November 1, 2007
Dr. Baburam Bhattarai
When reporting on the Maoists in Nepal, Western journalists tend to focus on Chairman Prachanda, (nom de guerre of Pushpa Kamal Dahal), usually overlooking the major influence that Dr. Baburam Bhattarai has wielded within the Party—from the very beginning to the present time. Although it is Prachanda’s face that will greet you on the official Maoist website, it is fair to say that it is the combined efforts of Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai, together, that have so altered the course of Nepal’s history.
Dr. Bhattarai’s credentials are impressive. He seems to have thrived in the academic world. He garnered the highest score in the National School Leaving Certificate (SLC) in 1970. In 1972, he came first in the Intermediate Science exams. He received his Bachelors in Architecture (Honors) in 1977 from Chandigarh, India, and his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) in 1986. His doctorate thesis on "The Nature of Underdevelopment and Regional Structure of Nepal- A Marxist Analysis" was later published by Adroit Publishers (Delhi 2003). He has a number of other books to his credit and is a regular contributor to both Nepali and English periodicals.
No less impressive is his reputation as a superlative chess player. Prior to his ascendancy in the political realm, when the World Chess Federation (FIDE) president Max Euwe gave a simultaneous exhibition in Kathmandu, Bhattarai played him: He beat Euwe, the ex-World Champion, in 23 moves with what is remembered as “a brilliant queen sacrifice.”
On February 4, 1996 Bhattarai gave the government, led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, a list of 40 demands, threatening civil war if they were not met. His demands included:
1) The end of the "domination of foreign capital in Nepali industries, business and finance”
2) The abrogation of "discriminatory treaties, including the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty"
3) The confiscation of "land under the control of the feudal system”, to be “distributed to the landless and the homeless."
The Maoists declared the People’s War.
Dr. Bhattarai went underground for almost eight years. In May 2002, the Nepal government announced a bounty on his head—dead or alive--of $64,000--a vast fortune in Nepal.
In February 2003, he was designated by the Maoists to head a five-member negotiation team in peace talks with the government to end the ongoing People’s War. He emerged from hiding one month later.
He is now Senior Standing Committee Member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Head of the International Department of the Party, and Convener of United Revolutionary People's Council.
Dr. Bhattarai married Hisila Yemi, a Newar Buddhist girl met at university. Today she is known by the nom de guerre Parvati, a political leader in her own right. Together they have one daughter.
It is perhaps pertinent to note that Dr. Bhattarai hails from a village in the western district of Gorkha, ancestral home of the kings of Nepal. It is no accident that anti-feudal sentiments have long permeated this area. The western districts have the poorest record in child literacy, child labor, landless households and per capita food production. Out of necessity, a large percentage of western Nepalis migrate to India as laborers; the region is substantially sustained by remittances sent to the folks back home: Little wonder then that this became the initial support base of the Maoist movement.
I interviewed Dr. Bhattarai long after sunset at his compound. Although he had spent the day in back-to-back closed-door meetings, he was attentive, engaged, polite and seemingly oblivious to the fact that the hour approached midnight.
Dunham's First Interview with Dr. Baburam Bhattarai
DUNHAM: I’d like to begin with the monarchy--the monarchy as your foe. It seems to me that the Maoists couldn’t have wished for a better enemy than King Gyanendra, widely regarded as an arrogant, rigid, ruthless, foolish and out-of-touch king-- unless you wished for the king’s son, Prince Paras. The monarchy has had its wings clipped but royalists still exist, many among them denying that they are royalists. Who do you most distrust: monarchists or “closet” monarchists?
DR. BHATTARAI: It’s not a matter of personal distrust. We keep these things in historical perspective. We are not interested in individuals. We are interested in institutions, which have hampered the development of Nepal. This illegal monarchist institution, which presides over a feudal economy, politics and culture, and that has been ruling Nepal society for the last 250 years—this has been the biggest obstacle for Nepal moving into the modern age. We want to abolish this feudal institution. In that sense, whosoever is in favor of abolishing this institution, we are ready to align ourselves with them. But those who don’t want to abolish the monarchy or want to keep the monarchy in one form or another—we distrust them.
DUNHAM: And do you think that there are still a substantial number of people who are secretly monarchists?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yes, there are secret monarchists. Being Marxists, we like to think in terms of class systems. Because of the monarchists’ class interests, and their landed interests, their economic collaboration and their cultural linkages with Hindu fundamental interests—these people would like to save the monarchy, whether secretly or openly. And they are substantial in number. But they are gradually decreasing in numbers and becoming isolated from the people. In that sense, their days are numbered. We don’t regard them as a big adversity. If they are not backed by big foreign powers, I think the days of the monarchy are numbered.
DUNHAM: What about members of the army? Are there still significant numbers of secret monarchists within their ranks?
DR. BHATTARAI: In the lower levels of army personnel, most of the members are against the monarchy-- let us say below the rank of major. But above the rank of major-- colonel and general-- there are still people with a privileged background who are linked with the Shah and Rana families. These people are either secretly or openly for the monarchy. These people are also decreasing in number but still they are powerful. They occupy the senior-most positions in the army.
DUNHAM: You mentioned the fundamentalist Hindus. Do you regard that as a growing institution?
DR. BHATTARAI: When Prithvi Narayan Shah [the first king, 1722-1775] founded the centralized feudalist state of Nepal, he gave it a slogan that means a real Hindu State. The real cultural background of the state, in that sense, is Hindu fundamentalism. Hindu fundamentalism is still substantial in numbers. They are the real backbone of the monarchy.
DUNHAM: And how deep does the Hindu state run in Nepal?
DR. BHATTARAI: I think that it is quite strong. It isn’t as strong as it is in India. It’s more deeply rooted there. But in Nepal’s case, since it lies between India and China (or the Tibetan Autonomous region of China--Buddhism dominated) there has always been a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal, as well as various national religions indigenous to Nepal. In that way, Hinduism is more diluted in Nepal than the Hinduism of India.
DUNHAM: So the king has support in India?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, some of the ruling classes in India-- mainly the Hindu fundamentalist parties--they seem to be in favor of the monarchy. The majority of the political parties-- Indian National Congress, which is the ruling party in India-- they don’t seem to be overtly in favor of the monarchy. But, yes, a section of the ruling class in India is in favor of the monarchy.
DUNHAM: Here’s my impression of the average Nepali assessment of government officials: Corrupt; greedy; jealous of one another; promising the people anything they think the people want to hear but, in fact, focusing their attention on building private mansions, getting SUVs, sending their relatives on shopping sprees, etc. There is also the issue of age. When one thinks of members of Parliament, one thinks of very old men indeed-- holding onto their power no matter what. If this impression meshes with the Maoist party’s impression, how can you be sincere when you say you want to work with the guys in government?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, when you have to choose between the whale and the deep sea, the choice is very difficult. But since the monarchy has been the biggest obstacle for social development in Nepal, for the last 250 years, we must choose any ally who is ready to fight against the monarchy. That is the choice forced upon us. In that sense, you are right. The Parliamentary political parties cannot be trusted, they themselves are very corrupt, they don’t have any vision for a new Nepal. That is well known. Even so, to do away with the monarchy and to fight against feudalism, we thought is was more prudent to align ourselves with them-- for the time being. If it is possible, we will try to reform them. We prefer it that way. But if they are not ready to reform, then the path will take its own course.
DUNHAM: The Madeshi problem. I’ve been coming back and forth to Nepal many times and I thought I knew a lot about Nepal. But I realized in December 2006 that I had never heard of a Madeshi problem. I didn’t know this. It was a completely new thing to me. Two or three weeks ago I went down to Birgunj and Janakpur and I talked to ten or twelve leaders--intellectuals--not leaders of the radical parties---but some I think, were radically inclined and preferred not to share with me everything they felt. Anyway, my impression was that the Terai has a legitimate gripe against the government of Nepal. They have been marginalized, parodied, belittled and ignored for decades and now, I think, they have taken a cue from the Maoists-- how the Maoists have focused attention on issues in the last ten years—the Madeshi are sort of imitating the Maoists in getting their point across. The Madeshi I talked to, they themselves felt now marginalized by Yadav and Gwala Singh and these guys, and they felt like they no longer had a voice. Ironically, they had been marginalized within the issue of marginalization. Where is the Maoist focus on this situation and how important is it to address the discontent in the Terai?
DR. BHATTARAI: You have raised a very valid question. Nepal is a multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic country. Being of small size, there is a lot of diversity: national diversity, social diversity and regional diversity. Within these diversities, the Madeshi issue is an instance in which the people feel marginalized by the central state. Our party, the Supreme Maoists, during the People’s War, we raised the issue of the marginalized nationalities and regions, including the Madeshis. We were the ones who really empowered them, who really led them to fight for their cause. Then came the peace process. Then there was some confusion. Some people thought we had compromised with the state and some of the royalists and Hindu fundamentalists from India-- who were against our movement-- they tried to grab this genuine agreement with the Madeshi people and they instigated this Madeshi movement. The genuine movement of the Madeshi people was highjacked by the unscrupulous elements from India and Nepal. We support the general cause of the Madeshi people. We must support it because their cause is genuine. They need liberation from the oppressive state of Nepal.
We have promised the Madeshi autonomy. But when the Nepali Congress government wasn’t prepared to declare autonomy right now, or declare a free state right now, then we made a sort of compromise that we would go for an election with the constituent assembly and after the election, we would go for a federal structure. Some people thought, if it was postponed in that way, the federal system might never be achieved. The general agreement was there. But there were some-- the royalist people were never for a federal system in Nepal or autonomy for the Madeshi people--they instigated, created the problem.
DUNHAM: But there are also people in Terai who aren’t asking for autonomy but, rather, advocating for Secession from Nepal. How realistic is that?
DR. BHATTARAI: No, I think that is just a fringe group. The movement of the Madeshi people is just looking for autonomy within the federalist state of Nepal. The Maoists are for that. Our movement raised that question. We fully support that. Those who claim they want to separate from Nepal—they are an insignificant minority. They could be instigated by elements from India.
DUNHAM: Let’s talk about the youth of Nepal. 60% of the population in Nepal is under the age of 30. They are active in the streets but they emerge as political office-holders much more slowly than they do in the West. It frustrates them. How can the Maoists integrate the youth of Nepal into the political positions of power so that their frustrations are better addressed?
DR. BHATTARAI: In fact our movement mobilized the youth. You’ll see the majority of our cadres in our People’s Liberation Army or in the women’s movement or the Dalit movement or the so-called untouchable movement--most of them are youth. Our party is given full credit for mobilizing the youth. We join with the general aspirations of the youth. I think they are the biggest strength of our movement. You see, the PLA, more than 30,000 living in camp internments, most of them are youths between 22 and 25 years of age. We’ve been able to organize and mobilize the youth and represent their aspirations.
DUNHAM: I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, in terms of numbers I see that. What I don’t see is in terms of leadership. I don’t see a younger group coming forward. Where is the representation under 40 or, let’s say, under 50 in the government? There’s a gap here.
BHATTARAI: If you look at it from our party’s viewpoint, all the five ministers that we have chose, all of them are under 50 and some are below 40. And if you see the 83 members of the interim legislature we have nominated, the majority of them are between the ages of 30 and 40.
DUNHAM: Are you addressing the education of the youth? And their ability to find a job, once they have received an education?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, that’s a good question. The biggest problem of Nepal is unemployment. That’s why many youths migrate to India and other foreign countries in search of jobs. Most of them are uneducated. Even some who are educated but don’t get good employment in Nepal migrate to the West-- the US, Canada, Australia and other places. We have to provide them with a good education, technical education, political education and create jobs within the country. This will be the focus of our development policy in the days to come. Our party has given due importance to spreading education and providing jobs within the country. If you see within the interim legislation, we fought hard to include employment as a fundamental right. It is the first time in Nepali history where we have included this as a right in the constitution.
DUNHAM: Are you developing specific job programs?
DR. BHATTARAI: Whatever can be done, we are pushing forward and our thrust has been to initiate developmental works so that jobs are created for the youth. Creating infrastructure—building road, dams—could be constructive in mobilizing the youth in large numbers. This is what we are proposing. Let’s see what happens.
DUNHAM: To what extend are the other parties dragging their feet?
DR. BHATTARAI: Other parties are dragging their feet. If you see the experience of the past 15 years, when the Parliamentary parties were in power, they followed such a wrong economic policy so that the employment wasn’t there. The so-called development growth was there—but growth without employment. So this lopsided, distorted development policy should be corrected and we want to follow an economic policy where there is growth and employment.
DUNHAM: Tying into the economics: The industrialists who I have talked to in Kathmandu are resistant to the Maoists coming into power. How do you approach them? How do you gain their trust? How do you work with businessmen who have so much to lose financially? Have you been in any kind of conversations with these men?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yes, we are in conversation with industrialists. In fact we are organizing some contracting programs with the educated members of the Chambers of Congress and industries. We have tried to remove some of the misconceptions they have about us. And now we think that whatever misconceptions they had about us is mostly clear. They know that we are for representing industry in this country. We are for a democratic revolution, not a socialistic revolution right now. In the democratic phase of the revolution, the private property will be there. The industries and trade will not be seized. It will remain in private hands. The state will play a guiding role, but the property will not be nationalized. Once this fact is clear to them, that we are the ones who can ensure real stability in the country-- peace in the country-- in that sense, they will absolutely come to our side.
DUNHAM: What about foreign investors? I’ve read that big investors have pulled out recently because they are giving up on political stability in Nepal. They have cold feet. How do you get them to come back and embrace the idea of investing in Nepal?
DR. BHATTARAI: If you look back in history-- Nepal, because of its backwardness, lack of industrial development, lack of development climate-- there has never been significant foreign investors in Nepal-- even before our movement started ten years ago. The economic development of the last 40 or 50 years, the growth rate went very slowly—less than 2% per annum. It’s a very low growth rate. This can’t be blamed on us, you see. The reason why foreign investment is less is because there is less demand: there is poverty, when the people are poor—they don’t buy goods. Because of this, foreign investors are not attracted. But once this democratic change is complete, once we go for big infrastructure development projects, then foreign companies won’t oppose the idea of investment. We are not against foreign investment. The only thing is that the priority should be given for national self-reliant development. And the foreign investors play a secondary role, a supporting role. We should rely more on our indigenous resources: labor, capital and market.
DUNHAM: For many years NGOs have pumped money into the country and perhaps created the notion among the people of Nepal that foreign countries are always going to help them, bail them out. You speak of self-reliance. Do you believe that NGOs are a barrier to self-reliance?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, NGOs and INGOs haven’t played a very positive role. Instead of creating productive employment they have been more of a parasite-- bringing money from the outside and continuing the goods from the outside. Whatever money comes through the NGO agencies, it definitely won’t trickle down to the real masses of the people--only a few people, some elites in our nobility area-- they have pocketed that money and created a separate class of elites. That has definitely alienated the masses. This is one of the reasons we were given the right to revolt in the countryside.
DUNHAM: How do you curb the NGOs? There seems to be an inordinate number of NGOs in Nepal, compared to other countries. It’s almost a cottage industry here, where everyone can set up an NGO and put a picture in a Western newspaper of an undernourished child and say, “GIVE”.
DR. BHATTARAI: (laughing) Yes, exactly. You’re right, you’re right. This is a very disturbing development taking place. I think NGOs have to be regulated and controlled.
DUNHAM: You would suggest a central watchdog monitoring organization?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yes, it should be there, it should be there. We are in favor of that.
DUNHAM: Regulations for all NGOs?
DR. BHATTARAI: Not all. There are some NGOs who may be really dedicated to the quality of society and people, driven by UN motives, or something like that—but most of these NGOs are profit-oriented, commercialized. So in a real sense, they are not NGOs. They needed to be regulated and controlled.
DUNHAM: What is the relationship between the Maoists and the political powers in Delhi? What should India be doing to better support the Nepali situation?
DR. BHATTARAI: Historically, there have been some problems with our neighbors to the south. Because ours is a smaller country, sandwiched between two big countries, India and China. Historically, there has been an ongoing rivalry between India and China. There is an inherent insecurity in Nepal that someday one of our big neighbors could eat Nepal up. And since we are more dependent on India-- we are landlocked on three sides from India, and almost all of our economic interaction takes place with India-- that fear-cycle is always there. But in the changed context, we think we need to improve our relationship with India. Particularly since last year, the Indian establishment has been playing a more positive role for the democratic cause of the country. Definitely, we would like to improve our relations. But we would like to retain our independence and sovereignty vis-à-vis these big powers. There are some problems. But we think it can be resolved.
DUNHAM: You mentioned that you are landlocked.
DR. BHATTARAI: We are India-locked.
DUNHAM: And yet, in terms of water, you have the second-greatest potential for hydroelectricity in the entire world. This must be a great concern and interest for the Maoists. Certainly the Indians would like to have that energy. How are you addressing that? I know that you can’t do anything right at the moment, but how would you like to address the hydroelectric potential while ensuring that the Nepali people are actually getting the benefit? In the past, there have been water treaties with India that proved to have been lopsided in favor of India.
DR. BHATTARAI: The water issue: It is a major resource for Nepal. If we could correctly exploit this resource, then we could really benefit. In that sense we are not against collaborating with India to harness the waterpower. We are not against have agreements with India on the water issue. But in the past, the water projects that were undertaken by India were, as you say, quite lopsided. India could monopolize the benefits and the Nepali people thought they had been deceived. There are some residual problems connected to that. But we would like to correct that. If we could come up with equality and mutual benefits, we would like to conclude fresh agreements with India. We are for that.
DUNHAM: In talking with Nepali people about India, I often sense a cynical reaction. If you would like to work with the Indians, what do you say to the Nepalis who don’t trust India?
DR. BHATTARAI: We have to act on two levels. On the government level, our relationship can be quite strained at times. But on the people-to-people level, the relationships are quite smooth and warm. Once there is a real democratic change in Nepal, and the Indian people support the change in Nepal, the relationship between the two people will definitely improve. If our movement is successful—we are able to abolish the monarchy and establish a democratic republic in Nepal—we should have a better relationship with democratic India. I think the earlier frictions we have had with India will abate.
DUNHAM: What is the Maoist’s current relationship with China and how important is Beijing in terms of the future of Nepal?
BHATTARAI: Beijing is important because it is a big power. Not only are the Chinese our neighbors, but also is an emerging world power, so we should have a balanced and friendly relationship with China. But the Himalayas separate China from Nepal. We have very limited linkages with China, economically and physically. We are bound to have more interaction with India than China but, even then, a better relationship with China will be to our advantage. China’s economy is growing very fast. As we are sandwiched between two fast growing economies, we could benefit from both India and China.
DUNHAM: I’d like to address the amount of violence that has taken place in Nepal in the last ten years. Approximately 14,000 people have died because of the conflict. After the uprising last year, everyone took a deep breath, a sigh of relief, but since then there have been frequent bouts of violence—pockets of violence here, pockets of violence there. And many people who I’ve interviewed claim that the Maoists, knowing and willingly, are engaging in acts of violence and intimidation. How do you answer that accusation?
DR. BHATTARAI: That’s not true. If you see—in light of the facts—the party which was the Revolutionary People’s War for ten years—and has played a very resourceful role in the peace process, which has improved in one year’s time. Before starting the People’s War, we were in Parliament. We were in peaceful politics. Only when Parliamentary and peaceful politics failed to bring about the desired changes in the country—and there was a lot of repression unleashed on the agitating masses—we were forced to resist. Violence threatened us. Violence was not our choice. If you analyze it correctly, during the ten years of the People’s War, we proposed peace talks, time and again. Three times we entered into peace talks. We voluntarily and unilaterally declared ceasefires. That shows that we were for genuine peace with the monarchal state, which was violent, controlled the armed forces of the country, and which was by nature very undemocratic, and they thrust all of this violence on us. Our violence was not offensive violence, but defensive violence. Resistance violence. Given the historical record I think it is not true if somebody alleges that we are still into violence. That’s not true.
DUNHAM: Well, let me ask you this: In 1996, the Maoists lit a fire. And I can’t think of one instance in the history of Nepal where a fire has created such energy around it, and so quickly. My question is: Can the Maoists control the fire they created? What happens, for example, if some of the Maoist youth are disenfranchised and go off on their own? All of the cadre—all of the youth you have assembled—
DR. BHATTARAI: It isn’t true. It is a proven practice: More than 30,000 youths who fought, who participated in the war, members of the People’s Liberation Army—they have been living in camps for the last six months—very peacefully, not a single person has revolted, so that is the proof. This whole thing is under the control of the party leadership.
DUNHAM: How long can you keep these youths in cantonments before—they’re young guys—how long can you keep them there before they become restless and –
DR. BHATTARAI: They won’t be ready to stay idle in the camps, if the political process doesn’t move ahead.
DUNHAM: If you had one question to ask Americans, what would it be?
DR. BHATTARAI: Being the sole superpower of the world, I think Nepal should be too insignificant for them. They shouldn’t be interfering with the internal affairs of Nepal. Nepal is not a threat to you, United States of America. We would ask them, just let the Nepalese people decide their own future, and you will see that we are the most peaceful people in the world, and that we are no threat to the United States of America, we are no threat to the American people. There was not a single American harmed during the last ten years of the People’s War. There is no reason to harbor any prejudicial interest.