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Dispatch from Nepal: General strike continues

The strike continues.

This simple situation implies radically different states of living for different groups of people. For the hundreds of thousands of people intimately engaged with the party’s agitations across the city, this has meant six days of tireless mobilization, still defiant, still hugely energetic. For those who watch these mobilizations from the sidewalks, who are either not convinced, not politicized, not galvanized, or too busy selling their wares on the street, the strike consists of bland, peaceful timepass punctuated by the periodic entertainment (and business) of a passing march. These people shrug or sigh and wait for things to change. For those who are decidedly anti-Maoist, the day mostly consists of sitting in front of the television, growing increasingly indignant based on the hysterical and distorted footage playing on repeat on their television screens. What is certain for all is that the hope that the strike would conclude quickly has perished.

The major change over the course of the strike has been the outbreak of violence against the Maoists. No deaths, mostly serious beatings causing injuries, and some vandalism. Most notably in Birganj, near the border with India; in Sathungal and Thanau; and in Narandhan, Jorpatty, Bhaktabor and Sundarjol in and around Kathmandu. The violence began on May 5. The perpetrators were characterized as “local people angry about the strike” by some media channels. However, human rights activists from the organization Cahurast (Campaign for Human Rights and Social Transformation), ubiquitously present at the rallies in their light blue jackets attested that the perpetrators were Hindutva goons in Birganj and members of Youth Force, the youth wing of the CPN-UML, major component of the current government (along with the Nepali Congress Party) in the other places. In Sathungal, the Youth Force broke water trucks, in Bhaktabor, they confronted the Maoists while bearing arms, while in Birganj the Hindutva youth beat and injured several people, and set ablaze and destroyed stores of food for the Maoist cadre. Our hotel owner laughed a classic movie villain laugh with alarming glee as images of dished being smashed and food overturned played over and over on the “National” cable TV channel … her best friend slapping at the TV screen when Prachanda’s face appeared. Meanwhile, police have begun lining up around the massive rallies and the cultural demonstrations that accumulate at every chowk, initiating the first lathi charge against this strike today at Ratna park, the site of the massive rally celebrating May Day. The Maoists have maintained strict discipline and no violence has been attributed to them yet. Their greater worry has been the infiltration of the rallies by disrupters, since this has happened before, and the outlines of each march consist of YCL cadre holding hands, and only letting people they think they can trust inside that human gateway of marchers. This was why we were initially greeted with such wary looks while photographing the march, but were joyously accepted when we were clearly braving the heat and later the rain to stay with, talk to, and understand the goals of the people out on the streets.

General Strike Kathmandu
Simon Rios photo

This is the situation, coarsely described, but nuance exists aplenty for the honest and the curious to observe. Over the last few days, marching kilometer after kilometer, trudging till my chappals finally gave way, meeting people, asking everyone I could everything I could think of, I have swallowed a mountain of knowledge. Yet again, most of what I learn is the magnitude of how little I can know. Each person changes my perceptions so much that I feel I can not represent anything without talking to every single person.

Most TV and radio stations, most English and many Nepali newspapers avoid reporting on the actual marches, or the views of the marchers. They substitute this with front-page opinion pieces, or commentary, reserving any pretense at plausibly factual reporting for their side-stories:
Maoist cadre ill from contaminated water: Doctors issue warnings!
Maoist cadre stranded in city without food, housing, transportation!
Maoist cadre forced to march in rallies!

All these are entirely plausible, but are not obviously representative. The tap water in Kathmandu is decidedly yellow and murky. The party houses marchers from outside the city in camps, of which the ones we visited contained large cisterns of treated water and good food, but it is possible and likely that some cadre from the villages drank tap water, fell ill, or were lost in the city away from the camps. The camps themselves constitute an interesting story. Run by the YCL, the youth communist league, these are large halls that the Maoists rent at subsidized rates. Each YCL unit is in charge of 70-100 people who have arrived from out of town, feeding them and housing them together, sometimes with many units together at one YCL camp. Every meal is served out of a communal kitchen, with mostly men cooking up large vats of food and solemnly handing out generous portions to the cadre who eat on the floor, wash their dishes, and then head to the camps to sleep. The party has planned to have resources to feed the people it has mobilized for up to two months, based on their longest estimate of how long this push will take.

Despite their foreswearings, one of the earlier days in our hotel we awoke to the sound of pounding. A YCL youth knocked on our door, checking if we were visiting this hostel, and when we went down, our landlady, fervently anti-Maoist, was stoutly blocking the entry of about 20 YCL youths into the building. According to her, they asked her why she was open, and if she was secretly operating a restaurant on the roof – which she wasn’t. They checked that she was in fact just running a hostel – which is allowed, during bandh time- and then after she claimed they asked her to feed all 100 of their group. She refused, saying she was barely making ends meet, and they left.

Everybody describes this as the “final push” of the Maoists, the Maoist cadre fervently swearing that they will not step down, the opposition declaring that after this strike fails, the Maoists will lose support forever. While the Maoists have massive support, both people within the party and outside know that the bandh is endangering that support among those who are more on the fence, because of the rising price of vegetables, because of the lack of transportation being prohibitive to medical care even though the clinics and medical stores remain open, because of lost wages and lost opportunity to work.

For the street vendors, the strike means good business, but difficulty traveling to places where their wares will sell, leading to mixed reactions to the strike. The number of street vendors had tripled, with many who once had shops taking to hawking their wares on the streets. We decided that we would observe the bandh on entering the shops but continue to buy from the informal street vendors during the day. Shop-owners as a group, of course, disliked the strike intensely, but some explicitly said that their potential losses due to vandalism if they stayed open were less than the loss due to low business. Many shop-keepers bemoaned the fate of Nepal if it kept staying on strike all the time. They have begun to organize pro-business rallies, the first one held, after some waffling based on their security fears, today morning at 10 am. It is when the right begins to use leftist tactics (such as in Venezuela, Honduras, etc.) that one knows that they feel cornered, because the leftists tactics of rallies and marches are the tactics of those with no other recourse. The rally in Kathmandu, which I regrettably missed because the last I heard was that it had been canceled, was widely broadcast on TV, with images of well-groomed, well-dressed protesters, a sharp contrast to the Maoist rallies. A few shops were openly defying the strike, most noticeably one wide open restaurent under a giant sign of Aishwarya Rai downing a well-moistened bottle of Coca-Cola, and a few others with half raised shutters, with dimly populated interiors. Every other shop remained tightly shuttered, cars continued to be absent from the road, and kids playing soccer and cricket continued to occupy nearly every street. Mixed gender groups, in some cases, warming my heart.

As for the final claim, that of cadre being forced to march in rallies, the closest we found to an example of this was one man, clad entirely in red, with a Maoist party bandana. He told me under his breath that he wished he didn’t have to be at the rally and that he could be home and the strike could be over. When I asked why he came, he said that his entire family from the village was with the party, and they and some party members at his workplace had socially pressured him to come. Everyone else we met at the rallies was there based, it seemed, on conviction. Most people at the rallies were exuberant, jumping, chanting, pumping their fists, enjoying themselves, and showed off about how far they had traveled to be able to be there and push for this change.

However, we never know what people truly feel, because many people might not have told us what they felt. If you ask ordinary people on the street what they think of the bandh, the commonest response is a shy “theek hai”… “its ok”, and one has to draw out what people truly feel by asking the same question in a roundabout way – how is it affecting your business? Do you think the bandh would lead to something better? Most eventually came out in support of the strike, but again, it is clear that the division between those supporting the strike and those who do not is not clear cut across class lines. Some of the poorest people one meets in Kathmandu, informal sector hawkers, are not supportive of the party or the general strike, because they need daily business, they need low vegetable prices, etc. The essential division remains basically similar to what I described earlier, based on the question of hope. Those who are strongly supportive of the strike are contract laborers - farmers who till the land of other people, and employed workers in antagonistic relationships with a boss – people who face class antagonism in their daily lives, who are cut off from the fruits of their labor. Those poor people who oppose the strike are those who are self employed and need their daily business, or need transportation to peddle their wares in the expensive parts of town where they can not live, or need the price of essential food to remain low, more than they felt they needed the character of the state to change. However, even these complicated lines of division between the poor people who support and oppose the strike blur when one talks to individuals. One vendor said he was against the strike, not because he was narrowly worried about his own business, but because he didn’t like a party which tells people what to do. He said “I don’t like socialist, I don’t like capitalist, I like freedom”. Meanwhile, supporters of the strike include many shop-owners, such as the managers of a trekking shop, who said they believe in the strike, they believe in the Maoist party, as well as the head of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries! Although there is a material basis, not strictly correlated with class, but with economic sector, of those who support and oppose the strike, there are exceptions based on ideology and trust in the party.

The cadre clearly trust the party. The YCL comrades we met said that each day, the party issues a circular on the strategy for the day, but that they feel that the party has also been responsive to their feedback. One human rights worker, a lawyer from Kathmandu, claimed that without this responsiveness, the party would not have had the electoral success it did. The party has directed its cadre into coordinated marching and rallying strategies each day. Rallies of unbelievable strength and resoluteness have continued each day with unending lines of people, as far as the eye can see. One day, all the cadre blocked the ring road; on May 6, a massive rally of all the units defied the press claim that all the cadre from outside Kathmandu had deserted the party and returned. This rally, the largest ever in Kathmandu, was a joyous procession with much music, chanting, and dancing by an estimated 400,000 people, which according to one observer, took three hours to pass by her! Every day, circles of YCL cadre gather to sing and dance energetically to revolutionary music set to folk tunes, played by some enterprising young musicians on dhols and an instrument that looked like a sarangi. The mood in the rallies and the gatherings is one of pure joy, of fervour, with no rancour, no aggression.

The question I ended my last dispatch with was that of whether this explosion of working class energy had placed its faith in a party that would realize their goals. I spoke to several YCL cadre who felt that they did, and also had the luck to end up marching arm in arm in one rally next to Timila Yami, sister of Hisila Yami, member of the Central Committee of the party (and partner of Baburam Bhattarai). I will transcribe some of what they said in my next dispatch for you to evaluate for yourself some of the answers to my questions on the true commitment, democracy, and transparency of the party to its cadre. I also hope to go to the rallies organized by the pro-business people, and to any events organized by the pro-government forces, if they organize any events not consisting of violent attacks – to get a sense of their opinions and present those to you as well.

Until next time,
In solidarity with the working people of Nepal,

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