From A World to Win News Service

Tharu Autonomy: When the Slaves Rise Up on the Nepal Plains

Revolutionary Worker #1240, May 16, 2004, posted at

We received the following from A World to Win News Service:

03 May 2004. A World to Win News Service. Since the People's War began in Nepal eight years ago, it has shaken the entire foundation of the country and stirred the very soul of its people.

In the western lowlands of the country, the Tharu ethnic community has long been dispossessed of its land and the Tharu people have been turned into serfs by wealthier migrants from the hilly regions to the north. These powerful landlords, or Zamindars ,as they are called, are more often than not members of so-called higher caste groups, mainly Brahmin and Kshetri, who also have access to political power. These Zamindars wield positions in the bureaucracy, the military and business. Moreover, they control the mass media. In short, they represent the most important section of the ruling class in Nepal.

Having appropriated the land from the Tharu community, the Zamindars subjugated the Tharus and turned them into bonded laborers (in return for food, clothing and shelter) on the very land they previously owned. This is a system of slavery known as the kamaiya system.

The Tharus are an aboriginal people who inhabit the western plains of Nepal. They constitute a sizeable minority of the population, a national minority (around 1.2 million), who at one time were self-sufficient farmers. Several years ago National Geographic magazine graphically portrayed these people as exotic beings with their very quaint customs and traditions. For many years the Anti-Slavery Society, based in Britain, has been trying to reach a wider audience about the Kamaiya system in Nepal. In 1997, the Times of London carried an exposure on the plight of the Tharu people under the Kamaiya system.

Since the People's War reached the Terai (lowlands), it has greatly inspired the masses of the people, especially the dispossessed and the downtrodden, who rose up to reclaim their ancestral land. The programme of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) calling for the seizure and redistribution of these lands found resonance among the underdogs in the southwestern plains of Nepal. The party's words and deeds aroused a great deal of revolutionary enthusiasm among these formerly deprived, who readily joined Maoist cadres and the fighters of the People's Liberation Army. At the outset of the People's War, the party announced its programme, which includes the slogans, "Land to the tiller" and "Land to the landless." For the first time, women as well as men were able to own land. Indeed, this programme, part and parcel of the new democratic revolution led by the CPN (Maoist), the first stage of a revolution which will eventually open the doors to socialism, was given effect and made meaningful through the People's War. It has proved to be the real harbinger of freedom from oppression and slavery for the people of the Terai.

In 2002, the parliament under the king declared the Tharu people free from the Kamaiya system even as these people had already rebelled and had begun to retake their property--with many of the landlords already in full flight--under the impetus of the Maoist advances in the southwestern region.

It became all too apparent that the parliament's declaration was more than a mere political stunt. It was a vicious conspiracy between the imperialist powers, the government, and certain foreign-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to wean the Tharus away from the Maoist revolution. Indeed, this declaration of "freedom" by the parliament rang hollow in the ears of the former Kamaiyas.

To hoodwink these Kamaiyas, the regime sanctioned the distribution of tiny plots of land to a small number of families. What took place however was that, in the areas still under the old regime's control, some land earmarked for distribution has indeed been parcelled out to some select members of the Tharu community, while the rest of the land is being held as "a carrot to the donkey." Thus the regime schemes to keep the people hoping, in vain, that the rest of the land would be distributed among them. Until today, no further land has been distributed, simply because that was never the old state's plan. Moreover, it is not possible to redistribute the land under the present reactionary system. Hence, many of the former "freed" Kamaiyas are moving back to their former landlords to resell themselves into bondage. The New York Times (February 6, 2004) revealed, for example, that Phool Kesari, a Tharu former slave whose husband was taken away by the Royal Army as a suspected Maoist sympathizer, was considering going back to her former zamindar. Phool Kesari believes that she will never see her husband alive again. Cases such as hers are common in the areas controlled by the Royal Nepal Army today.

Flying in the face of an obvious reality, that is, the truly chain-shattering process of People's War that is gaining momentum, the same article asserts that "the Maoists did little or nothing to free the Tharus from bonded labor; the pressure on the government came from domestic and international organizations." Nevertheless, it had to concede that in the village of Bardya, "young Tharus talk happily about how the landlords have had to flee the Maoist wrath." Bal Krishna Chaudhary, an 18-year-old Tharu student from a family of former bounded laborers-- and whose eldest sister, Sita, was a Maoist supporter taken away by the RNA two years ago--was quoted as proudly saying, "All the zamindarsare scared of us now." The Maoists, he insisted, "speak for the people, speak for the Tharus."

While claiming that the insurgency has "wreaked havoc" and caused "great damage" to the country, the article admits that the People's War has "wrought changes in the balance of power between the landed and the landless that the multiparty democracy failed to do since 1990."

Very recently, the royal government announced a new plan "to eradicate poverty" by redistributing land. This plan calls for imposing limitations on the amount of land a landowner can hold. The government proposes to compensate the land it acquires from the zamindars, supposedly to be redistributed to the landless poor. These peasants would, however, have to pay the government by installment.

Through this process, there is every likelihood that an enormous concentration of land ownership would take place, and would provide great opportunities for foreign investors, foreign banks and the World Bank to acquire this land. Consequently, poor and even middle farmers (let alone the Kamaiyas of the Tharu community) would lose their land and become dispossessed--further impoverished, even pauperized, thereby having to sell themselves into bondage. In marked contrast to such machinations, the revolutionaries have been, as they promised, expropriating the land and redistributing it to the landless poor.

The uprising of the Tharus has indeed shocked the old establishment of Nepal. Colonel Dipak Gurung, the spokesman of the Royal Army, said that the Tharus are a "very meek people; they normally don't resist." He claims that "by nature, by culture, they are submissive." But under conditions of the prevailing People's War, these so-called "meek" and "submissive" people have begun to take up arms to throw off the yoke of oppression, and for the first time, to take their destiny into their own hands.

In the same week the New York Times article appeared, new and startling changes were taking place in the very same region: amidst joyous outpouring among the people, the Tharuwan National Autonomous Region was declared . Scores of thousands of former Kamaiyas openly rejoiced at their new-won freedom and empowerment. Events such as these are possible only under a new power, in the red base areas of the region, controlled by Maoist forces.

This important historic event warranted hardly a word in the entire Western news media

The fight for national and regional autonomy is a cardinal aspect of the CPN (Maoist)'s programme in dealing with the complexities of national oppression and regional disparities. These, and similar historic events elsewhere in the country, such as the declaration of the Magarat National Autonomous Region and Bheri-Karnali Autonomous Region received no mention whatsoever in the Western press; they are not worthy of appearing on television screens or newspapers, as far as the imperialists and reactionaries are concerned. The silence of the Western media on what really matters to the long-denied and the despised, so strikingly amplified by these events, is truly breathtaking, if not deafening!