Review: The Bullet and The Ballot Box by Aditya Adhikari

The Bullet and The Ballot Box by Aditya Adhikari Nepal Maoist History Revolution Mao
The Bullet and The Ballot Box

In my Secondary school there was a guard who was known amongst the kids as tough and unforgiving. If he caught you while bunking, your bag was bound to end up in the Principal's office and a letter would be sent to your parents. But such were the pressures of Board Exams that almost all of us bunked during the pivotal years of 10th and 12th standards and during those times he never stopped us, gleefully ignoring our overtures and bravado for he probably knew it would do more good to us if we studied on our own rather than attend classes conducted by disinterested teachers in the school. He was tall, broad built with a swath of moustache resembling that of a Rajasthani. He had been allotted a small corner piece of land on the playground where a small hut stood and nobody could go there because of barbed wire and surrounding trees. There, up on that side, lives the guard and his family, we heard from fellow kids. The place would have been small for him, his wife and his children, I used to think to myself. As we grew older we used to salaam him with our palms touching the corners of our heads and he used to respond back. He had such power and stamina that he could move waywardly parked two-wheelers with just one hand of his and stop passing vehicles if they were too fast to be dangerous to school kids. Such was his persona that for us, probably because we knew that he was from a different country, there was always something fascinating about him. We never got tired of watching him do his daily chores. He now lives in a home of his own and his children have grown up. He is a Gurkha. For us, back then, Nepal was the place from where Gurkhas came and probably all Nepal was full of them - tall, stout men. I met him a couple of days ago while passing through the old lanes - I gave him a smile from a distance and he returned an affable warm laughter as if he recognized me after 12 years. Of course he didn't but probably he had had too many a visitors like to me who just wished to say a hello to him and ask how he was doing and by now he must have been so used to them that he had formed a standard way of reacting to them. Friendly, nonetheless, he always was: helping with our fallen vehicles and punctured tyres and tangential bicycle chains. An older cousin of mine had gone to Nepal on his honeymoon more than a decade ago - and I wondered what it must be to go to the land of Himalayas. It was wonderful enough to know at the time that no passport was needed to visit Nepal.

Two years ago while reading Archie Brown's majestic The Rise and Fall of Communism, it startled me to know that in Nepal a Maoist government had come to power in 2008, though he did not count it as a Communist state as it "it would be, to say the least, premature". It was a year before the ultimate school exams when one day I came back and on TV there was a commotion on the news channels about a massacre in the royal family of Nepal. I couldn't make much sense of the how and why but somehow I still remember that event with clarity. The recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to kindle Nepalese friendship after being "ignored" for more than a decade has garnered too many a headlines. So with this ignorance of mine and the desire to know more about my neighbouring country, I picked up Aditya Adhikari's book. The title reminded me of Malcolm X's pivotal speech.

The author starts by giving a background to Nepalese political and social milieu starting with the 1960s. China's influence in 'educating' Nepalese road workers is an obvious sign of its influence on the landlocked country. The Monarch's high handedness in usurping power time and again, the corrupt political parties, a weak army and a throbbing communist countryside all make for a potboiler. Amongst the Indian society, Nepal exists as a country which is friendly and allows us to come to theirs without any restriction. But in Nepal, India is "the neighbour that casts such a large shadow over the Nepali psyche - are often remembered as episodes of shame and humiliation" with many of them inundated by the feelings of "shame and humiliation at being treated as second-class citizens by the host community". The Maoist comrades deserve a standing applause for the way they made people aware of their rights and the unjust nature of the ruling class, as mentioned in the last section. Death, of innocents and otherwise, is unavoidable. The use of the Royal Nepalese Army by the Monarch to attempt to crush the rebellion proved futile, though the rebels also took a huge toll on their side. "The RNA traced its ancestry to the fighting force organized by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, a direct ancestor of Birendra, in the mid-eighteenth century". Education too wasn't left untouched, as "while the central government in Kathmandu embarked on a nationwide expansion of formal education, teaching the diverse Nepali people about the grand attainment o their nationhood through the efforts of the glorious Shah royal family,l small sections of the population,l introduced to another kind of modern education, were simultaneously learning that the state elite was guilty of feudal oppression".

The Bullet and the Ballot Box is an ambitious book - it covers Maoist literature in Nepal and how they reflect the harsh realities of the state, unearths the underground nexus amongst the three players - Monarchy, Parliamentary parties and the Maoists - each wary of the other and trying to undermine with secret talks and pacts - "each of the three actors was suspicious of an alliance that did not include them" and even tracks few individuals and how their life changed for better or not after becoming a rebel. Aditya Thakur puts it brilliantly all across. The book is highly accessible and avoids presuming any prior awareness within the reader. His simple straight writing however doesn't mask the thrilling narratives which are used to describe the the Maoist rebellion attacks on the police/army in the first half of the book. The build-up, the action and the aftermath of all such attacks was such described that I couldn't stop myself from turning the pages - usually I like to review a book while reading but with this one I couldn't bring myself to stop reading till the end. However, a major shortcoming of the book is a lack of an appropriate thematic structure. You will be moving back and forth in time amongst the chapters, with a decent amount of overlap of events and descriptions already covered somewhere else. If this would have been done chronologically, covering all the aspects of a period at once, it would have become a lot easier to link events in one's mind-space.

Personally, I would have loved if more Maoist literature was covered. The length of the book could have easily been much longer than the existing 250 plus pages without carrying the risk of repelling the interested reader. A detailed economic perspective would surely have added weight, especially when used to compare the Nepalese countryside welfare before-and-after the Maoist revolution. All in all, a very well written book which should be read and referenced by the average ignorant mass of humanity which trudges along the pathways of existence. Reading Archie Brown did give a detailed account of how Communism swept over the world but it focused on the political angle, while The Bullet and the Ballot Box describes the practicalities of how a revolution was actually brought about. The former hinged on ideology, the latter on how that ideology was implemented. The author details how life was for the rebels in hills and forests, always within smoking distance of being intercepted by the state forces. The developments in Nepal should also serve to remind us that no matter how perfect an ideology (Utopian?), implementation more often is flawed and results in betrayal, caprice and undercurrents of Capitalism. A true Maoist, if Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachanda' would have been, he would be living in a modest home on an eternal high surrounded by ideologues. As the author writes, "for Bhattarai, the Maoists' acceptance of multi-party competition was a political necessity. The experience of twentieth-century communist regimes had shown how one-party states could turn into oppressive dictatorships. He believed, therefore, that Marxists of the twenty-first century had to incorporate certain aspects of liberal democracy into their model state".

A rebellion however is not an easy task to sustain - the closer one gets to uniformity, the threads of dis-uniformity bulge out hissing their heads for all to see. A united Maoist countryside is too perfect to exist, and the trenches of caste, ethnicity and class do act as dampeners - "the Maoists developed a theory regarding the place of ethnicity in the national fabric that marked a significant departure from the traditional positions of Nepali communists".

The aftermath of the revolution in Nepal reminds me of the children in The Great Commandment by Camouflage. Watch it after you read the book. For the rural people who sacrificed their prime years for the revolution, "the janabadi marriage simply replaced the pressures and obligations of the traditional marriage with the pressures and obligations of the party".

Soon after Modi's Nepal visit, I got a call from my aunt in Delhi: "I want to visit Pashupatinath in Nepal". Surely I am obliging.


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