Michael Hoffmann: Strong vs. weak targets: Urban activist practices of the kamaiya movement in the western lowland of Nepal

I. Introduction
The study of urban activist practices has recently gained currency within anthropology (see Graeber 2013; Harvey 2012; Karakatzanis 2013; Lazar 2008; Nash 2004; Smith 1999). In line with this trend, the anthropological interest in urban activism has increased also in South Asia (Aiyer 2007; Baviskar 1998; Dorron 2008; Subramaniam 2009). However, much of this new scholarship remains trapped in a “methodological nationalism” that focuses explicitly on India. Gellner’s (2010) volume on the varieties of activist experiences—which covers areas other than India, including Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka—remains a notable exception. Yet, for urban small towns in Nepal, there remains a relative public dearth of published scholarship despite an existing urban activist scene.1

This article is based on fieldwork between January 2008 and July 2009 in the urban small town Tikapur in Kailali District in the western Terai region of Nepal. It focuses on a movement of ex–bonded laborers (kamaiya), the Freed Kamaiya Society (FKS)—a large landless movement in the western lowlands of Nepal. Long before the Occupy Wall Street movement began to capture urban space in the Western Hemisphere, the kamaiya movement occupied and squatted en masse public terrain in urban centers of the western lowland of Nepal in the shadow of the Maoist revolution (see Hoffmann, forthcoming 2015). This article focuses on the FKS’s activities and gives a detailed ethnographic description of a mass protest undertaken by the FKS in 2009. I argue that such mass protests represent rituals of confrontation with the state that are intended to make the local government more responsive to the demands of the FKS. Furthermore, I suggest that the FKS confrontation with local state bodies resonates with the broader Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or UCPN(M), aim of reforming the local state, but while there is an overlap of interests, the struggles discussed here are seen as operating separately.

II. Staging rituals of confrontation with the state
Throughout its six-year-long struggle, FKS leadership resorted to various forms of public protest to make their demands heard by the Nepalese state, including chakka jams (highway blockages), lockouts of state government buildings, rallies through urban centers, and public meetings. Of these kinds of collective struggle, the ethnographic example described in this section concerns a militant protest in Tikapur. This was one of the more dramatic and spectacular forms of FKS protest actions that I witnessed during my fieldwork. Others included assembly programs in public and in the bastis (neighborhoods), which, in contrast, caused little disturbance to the everyday routines in town. Here, I show how the FKS used symbolic rituals of confrontation with the state to broadcast their demands to state officials.

Importantly, the FKS mobilizes large amounts of participants from different freed kamaiya neighborhoods, because in order to demonstrate ekta (unity) and shakti (power), the number of participants is crucial. While numbers undoubtedly matter in many protest movements across different cultural contexts (for Japan, see Turner 1995: 42; for Bolivia, see Lazar 2008), here the need for numbers is a result of conflicting narratives regarding how many freed kamaiya currently live in the western Terai. Although FKS leader Pashupati Chaudhary estimates that around fifty thousand freed kamaiya families are living in the western Terai, the government claims that number is in fact much lower, around thirty thousand.2 Therefore, large-scale participation in FKS demonstrations is needed. In what follows, I begin with an ethnographic description of one such demonstration, namely, the militant protest in Tikapur.

Militant protest in Tikapur


One evening in June 2009, I was returning to Krishnanagar neighborhood in Tikapur having spent the day at a nearby brick factory. Kaluram3, the owner of a chai shop located on one of the two roads cutting through the area, told me that the neighborhood committee had met and announced a demonstration for the following day, which all households in the basti were requested to join. Unlike for previous demonstrations, however, the committee had demanded that people prepare homemade lathis (wooden batons) and bring these to the rally. Kaluram told me that inhabitants of all other freed kamaiya bastis in the town were also asked to take part in the rally, and he assumed that all would join. Kaluram’s neighbor Tullu Chaudhary, the owner of a local rickshaw repair shop who had joined us at the chai shop, added that the mood around the upcoming demonstration was serious; some of the basti inhabitants were afraid, while others, particularly the young, were eager to take part in order to demonstrate their strength to the leaders of local political parties. He warned me that I risked injury if I planned to join their rally. After more than one year participating in their struggle, many considered me a part of their struggle and were similarly worried about my safety.

Participation and struggle

The demonstration began the following morning at around 10 a.m., with inhabitants of Krishnanagar basti gathering near the burned-out control tower in the center of their neighborhood. There was an unusual amount of people present, indicating that each household had contributed more than one person on average to the rally. At around 11:30 a.m. the first contingent of about forty people arrived from neighboring Shivanagar; they were followed by many more from the town’s other bastis. The square next to the control tower slowly filled up. Most men and women had heard about the rally through their neighborhood watchman (chaukidar), who had announced it while walking through the area the previous day. Many brought homemade lathis to defend themselves in case of a clash with police. As usual, nobody seemed particularly concerned about the possibility of violence. Various individuals approached me to explain what they planned to do during the next few hours and what they hoped to achieve from the day’s action.

Tulsi Chaudhary, an older resident and one of several guruwars (Tharu priests) living in the basti, explained the plan. Today was the annual public discussion of the municipality’s financial budget, which took place in front of the municipality building; by demonstrating their shakti to the general public, the freed kamaiya hoped to force local politicians to provide more financial resources for the development of their bastis. Accordingly, in the previous year, the kamaiya were represented by Bishnu Chaudhary, the leader of nearby Bishenagar basti. Despite his lobbying work for the freed kamaiya community at last year’s event, he managed to obtain a budget of 1.4 lakh for the development of six different kamayia bastis in the town. This, according to Tulsi, was generally considered insufficient, and the community as a whole demanded 10 lakh for the development of all bastis.

Others talked about the importance of having a large number of participants at this event. They expected several hundred freed kamaiya at the rally, a demonstration of unity that would convince the Tikapur Town Development Committee and local political parties of their urgent need for basic infrastructure. Dipendra, one of the rickshaw drivers from Krishnanagar whom I knew, came with a lantern in order to “give light to the politicians.” Two other young men approached me to show off their homemade weapon: a wooden rod with metal spikes. They wanted to be prepared in case the kamaiya decided to “lathi charge” the politicians. This kind of talk characterized the morning’s discussions and continued as the protestors began marching through town toward the municipality building at around 1 p.m.

I later learned that at about the same time as the kamaiya rally got underway, a contingent of Maoist cadres and supporters had begun a separate protest at the inauguration ceremony of the municipality. The group gathered in front of a colorful tent where local politicians and municipality staff members were supposed to present the yearly budget to the public. Separated from the politicians by a chain of armed police, the Maoists were waving black flags at the chief guest of the program, the State Minister of Power Chandra Singh Bhattarai. As Bhattarai was alongside people from the Nepali Congress Party, the local Maoist cadres and supporters felt cheated. According to them, one of the Maoist Constitutional Assembly members should have been invited instead. Thus, every five minutes the Maoists tried to interrupt the program by shouting a variety of slogans and waving their black flags in protest. Among the most common chants were “down with the liar government” and “the government is a puppet government,” which implied that the current government led by the Communist Part of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) had been installed by the imperialist powers of India and the United States. A potent mix of tensions filled the air, and many of the civil society spectators expected something to happen.

When the Maoists began throwing pieces of gravel and even their shoes over the police line toward the chief guest, the organizers interrupted the program. At this point, the Maoists collapsed the tent where the event was taking place. Instead of attempting to defuse the situation, the chief of the Armed Police Force (APF) began to charge the Maoists, and clashes soon ensued. At the same time, however, the four hundred freed kamaiya protesters arrived outside the municipality gates. On seeing this, as the area administration officer later explained to me, the local chief of the APF panicked and fired two tear gas canisters toward the kamaiya community.

As a result of police actions, a fierce street battle broke out between the APF and freed kamaiya, lasting for some thirty minutes. The former attempted to protect the politicians and the chief guest inside the compound of the municipality by forming a police chain, while a group of a few hundred members of the FKS attacked the APF furiously by throwing stones and bricks that they found on the street. The armed police contingent, outnumbered but well protected with helmets and shields, tossed the stones back at the protesters. When a group of young men and women prized open the gate of the compound with an iron rod, a mass of FKS activists swarmed in. Brandishing stones from a nearby construction site together with their homemade weapons, FKS members began to form a line to confront the police. Worried that my FKS friends would be hurt, I ran inside the municipality compound, positioning myself between the police and the FKS members. I had the idea to protect my kamaiya friends by filming the clash. However, less than a minute later the police began hitting the FKS members and beating them with their lathis. At this moment, I escaped, though I was nearly hit by a hail of bricks tossed from the outside the municipality compound toward the police. Unscathed, I ran back out of the compound.

Following the clash, the freed kamaiya regrouped in a field near the bazaar, where everyone was busy trying to make sense of what had just happened. Journalists soon appeared and began interviewing some of the freed kamaiya leaders, who explained that several of us had been seriously injured in the clash. Together with some of the FKS activists, I rushed to the local hospital to find out who had been brought there. We found Kalu, a carpenter from Krishnanagar and one of seven freed kamaiya who had been severely beaten up. I also met Netra Adhikari, a Maoist friend, whose head was bandaged following a violent police beating. When I turned back to the city center, many of the freed kamaiya had begun to move back toward the municipality compound, where a two-day lockout of the main building was about to start. Local politicians had apologized to Maoist leaders and the FKS activists for attacking some of their members and agreed to begin negotiations with both parties. Tired and shocked, I decided to return to my house to take a rest.

Further actions

In the course of the next two days, Maoists and FKS members organized additional actions. The UCPN(M) announced a one-day, districtwide bandh (closing down of market and all businesses, schools, and state institutions) to protest police violence. To enforce this, Maoist cadres drove around the center of town in a rickshaw, double-checking that businesses, schools, and state institutions had followed their command. Only a few shopkeepers dared to disobey them, leaving their shutters half-open to continue their business. FKS leaders from the basti, however, were unhappy with the violence at the Maoist program of the previous day. As one FKS leader told me next in morning, “It was wrong to hold our andolan [movement] when the Maoists had their andolan at the same time. We still have to learn a lot.” Others were less upset about the timing of their program but more about the attack of the armed police. After a meeting between leaders and active members in Bhulai Chaudhary’s chai shop, the FKS decided to continue their andolan by holding a second rally. Again, members from all bastis gathered in Krishnanagar before marching through town, wielding their homemade lathis. They followed the same route through town until they arrived inside the municipality compound. The demonstrators came by the hundreds, and several leaders gave speeches in small circles. The activities in the afternoon followed the same pattern. In the evening, a small contingent of FKS activists stayed at the municipality compound, while the rest returned home. The following day they returned to find FKS leaders negotiating with the local area development commissioner. The FKS had decided to propose a four-point program. They demanded not only a higher financial assistance to the basti but also compensation of land, access to free health care, and free access for freed kamaiya children to higher education. However, after a heated discussion in the morning with local politicians and the local area development commissioner, they decided to cancel the program. The local state officials claimed that their rehabilitation was a national issue and that there was little that they could do for them. The meeting ended around midday, at which point the leaders returned to the municipality building to announce the results of the andolan. None of their demands had been fulfilled, they admitted, but the politicians had promised to settle the issue of their rehabilitation in the near future.

III. Conclusion
This paper has focused on the Freed Kamaiya Society, a movement of ex–debt bonded laborers challenging the Nepali state. Since its founding in 2002, the FKS has prospered largely because the Maoist movement tolerated its activities during the period of the insurgency and later “captured” it through the provision of strong political support following the comprehensive Peace Agreement. As a result, the contemporary FKS has become the frontrunner within the broader kamaiya movement, emerging as a powerful organization that undertakes repeated and concerted collective action. I have given ethnographic descriptions of some of the most dramatic actions that I witnessed during my fieldwork, which included the violent militant protest against politicians at the local municipality building in Tikapur.

Even though members of the FKS experience these collective actions in different ways, there is clearly a strong relationship between experience and assertiveness, at least among the leadership of the FKS. By engaging in various forms of collective action, the leaders have not only learned how to protest against the state but also become more articulate in the formulation of their demands and more self-confident. And while for the majority of ordinary freed kamaiya, participation in FKS events remains a rarity, such actions do provide a source of pride and dignity that enables people to cope with the uncertainties and insecurities of their everyday lives.

Yet FKS protests continue to target only state institutions, such as the local municipality building, the land reform office, or the office of the chief district officer. At the risk of overgeneralizing, one could argue that the FKS deliberately selects weak targets and demands more land for more ex–debt bonded laborers. What it appears to neglect, however, are the strong targets, such as the lords of capital, and interfere in everyday labor relations in town. In essence, the actions of the FKS mirror Maoist politics more generally. It embraces capitalism by neglecting labor issues but aims to eradicate the old “feudal” institutions by providing access to land, which not only is crucial for obtaining a livelihood but also remains an important local cultural symbol of political mobilization that the movement has to acknowledge.

Michael Hoffmann earned his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences and is currently a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. His research in western Nepal addresses various issues above all the contemporary politics and work practices of formerly bonded laborers and the relationship between industry and inequality.


1. For example, for an account of labor union activism, see Hoffmann, forthcoming 2014.

2. For a detailed discussion regarding conflicting estimates of the number of freed kamaiya, see Fujikura 2007.

3. All place and personal names have been changed in this article. Exceptions are public figures.


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Cite as: Hoffman, Michael. 2014. “Strong vs. weak targets: Urban activist practices of the Kamaiya Movement in the western lowland of Nepal,” FocaalBlog, October 30, www.focaalblog.com/2014/10/30/michael-hoffmann-strong-vs-weak-targets-urban-activist-practices-of-the-kamaiya-movement-in-the-western-lowland-of-nepal