Centre for Himalayan Studies
UPR 299
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> Politics, conflicts and justice
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politics, conflicts and justice

People's War in Nepal: an anthropological and historical analysis

Coordinator: Marie Lecomte-Tilouine

Joint research project funded by ANR over the period 2007- 2010

Members of the project:

Researchers from French government agencies :

Anne de Sales (CNRS Nanterre); Brigitte Steinmann (University of Lille); Satya Shrestha-Schipper , (Postdoctoral researcher, UPR 299 CNRS); Benoît Cailmail (PhD student, University of Paris I); Pustak Ghimire (PhD student, EHESS); Laurent Gayer (postdoctoral researcher, CSH Delhi).

Foreign researchers:

Ben Campbell (Manchester); Martin Gaenzsle (Vienna); Krishna Hachhethu (Kathmandu); Gregory Maskarinec (Hawaii); John Whelpton (Hong-Kong).

Pierre-Julien Quiers (journalist at France 3 Television); C.K. Lal (columnist for the Nepali Times); Sam Cowan (British Gurkha).

Objectives and organisation of the project

Our aim is to present an account of the Nepalese People's War by compiling a corpus of ethnographies of the conflict, by placing it in a historical perspective through studies of the forms of violence the country has endured and by analysing visual material produced by the Nepalese Maoist party.

The French members of the team hold workshops once or twice a month. In 2007 they all carried out project-funded fieldwork in Nepal, which will be the case for the two years to come. They invited their foreign partners to three workshops in July 2008 and a symposium is to be held at the end of the project.

Presentation of the project

Nepal, as we know it, was only formed at the end of the 18th century by the military unification of about fifty so far independent kingdoms. Thus, created by military means, the country had experienced neither colonisation nor civil war, so the revolution launched in 1996 came as an unprecedented movement. This does not mean that it is not to be understood as a consequence of history. Indeed, it emerged during a phase of weakness in royal power, led by popular contestation in 1990 and the multiparty Constitution drafted at the time. The emergence of a revolution in a nascent democracy may be interpreted as a sign of its failure; so many elements go towards fuelling this point of view that the situation is generally understood in these terms. Like Claude Lefort, we may also consider that the most revolutionary movement is actually the emergence of a democracy by the vacuum it creates at the very heart of power and that the Maoists reacted to this vacuum.

The warlike nature of the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal has to be acknowledged if we are to fully understand not only its political history, but also its social organisation: prior to its unification, every man was a potential warrior, and war formed a quasi-egalitarian context to counterpoint the hierarchical logic governing any other activity. These essential features of the army and war's role in governing society recently came to an end in Nepal due to the rise of elitism, only to be taken up again during the People's War.

War also includes the notion of "distress dharma", which allows the infringement of normal rules. The leaders of the People's War, in following in the footsteps of great conquering and reforming rulers, have in turn repealed fundamental Hindu laws within the scope of the revolutionary army. In the past, the roles of sacrifier, warrior, butcher as well as responsible male all overlapped, so the Red Army, largely made up of all those not falling into these categories (Brahmins, women and teenagers) was therefore revolutionary in its very composition, as it did not offer any circumstantial dispensation whatsoever of social rules, but transgressed them in an organized manner. The Maoist movement perhaps hereby proposes a very profound social reform, a kind of reversed situation by setting up a warlike organization where power struggles governing society (partly taking into account caste) are formed. In the past, the army reproduced those that were established by the caste system, yet making them more flexible.

The caste status of Maoist leaders, both Brahmins, nevertheless stands as an obstacle to the ideology of the "People's War". As neither warrior, nor member of an oppressed caste, faced with the vast almost organic body formed by the ruler and his army, they reserved essential room for "thinking" by setting up an organization where everyone makes an individual commitment, and where purification and self-criticism allow some distance to be maintained between theory and action and between leaders and activists.

It is also by virtue of its sacrificial character that the war forms an outstanding context. The warlike sacrifice is not a substitution between sacrifier and victim, as in the Brahmanic theory, but an alternative: to kill or to be killed. With the Maoist ideology, killing ceases to be a mutual alternative: one is ennobled, uplifted, the other is denied or despised. The asymmetry of the meaning of death is one of the traits which radically distinguish the People's War from previous ones, introducing the new character of the “martyr” (shahid), where in the past “heroes” (bir) confronted each other..

The Maoist Revolution in Nepal is a special case as it took place during the Internet era and received a lot of media coverage. Nevertheless, little fieldwork had been undertaken and hardly anything is known of the sociology of the movement. The originality of our project therefore lies primarily in its ethnographic approach, before and after the breakout of war, offering a perspective that few revolutionary movements have known. This will be completed by analysing how ordinary or organised violence has been dealt with in the course of history and by studying publications and Maoist visual documents, in order to explore the revolutionary universe "from inside".