Commander Asmita’s many battles
- Leela Sharma, an ex-Maoist guerilla, fought for justice in the People’s War. But even after the war, she has had to continue her battles—both on the personal front, and on behalf of other women fighters
Dec 26, 2014-
On a recent afternoon, women in twos and threes arrived in a hotel in Kathmandu. One limped as she walked while another had her young son in tow. They huddled around chairs at the ‘conference hall’. Moments later, the women listened to speeches by political leaders, who promised to address their grievances.
Leading the women was Leela Sharma ‘Asmita’, an exuberant woman in her thirties. They were former Maoist guerrillas who had coalesced around Asmita to form the Former People’s Liberation Army Women Foundation, which now boasts 10,000 members.
When the Maoists entered the peace process after a deal in November 2006, the number of PLA fighters was around 30,000. But verifications carried out by the United Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) disqualified over 10,000 from getting integrated into the Nepal Army, on the grounds of being minors or late recruits. In January 2007, UNMIN cantoned around 19,000 PLA soldiers in seven main and dozens of satellite camps across the country. The total number of women guerrillas stood at 3,800.
This was contrary to the Maoist claim that its fighting force consisted of 40 percent women. Indeed, during the decade-long People’s War, which ended in 2006, images of gun-totting women fighters featured prominently in glossy magazines and newspapers published from Kathmandu. But when the peace process began, the numbers didn’t match, prompting critics to question the Maoist claim.
Asmita not only disagrees with this, but also thinks Nepali women’s participation in the People’s War was almost on par with the sacrifices made by the female forces during the battle of Nalapani in the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-16. “In our society, women are considered weak and inferior. But we proved that wrong. We not only carried rucksacks that weighed up to 20 kilograms and guns weighing as much as five kilograms, but also fought alongside men,” she says.
In the autumn of 2005, when the top Maoist leaders—including Pushpa Kamal Dahal, ‘Prachanda’, and Baburam Bhattarai—moved from their hideouts in India to the Maoist ground zero of Rolpa and Rukum, Asmita and around two dozen women fighters were tasked with providing security to the leaders. A trio of women commanders—Sabitra Dura, Kalpana Roka and Asmita—had become the female faces of the insurgency. It had been seven years since Asmita, an Intermediate Level student at Mahendra Multiple Campus in Ghorahi, Dang, had joined the Maoists.
By this time, Asmita had become a battalion commander, one of the highest-ranking women guerrillas in the PLA. In December 2005, Sudheer Sharma, who was then the editor of Nepal Weekly magazine, met her in Rukumkot. “She was the most active and energetic commander,” says Sharma, who took a photo of Asmita in camouflage-green battle fatigues, a pistol tucked inside it. He had met her during the turning point in the People’s War: following the New Delhi-mediated 12-point agreement, the insurgents were gearing up for a final assault against King Gyanendra Shah’s regime. The Maoists named their campaign dhadma tekera taaukoma hanne (to strike the head by stepping on the back). In the spring of 2006, peaceful protests were held in Kathmandu and in cities across the country while the Maoists continued their guerrilla attacks. “The parliamentary parties were holding peaceful protests while we carried out military strikes,” Asmita recalls.
Asmita says she was among the PLA commanders who set up camps in Sakram, a hamlet in Dang, for former fighters. But her party deployed her to the Young Communist League (YCL), a 7,000-strong force that the Maoists revived after the end of the war. Thousands of war veterans like Asmita joined the youth group that invited criticism for its show of force, which at times bordered on criminality. This also effectively deprived them of rehabilitation packages offered to former fighters. But Asmita doesn’t regret her party’s decision. “UNMIN’s verification is not the major benchmark. In fact, we were the real fighters with years of combat experiences. We were a political army so we backed up the party decision,” she says.
Her party sent her to the Tharuwan region, which comprised five southern districts of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang. The Maoists had fielded her elder sister, Dama Sharma, as a candidate for the first constituent assembly polls in 2008 in a constituency of Dang district, where Asmita campaigned on her behalf.
In her free time, Asmita would think about the war and the toll it had taken on women fighters like her. Some days, she and her comrades had to trek trough difficult mountain trails under darkness. They had to eat whatever was available in rural Nepal. Commanders like Asmita were in charge of logistics, ensuring that hundreds of fighters under her command were fed and clothed well. “Sometimes we had to leave our meals half-way and take part in a battle,” she recalls. “There was a lot of mental pressure and we were managing this despite our young age.”
Asmita and two PLA commanders had made vows of sacrifice for the People’s War. In late 2005, her party took several momentous decisions that led to the ending of the war. When this was going on, she and a group of women fighters often discussed their plight with the party chairman, Prachanda. “We would tell him about the problems we faced as women fighters. We told him we faced so many challenges having to do with marriage, pregnancy and raising kids,” she recalls. She herself vowed not to marry until the end of war.
By January 2007, her party had already joined the interim government, which freed her from the pledge. She married Deepak Devkota, a Maoist cadre from Gorkha, now Kavre district in-charge of the Communist Party of Nepal—Maoist. Two years later, she gave birth to a baby boy. In what seemed like a blissful family life, a health check-up revealed shocking news: In May 2011, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Asmita was admitted to the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu.
The cancer was active and growing fast, but doctors at the state-run hospital, including Prakash Sayami, assured her that she would be cured. She, however, needed to be moved to New Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre for radiation therapy. The treatment was expensive—one injection cost her nearly Rs 200,000, and she had to take 17 such injections. But her party, and especially its top leaders—Prachanda and Bhattarai—left no stone unturned to help secure funds for her treatment. Additionally, according to Asmita, the Jhalanath Khanal-led government chipped in and helped her foot the medical bills, which came to Rs five million.
The struggle to recover from cancer often evokes military metaphors. Battle is most commonly used to describe such a long, arduous and often physically grueling experience. Asmita too thinks she got a new lease of life after the therapy. “For two years, my life was consumed by the treatment. But once I survived it, I thought I should do something for the future of women fighters,” she says. She decided to devote her life in support of fellow guerrillas, particularly women.
And, that’s when the idea of the Former PLA Women Foundation emerged. On September 20, 2014, dozens of women fighters gathered in Kathmandu for a national assembly. The meeting, addressed by Prachanda and other senior Maoist leaders, appointed Asmita as president of the organisation which now had 3,000 members.
Research carried out recently by her organisation on the condition of former women fighters found that the most urgent problems facing them was livelihood issues. “Many have set up small businesses such as poultry farms
or kirana pasals from the voluntary retirement package (which ranged
between Rs 500,000 and 800,000),” she says, “But due to lack of experience and know-how, most have suffered losses.”
Asmita agrees that the rehabilitation packages offered by the government have failed to provide them a viable livelihood. She often hears that the former fighters, instead of investing the funds in business, have spent it for daily expenses. While these problems surfaced after they left the UN-run cantonments in 2012, Asmita argues that it all began after the peace deal. “Once we arrived in Kathmandu, our party and its politics became unmanageable. Our cadres prioritised individual benefits over our community’s growth,” she says. Thus, she notes, a slow disintegration began as the party won the largest number of seats in the first constituent assembly elections and rose to power. Asmita is aware that thousands of former PLA soldiers, who are struggling to get by amid increasing unemployment and lack of opportunity, are frustrated and angry with their leaders.
But she traces the roots of the problems to the war-time management of funds and logistics. “During the war, the party used to take care of everything. So a sort of dependency developed among the fighters and cadres. That’s why they continue to expect everything from the party, even to this day,” she says.
These days, Asmita is trying to garner funds for her organisation which plans to set up a museum to commemorate the People’s War. “We want to preserve the history of women fighters. We want to make women fighters self-dependent and help them reintegrate into the society. We are also looking at how we can support their children’s upbringing,” she says.
Published: 27-12-2014 09:05