The City Turns Red – Kathmandu on May Day

When Maoist Newa state in charge Hitman Sakya asked the assembled crowd at Khula Manch to silently honor martyrs, the moment turned somber. The leaders stood with their heads down on the stage, and on the ground, all one could see were thousands and thousands of fists raised up. There was pin-drop silence.

A bit later, members of the Maoist cultural wing sang and danced. The lyrics were deeply political, hitting out at the NC, UML and India, projecting the Maoists as the only people’s party, and wooing the security forces by showing uniformed personnel shaking hands with Maoists ‘to build a new Nepal’. The crowd was enthralled.

In the political speeches, a narrative was carefully constructed but kept simple. All leaders essentially said the same thing – we have brought this change; we are the most powerful and popular party in the country; we won the elections; this government is run by a set of losers who do not want peace or constitution; it is there only because of India; so we need to have a movement against this government and for national independence; people in security organs are also sons of Nepali farmers and workers and will not go against us.

But the tone alternated. So YCL head Ganesh Man Pun dared anyone to ‘dissolve YCL which has tens of lakhs of youth’. Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal warned of a Leninist insurrection and state capture, and called the rest of the political actors ‘cow-dung’. But Prachanda himself stuck to a relatively moderate tone, appealing to different constituencies for support and urging the crowd to remain peaceful and disciplined.

Now think of all those moments together, and one can see how the Maoists, in the span of a four hour programme, aim to cater to the different raw human impulses.

They talk about ‘balidan’, sacrifice, to evoke memories of lost ones and instill greater revolutionary fervor. They entertain but with a political message, in order to break the monotony of speeches and allow people to have fun. In speeches, they play the hero, giving their support base a sense of victory and hope. And then they play the victim, making people feel that they have been cheated and wronged. They are most visceral about certain ‘enemies’, thus tapping into the anger and rage of the underclass and directing it according to convenience. And they frame the entire political situation as one of us versus them, where us is the party and the people.

If the art of political communication was one aspect of Maoist show of strength, their organisational and managerial abilities was another, revealing the almost corporate-like structure of the party.

Tens of thousands of people have been brought to the capital, largely but not exclusively from neighbouring districts of what Maoists call the Tamsaling state. They have been divided into smaller groups with commanders. In Kathmandu, strategic arcs have been carved out, with people taking ‘shelter’ in public institutions and private homes. Kathmandu based cadres have been asked to manage these arcs, which includes arranging accommodation, feeding people, setting up health units, and mobilizing and controlling them systematically. Volunteers have firm instructions to immediately play a restraining role if any
small incident takes place.

So more than 150,000 people came in from 18 different locations on Saturday. They took over not only Khula Manch but all the surrounding roads, climbing trees, and watching from the overhead bridges. For those who could not fit, big speakers were set up in different locations in the city. During the mass meeting, apart from one instance where crowds at the back threw stones when people in the front stood up and blocked the view, no untoward incident occurred. And after the event, they queued up in small formations and headed back to their arcs.

The Law campus near Bhrikuti Mandap is a part of one such arc; it is now home to party workers and villagers who have come from Sindhuli. Entry and exit is controlled. As you walk in, there is a big water tank, with dozens of people surrounding it for their chance to get water. Big mats have been laid out in classrooms and people squeeze in to sleep there. The student union office is the health post. Sacks of vegetables are lying next to what is now a kitchen mess. And all kinds of people – old men and women, children, young – are sitting, chatting, or resting. They seem ready for the long haul.

A few days before the CA elections in 2008, a senior Maoist leader had said, “People are under-estimating the Maoists. They forget we have run a parallel state and our invisible network is still in place.” Since then, the party has further honed its experience of running parallel structure to challenge the state, and its networks are firmly entrenched across social groups. Saturday, and the coming protests, are a reflection of that increased strength.

This time, an old man told us at the rally, “I will not go back without this government falling. Either we will win or die.” Will we make the mistake of not believing what the Maoists say again?

(First published in The Kathmandu Post, Sunday, May 2.)

2 thoughts on “The City Turns Red – Kathmandu on May Day”

  1. The old man has gone home without waiting for the fall of the government. The maoists have withdrawn the strike because of popular resentment.


  2. You clearly made the mistake of believing all the Maoists say – they hyped this up for weeks as ‘the final battle’ etc. Well, if so, they lost…


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