A few short years after the great deluge in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the ussr, a small group of Nepali Communists declared their intention to seize power through a peasant uprising that would follow Mao’s template for revolution. The main political actors in Nepal paid them little heed; the outside world was largely unaware of their existence. Swimming against the current of history, Nepal’s Maoist insurgency went on to become the central factor in the politics of this Himalayan kingdom, fighting the Royal Nepal Army to a stalemate (despite the aid which the latter received from Delhi and Washington) and precipitating the fall of a dynasty that had ruled Nepal since the eighteenth century. After playing a decisive role in the popular insurrection of 2006, the Maoists swept to victory in the elections that followed, promising to forge a new political order. Yet five years later, the former rebels found themselves routed at the ballot box by Nepal’s traditional parties, having failed to deliver a new constitution or any major social reforms. Splintered and demoralized, the Maoists were left to wonder what had become of their ‘People’s War’.

The story of this abortive revolution, one of the most remarkable episodes in modern South Asian history, has now been told in detail by two Nepali journalists, Aditya Adhikari and Prashant Jha. Their books can justly be seen as twin volumes: Adhikari covers the period from the beginning of the insurgency to the uprising of 2006, while Jha concentrates on the events that followed. This is likely to have been intentional, as the authors are good friends who have known each other since their youth—each thanks the other warmly in their acknowledgments section—and whose social backgrounds and political views are very similar: both come from upper-middle-class families, both made careers in the Kathmandu press, and both revised their initial suspicion of the Maoist movement to become sympathetic critics, recognizing that it was (and is) the most important source of pressure for the democratic transformation of Nepal.

Adhikari sets out his aim explicitly in the preface to The Bullet and the Ballot Box:

This book is primarily concerned with what the Marxists call the ‘subjective factor’—the personal journeys of Maoists who participated in the rebellion, their beliefs and aspirations, their experiences in forests, villages and prison cells, their relationships with one another and with local communities, the tensions between individual Maoist leaders, their conflicting aims and strategies.

He has based his account on sources hitherto unavailable in English: novels depicting the hardships of rural life, party documents, personal memoirs, interviews with leaders and select cadres, and his own investigative field trips through Maoist strongholds. Those hoping for a detailed, statistically informed survey of the ‘objective’ background to this struggle will need to look elsewhere, however. Geographically, Nepal has three main regions: the Tarai plains in the south, on the Indian border, where almost half the country’s inhabitants dwell; the upland belt in the middle, with a little over 40 per cent, which includes the capital Kathmandu; and the mountainous peaks of the far north on the Tibetan border. The same size as Bangladesh, it has barely a fifth of the population, but harbours extraordinary cultural diversity—31 million Nepalis speak well over a hundred different languages. The central belt has traditionally dominated Nepal’s political and economic life, with an upper-caste ruling elite composed of Newars, Bahuns and Chettris effectively monopolizing the armed forces and government bureaucracy. Beneath these castes stand the Janajatis—indigenous communities that speak Tibeto-Burman languages and make up 37 per cent of the Nepali population—and the Madhesis, people of Indian origin who mostly live in the Tarai and speak Maithali, Hindi or Bhojpuri (Nepali-speaking hill dwellers have often denied their claim to recognition as ‘true’ Nepalis). Dalits are spread out between the hills and the Tarai, though with more to be found in the former region than the latter. In a country where more than 80 per cent live in the countryside, land ownership remains savagely unequal: a 2010 un survey found that 7.5 per cent of farmers controlled almost a third of Nepal’s arable land, while nearly 60 per cent of rural households were ‘functionally landless’ (either their holdings were too small to meet subsistence requirements, or they had no holdings at all).

The linchpin of this social order was the Shah dynasty. King Mahendra had dismissed Nepal’s first elected government in 1960 and imposed the ‘partyless’ Panchayat system. His successor Birendra bowed to pressure from mass protests three decades later and a multi-party system was established. But no discernible change followed for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, as Adhikari shows, creating a space for the more radical strand of Nepal’s fragmented Communist movement to win support and launch its insurgency. The first and strongest Maoist bases were in the remote and forested hill districts of the mid-west, populated by the largest of the Janajati groups, the Magars, who—like most such communities—reacted strongly against the official discourse, which glorified a supposedly homogenous and unified nation-state shepherded into being by 240 years of Palace rule. This ideology legitimized the conquest of indigenous peoples and their territories, and papered over the modern reality of cultural and linguistic discrimination that they confronted. The Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist (cpn–m) broke with the tradition of all previous communist groups by making such fundamental questions of identity a central part of its programme, rather than focusing exclusively on class exploitation. The party held up the banner of multi-cultural equality, even if this was couched in a language inherited from Stalinism, with the ‘nationalities problem’ to be dealt with by granting ‘self-determination’—in other words, cultural-linguistic rights and a degree of political autonomy (though not independence)—to the various groups. The Madhesis of the Tarai, seen as potentially disloyal by the dominant hill castes and subjugated by Padhesi settlers even in the southern plains, were another important base of support for the Maoists. While Dalits also found the cpn–m programme attractive, they were dispersed throughout the whole country: the Janajatis and Madhesis were more territorially concentrated, making it easier to mobilize them behind the would-be revolution.

It was the expanding Maoist strongholds in the hills that offered the most valuable terrain for different aspects of the growing insurgency: political training of cadres, guerrilla raids on police stations to procure arms (beginning with small groups of seven or eight, before graduating to larger platoons and companies), looting banks, raiding government offices, and burning documents held by landowners and moneylenders as a way of gaining popular support. Ideological inspiration and commitment was developed just as much (if not more so) through the party’s cultural activities, its songs and theatrical skits, as through more formal reading and discussion sessions. But there were many other factors attracting young people to the party. There was scope for personal advancement and for a break with conservative local traditions: the movement offered a space where caste taboos could be broken to public approval, with the freedom to find partners and make cross-caste marriages. The Maoists frowned upon premarital sex so early marriages were the norm: couples had to subordinate themselves to party discipline, which would often assign husbands and wives to duties requiring long physical and geographical separation. Adhikari does not conceal the fact that the cpn–m also resorted to ‘Red Terror’—intimidation, arbitrary threats, punishments and killings of suspected informers and ‘class enemies’, to set an example and ensure passive cooperation or silence. Popular attitudes could range from enthusiastic support to open hostility, depending on local circumstances. But the response of the Nepali state typically drove people into the camp of the guerrillas, as its own brutalities were less selective, with soldiers treating communities en masse as enemy sympathizers: ‘Caught between an army that was indiscriminately brutal, and rebels who punished non-cooperation but also offered benefits in return for collaboration, many locals tended to gravitate towards the latter.’