The origins of today's Maoists go back to the late 1960s. Following King Mahendra's seizure of state power in 1960 after arresting the cabinet and dissolving the elected parliament, all political parties were banned.
the Communist Party of Nepal, there emerged two groups: one that preferred
to work together with the king and the other that demanded the restoration
of parliament. That difference of opinion was later formalised with a split
that reflected the Sino-Soviet rift, with the pro-king faction allied to
Moscow and the other to Peking. Despite the ban, like other political parties,
the communist grouping opposed to the monarchy continued functioning, but
given the prohibition in place, various local units had begun to operate
In this situation, two of the communist leaders who had made a name as radicals within the party, Mohan Bikram Singh and Nirmal Lama (who died last year), set about creating a new party apparatus. In spite of differences with their contemporaries, including with the founder of the Communist Party of Nepal, Pushpa Lal Shrestha, they succeeded in holding what they called the communist party's Fourth Convention (Chautho Mahadhiveshan) in 1974 and named their new party the Communist Party of Nepal (Fourth Convention).
Its basic divergence was that while Pushpa Lal had always maintained the need for the communists to join hands with all forces (read, the Nepali Congress) in their fight against absolute monarchy, the Fourth Convention opposed any such inclination. The Fourth Convention also demanded the election of a constituent assembly to write a constitution (as opposed to Pushpa Lal's stance which called for the restoration of parliament), and its strategy was to begin a people's movement which could at the opportune moment be converted into an armed revolt. The top leadership of today's Maoists comes from this school.
Meanwhile, quite unconnected with these happenings, an actual communist uprising took place in a corner of Nepal. This was in Jhapa, the southeastern-most district of the country and right across the border from the Naxalbari region in India. The Naxalite movement was well underway in West Bengal when, in April 1972, a group of young Nepali activists began a campaign to eliminate "class enemies' in Jhapa. This turned out to be no more than a romantic adventure and was suppressed by the king's government in no time. A total of seven "class enemies' were killed before the leaders were jailed and the movement ended. At its founding, the Fourth Convention came out vehemently against the Jhapa Movement, declaring: "While we support the spirit and sacrifice shown in the struggle against class enemies, the terrorist tactics adopted...cannot be called Marxism-Leninism. This is a form of semi-anarchy."
The Fourth Convention denounced the Jhapa uprising, yet it did represent the extreme left in Nepal, and until the mid-1980s it remained the major player among the communist factions. In 1983, Mohan Bikram broke away and formed the Communist Party of Nepal (Masal) (masal meaning torch in Nepali). (In 1984, Masal became one of the founding members of the Revolutionary International Movement/RIM, a grouping of Maoist parties worldwide.
The present-day Maoists have since replaced Masal within RIM.) Two years
later, Masal split further into CPN (Masal) and CPN (Mashal). These divisions
led to an erosion of public support for the Fourth Convention, ironically
to the benefit of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist),
the party set up by the leaders of the Jhapa Movement.
It was in the Mashal party that Pushpa Kamal Dahal (the Maoist supremo who goes by the nom de guerre of Prachanda) appeared on the top rung of leadership for the first time, and later became its general secretary. The other well-known present-day Maoist leader, Baburam Bhattarai, remained with Mohan Bikram.
That was the situation until the launch of the 1990People's Movement, which was undertaken by the Nepali Congress and a grouping of seven left parties, the United Left Front (ULF), against King Birendra's Panchayat system. Although the mother party, the Fourth Convention, became part of the ULF, neither Masal nor Mashal joined it. With other small leftist groups, they instead formed an alliance called the United National People's Movement, and only joined the People's Movement once the street protests had gathered momentum. The climactic moments of 6 April 1990, when police firing on the Kathmandu streets culminated in the capitulation of the old regime, is believed to have been the handiwork of this latter group - its having incited the demonstrators to try and storm the Narayanhiti Royal Palace.
Following the restoration of democracy, the hardline left parties pressed for an election to a constituent assembly as a means of delivering a genuine people's constitution rather than have a document handed down by the "establishment". (The formation of a constituent assembly was in fact promised by King Birendra's grandfather, Tribhuvan, as part of the so-called Delhi Agreement of 1951 which led to the downfall of the 104-year-old Rana oligarchy. The Nepali Congress party itself had agitated initially for elections for a constituent assembly and only later accepted the general election as offered by King Mahendra in 1959.)
Instead of a constituent assembly, however, some selected representatives from the Nepali Congress, the left, the royal palace and some independents were given the task of drafting a new constitution, which was promulgated in November 1990. That same month, four parties, including the Fourth Convention, Masal and Mashal, merged to form the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre), with Prachanda as general secretary. The first general election was approaching at the time and there was pressure from within for the party to take part in it.
Accordingly, the United People's Front (UPF) was floated as the
political wing of the Unity Centre, and in the first parliament, the UPF
emerged as the third largest group (with nine seats) after the Nepali Congress
(110 seats) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (69). (The latter, which remains today the all-powerful opposition party
in Parliament, was a coming together of the Marxist-Leninists, which had
become the largest leftist organisation by 1990,
the remnants of Pushpa Lal's party and others of the left.)
The Unity Centre held its first conference a year later in which the proposal for a "protracted armed struggle on the route to a new democratic revolution"was discussed and accepted. It was also decided that the Unity Centre would go underground although, in practice, it remained semi-underground. By the time the 1994 mid-term elections had come around, Unity Centre had divided between a Unity Centre headed by Nirmal Lama and another under the same name led by Prachanda.
The UPF also fell apart, reflecting that split, with the group that supported Prachanda being led by Baburam Bhattarai. Both factions of the UPF approached the Election Commission for recognition. The one which supported Nirmal Lama was given recognition. Baburam Bhattarai then called for a boycott of the elections, an action that at the time was perceived more as a face-saving measure.
(As far as the RIM is concerned, before 1996, the Maoists of Nepal needed - for the sake of their standing within the country - to claim membership in RIM, howsoever marginal that organisation may have been to world politics. The document cited above talks about the CPN (Maoist)'s "serious responsibility to contribute towards the further development of Revolutionary Internationalist Movement/RIM, of which our party is a participating member..." However, Nepal's Maoists have become the vanguard flag-bearers of the revolutionary movement worldwide, and it seems that it is the RIM which needs association with the Nepali Maoists to provide its very raison d'être.)
This, then, was how thing lay when on 4 February 1996, Baburam Bhattarai presented the Nepali Congress-led coalition government of Sher Bahadur Deuba with a list of 40 demands related to "nationalism, democracy and livelihood". These included abrogation of both the 1950 and the Mahakali treaties with India (one on "peace and friendship" and the other on the sharing of the water on the western frontier river); introducing work permits for foreign (i.e. Indian) workers in Nepal; curtailing all privileges of the royal family; drafting of a new constitution through a constituent assembly; nationalising the property of "comprador and bureaucratic capitalists"; declaring Nepal a secular nation; and also details such as providing villages with roads, drinking water and electricity; and complete guarantee of freedom of speech and publication.
Incidentally, these demands were not much different from the points outlined in the 1991 election manifesto of the above-ground united UPF. Bhattarai's covering letter contained an ultimatum that unless the government initiated positive steps towards fulfilling those demands by 17 February 1996, "we will be forced to embark on an armed struggle against the existing state."
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was on a state visit to India when the Maoists struck in six districts on 13 February, four days before the deadline had even expired. (Even today, the mainstream left seeks to lay the blame for the Maoist problem squarely on the door of the Nepali Congress, since the fighting began when the latter was running the government. But, as the Congress spokesman and a minister at that time, Narahari Acharya, points out, Baburam Bhattarai's 40 demands contained just two points more than a similar list presented on 31 December 1994 to Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari, who was heading the minority government of the CPN-UML. Acharya's argument is also that, demands or no demands, the Maoists would have begun the uprising since that was the kind of violent political agenda they had opted for.)