Chapter Three: The Strategic Defense
On the night of 13th February 1996, thirty-six Maoist guerillas led by their commander Barsha Man Pun surrounded a police post at Holeri of Rolpa District. Pun, known among his fellow comrades as “Ananta” (literally “end-less”), was leading the attack. Nanda Kishor Pun “Pasang” was the deputy commander of the attack. Thirty-six guerillas, one .303 rifle, a few homemade grenades – this according to Ananta was the proletarians of Nepal finally launching an armed revolt. The embark of the Nepalese Civil War.
In addition to the attack in Ropla, the Maoists had also attacked police posts in Rukum and Sindhuli districts. In Kavre too, guerillas had blitzed a local moneylender’s house to burn down loan documents. Agricultural Development Bank in Gorkha also witnessed an attack. The guerillas burnt down all the loan documents in the bank. In Kathmandu, cadres bombed the Pepsi factory, which according to them, represented the capitalist ruling class. 13th February, six districts, seven attacks – all of which were unprecedented.
But the question still remains, how did they plan these attacks, and when and who had trained the cadres, and where? Were the Maoists much stronger than the palace’s calibration? We can only answer these questions when we know about the stories of Rukum and Rolpa, the heartland of the Nepalese Civil War.
The Si-ja Campaign: Training for The Civil War
Both Prachanda and Baburam knew preparations for war meant intensive training of the guerillas – both political and tactical. The procurement of arms and ammunition was of equal importance. Thus began the Si-ja Campaign, named after two major mountains in Rukum and Rolpa: Sisne and Jaljala.
The brain-trusts of the party had precisely designed the Si-Ja campaign. The campaign was a blend of centralization, friendship, and problem-solving principles. While relying on the local peasants, party representatives taught how to overcome weakness by utilizing their strengths. The tutors also taught the cadres about the fundamentals of centralization and decentralization. The campaign immensely helped organize the foundation of the party, both ideologically and politically in these areas.
Party leaders and cadres traveled far off to villages in Rukum, Rolpa, Jumla, and even Jajarkot, to build roads, toilets, and water taps. All of these activities involved active participation from the locals. Maoists even launched their own schools, which, however, were nothing like the stereotypical schools in the villages. These schools were called “Janabadi Schools”, meaning democratic schools. Maoists in these schools provided the students with vocational and practical education which was way more relatable.
The party even held regular mass meetings. In these gatherings, leaders of the party explained why confronting the ‘reactionary’ state power was a necessity. These meetings finally ended with usual songs and dances meant to deliver the political messages more efficaciously.
Through the campaign, Maoists were portrayed as the modern-day Robin Hood figures who did not hesitate to kill the rich in order to save the poor. The poor peasants of Rukum, Rolpa, and surrounding districts were now attracted by the discipline of Maoists and believed it actually was the time.
Operation Romeo: Repression of the Civil War
Maoists were actually doing what people would expect the government to do. The government though, in Kathmandu, roughly 320 kilometers from Rukum and Rolpa, had little concern for the people there, if any at all. Maoists however, were more focused on the multidimensional development of the area. People gradually sympathized with the Maoists, all thanks to the emotive Si-Ja campaign.
Nepali Congress and other parties were getting ill-at-ease with these dynamic political and social acts by the Maoists. With the poor farmers embellishing their conscience and political horizons, the local leaders now had a hard time oppressing them. This came as a concern to the local political figureheads.
On the 8th of October 1995, in Rolpa, locals had organized a cultural celebratory program on the occasion of one of their festivals. Members of the Nepali Congress, Rashtriya Prajatantra Party, and United Marxist-Leninist (UML) were also present on this occasion. Maoist-led Jaljala cultural troupe was performing a dance when members of Nepali Congress allegedly harassed the females in the troupe. Maoists, for obvious reasons, attacked these leaders which resulted into a two-way clash. The attack left many members of both the congress and Maoists injured.
The news soon reached Singha Durbar in Kathmandu, which houses Government offices, where the government, upon hearing their fellow party members, interpreted the clash as an unprovoked attack by the Maoists alone. Then-Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and his cabinet, and even the palace were somehow anticipating civil war but were confused when and where it would be launched. Upon hearing about the Si-Ja campaign back in Rukum and Rolpa, they calculated that maybe this campaign was signaling the initiation of the war. The cabinet decided to launch an operation – Operation Romeo.
State Called Out the Civil War
At the command of Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka, from the Nepali Congress, 2,200 policemen descended on Rolpa and Rukum to suppress what the minister called ‘anti-monarchy and anti-democracy activities’. The ministry named the program “Operation Romeo”. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested during this operation. The police would ransack houses and arrest innocent people. Even children as young as twelve years were apprehended. The police sexually assaulted many women, and in many cases even raped them.
Operation Romeo was indeed intense police repression and brutality. Magar and Dalit inhabitants of the region believed the police and the state were actually trying to wage a war. Having faced extreme oppression, prejudice, and humiliation from the local leaders forever, these people finally saw friends in Maoists.
Thousands of people had fled to other districts from Rukum and Rolpa following Operation Romeo. When they did return to their villages, they joined hands with Maoists, feeling confronting the reactionary state was an absolute necessity.
Maoists were now getting sympathizers from all around Rukum, Rolpa, and surrounding villages. They were now earning trust among the people, and in a way, it all made sense too. After all, they were doing infrastructural, ideological, political development. With the ‘reactionary’ state implementing Operation Romeo, Maoists knew it was the government calling out war upon them. And as more people started supporting them in their Initiation of People’s War, they began formulating strategies.
Prachanda, in his biography, writes how he aspired to join the Royal Nepalese Army and thus had done extensive research regarding military action. His research on military action turned out to be instrumental when the party’s frontline began planning their strategies.
Teaching the Art of War
Around half a dozen Maoist cadres went to India, where they received military training and learnt a lot about arms and ammunition. The party bought two .303 rifles from Tibetan Khampa rebels. Fields of Rolpa and Rukum were now training grounds. Trainers were ready and so were trainers and newly-recruited PLAs. Simultaneously, the leading line of the party was deciding on their strategy. The leaders finally agreed on a three-tier strategical plan, the three stages being: Strategic Defense stage, Stalemate stage, and Strategic Offense stage.
The Si-Ja campaign and the first attacks by Maoist on 13th February were both under the strategic defense stage. Even though the Maoists attacked multiple police posts, banks, and moneylenders that night, they harmed no one. Baburam-Prachanda’s Maoist knew they were to be defensive for now. However, the gear shift was soon to come. Cadres would get offensive gradually, as Nepalese civil war progressed.
From your friendly-neighborhood-defensive-maoist, when did they transition to offensive killers? In our next edition of Nepalese Civil War: Explained, we analyze the transition of death tolls and more.
References : Nepal Peace Portal Maoist Insurgency Timeline