if he had indeed been sensitised to social and economic distress during his three years in Thatcher’s England, had seen his strange inheritance, a country where almost half of the 26 million people earned less than $100 a year and had no access to electricity, running water or sanitation; a country whose small economy, parasitic on foreign aid and tourism, had to be boosted by the remittances of Nepalese workers abroad, and where political forces seen as anachronisms elsewhere – monarchy and Communism – fought for supremacy.Five years ago I visited Nepal for a couple of weeks, and I must say it was one of the most eye-opening and horrifying experiences of my life.
The poverty was of a sort that you simply cannot imagine unless you have been to Africa: villages where not a single peasant had shoes, skinny-poor children everywhere, and a haunted look of desperation in the eyes of virtually all the clawing locals -- and I saw only the relatively affluent parts of the country. Moreover, the degree of social friction was palpable. I'll never forget the village of Khuldi in the Modi Khola Valley, which I passed through on the way to the Annapurna Sanctuary. As I trekked through the village, I happened to witness a caste-based fist-fight between eight year old girls: a main group was attacking the kids from the single outcaste family with nettle-covered sticks. Meanwhile, the narrow valley echoed with the angry voices of the girls' mothers, who were sitting in their huts, yelling at each other. All of this against a backdrop of jawdropping natural beauty.
My visit to Nepal took place just after I completed of my dissertation, on the intellectual history of modernization theory (the dominant American doctrine of development during the 1950s and 1960s). In deciding where to go that Spring, I chose Nepal in part because I wanted to see what an "unmodernized" country looked like. Rather than finding an unmodernized country, however, I instead discovered a country suffering the aftermath of the failed dreams of modernization, as Mishra points out:
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American economists and advisers trying to make the world safe for capitalism came to Nepal [in the 1950s and 1960s] with plans for "modernisation" and "development" – then seen as strong defences against the growth of Communism in poor countries. In the Rapti valley, west of Kathmandu, where, ironically, the Maoists found their first loyal supporters in the 1990s, the US government spent about $50 million "improving household food production and consumption, improving income-generating opportunities for poor farmers, landless labourers, occupational castes and women."
Modernisation and development, as defined by Western experts during the Cold War, were always compatible with, and often best expedited by, despotic rule. Few among the so-called international community protested when, after a brief experiment with parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, King Mahendra, Dipendra’s grandfather, banned all political parties. A new constitution in 1962 instituted a partyless "Panchayat" system of "guided democracy" in which advisers chosen or controlled by the king rubber-stamped his decisions. The representatives of the Panchayat, largely from the upper castes, helped themselves to the foreign aid that made up most of the state budget, and did little to alleviate poverty in rural areas. The king also declared Nepal a Hindu state and sought to impose on its ethnic and linguistic communities a new national identity by promoting the Nepali language....
The "modernisation" and "development" of Nepal during the 1950s and 1960s created millions of men like [Maoist insurgency leader] Prachanda, lured away from their subsistence economies and abandoned on the threshold of a world in which they found they had, and could have, no place. Nepal's agricultural economy offered few of them the jobs or the dignity they felt was their due, and they were too aware of the possibilities thwarted by an unequal, stratified society to reconcile themselves to a life of menial labour in unknown lands, and an old age spent in religious stupor. Educated, but with no prospects, many young men like Prachanda must have been more than ready to embrace radical ideas about the ways that an entrenched urban elite could be challenged and even overthrown if peasants in the countryside were organised....
There are few places in Nepal untouched by violence – murder, torture, arbitrary arrest – and most people live perpetually in fear of both the army and the Maoists, without expectation of justice or recompense. [Prachanda's father] Dahal, however, appeared to have made a private peace with his surroundings. He told me that he spent much of his day at the local temple, listening to recitals of the Ramayana. He said that he still believed the king had good intentions. He appeared both bemused by, and admiring of, his famous son, whom he had last seen at the funeral of his wife in 1996. The ideas of equality and justice, he thought, had always appealed to Prachanda, who was a sensitive man, someone who shared his food with poor people in the village. He couldn’t tell me how his son had got interested in Mao or Marx in such a place as Chitwan, which had no bookshop or library. But he did know that Prachanda had got involved with Communists when he couldn't find a good job with the government and had to teach at a primary school in his native hills of Pokhara.
In his speeches, which claim inspiration from Mao and seek to mobilise the peasants in the countryside against the urban elite, Prachanda comes across as an ideologue of another era: he's an embarrassment to the Chinese regime, which is engaged in the un-Maoist task of enriching Chinese coastal cities at the expense of the hinterland, and feels compelled to accuse Nepalese Maoists of besmirching the Chairman’s good name.
In the few interviews he has given, Prachanda avoids answering questions about his background and motivation, which have to be divined from details given by Dahal: the haphazard schooling, the useless degree, the ill-paid teaching job in a village school, all of which seem to lead inexorably to a conflict with, and resentment of, unjust authority.
The "modernisation" and "development" of Nepal during the 1950s and 1960s created millions of men like Prachanda, lured away from their subsistence economies and abandoned on the threshold of a world in which they found they had, and could have, no place. Nepal's agricultural economy offered few of them the jobs or the dignity they felt was their due, and they were too aware of the possibilities thwarted by an unequal, stratified society to reconcile themselves to a life of menial labour in unknown lands, and an old age spent in religious stupor. Educated, but with no prospects, many young men like Prachanda must have been more than ready to embrace radical ideas about the ways that an entrenched urban elite could be challenged and even overthrown if peasants in the countryside were organised.