The Patan commune

  • Patan’s civil insurgency during the first Janaandolan was a source of inspiration for the entire country
- Gérard Toffin
The Patan commune

Mar 22, 2015-

The Patan uprising in March-April 1990 represents one of the most vibrant and significant pages in the history of Janaandolan I, ie, the popular movement which compelled King Birendra to reinstate a multi-party (bahudal) parliamentary system and democratic rights in the country on April 8, 1990, after almost 30 years of the autocratic partyless Panchayat system. For the whole of eight days, the inhabitants of Patan closed the city with barricades and declared their town a ‘liberated zone’ (mukta kshetra).

This episode has been dealt with more or less briefly in reports and books (T. Louise Brown, G. Katsiaficas, M. Paudel). Yet, a detailed local history and an ethnographical account of the revolutionary movements are sorely lacking. What actually happened and what were the motives behind the mobilisation? I recently investigated this topic, aided by some of those who took part in these events. The inhabitants of Chyasal Tol in Patan were the first to help me understand how the uprising broke out and developed.

Fall of a regime

The story dates back to Friday, March 30, 1990 (Chaitra 17, 2046 BS). On that day, two Patan residents were shot by the security forces around and within the city. Meanwhile, policemen entered private houses in pursuit of activists. The reaction was immediate. The next day, March 31, fearing for their safety, inhabitants erected barricades at the main points of access to the old city, trapping 128 policemen in the process. A public statement was made declaring Patan a ‘liberated zone’. The people of Chyasal, to the south of Mangal Bazaar, inhabited mainly by Byanjankars, were at the forefront of the events. Byanjankars, a Newar farmer caste specialised in the cultivation of vegetables, are among the descendants of the first settlers of the city and claim a Kirant ascendency. Other urban dwellers, especially Jyapus and Shakyas, joined them spontaneously.

Insurgents held the city for a week. Trenches were dug and barricades built to protect the city against further attacks from the police. The first barriers were erected in Balkumari. Conflicts between male Communists and Kangressis broke out on various occasions (the former reproaching the latter for being too timid and not proactive enough), especially when the Communists proposed taking over the administration of Patan themselves. Nevertheless, on the whole, a common front was maintained. People armed with farm tools, iron rods, and sticks were ready to defend their city around the clock. Every neighbourhood had its own security force. Women from farmer castes noticeably played an important role in the blockade. After a week, the government finally sent in the army to take possession of Patan. Rather than fighting a suicidal struggle, the inhabitants let in the soldiers.

Byanjankars, Jyapus, and other Newar participants were not alone in the battle. Newar farmer castes had long been hiding in their houses communist leaders who mostly belonged to Parbatiya Hindu upper-castes. These underground activists sheltered by Newars played a major role in the revolutionary process. Indeed, the Patan insurgency can be analysed as being the conjunction of these radical, largely exogenous, communist elements and an even more ancient endogenous Newar ethnic antagonism towards successive post-Rana governments. Newars could not recognise themselves in the Panchayat regime, whose hegemonic Hindu non-Newar caste officials often looked at them with contempt.

The Patan commune alone did not overthrow the Panchayat regime. In fact, the unrest began on February 18 (Falgun 7) with a counter-demonstration against the royal palace’s celebration of Democracy Day. Clashes between the two camps were followed by the usual bandas. Commerce and transport sectors were shut down. Effigies of panchayatis were burned and communist protestors brandished black flags  in the streets. Likewise, an open revolt started in Bhaktapur, a Newar city, which, like Patan, had long been a communist stronghold opposed to supporters of the Panchayat regime. What is more, the Patan insurgency was followed by huge street demonstrations (birodh ko julus) and rallies in Kathmandu, which were tragically (dozens of deaths on  April 6) decisive in the fall of the royal family’s autocracy. Nevertheless, by and large, the Patan commune played an important role in the whole process.

Patan’s microhistory

My analysis is inspired by the microhistory academic school, which the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, among others, developed. Despite its very local scope, such a microhistory approach may raise more general issues. Three remarks can be made in this respect.

First, the Patan uprising underlines the basically urban character of the first Janaandolan and the decisive role of Newars in the movement. Janaandolan II was characterised by widespread mobilisation throughout the country, which went well beyond the urban middle class. Second, this local rebellion testifies to Patan’s communal bonds, its deep sense of separateness, as opposed even to Kathmandu, its sister city only three kilometres away. Examples of this distinctive phenomenon can be found in many other domains. The third remark is about the erroneous ‘reading’ of Newar historical towns exclusively in religious terms. Admittedly, the spatial organisation and the rituals performed stress a close interpenetration between the cosmos and human planes. But such a religious interpretation conceals the political context and the antagonistic relationships with the encompassing political power. Newar religious cities can indeed turn into insurgent cities very rapidly. The way Newars organise their colourful pageants proves their capacity to coordinate collective enterprises and their communal spirit.

These riotous events have so far been remembered and commemorated vividly each Chaitra 18, especially among Byanjankars. Communists see in this event a decisive victory against what they called: bureaucracy (nokarshahi), dictatorship (tanashahi), and feudalism (samantabad). According to them, the Patan commune also exacerbated the sacrifice of one’s life (balidan), which is given for the sake of collective political liberation. Whatever the case may be, this civil insurgency has been a source of inspiration for the whole country and has so far provided Patan citizens with a sense of pride.

Blatant betrayal

Yet, despite the success of the democratic movement in 1990, a note of dissent tarnishes this year’s 25th anniversary of the Patan mukta kshetra. In my interviews, a number of Newar activists and local intellectuals expressed their dissatisfaction. They feel that upper-caste Parbatiya leaders and their political parties have instrumentalised them. They believe that the present reluctance of the main parties in granting them federal rights and autonomy is a blatant betrayal of their common struggle in the past. Ethnic and caste tensions still weigh heavily on the current Nepali political debate.

Toffin is Research Professor at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Published: 23-03-2015 08:54

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