Between politics and religious ecstasy: Maoist believers in Nepal.

Brad Tytel

As China’s quasi-communist leadership continues to shed any remnants of its ideological progenitor, Maoism still lives just south of the Himalayas. Nepal continues to be wracked by an insurgency bearing the standard of violent, rural Marxism. I have been tracking press coverage of the conflict ever since I was a student in Nepal in the fall of 2000. So I was pleased to discover Somini Sengupta’s thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, “Where Maoists Still Matter.”

The war in Nepal rarely receives the kind of attention that the NYT Magazine’s prestige and looser literary style afford it. While offering a concise and evenhanded account of the struggle, and its many failures and contradictions, the piece also serves as an effective primer for a mainstream audience on the miasma of hope, belief and discontent that drives faith in the all-encompassing ideology of Nepal’s Marxists. It also successfully highlights the struggle between the ideology and the material reality.

The history of Maoism in Nepal, and of Nepal itself for that matter, is complex, but Sengupta manages to convey the essence of the story: the revolution struggles against a corrupt and autocratic Hindu monarchy, and an utterly failed modernization project that has brought few benefits to the majority of Nepal’s people. But Maoism is more than a political position, it is an entire belief system that seeks a dramatic reinvention of the world. A guerilla song used to spread what Sengupta rightly calls a “gospel” captures this sentiment, fusing, as she puts it, “the romanticism of Keats with the sloganeering of the Gang of Four…

“The proletariat’s fortress grows stronger.
Like clouds that part and reveal the red sky, like daylight after darkness,
There is great happiness and greenery in the forest.
That is how happy my heart is.”

It is old hat to offer up communism as a “religion” in its own right. But there are few places left in the world, and little media coverage of them, that afford us a look at why people choose this ideology, as opposed to merely being born into it. Maoism in Nepal is a movement rather than a state, a free-flowing and undeniably strong organization that must reconcile itself to the material realities of its adherents, even as it struggles to overthrow an opposing political system. As do all doctrines, Maoism must contend with more than just competing ideologies; sometimes the disjuncture between reality and dogma leads to a simple waning of faith. There is the violence, the boredom, poverty, a lack of educational opportunities, a stagnating conflict, and the political reality that the Maoists may eventually have to compromise their uncompromising program. Sengupta’s greatest success is that she manages to posit the position of the Maoist believers as somewhere beyond mere politics, yet not quite in religious ecstasy. They are not easily categorized, but rather fall into the gray area between casual churchgoer and fundamentalist, most having come to their belief system by means we would consider backward. They are typically young, poor, lacking in formal schooling and with legitimate grievances against traditional power structures. So Maoist foot soldiers often embrace the party out of a lack-of-choice, rather than by the choice or agency that ought to define a religious-type conversion.

The Maoists are both appealing and controlling. Prahbat joined because “he had been curious…There was also peer pressure.” Comrade Huri, a 24-year-old female platoon commander, joined up because she wanted to fight against police harassment, pushed rather than pulled into the movement. Yet the ideology of total revolution is powerful enough for her. “I asked her about her ambitions for the future. She looked bewildered, as if despite her training and her confidence she hadn’t bothered to think about who she would be after the revolution. ‘Whatever the party decides’ was her final answer.” It is easy to write this off as a clichĂ© of insurgent reporting: the mature journalist asks the rebel about the future and finds no answer, revealing the spiritual poverty of the rebellion or the ignorance of its foot soldiers. But rebellion itself is an act of ambition and I would warn anyone against assuming that Nepalis are too poor or backward to know what their future could be. Rather than highlight the spiritual poverty of the rebellion, perhaps Huri’s answer displays the spiritual abundance of the system. Maybe she actually believes in it. Maoism is about the party, rather than the individual. Huri has given herself over to its ideology, placing her faith in the party as others would a god.

It is doubtful that Nepal’s insurgency will ever grow strong enough to topple the government on its own. At the same time, the king’s autocratic measures have brought condemnation from abroad (even from the United States, which supports his army in its war against the “terrorists”), and have alienated all Nepalese political parties and many of his people. The Maoists see their opening, and are seemingly willing to make a deal with the other parties against the king, even if it means compromising on their platform. In an email interview with Sengupta, Prachanda, the Maoist commander-in-chief, insists that “adjustments would be made to suit the times.” But in this situation, the ideology of the Maoist cadres may prove self-defeating. As Sengupta argues, “It is hard to imagine…how they will persuade the thoroughly indoctrinated rank-and-file fighters to abandon war before a total takeover of the state.” How does any ideology turn off its true-believers? There is no simple switch to flip. For the converter, ignorance among the converted is both a blessing and a curse: one Comrade Azad sees Nepal as “‘the base area’ for worldwide Maoist revolution.” Maoism’s adherents believe in the system, and the changes it purports to bring. Given that the heart of the doctrine is revolution without compromise, how will their faith react if that gospel is revoked? And if it does simply dissipates, does that mean that Maoism was a hollow ideology to begin with?

Sangupta’s piece is troubling in one respect. While Sengupta points out the religious underpinnings of Nepal’s current autocratic state, and the Maoist’s reform of the caste system, both are dealt with solely in their social contexts. The religious implications of the conflict are glossed over — it is, after all a Hindu monarchy, and Nepal’s power structure owes much to traditional caste divisions. Yet, whether done intentionally or not, there is in fact something to be said for this approach. Hinduism is not a religion in the Western sense — its many cultural prescriptions are deeply political, just as Nepal’s social problems have much to do with a religiously defined monarchy. So as with Maoism, it would in fact be ill-advised to try and distinguish purely material ideology from the purely spiritual. While it’s easy to blame mainstream coverage for emphasizing the clash of swords over the clash of ideas, sometimes it really is one and the same thing.