Thoughts on Why the Children of Nepal Would Join the Revolution

by Stephen Mikesell

Revolutionary Worker #1274, April 10, 2005, posted at

Stephen L. Mikesell is an anthropologist who lived and worked in Nepal for many years. He is the author of the bookClass, State, and Struggle in Nepal—Writings 1989-1995.

The editors thank Stephen for submitting the following article for publication in theRW

Amnesty International denounces the Maoists' use of child soldiers; the US and Western European governments use this denunciation as part of their justification for military aid.

Some thoughts on this:

War is a terrible thing and ideally children should have no part of war. The refrain is that children should be in school. But this said, one could make a case that war has been brought to them long before the insurgency started in Nepal, with the insurgency being one manifestation, and possibly the most outward if not extreme manifestation, of the population's struggle against this war brought to them.

Historically Nepal has been characterized by great inequality and exploitation which has brought with it a long drawn-out suffering, what the historian and Catholic father Ludwig Stiller called the "silent cry" that was screaming out from the Nepal countryside as early as the first half of the nineteenth century, silent because this cry has been written out of the history books and the tourist guides. In the second half of the twentieth century this exploitation has been identified, analyzed, framed and disembodied in terms of "poverty," of a lack which has become the object of foreign aid and development, which supposedly are redressing the lack called poverty with inputs. But when poverty is just a symptom of the inequality and exploitation that Stiller identified as integral to the Nepal polity from as early as two hundred years ago, then the input of foreign aid which is being funneled into the country through the hands of the same elite strata who had been benefiting from the inequality in the country historically, plays the role of deepening the inequality and extending the exploitation to unprecedented levels.

This is the war that I speak about, and although it was always backed by force, what is new is that the population is opposing it with force of their own. Although children are being swept up by this new use of force, it is just one stage of a war that his been going on for a long time and which did not seem to be a problem for commentators until Nepal's rural population themselves also took up the use of force. Looked at in these historical terms, the role of children in war, what education offers to the great majority of rural children, and the nature, origins and course of war, in fact, can be seen quite differently than the manner being framed by mainstream commentators.

First of all, for rural kids, is the question of education. For rural children in Nepal, school is little more than a colonizing institution. Even by going to school, the children are entered into a class struggle not of their own making, no less than for example the Native Americans who were forced into Christian-run boarding schools by the US government as a way of obliterating the native language and culture. I always felt that even in the urban boarding schools in Nepal, the cultural sterility, the emphasis on authority of the teachers and the authority of the text, the ugly cement-walled classrooms, the emphasis on examinations and conformity to curriculum, were all extremely insidious. Curriculum is always a contested field, but this is particularly the case in Nepal where an education system has been imported and imposed by colonizing powers.

The education curriculum comes out of United States' schools of education which even here in the United States are the least rigorous parts of the whole educational machinery and are filled with the most dubious theories, basically because they are bent on colonizing children's minds and transforming citizens into docile, domesticated receptors of knowledge and consumers and, when needed, unquestioningly loyal soldiers and supporters of soldiers. This has particularly been the case following the corporate counter-attack against liberal education that began in the 1970s, following the ferment that in the United States had bled from the African-American Freedom Schools into the campuses, from the unschooled but bitter experience-educated ex-slave African American population and the disillusionment of student soldiers returning from Vietnam. (Although one could take issue with the "ex-" part of slavery as has been reinvented at least two times with a second slavery in the form of rural tenant farming and the emergence of the urban colonial black ghetto and, more recently, the drug war against the African American, Hispanic and First Nation populations.)

While the urban schools in Nepal serve the colonization project by producing not only colonial administrators but a cadre of elite intelligentsia (that is, individuals as a class certified as being intellectuals) committed to the colonizing project—its lifestyle, culture and objects which through education and advertising have been internalized— the rural schools in Nepal basically serve in addition the role of disqualifying rural young people from roles in society and turning them into failures. In the School Leaving Certificate examinations of 1996, my last year of residence in Nepal, not one child from rural schools passed in the first division, which means that rural kids are eliminated from more prestigious college tracks, particularly being engineers and doctors, the aspiration of middle class parents for their children. While I do not think that engineers and doctors deserve the status given them by society, I do think that rural young people have a right to revolt against this arrangement and that one could make a case that the war is a much better school than what is given to them.

This is not all that they are revolting against, but before I get into that I'll say that I recall rural schools with classrooms packed with a hundred or more either screaming or rote-singing children. I saw these children as being de-educated of their cultural-social and natural environment education, what anthropologists call enculturation as opposed to the institutionally-based education. Mentally disciplined and domesticated with rote, rural children in Nepal come out of the schools both disqualified for the bureaucratic, colonized state, because most of them cannot pass through the examination system that is used as the gate into this state, and they were stripped of much of the knowledge and experience required for addressing their rich immediate situation with its complicated problems: knowledge of agriculture, of the plants and animals and ecology, of social framework, and of understanding of how these fit into larger social and historical contexts and of the potential of and initiative for developing locally appropriate solutions for these problems.

Furthermore, the education system taught them to look down on agriculture and hand labor so education not only did not open a way into the colonial society but it was serving to draft them out of their communities and the countryside—part of the more general "forced draft urbanization" of both armed war and colonializing war. It glorified what is called "development," with its market-based inputs and techniques, and devalued locally produced culture. Nepal's children are being made into people expropriated of both culture or place, home or role in society. This education furthermore is part of the larger war of corporations on peasant culture as corporations work about their process of consuming rural labor, resources, land and nature, devaluing their historical roles, reducing their multiplicity of functions, stripping them of their future values, while turning them into commodities. The future values given by forests, rivers, pastures, cultural knowledge, social communities, and capital, by the way, dwarfs the immediate, short-term gains, even in money terms, that capitalism takes out of environments, communities and societies as it pollutes and dams rivers, denudes forests, mines valleys, destroys species, and generally liquidates life on our planet as it goes about its task of balancing its ledger books and insuring certain levels of returns on capital investments against all other claims, including those of ecosystems and natural processes themselves.

Much of the frustration, and perhaps also awareness combined with this frustration, is one of the reasons that the Maoist movement arose out of this and other rural populations. And if not the Maoists, this anger would have been harnessed and expressed in other ways, very probably destructive and self destructive. The Maoist movement has emerged most powerfully because Maoism if nothing else is a powerful organizing force which offers a powerful image of another possible world and can be seen as a means of personal and group empowerment not offered by the society.

This introduced education has largely been part of the larger fifty or perhaps several hundred year war on Nepal's communities and cultures. This is not to say that learning other knowledge and ideas is not important, but I think that that part of the education introduced or imposed on Nepal was incidental to its more insidious role.

The Maoists agree with this position and seek an alternative form of education that is both accessible and linked closely to people's social, productive and cultural life. If it is decentralized, controlled locally, and emerges from each community's culture and experience with the means to engage more fully with the world, I think that such education could provide a truly revolutionary alternative. Such a possibility provides a strong incentive for young people to enjoin in struggle.

Children all across the Nepalese countryside are generally literally born in debt and indentured. They are forced out of villages to work for landlords, sahujis (shopkeepers), and urban elites and treated most despicably or even worse they are trafficked to Bombay and elsewhere. Where is Amnesty International's or the US government's tears for these children? Aren't they recruited into a war just by the fact of their birth? And don't they have a right to struggle against this? Might they have a legitimate interest in taking up arms? Furthermore, the ages Amnesty gives are more like 14 or 15 years old which in the school of hard experience and overt and covert colonization of the countryside is a well-advanced age. And if we look at it another way, given the dehumanizing nature of war, including the generalized war against the countryside engaged in by what has been called "development," which is actually colonization and societal, intellectual, cultural and physical human rape that accompanies it, any age is too young to have it imposed onto them just as any age is old enough to fight against it.