It is difficult to understand Nepal’s slow post-earthquake response and the problematic way it has handled the border crisis without understanding the civil war that raged in the country between 1996 and 2006, claiming the lives of an estimated 17,000 people. The uprising—the People’s War, as it has been called—led to mass support for the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which was elected to power in 2008, forming the nation’s first constituent assembly. The Maoist policy of republicanism, proportional representation and federalism became, nearly 10 years after the end of the war, expectations for many in the run-up to the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution in September. This charter was controversial with groups in the Terai region, who see their already limited political influence as marginalised, and it led to the border crisis that has seen a severe shortage of fuel, medicine and food supplies around the country.
Jaya Puri Gharti was a leading member of the Maoist party. President of the All Nepal Women Association (Revolutionary) during the conflict, she served as the cabinet minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare during the Maoists’ term in government. Gharti is from Rolpa, the heartland of the Maoist insurgency, and a member of the historically marginalised Magar community. In this interview, she speaks about the issues facing Nepal today, and the difficult road to reconciliation after the war.
Has the situation improved since the end of the civil war?
It is comparatively better. But I hoped the country would ensure the rights of people, economic growth, justice, peace. There are still things that need to be met. That was obstructed due to the earthquake and fuel crisis.
They wanted a constitution that ensured the full rights of people, and after the earthquake they rushed for consensus to write the constitution. So it was rushed, and there were some gaps due to that rush. There was a big meeting for reconstruction after the earthquake, but progress slowed down. The international community provided funds, but the government has been slow.
The ruling parties didn’t consider that there would be a crisis in the Terai. It was a mistake. If they had made a small effort it could have been resolved. For example, Madhes would have been given more districts. This could have resolved the crisis. But India is imposing [a blockade]—it’s not justifiable. It’s against human rights and international rules, treaties and relationships.
Could the response to the earthquake have been better?
The government has not been able to tackle the issue as required. The political situation is so difficult. I am worried about the situation now. I suggest the government take it more seriously, the earthquake and the blockade.
After the deep divisions in Nepal during the civil war, how has the country united itself?
After the earthquake and the blockade, we realised we should be together, but perhaps there are still some gaps. For example, not all parties were involved in the constitutional process. There is still chance to bring all the parties together. But the leaderships often think traditionally, with narrow thinking.
“International development partners are not targeting funds to actual need. Almost three-quarters of the funds have gone to the NGO circle ruled by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist)”
How was the rehabilitation of those affected during the conflict?
Nepal has got lots of money for rehabilitation. But that has disappeared at the top. People in real need haven’t benefited from that. In Nepal, there is a culture of mismanaging funds, for conflict-affected people, earthquake victims. They are mishandled by the authorities, which is not good.
International development partners are not targeting funds to actual need. Almost three-quarters of the funds have gone to the NGO circle ruled by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), who handle 75 per cent of the budget; 25 per cent belongs to the Nepal Congress and others. Maoist cadres have received less than one per cent.
During the civil war we had a different perspective of the NGOs. Now we realise we should cooperate with them. We were against the NGOs in the wartime. So the NGO international development partners are not fully trusting. We need to build that trust.
Is there a problem of accountability with the NGOs?
Only 10 to 15 per cent of NGOs are fully accountable. I observed that as a minister. I tried to get at least 75 per cent accountable, if not 100 per cent. I tried to put them on track, but our government collapsed. One change I could achieve is that before, every international NGO had to register in Kathmandu, and I was able to establish regional offices instead. But my successor, a male minister, collapsed that.
Due to his thinking, he was not committed to change. People weren’t able to all come to Kathmandu. But he unfortunately collapsed my policy. We had fundamental differences.
After such a high level of support following the civil war, why did the Maoist government collapse?
It was difficult to meet the needs promised in the war. There were also factions within our party. I am confident the issues raised by my party are still true. Issues like a republican state, federalism, proportional representation, secularism. The NC, UML were against these issues in the beginning, but they were all eventually reflected in the constitution.
What the failure was, we could not convince the public of the issues raised by the Maoists. We could not convince people that credit should go to our party. And fractures in the party meant we could not win the election. And the other parties were tricky; the Maoists were straightforward.
Though the party is now weaker, our policies have all been incorporated by other parties. The NC was against the idea of a republic. The UML would not accept proportional representation and federalism, now they have.
When I was in parliament, we once went to the UK to learn about decentralisation of power. I was fortunate to observe the UK parliament. But in Nepal we discuss basic needs, like food and shelter. When I was there, the discussion in parliament was about controlling mice!
Why did you first become involved in the People’s War?
I was just a student at that time. I had heard about the Communist Party and Communist Manifesto, and that the Communist Party helped people in the region and was against gender and ethnic discrimination. In my locality, there was a lot of violence against women. Women couldn’t go to school or be educated. There was also extreme poverty. I was inspired to become involved in the movement by that poverty. It was difficult even to buy goods.
My family was not very poor at first, but my father was a gambler. He lost his property and we became poor. My mother was interested in education, and so my sister and a friend were the first female students to go to school. I went to school sometime after that.
When I was a Year 4 student in school, I went to school wearing pyjama trousers. The teacher beat me for wearing them. Later, when I was elected to the Constituent Assembly and became a minister, that same teacher approached me. I was responsible to hear teachers’ problems. It took more than ten years for the teacher to appreciate me. I appreciate the teacher in turn for pushing me.
“Women now think they should get justice, and not face discrimination. Women have felt more changes than men.”
How much has changed in the Nepali society since you were in school?
Women now think they should get justice, and not face discrimination. Most women think this way now. Patriarchy is still in male minds, but they have started to think it’s not justifiable to discriminate. Women have felt more changes than men.
Could you ever imagine, when you were a child, that one day you would become a government minister?
Never. I just wished to reduce injustice, but never imagined I would be a minister.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.