Rise and Fall,2021-10-07
By ADITYA ADHIKARI
From its beginnings, there has been a tendency in Nepal’s communist movement of young and radical leaders to disown and vilify older leaders for cooperating with existing state authorities. Generally, the former succeed in expanding their support bases and marginalising the latter. As time progresses, they are largely forgotten by the movement and remembered chiefly for betraying the cause for personal gain. This has been especially true for those communists who chose to ally with the Panchayat regime following Mahendra’s takeover in 1960. Yet, the reasons why so many communists decided to cooperate with the Mahendra regime have been complex. Even when historians have tried to shed light on this period in Nepali history, they have focused only on the highest level of the communist party leadership and the ideological debates among them. As such, the decision of communists to ally with or reject the Panchayat system is explained as having been influenced by the Sino-Russian split: those closer to the Russians aligned themselves with Mahendra, it is said; those who didn’t, rejected his regime. More is perhaps obscured in such analyses than revealed.
A new memoir of a near-illiterate peasant activist, Krishna Bhakta Chaguthi (History as Mindscapes: A Memory of the Peasants’ Movement of Nepal, recorded, transcribed, edited and translated by Yogesh Raj), sheds new light on the social conditions prevailing during the first few decades of Nepal’s modernisation drive. The book also discusses the circumstances that led to decisions made by a newly emerging class of political actors.
Born in 1928 to a peasant family in Bhaktapur, Chaguthi was recruited into the nascent communist peasant organisation—the Akhil Nepal Kisan Sangh—shortly after the advent of democracy in 1950. The obligations of peasants towards their landlords, as Chaguthi remarks, are unimaginable today. Besides having to hand over most of the produce to the landlord, tenants were expected to cater to the landlord’s family according to the latter’s whim and without any recompense. Any poor peasant could be hijacked from the street and forced into unpaid government work. And religious institutions (vihars) expected them to supply labour and material for use in various rituals.
If these were not provided, the religious authorities would arrest them and detain them in the vihar’s basements in circumstances so poor that on occasion they led to the imprisoned peasant’s death.
Peasants’ resentment towards their oppressors may have at that time been intense, but given the hostile circumstances and the tendency to fatalistically accept the social order, the Kisan Sangh’s initial resistance to it could only be tentative. The first major act of the organisation was to put up the banner and flag of the Sangh on the outside façade of the house of one of its leaders. “That was an unbelievable act of courage for us,” states Chaguthi. “That banner and the flag was the first announcement of our revolt.” After a few days, however, a group of landowners stole the banner and flag and burned them publicly. A new banner and flag were put up soon after and the peasant’s organisation ensured that it guarded them all day.
Through the 1950s, Chaguthi rises in prominence as one of the most prominent peasant leaders of Bhaktapur. He encounters the great leaders of the time—Tankaprasad Acharya and K.I. Singh, among them—who try to win him over to their respective political parties. When Acharya is prime minister, Chaguthi is a member of the Land Act Draft Committee. Some of the words in the Act are modified in the time after the draft leaves the committee and before it is promulgated, thus providing for worse conditions for peasants than existed previously. This is an early lesson for Chaguthi regarding possible manipulation by elites, and he and others quietly push aside the act so that it isn’t implemented.
Chaguthi claims that he initially opposed the king’s takeover of 1960, but that later came to a decision to participate in local elections held by the new regime after told to do so by some communist leaders. He is, however, greatly enthusiastic about the land reform legislation passed by King Mahendra in 1962. In his opinion, the most important aspects of this act were the provision that tenants only had to pay a third of the produce to landlords and that landlords had to provide receipts indicating they had received their share. During this period, Chaguthi becomes an important local representative of the Panchayat’s peasant organisation. Through it he pressed for the implementation of the act, using collective action to demand, for example, that landlords gives receipts. He also became president of a local farmer’s cooperative.
By the late sixties, a new group of communist leaders emerged who were hostile to the Panchayat system and believed it upheld rather than ameliorated the oppressive conditions faced by the peasantry. In their view, Krishna Bhakta Chaguthi was an opportunist who participated in the new regime so as to gain opportunities for corruption. Led by Narayan Man Bijuchhe, members of this group once disrupted a meeting of the cooperative of which Chaguthi was head. Soon after, they beat him up, tore his clothes off and paraded him through the streets of Bhaktapur.
Narayan Man Bijuchhe has for over two decades been the most important political leader of Bhaktapur and his party enjoys an unshakeable stranglehold over power in that district. The conventional political narrative in Bhaktapur holds that Chaguthi was a corrupt instrument of an oppressive regime. His primary purpose in History as Mindscapes appears to be to rectify the narrative, to demonstrate that he too contributed to the improvement of the conditions of Bhaktapur’s peasantry.
Chaguthi claims that he was never ideologically inclined, that he was willing to accept any regime, whatever its political hue, as long as it contributed to the benefit of peasants. “I can prove from my experience that as far as furthering the class interests of the peasants and the poor is concerned, the Panchayat system was not worse than any other system,” he says. “In fact it was more possible to alter the situation then than it is today, in the so-called democracy.”
There is in fact some truth to the last statement: the Panchayat in its initial years could implement policy better than democratic governments have been able to post-1990. And it was natural for a peasant activist accustomed to the social relations prevalent during the Rana era to consider the reforms brought by the 1962 land reform act of tremendous importance. By the time Chaguthi was helping to implement the act, however, a younger, politicised group had emerged that was ignorant of social conditions prevalent a few decades earlier and—not without justification—considered the Panchayat regime to be unrepresentative and oppressive. A conflict between the two, the decline of the former and the rise of the latter, were perhaps inevitable.
Source: The Kathmandu Post, 22 March 2011
Aditya Adhikari email@example.com