The recent parliamentary proclamations are not enough. We need to do away with exploitation completely.” When I asked whether the Maoists would accept the result of the constituent assembly election if it goes against them, he replied ambiguously, “We are sure that we will forge ahead at the hustings, even in your Kathmandu.” Still, he confided to me that the Maoists have made mistakes and these mistakes explain why most villagers do not support them. Setting the mistakes aside, he boasted that soon the Maoists would have 95 per cent of the people on their side, even if they have to go back into the jungle.
Interviewed under conditions of anonymity, a top-level Maoist leader defended the insurgents’ behaviour: “Our cadres may be violating the code of conduct because we have not got time to talk to people … People needn’t worry. Maoist harassment will stop soon.”
Yet another Maoist insurgent I met was Narendra Batha Magar, a militia man. His conclusion is that the Maoists’ case will never be heard if they give up their arms straight away. I confronted the Maoists with whom I talked with stories I had heard about their still recruiting soldiers and child spies. The local Maoist leaders brushed aside these allegations. They claimed that they are just transferring their militia men to their people’s army. Sadly, these events and rationalizations do not fit with the Maoists’ promises of justice, fair play and nonexploitation.
What do those in the state agencies think about all this? The police, paramilitary and military forces in Rolpa seem relieved. The uniformed forces have been instructed to go out of their way to be polite. Hari Bahadur Baruwal, a soft-spoken police inspector, insisted, “We have always done our duty and protected the public good and we will continue doing so.”
A police subinspector went beyond polite comment: “We feel hurt the way the police force has been discredited. Even though the army has more sophisticated weapons, they were stationed at the mountain heights whereas we, the police, were inside the Tar Bar risking our lives to protect the people living and working there.” With bitterness, Baruwal then described an incident in which the police were patrolling in a nearby village. Suddenly, the Maoists started firing from the cliffs, and the police below were stuck in the narrow winding treeless road with their backs to the gorge of a raging river.
On my way back to Kathmandu from Rolpa, our Jeep was routinely stopped at checkpoints. When told why I was in Rolpa, a young army soldier excitedly came forward to talk to me. “That is Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s house,” he indicated. “His whole family have joined the Maoists.” He showed me a small shop where an old man was making a paan: “Even now, the Maoists do evil. They beat this poor old man for not paying the Maoists’ tax and we are helpless.”
While the soldier was briefing me, the Kantipur channel was playing on the television set. The journalist was reporting on the government’s questionable appeasement strategy and the response of Maoist leader Prachanda: “Prachanda says that they will have an October revolution if the talks fail.” The soldier’s face fell as he contemplated the harsh realities of the unfolding drama. I felt, somehow, that the whole country is caught up in an extended Tar Bar. Are we all living in false security? n