April 01, 2020
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Raise The Red Lantern

Ex-USAID worker and Maoist rebel supremo? Deconstructing the myth that is Prachanda.

Raise The Red Lantern
Sandeep Adhwaryu
Raise The Red Lantern
Rebel Stars
  • Migrates with family from Kaski to Chitwan

  • Works briefly for USAID, returns to US-aided varsity

  • Joins communists in '71, goes underground in '80

  • General secretary of Communist Party (Mashal)

  • In '95, establishes CPN(M), coordinates attacks on police posts in 4 districts. Maoist insurgency begins.

An invisible umbilical cord seems to link the United States of America to radical reds waging bush wars in even the most remote parts of the world. Among the most delicious ironies of the Nepal insurgency is the salience the US has had in the life of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, 51, aka Prachanda, or 'the fiery one', chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)—CPN(M)—and supreme commander of its armed wing, the People's Liberation Army. Sample this: Prachanda's youth was spent in Chitwan, a district the US assisted Nepal to colonise and develop; he studied agriculture science in an institute the US funded; and he worked, albeit briefly, with the US Agency of International Development (USAID), an independent government agency providing global humanitarian aid.

From all this nurturing on, presumably, 'US values', Prachanda has emerged to lead the Maoist insurgents in a bloody war to convert the world's only Hindu kingdom into a model 'republican state'. And in the last 10 years of this war, the myth has only grown: he's feared, hated and reviled; he's also revered as "Comrade Prachanda" by thousands of followers. He is blamed for an insurgency which has claimed 12,000 lives and destroyed infrastructure worth billions. And he's the leader whom Nepal, India and the US have branded a terrorist.

Yet, it remains a mystery why people sharing similar socio-economic conditions behave differently; why one man picks up the gun and others prefer to quiescently live with the system. In his childhood, though, Prachanda showed few symptoms of alienation or even bellicosity. His parents, Muktinath and Bhawani Dahal, took the government offer to migrate to Chitwan, a forest tract 160 km south west of Kathmandu which Nepal and the US were together developing as a model district with educational facilities and healthcare centres. This lure was a compelling one for thousands of families such as the Dahals, a lower middle-class Brahmin family from Kaski in western Nepal, in an era in which an average Nepali's life expectation was just 35 years.

At the time of migration, Prachanda was just eight years old. Perhaps the dislocation had an indelible impact on the boy's psyche. To his seven other siblings, though, Prachanda was the benevolent brother. He contributed to their upbringing, returning from school and ploughing the family land with a pair of bulls. When Prachanda was in Class X, he was pressured by the family into marrying Sita Poudel, a girl from the neighbourhood. The couple went on to have a son and a daughter. (The son is now a comrade.)

His father Muktinath last saw Prachanda in 1995. Already underground, he had come to the village to visit his ailing mother who eventually died of cancer that year. "He left with his wife and two children. He has not contacted me ever since. I get tired telling this to the people, and many perhaps do not believe I am speaking the truth," he says. In a burst of paternal love, Muktinath even took his son's horoscope to astrologers. And they, without exception, have said that the planetary configurations in Prachanda's horoscope suggests he is blessed with "rajayoga". In other words, he's destined to occupy positions of power.

Muktinath, however, is clueless about his son's political grooming. At the age of 16, Prachanda completed school and enrolled for ISc in agriculture science in Patan.There he taught for six years in various schools and worked briefly for USAID to support his family and finance his studies. He returned for his BSc to the University of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (UAAH) in Chitwan's Rampur area, where his college in Patan had shifted. It is at this US-aided university that he became a commited communist, and where he also met many of his future comrades.

Much of Prachanda's life and politics has been shrouded in mystery. Very few have seen him in flesh and blood; his photographs too are extremely rare. The first photo was obtained by the government from the UAAH files. His sheer elusiveness prompted many to believe that Prachanda was a fictional figure the wily Maoists had created to hoodwink the security forces. In the initial years of Prachanda the myth, politicians of all hues tended to dub rivals whom they loathed and feared as the "real Prachanda". For the political parties, the king was the "real Prachanda".

The paranoia persuaded people to believe the any number of conspiracy theories around Prachanda. Take the case of Padma Taludhar, a human rights leader who facilitated two rounds of talks between the government and the Maoists. Taludhar furiously points out, "Both The Times of India and The Asian Age twice used my photograph as Prachanda's." The mistake was sufficient for pro-palace circles to dub Taludhar the "real Prachanda".

Those who know the real Prachanda say he has endearing qualities. "He is a leader...he listens, he acts, and he changes himself whenever necessary," says Durga Subedi, an ex-revolutionary who in 1973 hijacked a Nepal Airlines plane and decamped with Rs 40 lakh to start an armed revolution. Subsequently, Subedi abjured violence and became a Gandhian. "Prachanda is a jovial and open person, always concerned for his comrades' grievances," he says.

Prachanda's association with Nepal's underground Communist Party dates back to 1971, but he opted for a more radical path three years later. Then, Nirmal Lama and Mohan Bikram Singh had broken away from communist leader Pushpa Lal during the party congress in Bihar's Darbhanga district. Prachanda became a full-time member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Fourth) (at one point, there were 18 communist parties here) in 1977; he took over as general secretary of the party's Youth Forum in 1980. That was also the year he went underground.

In the 1980s, Prachanda became a politburo member of the Communist Party (Mashal), yet another mutant of the communist movement. In 1985, an armed insurrection aimed at capturing areas around Kathmandu under the leadership of Mohan Baidya was beaten back. The defeat prompted Mashal's politburo to accept collective failure and voluntarily undertake one rank demotion. Prachanda was the only exception; he was elevated to the rank of general secretary.

On the advent of democracy in Nepal in '90, Prachanda and Dr Baburam Bhattarai came together to form the Samyukta Jana Morcha. The new party won nine seats in the 205-member House of Representatives. But attempts by the larger parties to split the SJM goaded the duo to opt out of parliamentary politics.

Instead of sulking, the duo worked to organise the peasantry in the most deprived pockets of western Nepal. In '95, Prachanda and Bhattarai submitted a charter of 40 demands to the king, threatening to launch an armed revolution should the palace reject it. In February '95, under the banner of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), mobs launched simultaneous attack on police posts in four districts—Sindhuli, Gorkha, Rolpa and Rukum. A new chapter in Nepal's Red history was inaugurated in blood.

The only face-to-face interview Prachanda has given is to Le Ernesto of Chicago Revolutionary Worker.In it, he said the growing influence of Maoists would make the US uncomfortable, that it would pressure India to act militarily on the pretext of countering isi bases in the Himalayan kingdom. But there is nothing to suggest Prachanda has converted a majority of Nepalis to his cause.Unfortunately, there's no sign that Prachanda will give up the gun and turn to the people for political support. His future looks as bleak as other rebel leaders who came, became myths and then disappeared.

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