She confessed she does reflect on those days of violence and questions herself whether the treatment of her ‘class enemies’ was really humane
“A person is ready to die when she is really happy,” said Leela Sharma, an ex-Maoist combatant, when I mentioned the first two articles of this three-part series.
The first one about suicide terrorism (Terror at hands, July 13) tried to decipher what motivates young people to put their lives at stake. It was followed by another (Fundamentalism in South Asia, July 28) which traced the roots of religious fundamentalism to the insecurities among the minority communities built up by the rise of extreme Hindu nationalism in India in the early 20th century.
Speaking about her years as a Maoist fighter and the plight of women ex-combatants after the Maoists came to mainstream politics, as one of the panelists at a function organized to release the book Garrisoned Minds about women and armed conflict in South Asia, at Yala Maya Kendra in Patan Dhoka, Leela was restrained in expressing her anguish and cautiously diplomatic in tackling tricky questions about the leadership.
“Did they betray you?” She did not answer.
It was only later, with a cup of tea and a plate of fruit cake in her hands, surrounded by couple of known figures like CK Lal, the political analyst, and Narayan Wagle, journalist and celebrity novelist, that she confessed that she does reflect back at those days of violence, at times, and questions herself whether the treatment meted out to the ‘class enemies’ was really humane. But she quickly adds “it was a necessity”.
“We forgot almost everything. Our families, husbands, children and society. The PLA became our world, and the Maoist Party our universe,” she said in a reflective tone.
“Almost all of the women who entered the PLA were from poor background, uneducated except few like us; and troubled at home”.
“What we got was a secure environment, love and respect,” she adds without a hint of irony in her voice, “it was enough to make us happy. And when we were happy, we could die for each other. At the battle fields, we moved ahead despite the obvious chances of death because we had comrades next to us, either dying or moving on, just like us.”
Although she did not say it in so many words, what it really implied was that the real courage to face death came from the actual battle environment and the bonding between the ‘comrades at arms’ in the battlefield, and not from the ‘chairman-worshipping superficial indoctrination exercise’ imposed from the party headquarters, nor from the ideology to liberate the poor of the world.
Leela’s reasoning of the sacrifice fit with my idea of morale and motivation in battlefield. I can claim this with authority, because there is no other force to which we can attribute the commitment and daringness of the Gorkha soldiers in battles, whom I was fortunate to lead for 10 years. For them, mostly Nepali citizens serving in the Indian Army, like I was until recently, ‘patriotism’ for India as the motivating factor is out of question. Money too was not a big factor.
“An American is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, apparently intended to echo the garb of al Qaeda insurgents captured and imprisoned by the US. He kneels next to a man dressed all in black, his face masked, a knife in his hand.
“For many, this has become an enduring image of the terrorist and insurgent group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, or simply the Islamic State, as it now calls itself.
“In a video posted to the internet on August 19, 2014, and widely distributed over social media, the American recites a speech, advising President Obama to cease air strikes against the Islamic State. His tormentor speaks, flaunting the British accent that is so central to his performance, warning President Barack Obama that attacks on ISIS would result in the spilling of American blood.
“He puts the knife to the American’s neck and the camera cuts away to show the victim’s severed head, displayed on the back of his lifeless body. Only the beginning of the grisly act is shown. But it is the fear in the American’s eyes that is hard to forget.”
Excerpted from the introduction of a book, ISIS, The State of Terror that was published in 2015, this graphic description clearly sums up how the whole world is being terrorized by using the latest technological tools. Even though a relatively small and insignificant event, considering the number of deaths that occur every day in the world, this attacks our mind directly. And it has a lasting impact.
Mumaram Khanal, previously a leader of the Maoists, and now a member of the Naya Shakti party headed by Baburam Bhattarai, negates me when I try to draw parallels between the Maoists and the global terrorist outfits of today.
“The way we look at military operations, from the Maoist perspective, is completely different from how the ISIS, and other terrorist groups approach and use violence,” he says with conviction. “For us, being with the masses was critical. We could not do anything to antagonize the general public. The targets and the means for the acts of violence which were used for setting an example were carefully chosen, after a lot of deliberations at the highest level.”
He seemed to be suggesting that the use of violence by the Maoists must be seen in a different light altogether. Up to some extent, it is agreed that an Islamic terrorist group and a ‘Maoist Communist’ party are not the same. But anyone who has studied human nature and the nature of violence knows that ‘war’ takes its own course once initiated under any pretext.
Even the ‘terrorist outfits’ like to believe they are fighting a just war based on an ideology.
They definitely have their reasons. “This is a group, like al-Qaeda before it, that has charismatic individuals but it is not built on people,” Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for the New York Times says, “It is built on an ideology and what we are fighting is an idea.”
And at the very basic level the reason why people fight and what violence does to their personality is constant across different contexts.
“Syrian war has become a conflict in which war crimes carry no consequences for the perpetrators—present or, seemingly, future” Writes Ben Taub in an article on newyorker.com. What Leela was hinting at, about animal-like behavior during the war, was the same. Reading the classic Nepali novel Shirish ko Fool by Parijat, one would get the same insight about what war does to the humans in us.
It is striking that the reason people are ready to die for remains almost universally the same. At the tea with Leela Sharma, who had risen to the rank of a Brigade Commander of the PLA, I had casually mentioned that we had both used guns. CK Lal was quick to quip that there were others like him on whom the guns were used. Thankfully, Kathmandu is different now and we could laugh it off to ease the tension.
But the core questions behind this are: Can things change again for worse? Can we fall in the trap of violence again? Will the spread of terror—happening all over the world—seep into Nepal as well? As for the idea of Islamic terrorism in Nepal, we can safely deny it outright. There are no structural reasons for it. But knowing the nature of violence and people, and of extremist movements, we cannot be too neglectful.
The new danger for Nepal is Hindu fundamentalism. As the general developments throughout South-Asia point to, it will not be too difficult to fabricate reasons. Only saving grace is that the Nepali people today know firsthand what harm conflict does to the society. And because the wound is fresh, we will certainly be cautious.