[This is the latest dispatch from Nepal by the eyewitness journalists of the Winter Has Its End blog. This stirring account brings special insights into the revolutionary cultural spirit and Maoist political education at the juncture of defiant revolutionary struggle against those who would defeat the revolution from within. — Frontlines ed.]
by Liam Wright
“She sang, ‘We cannot surrender. We cannot become traitors; we cannot kill our own dreams. We cannot give our arms to the enemy. We cannot betray the revolution.’”
I lifted my eyes as I wiped a streak of sweat from my face. The place was packed. About a thousand people crammed into a theater meant to hold nine hundred. The center aisle was filled with people perched on impromptu seats all the way to the back row. Some stood peering through the entryway. Up top, the balcony was filled to the brim as well. And… it was hot.
We had traveled overnight out of the mountains, on an eleven hour bus ride to get to Butwal, a small city in the sweltering lowland Terai region of Nepal. This city is an historic spot. It is the place where the renowned Nepalese warriors, known as Gorkhas, defeated the British East India Company in 1816, maintaining Nepalese independence.
It seems only appropriate that we would come here, a place where Nepal had fought so decisively for sovereignty long ago, to see a performance organized by a section of the Maoist’s who want to fight to continue their revolution now. The performance, Samana or Resistance, we were told was, “both a call to the people and a warning to our leaders.”
The whole way over I was excited. I’d been mulling over this for a bit. How would the Nepalese revolutionaries go forward? How would they settle the debate over whether to dissolve their People’s Liberation Army or not? Would they move to break through? To go for power? Or would those among the Maoists party’s leadership who want to consolidate a capitalist democracy win the day?
This program promised to give us a hint of how the revolutionaries among the Maoists planned to tell the people: “We’re going to move. Be ready.” We were told that the program is going on tour through forty-five places in all, each with a couple showings. If each is overflowing like this, they were going to reach a lot of people.
Song, Dance, and Theatre: Messages to the People
I hadn’t known exactly what to expect – and what we got was a little of everything: There was dance, stand-up comedy, music, song, and the heart of the performance: a play entitled “Dreams and Them.”
I was amazed that the performers were able to move with such energy! Their faces dripped with sweat as much as mine. And yet, smiles beamed from women and men as they danced together, wearing the traditional garb of minority nationalities in the Terai. Their moves were fluid, dynamic. Sometimes you saw a fist; it brought to the dance a sense of power and determination.
The swirling dancers performed against the backdrop of a giant red banner, decorated with the silhouettes of two young people. One held an unfurled a flag with a hammer and sickle triumphantly; the other had an AK-47 raised overhead. Messages in Nepali stretched the width of the banner. And tucked in the top right are the images, well known in Nepal, of the historic communist leaders Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
The dances were many, each with a different theme. With every dance there were new rhythms, renewed energy, and surprising new routines. With each switch of dance came new outfits and a new message. One time it was men wearing pink and white, moving with green scarves, while women would twirl in long red headdresses and skirts. This dance’s theme was, “Will you fight for the liberation of the people or not?”
We cheered as the dancers returned to the stage in Young Communist League uniforms, white polo shirts and red headbands, with militant marching, martial arts, and raised fists. I was told that this was a number called “The Youth Song.” The dance reached its climax with six young women waving red flags joining the stage. The women, passing off the flags to their six male counterparts, took front and center, finishing the dance.
In another number the dancers returned dressed in the forest green camouflage of the revolutionary army, they danced brandishing their guns.
Throughout the show, the women performers appeared as powerful as the men. This obviously involved both a conscious decision and careful creative attention.
Now for the comedy.
A thin young Nepali man approached the mic. He looked quite charming in his nicely cut, blue sports coat. Placing some thick black glasses on his face and a similarly colored hat on his head, he folded his hands across his stomach in what I learned was the characteristic pose of Prachanda, the chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN(M)).
The audience laughed out loud as he droned on pompously in Nepali. My interpreter leaned over to me, “He sounds exactly like Prachanda.” The satire didn’t stop with Prachanda though. Almost no leader was spared. Both vice-chairmen of the UCPN(M), Bhattarai and Mohan Baidya made an “appearance.” So did a number of the leaders from the Nepali Congress Party, the electoral right in Nepali politics.
I was astounded. I had my doubts walking in, but these Maoists had found ways to make their messages popular, funny, and real for people. And their audience loved it.
The MC, Maila Lama, was probably my favorite person in the whole program. He was injured back during the people’s war but now stood on stage erect, with presence. He would come out dancing goofily to the last bits of music from whatever was the latest set. Then seemingly out of nowhere there would be an avalanche of words, strung together in expert narration that reminded me of what I think a Nepali auctioneer should sound like. Only it was clean, powerful, and entertaining.
But when he introduced the play, suddenly there was gravel in his voice.
“The Maoists are becoming like other parties; the Maoist party is corrupted! A bourgeois party cannot be Maoist!” he said with force, capturing the passions of the audience. They applauded briefly as he went on, now denouncing the corruption that has corroded the Maoists’ movement. “We need to make Nepal free from corruption!”
His fiery speech lasted about ten minutes. The audience was riveted. Finishing, he gave way to a group of actors, handing them the stage to begin Dreams and Them.
This was political education in practice.
Dreams and Them – Telling the Stories of the People
In one scene in Dreams and Them a young man, a member of the Maoist’s party, returns to his village after a long time, holding a cell phone to his ear.
He’d come back to reclaim the house that he gave up in service of the revolution. He is different now. Dressed in expensive sunglasses with neatly combed hair, he confronts an old man who now lives in the house. The old man says to him, “There was a time that we had councils and shared everything in common. But now it’s all gone.” The young man ignores him, never putting down his cell phone. The old man apparently isn’t worth his time.
The young man leaves the stage. The old man sits down with a young girl on the steps of the house. “Where have the Maoist leaders gone?” he asks, “What happened to the way people treat each other?”
Together the old man and the young girl remember her story. Her father had been disappeared during the people’s war; now she can’t afford food or clothes. Her mother was killed too. The old man is struggling to look after her now since she has no one to take care of her and the Party won’t help.
The old Nepali remembers when the police came for her mother. With a flashback, we see her mother dragged from the house and shot. He couldn’t do anything to stop them. The flashback ends and the girl begins to weep.
What This Means for Nepal
In the US, we have an overload of media and information. We have hundreds of movies coming out every year. There are hundreds of television channels with countless commercials selling us commodities and ideology.
But to be poor in Nepal is to be the poorest of the poor.
Most Nepali people don’t have electricity. For them, there aren’t a thousand news articles daily to choose from on the internet. They don’t ever see what we in the U.S. see as a matter of course. It simply does not exist for them.
For many of the Nepalis who will be seeing this performance around the country, the cultural programs of the Maoists are rare promises of skillful, rehearsed entertainment as well as political education and leadership.
And, from everything we’ve experienced while in Nepal, those who need revolution, those who need a new society, for which it is an imminent necessity, those who had nothing and have lived under centuries of feudal rule are aching for answers.
Working with the Maoists they have had a taste of what it means to be free. In some villages in the countryside they built people’s communes where they owned everything in common. They formed their own courts and government. In these communes women built organizations together to overcome their subordination to men. Throughout the country, land was being redistributed, “Land to the tiller!”
Peasant farmers and the Maoists formed an army together in order fight for a new society, as a part of making a whole new world. This army fought for ten years in a guerrilla war, which they call a people’s war, against the old feudal and foreign powers that dominated Nepal. Because of the people’s war and the army that fought it, the overthrow of the centuries-old monarchy became possible. The Maoists, in a massive uprising together with many other parties, won the demand for a Constituent Assembly, a body designed to dissolve the old government and write a new constitution for Nepal. When they did, they entered a ceasefire.
This army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is the reason why these gains were possible and it is the thing which has guaranteed those changes in the countryside, which affected the lives of so many, in the years since the Maoists agreed to their ceasefire.
Without the People’s Liberation Army, achieving the Maoist’s goals of a people’s democracy, land reform, and freedom from foreign domination for Nepal would be impossible.
Will They Have Their Army?
Now, there are some among the leaders of the Maoists who are moving to throw all that away. They would dissolve their People’s Liberation Army and consolidate a capitalist democracy where these gains, so tenuous, would no longer exist. The monarchy would be dethroned, but all these changes would be lost, subsumed within a society dominated by foreign wealth and power.
One of the scenes which I found the most heart wrenching in the performance began with a woman dressed in the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army speaking out to her comrades on the stage around her, “Our leaders have agreed to give up our arms. We will not listen to our leaders if they want us to give our arms to the enemy.”
With that she began a haunting ballad, all the PLA fighters on stage danced with her, holding their guns close. She sang, “We cannot surrender. We cannot become traitors; we cannot kill our own dreams. We cannot give our arms to the enemy. We cannot betray the revolution.”
The audience clapped and cheered.
This is what haunts millions of revolutionaries in Nepal. But here, packed together in that oppressive heat, people were allowing themselves to hope.
About mid-way through the program an older man stood on stage with four other performers. He was Khusi Ram Pakhrin, one of the chairmen of the Maoist affiliated All Nepal People’s Cultural Association. They sang a beautiful song together.
But here is what grabbed me: While introducing the song he gave a gentle warning, “Be prepared for sacrifice. We have to bring the storm of revolution. Don’t tremble because you have to cross the vast sea.”