(यो लेखलाई नेपालीमा पढ्न यहाँ क्लिक गर्नुस्)
On November 19, 2013 Nepal held national elections for the second Constituent Assembly. The country witnessed a record turnout. I was among the 9.4 million Nepalis who voted that day. But one entire village in remote mid-west Nepal abstained. Thabang boycotted the elections.
One more reason to go to Thabang, I thought.
My desire to go there predated the village’s post-election “fame”. In 2011, I was just five-hours hike away from Thabang. There was a hill between me and the village. That, after walking for three days. But an unexpected and severe knee pain had forced me to abandon my plan.
Thabang is where, it is said, the Maoist “People’s War” began in 1996. That’s where some of the top leaders of the insurgency found shelter as they planned more attacks against the Nepali state. “The local people would compete among themselves to host party Chairman Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal),” Durgalal KC writes in the Kathmandu Post.
The Maoists decided to end their 10-year-long janayuddha in late 2005. The conflict actually ended in 2006 following the spectacular success of the peaceful multiparty mass demonstrations in April that year.
During the insurgency, the Maoists had tried to develop Thabang as “a model Maoist village”. After the end of the conflict, the elected Maoist-led government recognized it as one of a few dozen model villages in the country. This ensured more attention and state funding to the village. To cut the long story short, Thabang is not just another sleepy Nepali village (at least in description). It knows how to take risk and grab national attention at the same time.
On that October day in 2011, I stared at the hill that the locals said I would have to climb to reach Thabang. It looked like a tough climb. My knee was not up for it. So I limped with a mule caravan to reach Rukumkot to catch a jeep. (Limping all day long with a mule caravan to reach Rukumkot).
My wish to see the guerrilla village remained unfulfilled.
But I knew that I would be back.
What I didn’t know was that I would be back so soon. I started the walk to Thabang from very close to the spot in Kankri village from where I had stared at the hill that separated me from Thabang.
For Kathmandu, Thabang is a faraway village. Only after a 25-minute-long flight (Kathmandu-Pokhara), 23-hours of mostly bumpy ride over the course of three days (Pokhara-Butwal-Musikot Khalanga-Khabang/Kakri) and five hours of medium-level hiking from Khabang Bagar could I reach Thabang. This route, by no means, is the shortest. But when Salle airport in Rukum’s headquarter Musikot Khalanga is closed for maintenance; flights to Nepalgunj become uncertain because of fog; and you don’t want to walk for more than a day, this is the only available route. If you love walking in the mid-hills for days, I suggest you take the same route that I took in 2011. Plus Thabang, of course. And Mahat too. Want me to make it sound exotic? The Maoists, with a little bit of help from an American sympathizer, publicized some sections of the route as “Guerilla Trail” or “Maoist Trekking Trail” in 2012.
I reached Thabang on the day of Maghi festival–the first day of the month of Magh (15 Jan). The whole village was busy in celebrating. Peoples’ faces were smeared with colored powder. It was a Holi day up there. Many were drunk, some right from the morning. And the previous evening.
In Khabang Bagar of nearby Kankri village, I had a long conversation over dinner the previous evening with a drunken man who had survived the Maoist conflict and had recently returned from the Gulf (he said he was drunk because it was a day before Maghi). He introduced his wife and her unmarried three sisters to me and my two travel mates–one of them an angrej. Despite Peter making it clear that he was married and a father of two, he was told that he could marry the girl of his choice. The girls giggled as they served meal to us.
What did he think about the janayuddha?
“The People’s War,” he said, “brought road here.” He was referring to the dirt track that had reached Kakri village in 2010, four years after the janayuddha ended.
“The other thing is that it made those people ministers who would otherwise have never become one,” he said. He was referring to at least three Maoist politicians from Rolpa and Rukum districts who had become ministers in post-2006 cabinets.
“But this road is more important and meaningful to us,” he said. “This is directly related our livelihood. You can at least open a tea shop here, by the road, and earn a living even if you can’t do anything else.”
What this man said about roads reminded me of what Hemraj Pun had told me when I met him on trail near Tak Shera village in 2011. “It’s a big deal for a place like our Kankri village to see the arrival of vehicles,” he said. “It would have taken another ten years for this to happen had the conflict continued. The road is the most important thing that the people here want. Rest, they can manage themselves.”
I arrived in Thabang in the afternoon. It was a good time for photography. The pro-CPN-Maoist graffiti works that urged the villagers to boycott elections caught my attention. As someone who voted, I didn’t agree with the message. But I must admit that they were done nicely. There was something professional about those graffiti.
I found the village clean. It had wide stone pavements. Toilets were being built in many houses. There were plans to declare the village an “open defecation free zone” on Falgun 1 (Feb 13)–the anniversary of the janayuddha. Traditional stone and mud houses had slate roofing. The village looked unpolluted. There was a big football ground on the other side of the village separated by a stream. And for a hilly village, ‘abundant’ farmlands nearby. But I didn’t find the village remarkably beautiful. Its aesthetic future looked grim: two concrete buildings were being erected.
Rukumkot which is separated by Mahat village from Thabang is much more beautiful. In fact, I would put Rukumkot at the top of my most beautiful Nepali villages’ list. But Thabang’s definitely more secluded. This is probably why the Maoists chose it as their hideout.
We were waiting for snacks–noodles with eggs. Two hungry boys, clad in jeans, came to the eatery near Resham Shah’s house. One of them was playing songs on his cell phone. The guy had a varied musical taste. First Gangnam Style. Then Hotel California followed by the Bollywood number Tu Hi Re and a Nepali movie song titled Timro Maya Le Ke Garyo. The other boy who was not holding the phone prepared chowmein for the two as the eatery-owner busied herself in other chores.
A hotel in Thabang, run by a Maoist commune that was being gradually deserted, was in bad shape and it didn’t accept guests anymore. We were shown the way to Resham Shah’s homestay accommodation. He turned out to be the artist of the anti-election graffiti including the one at the entrance of the village that had caught our attention. It was a distinct work of, what’s the word I am looking for, “communist art” that you don’t see everywhere in Nepal. A former teacher and a Maoist activist, Shah had several janayuddha-era stories to tell.
But first, let’s start with the most recent event. Why didn’t the village vote?
“To send a message to Prachanda,” said Shah. “He lied to us.”
Here’s the story. Prachanda went to Thabang in 2011–two years after he stepped down from the Premiership and for the first time since the conflict ended, to celebrate the janayuddha anniversary. The villagers, led by local leaders of his party the UCPN-Maoist, handed him a list of eight demands. The top four, according to this page, were:
- A road that connects the village to Fulibang. (Fulibang is connected by Jeep track to Sulichaur, a small town near district headquarter Libang; the tarred road from Dang passes through Sulichaur to reach Libang. A big rock of about 300 meters not very far from the village is the biggest obstacle, said Shah.)
- Make the government declare the region of Jaljala a tourism destination. (Thabang is located on the lap of Jaljala hills, 3107 meters high. A few hours hike further up from Jaljala is Dharampani, 3600m, according to this page. It is worth noting that during the conflict, the Maoists had run a campaign called SiJa, pronounced sij but meant seize, abbreviating the Nepali spellings for Mt Sisne in Rukum and Jaljala).
- A Tribhuvan University college.
- An embankment on the stream (Thabang Khola) that flows from below the village.
Addressing the anniversary ceremony, a smiling Prachanda reportedly said:
“I was worried that Thabang would ask for something very big that I wouldn’t be able to provide. But Thabang asked for these simple things. You will get these demands fulfilled soon.”
That didn’t happen, Shah said.
A year later, in April 2012, Prachanda went to Thabang again to inaugurate Truffle plantation as part of a Tribhuvan University research. The local Maoist leaders, this time only those who were in his faction of the party, handed him the same list of demands. Cadres belonging to the rival faction of party which split several months later boycotted the program.
To be fair to Prachanda, he has done quite a lot for Thabang though he failed in fulfilling another electoral promise of connecting Thabang with Sulichaur by a cable-car line. The village today gets more money than many other Nepali villages get, by virtue of it being declared a model village. (That happened during Prachanda’s premiership. There are only a few government declared model villages in Nepal). According to this Kantipur report by journalist Kanshiram Dangi, Thabang had received more than Rs 70 million between late 2006 and mid 2013. Toilets and village-wide sewage are being built by the government money. A micro-hydro plant electrifies the village. A Nepal Telecom GSM cellular tower stands atop a nearby hill. The tower was closed for maintenance when I was there but Resham Shah was talking on his phone in NT’s CDMA network.
But it seemed as though the people of Thabang think the village deserves more and special treatment because of the role it played during conflict. Thirty-three people from the village died during janayuddha. The village was also portrayed as the headquarter of the Magarat state that the Maoists vowed to create, according to Shah. During conflict, the village formed a core area of influence of the Maoist janasarkar, the “people’s government”.
Thabang’s anti-establishment stand–be it by supporting the anti-government insurgents and sheltering them or by boycotting the elections–was, ironically, for more visibility and presence of the state in the village. If a boycott can bring national attention (and possibly resources) to the village, why vote?
Comrade Pratap, chief of the CPN-Maoist party in Thabang, was honest enough to concede that the villagers boycotted the elections in the hope of making their demands heard at the national level. They wanted more state presence and development in the village, he said. “At the local level it’s purely development issues that are of people’s concern,” he said. “At the national level, yes there are national agendas of our party like nationalism, sovereignty etc. But the main point is this village wants more development. The state must give us the road.”
And I thought, a road is what everyone wants everywhere in Nepal.