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Dispatch from Nepal: Massive May Day rally and indefinite general strike

Dear friends,

What transpires here is an account of what I observed during May Day in Kathmandu, and the strikes and rallies of that day and the days following, as the CPN(Maoist) cadres aim to overthrow the current Nepal state which they feel has betrayed the people. This piece is a description of what I witnessed, quickly being sent off without the time to put it in the political context, which I will endeavor to do with time. The events themselves leading to the impasse between the Maoists and the government can be found easily online, what is harder to find is a description of the mood of the people, the spirit of the rallies, and the class nature of the divide between its supporters and detractors.

I arrived in Kathmandu the morning of May 1st, 2010, International Labor Day. Crossing a border overnight to rush and be one of the hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers pouring into the city. Bus held up four hours, inching its way through police checks of every vehicle entering Kathmandu, while my bladder grew painfully full. Shortly after a group of us women on the bus led a mini-revolution to pull down our salwars and pee together out on the street, in full view of all the men, some of whom looked respectfully away, the buses shuddered to life and our queue began to move. My despairing mind raced to Kathmandu, the bus following, but I reached before the revolution had come to life. A very normal city, bit picturesque, bit Manali, bit Havana, bit Madras, with some of the world’s most beautiful people, so many serene women walking the streets at all hours with big unafraid smiles, tan wiry boys whooping as they hang from the bus doorways with one hand free, flying, long hair whipping their faces.

The whoops are what signal the beginning. I had been asking around for where the big rally was to happen, with everyone pointing me to a big maidaan, a big field in the city where everyone would converge. What I didn’t expect was the random street I was on to suddenly come to life with yells and laughs and chants and shouts. This was no regimented march. This was people pouring out of every street, with a group of 200 or so hotel workers from our street, and another 200 people from another workplace on the next street, and yet another coming down the road joining our street, waiting, the boys jumping, not enough women at first, but then some animated groups of women joining, grabbing my hand, taking me along… one march joined another then another, and suddenly we were in a procession as far as we could see. Such a joy, some kids singing Nepali songs, everyone around dancing, other kids staging theater to the sounds of chants, everyone chanting “Mao-vadi Zindabad!”, “Lal Salaam!” and “Puppet governments- return to India!”.

Mayday 2010 Kathmandu
Simon Rios photo

Our march joined others and others until we poured into the maidaan. About 200 m by 800 m, the field was well-populated when we walked in and completely packed within an hour – with an estimated 300,000 people – a sizeable fraction of the Nepali population! This was despite the fact that some marchers left before the speeches began, such as Sabina, the hotelworker who held my hand firmly throughout the march and who invited us to her home, saying “it is very tiny, we are gareeb (poor), but I live there happily with my two children and my husband is not at home”. She joined the party a year ago because before that there was no union in their workplace. But she felt the speeches would be long and boring in the heat, so she left. We sat in the sea of people, the mahasagar as referred to by the speakers, squished with barely any leg room next to a stern but very sweet man in a Che Guevara shirt and fatigues (former militia member), who solemnly gave us the lal salaam fist, and two middle aged women with broad smiles. The music settled down, we had a moment of silence with fists raised for a martyred comrade, and the speakers rose to the podium draped in the red flag with white hammer and sickle, and addressed the crowd. Behind the speakers was a large banner that read “Vishaal Jan Sabha”, or “Large people’s assembly”, with photos of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao arrayed above, and a large picture of Prachanda below them!

What I understood of their speeches, or could note down of their names was patchy, with help from some of the people around me who spoke Hindi. The event was conducted by Hitmaan Sakya, member of the Constitutional Assembly. The speakers were Comrade Ajit, who spoke of the Indian government’s influence over the current puppet government of Nepal, then a speaker from the All-Nepal Federation of Trade Unions, then a forceful speaker who aroused the crowd’s applause by speaking of the sacrifice and work it would take to achieve true independence.

Musical performances punctuated every few speakers. The crowd was clearly enjoying the entire rally, its applause did not feel at all dutiful – they cheered heartily when speakers struck a chord of resonance – and many of the speeches were not solemn, but funny – and they stolidly stayed quiet when speakers paused at the end of a fiery or clichéd sentence, expecting applause, without having truly excited the crowd. During the musical performance, about 1 person in 100 got up and danced. Those who danced were really dancing, with soul, and jhatkas and matkas, more men than women, so I stood up with the mutual urging of the women next to me – and we danced as those who sat near us cheered. Slowly my friends joined, as the crowd around us went wild. We got several thumbs ups. Taking photos of the rally, we were seen as outsiders; sitting in the sun with everyone else, we were taken for supporters.

And the speakers resumed. A fiery speaker from the Nepal Dalit Mukti Morcha named Tilak Pariya spoke next, drawing many cheers, then a speaker who spoke of this as the last fight against slavery, followed by the biggest crowd pleaser – actor Yuvraj Lama, usually the villain of the movie. His speech reminded me the words of Subcomandante Marcos, about el mal gobierno. As the man sitting to my right said “bahut gaali de raha hai gormint ko”… he roundly abused the government, for killing people, for hurting people, for acting against the people, for being “nalayak, jan birodhi”, drawing great roars of support. Then the Young Communist League’s Ganeshmaan spoke, inciting the youth to come forth, congratulating the thousands of young communists there, for doubling the numbers of YCL in this short time.

Finally the first female speaker came up, speaking for the Akhil Nepal Mahila Sangh ( Krantikari). The women to my left perked up, listening intently as she spoke of strong punishments for the rape and killing of women, and condemning the state for speaking of violence of the Maoists, when they had incited violence against the people, especially women, against which the gun was the only weapon. She incited women, who hold up half the sky, to join the struggle. When she used the word “kitchen”, a word I understood, I wondered if she was speaking of women leaving the kitchen and taking the struggle, but the man next to me translated what she said as ”she is asking the women of Kathmandu to cook for the people who have come here from all over the country”. If this is true, and even if not, given the absence of women speakers except 1 token women to speak of women’s issues, the party has a lot to answer for, despite the obviously better status of women in the country which some attribute to the party and some attribute to Nepali culture. From what I could tell, there was likewise a single Dalit speaker on dalit issues, while the leadership is almost entirely Brahmin – at least Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai certainly are. But the party had clearly galvanized a lot of participating Dalits and women – one man said Baburam’s intercaste marriage had inspired him greatly.

Finally, Prachanda spoke, an event people were clearly waiting for. He spoke with less fire than many of the previous speakers, emphasizing the peaceful, organized nature of the rally, and the party’s issues with the current Nepali puppet government, and their expectations that the call for an indefinite general strike would lead the prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to resign and make way for the Maoists to take power without having to sacrifice their hopes for a people’s constitution and an integration of Maoist forces with the army. But the most interesting thing was that as he spoke, several people got up to leave. It was 5 pm and we had been there in the sun five hours. People were tired, they were told the rally would last till 5 pm, and now they wanted to leave. Some were clearly bored by the speech! While party cadre were vigilant about getting people to sit down on the ground and not stand, the people leaving in noticeable numbers as Prachanda began didn’t seem to feel any kind of pressure to be polite and wait until he was done. By the time Comrade Badal spoke, many people were standing, wandering around, speaking to one another. That said, both made points that drew much applause. Prachanda poked fun at Madhav Kumar’s press conference in Thimpu following the SAARC meeting, claiming that Manmohan Singh might well have called it himself. He called for people’s solidarity between India and Nepal against their governments. He thundered that the government has blocked revolution by its parliamentary games.

I want to give a quick, and possibly unrepresentative sense of what seemed to be to be the dividing line between those who supported the strike and rally and those who did not, because it was not clear to me for a while. Eventually, it seemed to me that those who supported the strike were workers, who did not own the means of their survival, who didn’t speak English, while those who were against the strike were of course the elite, but also the petty bourgeois, who owned small shops, or people who were lower clerical workers, those who spoke bits of English and could hope that the way forward would make them less poor, who didn’t like the stoppage of the opportunity to do business. But the dividing line seemed to be the question of hope – those who felt that the system was making life easier for them, personally, over time, or who even felt a sense of optimism about one day making more money… vs those who felt that there was no hope of betterment, who were fed up, who were either not seeing economic improvement in their lives, or who were working in jobs that left them feeling classical Marxist alienation, and wanted something else. Although many people who felt either way about the party expressed their views without much vehemence, almost amiably, others had strong opinions, and it seemed that everyone was well-informed about the issues at stake, although no one had very clear ideas of what would actually come to pass if the Maoists came to power, or if they didn’t – understandably, since neither the status quo government or the Maoists have spelt out these details.

We spoke to some party members after the rally. We learned of how they joined the party, the years spent underground, the formation of the party at the village level. We asked almost entirely unanswered questions on the internal democracy within the party, but we did learn that the proposed constitution of the Maoists has been 80% written, proposing a federal structure, proposing land reform, and popular power, but that they need to write the rest with the co-operation of the rest of the parliament.

Ten minutes after Comrade Badal spoke, the ground was almost empty. We drifted homeward, to quickly buy some food to cook the next day when the indefinite strike would begin in earnest. We spent our next day trying to support the strike by cooking, not eating at the little places operating in secret. But the general strike was remarkable, with every single shop shuttered down, with the sole exception of medical stores. The streets were populated by laughing, chattering children playing cricket. No cars, no trucks. It was almost as stunning in its placid, beauty as the exhilarated march the day before. Street vendors and fruit sellers continued as normal. I was impressed by the exceptions allowed for the bandh, which also included a 6-8 pm break for all purchasing of essentials.

I was curious as to how the strike was enforced, since most shop-owners clearly preferred to stay open. No one suggested the use of violence, and shop-owners expressed their disapproval for the strike but said they shut down shops because they were worried about vandalism and stone-throwing. Certainly at night, we saw shops hurriedly shut down when Youth Communist League cadre came running through the streets. Bearing large improvised torches of flaming rags borne on sticks, they ran and whooped, chanting YCL! YCL! We followed them for a while, then another group came running through, this time looking for some one… ordinary people on the street got scared and ran indoors. Finally, a big group converged on the local chowk where a big bonfire was held, and YCL comrades held hands and chanted around the fire. Excitement was in the air – the YCL kids felt it with an urgency and heat that I’d never seen before… but it has never been difficult to arouse groups of young boys – and the YCL groups were almost entirely male. Today, however, protests continued (this is day 3 now), with a sea of women this time, one with a baby clutching the red flag with white hammer and sickle. There is no doubt that the massive numbers of people participating in these rallies are here with a genuine aspiration for change, for equity, for democracy, for the new constitution around which this demonstration is ultimately organized, and the hope for a peace maintained by justice and not by repression. To not support the people in this endeavor would be criminal. But the hope is that these events will live up to the genuine aspirations and support of the people, and that the party that has organized around their aspirations this far, with fits and starts, will either deliver or be made by the people to deliver.

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