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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK
Prachanda - hero or villain?
By Rabindra Mishra
BBC Nepali service

Prachanda
Many question whether Prachanda should be deified

The recent public appearance in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, of Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, led to much excitement.

But for some, it is ironic that a man who has led a ruthless war that took the lives of 13,000 people is being treated like a hero.

For many others, he is a hero, who has given a voice to millions of downtrodden people in one of the poorest countries in the world.

So is he a hero or villain?

Demands

When Prachanda launched an armed rebellion in 1996, Nepal had just restored multi-party democracy after 30 years of direct rule by the king.

A peaceful people's uprising in 1990 had forced the then King Birendra to become a constitutional monarch and after a smooth transition, a new constitution was written and democratically elected leaders were in power.

The war has encouraged and spread a culture of intimidation and violence

Despite concerns about corruption, democracy was slowly taking root.

Schools, roads and bridges were being built and businesses were expanding.

Though records have fluctuated, the GDP growth rate in 1995/96, when the Maoists began their insurgency, was 5.4%, an encouraging figure for Nepal.

The immediate reason given by the Maoists for the declaration of war was that the government rejected their demands "without giving them any attention".

Many of those demands related to political and social reforms which most Nepalis would find acceptable.

However, few agree that the government's rejection of the demands was enough reason to declare a war which has caused Nepal enormous suffering.

Violence and intimidation

Accurate independent figures about the economic costs of war are not available.

Maoist rebels in Siti Mahakali, Nepal
The Maoists have used violence to push demands
However, according to Finance Minister Ramsharan Mahat, the damage to infrastructure alone amounted to $246m - around 15% of Nepal's current annual budget.

The Maoists have used threats, extortion and killings to get their way.

They have killed poor, innocent people and those who have criticised their top leaders.

The war has encouraged and spread a culture of intimidation and violence, which is bound to have a long-term impact in a society which was credited for peace and harmony.

Prachanda and others have defended these tactics, arguing that during war such incidents do occur and that they regret mistakes.

Many find it difficult to agree. They argue that Prachanda and many top Maoist leaders are, in fact, more feudal and hypocritical than those whom they regard as such.

There appears to be some truth in this.

'Well-fed' rebel

Prachanda speaks passionately about the need to dismantle feudal structures to create a proletarian society but he has remained quiet about his own elevation as a demi-god by his supporters.

The rich and ruling elite in Kathmandu, who the Maoists view as feudal and want to destroy, has been left untouched throughout the war, whereas poor and ordinary villagers have suffered.

A vegetable seller in Lalitpur, Kathmandu
The war has caused ordinary Nepalis enormous suffering
After seeing Prachanda's pictures, a teacher at a village school recently told me: "Prachanda looks very well-fed. In fact, his healthy diet is bought from the money extorted from poor people like myself.

"Or else, where does he get the money from?"

For Prachanda India was an expansionist foe.

Out of the first nine points in his 40-point demands submitted to the government in 1996, seven were directed against India.

However, it has been an established fact that during much of the insurgency both Prachanda and his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, have spent time in India.

There have been credible reports that Indian authorities have covertly co-operated with the Maoists at times.

That explains why after the insurgency started they have rarely been critical of India.

'Power of the gun'

This does not mean Prachanda is devoid of virtue.

Many middle-class villagers like Prachanda would have preferred an easy route in life. However, he chose a difficult path to pursue his conviction that "power comes from the barrel of the gun".

Risking his life, he did derive that power and made the powerful ruling elite of the country realise that they cannot take their privileges for granted.

Prachanda claims to have dismantled the feudalistic social structure in the villages under Maoist control. To an extent this is true.

There is also a growing awareness about social and political rights in rural Nepal because of the insurgency.

For now Prachanda seems to have accepted that there is no alternative to multi-party democracy in Nepal.

But many would continue to question whether all the killing and destruction was necessary for him to accept what Nepal's major communist parties accepted a long time ago.

Much will depend on how much he can deliver in Nepal's future political set-up.




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