Nepal: Maoist student leader -- `It is still a fight to establish a democratic republic, for establishing a socialist system'
Ben Peterson interviewed Manushi Bhattarai. She is part of the Maoist team that won student elections at Tribhuvan University -- Nepal's largest university. Peterson is in Nepal reporting for Australia's leading socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly and for his blog Lal Salam (where this interview first appeared).
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Ben Peterson: Thanks for meeting with me. The All Nepal National Independent Student Union (Revolutionary) (ANNISU(R)) won the student elections at Tribhuvan University. What did the campaign involve, and what are some of your policies as a revolutionary student union?
Manushi Bhattarai: The student union elections were a very historically important process for our organisation and for the Maoist party [the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)]. There have been student elections for many years, but for some time the revolutionary student movement has not been able or allowed to participate. We were banned. Also we did not look at these elections simply from the point of view of elections to student representative bodies but as part of the whole ongoing political process in Nepal. So in those terms, we had a real breakthrough. We were not contesting for offices as such, but linking student struggles to the political process. While we were campaigning we always had this in mind. We campaigned around the issues, but also around the entire education system across the country. And in these terms it all came back to the political issues that our party has been addressing for many years now. I think we were successful in spreading our message to the other students. We were coming back into open student politics after a long time. We were new faces, with a new agenda. People knew about our commitment and the gains our party has been able to make during the People's War. People can actually see the gains, we are the Republic of Nepal.
Can you elaborate a little bit on this political process and the role of students within it?
As you know, the People's War was initiated in 1996 and since its beginning students were at the forefront of the revolutionary process. Many thousands of students have sacrificed their education and their lives. They left their homes, their families to participate in the revolution. In those terms, whether it was with the People's Liberation Army or in our party organisation, students have been playing key roles in all fields.
In terms of the student organisation it has been in an interesting position. In the schools we were able to maintain our own committees and continued our organisational work. We took up agendas and fought for them, and on certain campuses we have been very successful. We especially try to work on the public institutions. In Nepal there is unequal education. Public institutions are in a very bad condition, but this is where poor people, people from rural areas, or people from marginalised groups must go to study. These areas are where our student organisation is focusing. At a national level, we have been addressing how we should move towards ending the privatisation of education and empowering the public institutions. This is all linked up with the social economic reality of Nepal, and pulling Nepal away from feudalism. Uprooting the old system.
The UCPN (M)-led government has been overthrown by the unconstitutional actions of the president, and a new government has been formed by Madhav Kumar Nepal from the UML [Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist)]. Has this disrupted the political process and your plans for education?
Of course! This is disrupting everything. It needs to also be analysed in the context of the political process. With the coming of Madhav Kumar Nepal, the people now understand this government exists as a puppet government only, backed by certain forces which do not want the Maoists to be successful in implementing revolutionary programs and policies. Since this is a puppet government, it is aimed at pushing back the Maoists, what they have achieved, and trying to get them to go back to the people's war in Nepal. There are those that would like Nepal to become like another Sri Lanka.
It is all simply against our agenda, it is against making public institutions a better place, against having an equal education for all, in a way that people from all regions of Nepal can have a primary and secondary education in their own language, as they want and according to their own priorities and the necessities of Nepal, not in a way that is determined by and dependant on private institutions.
So eventually, a person like Madhav Kumar Nepal -- or any other person, it's not about a new person becoming prime minister -- but anyone who comes to power in this way is bound to backtrack on our revolutionary policies. In the education sector it will mean re-empowering the private sector. The Maoist government had started to gain some control over the private education sector, through a new tax policy. The new government will backtrack on this.
The new government is made up of 22 parties and doesn't have the support of the party that won the elections -- how long can it last?
There is no basis for this government to exist for any significant time. The way it has been formed is without any coherent agenda or program or common ground. For a government to be formed it should have some sort of common political ideal that is binding. For these parties it is like some invisible hand is holding them together. How long it will last, I don't know. In the Constituent Assembly, when Koirala (of the bourgeois Nepali Congress) proposed M.K Nepal as the prime minister, you could clearly see problems already. All the parties came forward to support the new government, but all of them had ifs, buts, and maybes. All the parties came forward with their own baggage and agenda, which can be very different from what the UML stands for. So it is like some invisible hand is holding them together and it can't last long. There is no common agenda, policy, ideology -- except for the one reason, which seems to be to "teach the Maoists a lesson". Time will tell how this all pans out.
So now there is this contradiction between the direction of the government and the aspirations of the people, as we saw in the People's War, the Jana Andolan and in the national election results. How will this struggle between the revolution and the status quo be played out?
The whole thing is about contradictions, that's what justifies us, our party. That's why we waged the People's War, and we have not abandoned the People's War. There is a continuation of the same process and struggle we started more than 12 years ago with the People's War. We have made some achievements, and we need to sustain those. We need to always keep in mind the international situation, the national situation, we need Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and need to be thinking about what that means in the 21st-century world. We need to keep all this in mind and we are faced with what is definitely a very challenging situation.
We have all these radical agendas, and that's how we have been able to mobilise so many people, the whole country, and now we have to do so once again. We have worked with forces that are status quoist, that still have an attachment to feudalism, still have a tendency to look to expansionists and imperialists. This was to do away with the monarchy in Nepal and make Nepal a Democratic Republic. That was what the process was about.
Now Nepal is a republic, and this is a big thing. Sometimes people forget that Nepal is now a republic and minimise the significance of it, but this is a big achievement, keeping in mind the history of Nepal. Having said that, now we must move ahead. Just because the monarchy is gone doesn't mean feudal elements have all been uprooted. That is the situation right now. We have removed the monarchy, and to do that we had some kind of alliance with what are status quo forces, so I guess now there is a huge challenge for out party.
Now what? Where do we go from here? For us it is still a fight to establish a democratic republic for establishing a socialist system in Nepal. We have to be oriented towards socialism, our party has said very clearly that we are oriented to socialism. For this we have waged the whole struggle for the sovereignty of the people of Nepal. The army issue was never about one General Katawal, it was all about the sovereignty of Nepal. For Nepal, right now, the challenge is to fight with the status quo forces and externally fight against expansionist and imperialist forces. As I said, there are many fronts, there are many challenges, but challenges always come with possibilities. So we are confident. We have had many fronts, the People's War was one front we fought on, this is just another.
You mentioned the international situation. It is a very difficult situation for a revolution, there is no more USSR, and China has abandoned the socialist revolution. So what do you make of the international situation? In particular, are you looking to Latin America, where there are revolutions also happening?
Our party, as far as I know, has some links with the parties and people there. Personally, I have been following these situations in Venezuela and Cuba. I would certainly like my party to have more serious links with Latin America. I think our party hasn't had as close links as we should have, but this is largely because there are so many differences between our situations.
There are certainly similarities, in terms of our goals and our ideals, and we are all waging an anti-imperialist struggle, but we are in a very specific situation. The geopolitics of Nepal is very specific and different from Latin America. Having deep links with Latin American revolutionaries is a longer-term goal. We should have those links, ideologically. We should be having a discussion and learning from what they have been able to do, their policies and programs, but at a diplomatic level having strong links with Latin America doesn't make much sense because of our geopolitical situation. We are landlocked between India and China. Diplomatic links are important, maybe in the longer term, but the policies, programs and leadership of Latin American revolutions we have a lot we can learn from.
In Nepal the youth are playing a big role in the revolution but, at least within Kathmandu, there are also many Westernised youth who look more towards Europe, the US and India for their culture, and also politics. Is there a cultural clash between Westernised youth in urban areas and revolutionary youth?
I wouldn't say there is a culture clash, but as you say there is a community of upper-class pro-Western kids. I think it's not their fault -- it's nobody's fault really, it's just where they come from. They are more likely to look to the USA, the UK or India for their education. It all really starts with education and then becomes cultural, so I think it's more of an issue of class background. There isn't so much a cultural clash as a clash of class interests.
This is bound to happen as they tend to look to the West, and we the Maoists look to ourselves and the lower classes. At some level there is bound to be a clash because they are in favour of more privatisation of schools and institutions, whereas we stand against that and for the betterment of public institutions. But I think we are quite capable of talking to these young people and at least getting them to listen to our agenda.
There are some Westernised youth on this campus, and these people really just want stability and peace. They have everything else, money, cars. They have no problems, except for peace and stability. So if the Maoists can give them that, then for the time being there won't be such clashes. These youth are basically the product of the whole system, and we should try to avoid antagonism among our generation at this time given the political situation.
There are a lot of Nepalis who go overseas for their education. Does the student union have international organisations and try and organise Nepali students abroad?
Our student union does have an international department which looks into this aspect and establishes links with Nepali students studying abroad. We believe it is not the fault of the students who leave, they just want a good education in a good environment and we know our country right now is not able to give that. Keeping that in mind and being practical we look to make links with these students so we can encourage them to come back and use their expertise to develop the country.
Are you optimistic about the future of Nepal?
Definitely! Otherwise I wouldn't be where I am right now!