Prisoners of history: how a village in Nepal became a hostile environment

Craig Walker, a researcher at the Open University, reflects on his experiences in Nepal after the Maoist ‘People’s War’. In particular, Craig discusses how misperceptions of a minority group can result in a hostile environment. Craig tweets at @CraigCwalker

The nightclub bus

 

It’s late August 2013. The over-packed minibus, which I’ve spent the last 15 hours squashed inside, rolls into Liwang, the headquarters of Rolpa district, midwest Nepal. After an overnight stay, it’ll be a half-day walk to the village of Thawang where I’ll spend a couple of weeks interviewing the community about their experiences of the 10-year long Maoist ‘People’s War’, which ended in 2006.

 

I’d spent the previous three months travelling the width of Nepal researching the peace process, and I’d gotten used to the overcrowded public transport: an agitated caged chicken on my lap pecks at my fingers courtesy of the didi (elder sister) sitting next to me; loud Hindi music blasts out from the dashboard speakers, creating more of a nightclub atmosphere than a bus ride; and stiflingly high temperatures combine with humidity as we move across the Terai plains. 

 

To my relief, temperatures cool the higher we climb up into the Himalayas, and we find ourselves driving along narrow roads just wide enough for one vehicle, with no protective barrier between us and the sheer drop down the mountainside. The driver seems unperturbed, driving with one-hand while chatting on his mobile…. I sit with gritted teeth and think to myself ‘situation pretty normal then.’

 

That all changed when we crossed the border into Rolpa district.

 

When the laughter stopped

 

The music was suddenly turned down, joking and laughter stopped, the mood became sombre and tense. A few minutes later the bus was pulled over at a military checkpoint. It surprised me because this wasn't something I’d seen anywhere else in the country, and I certainly didn't expect to be herded off the bus and subjected to an aggressive body-and-bag search by Nepali armed forces. No communication, no attempt at an explanation, they just manhandled all the passengers and rifled through our things. It happened two more times before we reached Liwang an hour later.

 

 

The village of Thawang: a state of fear

 

Similarly, arriving in Liwang, the atmosphere was unlike anything I had experienced previously. Elsewhere, I’d found the Nepalese people warm, welcoming and friendly wherever I’d gone - but here there was a very different vibe.

There were few of the smiles or waves I’d experienced elsewhere just from walking down the street. I was met with furrowed brows and suspicious stares; throughout the whole town there was a palpable sense of anxiety and animosity.

 I was struck by the visible antagonistic military presence and the tension amongst the people here – what was so different about Rolpa that there should be such hostility? The next morning I woke early and started the trek to Thawang, eager to have the opportunity to talk to people and find out what was going on.

 

Perpetuating a hostile environment in a time of peace

 

Rolpa district is widely considered to be the heartland of the Maoist rebellion, the ‘People’s War’, with the village of Thawang as its birthplace. It was from here that Maoist leaders staged their offensive during the early years of the insurgency until their influence spread, pushing the Government back until, towards the end, the capital city Kathmandu and other major urban areas were encircled, forcing the stalemate that ushered in the peace agreement.

 

I quickly learnt that the lingering military presence was being driven by a popular perception, amongst both the political leadership and much of the general public, that this community remains a threat.

 

The area is still widely regarded as a communist stronghold, full of extremists who want to reignite the war. As a result, the community faces prejudice and persecution. They are intimidated by the Nepalese army and regularly have their movement restricted. Those allowed to travel, to, say, Kathmandu, for their education, gave us accounts of how they frequently face antagonism and discrimination once people learn where they come from.

 

The villagers explained to me that hostile encounters with ‘those outside’ were engendering the paranoia and fear that I had observed when I arrived in Thawang. The community was becoming more insular, looking inwards for safety and security.

 

How a small village continues to strike fear into a nation’s heart

 

In the months before my visit the hostile situation had intensified because the villagers of Thawang had collectively and publicly declared that they were boycotting upcoming national elections – they refused to vote. National media jumped on this, running scaremongering stories depicting the region as full of Maoist hardliners baying for blood and war.

 

Concern was evident at the political level as well as. The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), born out of the rebellion - and the party traditionally voted for by the villagers of Thawang - sent senior members to plead with the villagers to break the boycott – all to no avail.

 

There was a real fear of pending civil war, driven by historic perceptions of this small rural community of a few hundred people, perceptions which had been deepened by their recent political stand.

 

Not a group preparing for battle

 

It was surprising then, to find, through conversations, that this was not a group preparing for battle. In fact, it was the complete opposite. I was told how a  meeting had been called at which the villagers had democratically debated, over several days, how they would collectively approach the elections, and they had decided upon a boycott. This was a protest, pure and simple; a stand to express years of exasperation at the failure of their politicians to bring meaningful change to their lives.

 

People recounted how they had ardently supported the cause, fighting a bitter ten-year war only to see no dividends in the years of peace. Indeed, many people were worse off. There had been pledges of development – roads to connect them to the metropolis, health centres, schools – but none of it had appeared. These were a people who felt betrayed and were tired of empty promises. They didn't want war, they just wanted to be left alone.   

 

The dust is still settling in Nepal but the country is, arguably, on the road to stable peace. Yet, the case of Thawang shows how wars can continue to claim victims. A persisting fear of this tiny minority group, rooted in misperceptions of their extremist views, sees them continue to be labelled by narratives informed by war.

 

Fear

 

The result is state persecution and wider societal animosity fuelling a hostile environment for a community just trying to get by and quietly recover.

 

Through my research, I didn’t get the sense that the Nepalese government were actively propagating these perceptions but, at the same time, they certainly weren’t discouraging them. It is also not a belligerent victimisation of Thawang specifically, or Rolpa district in general.

 

The hostile environment was being driven by fear, a fear of what this village represents to those in power. Politicians, who not so long ago fought alongside the people of this community, were viewed as being co-opted into the system so the boycott was a stand against a regime they do not consider to be acting in their interest. If the protest were to spread, then it could seriously threaten the new political elite and their hold on power.

 

It is a global issue and one we are feeling particularly strongly in the United Kingdom, with unparalleled division within the UK government and citizens of the UK. While we all shout to be heard, we forget that we are drowning out the voices of so many. We forget that behind the statistics and dominant narratives lie human beings, just like us. We are made to believe that without a hostile environment, the security and prosperity of our country is somehow threatened.

 

But I urge you to look more closely, to listen more intently and ask yourself, who really is the threat here?

 Photo of Liwang, Rolpa District, via Nishesh Acharya on Wikimedia Commons