BY SANJENA SATHIAN
The first time Chanda Tamang was in jail, they beat her bloody. The second time, they tried to break her: They told her that her husband was dead. They watched her cry. Of the nine women with whom Chanda spent three months in jail, all were physically abused and five were sexually assaulted. The women were prisoners of war. Chanda, a member of Nepal’s Maoist Party, found herself in the midst of the civil conflict in the Nepal that has embroiled the country in violence for over a decade.
The guards who abused Chanda and the other women represented their own country, Nepal, and India, the largest democracy in the world. They had also been supported by the United States.
America’s involvement in Nepal has always been minimal in dollar signs. It’s in the millions—$80 million in fiscal year 2011— and most of it is funneled through U.S.A.I.D. and United Nations (UN) contributions. But both the UN and the US earmark between 15 and 40 percent of their contributions toward “democratic governance” projects. These days, that means election monitoring and being a voice in constitutional disputes.
But a decade earlier, that money meant supporting the Nepali government’s re- gime and helping them keep a hold on power against the rebels: The U.S. ran training exercises with the Royal Nepali Army, and the Indian government was the largest donor by far to the RNA—the military that outfitted Chanda’s captors. Both India and the US claimed that the Maoists might be in line with al-Qaeda, or, perhaps, China.
From the capital of Kathmandu, it’s not hard to imagine why the government and international forces would have lined up against the Maoists. They were insurgents. But in the villages, the story went differently. In the villages, where I sit with Chanda and five other women to hear their stories, the rebellion means a crusade for the smallest of rights: for schools, women’s health, cleaner water. In Kathmandu, the war turned political, but in the rural parts of the country, the war remains something for everyone’s anger to stick to.
It has become a cry for equality—equality sought by lighting the country on fire.
There are ten of us, in what looks like a one-room schoolhouse, on moldy sofas. They drink water out of dirty steel tumblers; I sip from my iodine-rank Nalgene. I ask them—six women, one husband, one local male party leader, and my Nepali friend and translator—to tell me what happened.
Santa Basnet has short, dark hair, dark skin, and wears jeans and a sweatshirt. She is the only one of the women not dressed in traditional Nepali clothes. Her attire reminds me of my brief middle school punk rock phase. Santa is the angriest and harshest of the women in the room. She regards me with a particularly rough brand of skepticism, repeatedly turning to one of the two men in the room to mutter something unkind under her breath. But Santa wants me to know how it all happened in the villages: The Maoists came slowly, like a parade. They marched through the countryside in the late 1990s, knocked on doors, and told families to pay up—they were owed a soldier. Some families packed off teenage sons gladly, wishing them well in their fight against a monarchy that had been imprisoning journalists and activists who spoke out against it. But sometimes, when no one wanted to go, the Maoists kidnapped the children. The women I sit with all swear that they went willingly. Santa was 21. Chanda was 26. Another woman, Junu Kamala, mousy-faced, petite, wears a long pink top and a gentle white scarf. When the Maoists came to ask her family for a tribute, her brother was too young to go, so she went instead. She was 18.
They all have to pause to remember what their lives were like before the Party. “Before, I was treated like a second class citizen,” Santa says. Her face is hard. She seems permanently angry. Junu speaks about it more gently: “I grew up with the Maoists,” she says. “I do not remember much before, because I did not know much before. I was at home. I would have always been at home.”
The Maoist insurgency began in the 1990s. While peace talks in the capital failed repeatedly, the Maoists in the villages built up their platform: They were critical of the Hindubased caste system, which disenfranchises people who are stuck at the bottom. They objected, too, to gender disparities, calling for women to serve in combat. But until 2008, the Nepali monarchy remained, cracking down on free speech of journalists and protestors and refusing to engage with the Maoists. In the meantime, the U.S. provided funding to train the Nepali government’s army.
In 2001, when the crown prince assassinated nine members of the royal family, the Maoists ramped up their activity with urban political campaigns and rural recruiting. The monarchy clamped down on power centrally. But on May 28, 2008, the royal monarchy of Nepal offcially ended, and the former Maoist rebels took control.
Santa and Chanda’s party won a popular majority. But in the years since—and there have been four long years of negotiations in Kathmandu—the assembly has yet to agree on a rewritten Nepali constitution. There is, essentially, no central government.
But from where I sit in the country, it is hard to tell that the central state is failing. Daily life goes on in the majority of the country; the nation is largely rural—85 percent—and the Maoists, like the guerilla warriors they modeled themselves after, used that to their advantage. They approached whatever governance there was in the rural areas, relying on village development committees (small town hall-style committee government). Then, they went door-to-door. They knocked on the doors of the lowest caste members of a village. They were welcomed—the low castes do not normally receive visitors. The Maoists spoke to the untouchables about overthrowing the feudal caste system and bringing women and low castes into the political fold. For the neglected and angry, it was an easy choice.
Junu, the young, timid one, thinks back to when she was 18, when the Maoists first came to her home in a village far away from where we sit now. Remembering that afternoon, she goes chillingly quiet. “It took a few days of motivation,” she says. She thought through the message they were peddling—that the country was unequal, and that they were fighting to change that. “Then I thought, ‘I should fight for my rights also.’”
Junu was in jail, too, a few hills over from where we sit talking. She was kept with 10 women and two men. Most of the other men were jailed elsewhere—the ones in this prison were the sissies. The guards laughed at them, called them ladies.
“In the evenings, they would take each person into custody and interrogate them in separate rooms…We were beaten in the army barracks with sticks and there was blood. But no one told our secrets.”
The guards wanted to know where the local Maoists were keeping their arms and ammunition. But no one was going to speak. The people in the cell didn’t all know each other, but Junu remembers that they knew something about one another as soon as they looked in everyone’s eyes. The same anger. The same fires lit across the country. The same loyalty. No one spoke.
“They hung them by a rope by their feet and dunked them in water to drown them.” Junu remembers the scenes, her eyes wide behind her thin spectacles. She belongs in the front row of an advanced highschool algebra class; I cannot imagine her bloodied on the floor of a cell. “Still we did not talk. Even if we died, we would never cave. We would not tell the party’s secrets.” After the first month, Junu and her cellmates were flown in a helicopter to another jail further south in the country, near the Indian border. Two had died from the beatings. Junu thinks she was 20 years old.
Santa calls America the “videshi” superpower—the foreigner, nosily poking his head in places it doesn’t belong. “They do not care about Nepal except for the fact that we are near China. And if something goes wrong in China, then they want us to be theirs. In their hands,” she says. “How can your country or the West,” she asks me, “think that it is helping us when it will not even recognize so many at the bottom?” I think it is a legitimate question. I recall meeting with the director of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Kathmandu. Jorn Sorensen told me something that at the time struck me as normal, but out here, in this room with Santa, seems absurd: He explained that in these troubled, debatemired times, the UNDP wasn’t so interested in traditional “development.” Instead, they had to focus on helping Nepal toward a “functioning government. So our mission is more about election monitoring and doing democratic governance work”—often at the expense of women’s health programs, microfinance projects, or clean water initiatives.
But the war isn’t happening in the debatemired parliament or in the frozen elections. It’s a war of ideology, and listening to Santa speak, I can believe that she is winning it. It is Santa who tells me that only the Maoists can replace the feudal structures of governance and caste with radical egalitarianism.
It is Santa who decries the impossibility of monarchy in this day and age. It is Santa who, after I have been in this country for two months and met only women who upset me in their passivity, is finally saying things that make sense to me. Chanda and Junu are there along with her, and so, too, is Chanda’s husband, and the male party leader. Their voices rise, converging around me, throwing their anger like fireballs— “do you know that women in this country cannot read?” “do you know that girls cannot finish school?” “do you know that the low-caste families live in houses made of dirt and straw and waste?”—and then, Santa speaks.
She says: “When I saw the violence we had done on the television, it didn’t bother me. It was all going towards the impact of achieving equality.”
The violence the Maoists committed across the country was not small in scale. It was epic, because they knew they were overcoming the feudal stage, moving toward the teleological endpoint of united workers and lower castes and bringing down the institutionalized inequality. They were insurgents. They stopped buses, killed passengers, and then burned the vehicles. They kidnapped children and made them soldiers or couriers for the Maoist army.
“I can do things for me, for women, for all marginalized people,” Santa says, and as she speaks I can almost see the fires she has lit in the villages where not enough teenagers came to join them flickering in her irises. I can see the madness of revolution spin out of her. I can see the desperation for change. I can feel something of that anger and hope, too. Junu isn’t as quick to praise the violence as Santa. “Before joining the party, I didn’t see why. I just knew the Army was being attacked by Maoists. But they didn’t show the whole thing—which was that the Maoists were being attacked by the Army, too.” Santa, for all her rage, never saw the inside of a jail. Both Junu and Chanda did. They are softer, more careful with their words. Their anger is tempered, and it breaks into grief sometimes. The long fight for the future of Nepal has worn on them. Junu, maybe four or five years older than me—she isn’t quite sure anymore—is pleading. She wants me to understand what they stand for. “We are the only ones who are trying to make women equal,” she says. I nod. I want this, too. It seems so simple. It is not what I expect an insurgent that the United States government has compared to al-Qaeda to say.
They took Chanda to an Indian jail. “They kept me underground. They asked me, ‘What are you here for? Arms?’ But I said I was not. I acted as though I did not know how to read or write. I played dumb, as they would have expected from a woman.” But the Indian guards didn’t believe her. She isn’t sure why. Chanda looks like any other Nepali woman. She had been traveling alone with four men—fellow Maoists, but not on a mission. One was deathly ill, and they were transporting him to a hospital. Chanda was friends with him. She didn’t see him after they landed in the jail. Today, she guesses he died there.
“I think it must have been obvious,” she says. “I walk differently.”
It is something my Nepali friends have told me: I was angry that Nepali men stared at me when I walked through the market, with my traditional clothing and almost-Nepali face. They told me it was obvious I was an outsider. No one had to look at my clothes or my face. They just had to watch me walk, with the arrogant bounce of a videshi—a foreigner, an American woman. Chanda walks with the same strut. Because of that fateful gait, Chanda was kept in the jail for months. She doesn’t remember how long she stayed there. She watched her friends and other unknown cellmates physically tortured and mentally abused. Chanda stayed silent—two, three months of almost-ascetic silence. That’s when they told her that her husband was dead, to make her talk. She wept and then they told her she would die next. The following day, Chanda’s relatives found her. They brought a lawyer, and she was released on bail. She came home to find her husband alive.
Listening to Chanda’s story, Junu compares notes: “One policeman tried to harass me, but I was too confident. I looked in his eyes and said, ‘No, I will kill you,’ and he decided not to do anything. But that’s also how they knew I could not be anything but a combatant. I had to be a Maoist.”
While the center-right and the UN and Western powers negotiate fruitlessly for the fourth year in the capital, it is Santa and Chanda and Janu who are in the trenches, fighting daily for their ideology. They are the ones who travel now, as ex-combatants, from village to village, telling women and lower castes to rise up against the feudal system, to join them in a global war against inequality. They are the ones building a new kind of army, out of ideas, and they are the ones with stories of heroine-ism and promises of egalitarianism that can almost seduce even me.
Santa, Chanda, and Junu are the true mothers of the Nepali Maoist revolution. These women are the best tool the Maoists could have in information warfare. They paint their message above the true wreckage they have spun across the country. Their small promises hold immense power against the politics of Kathmandu and the powers that hold it together. Something is still stewing in Santa’s eyes when she turns to me to ask what I think of her and her comrades.
I tell them they remind me of my mother. It is the way they look me in the eye and hold their shoulders straight and walk with a confident bounce.
It is easy to forget the blood they trail when they look at me and promise only the things I assume are deserved. But the revolution is no quiet confidence. They may light the country on fire once more. They are not afraid to watch it burn.
Sanjena Sathian ’13 is an English major in Morse College. Contact her at sanjena. firstname.lastname@example.org. Research support for this article was provided by the Kingsley Trust Association’s Cyrus Vance Fellowship in Foreign Affairs in summer 2011.