Libang, Rolpa, Nepal – Man Singh Biswokarma’s eyes are fixed on his computer screen and he is typing vigorously. The deadline for his weekly newspaper – Rolpa Samachar – is looming.
The Nepali language paper highlights the issues facing marginalised communities, such as Dalits, the most disadvantaged in the caste system, and Magars, an ethnic minority whose culture and language was suppressed for centuries, in the Rolpa district of remote midwestern Nepal. It is one of the last few remaining strongholds of the Maoists, who led a decade-long armed rebellion against the government from 1996 to 2006.
Rolpa, where the Magar community is in the majority and there are also a large number of Dalits, became the heartland of the Maoist rebellion.
“We prioritise the voice of the voiceless, those without access to positions and power,” says Biswokarma as he sits in the two-room office that doubles as a stationery shop and an “offset press” that prints books, forms and bills to make some extra income.
Popularly known as BK, Biswokarma is a Dalit and a former Maoist fighter. Attracted by the pro-Dalit agenda of the communist rebels, he joined them in 2001. He was 13 years old.
“I handled their underground and mobile radio used during the battles against Nepali security forces,” he explains.
A peace deal between the communist rebels and the government ended the conflict in 2006 and paved the way for the removal of the nearly 250-year-old Shah monarchy.
But as the guns fell silent, Biswokarma picked up another weapon: the pen.
‘The perspective of the proletariat’
He took over as the editor of Rolpa Samachar in 2009 at the age of 22, possibly making him the country’s youngest editor.
Now 29, he explains that his newspaper focuses on ethnic, caste and gender discrimination, and that it attempts to shape “public opinion and write things that promote the perspective of the proletariat”.
It is hard to hear him over the noise coming from an adjoining room, where an old printing machine is hissing and chugging like a steam locomotive.
It is 7pm and the newsroom is dimly lit. Old files and computers fill the space, gathering dust.
After making a few final edits, and asking with a hesitant smile for a couple more minutes, Biswokarma finally shuts down his computer.
We step outside into the drizzle. The dimly lit houses on the hills of Libang, a town of 20,000, twinkle in the distance. We make our way to a nearby restaurant that serves Nepali Thali – a meal of rice, mutton and dal.
There, over a beer, Biswokarma explains: “We raise issues faced by villagers and locals, while big newspapers raise policy issues more.”
With a circulation of more than 700 copies and a growing readership, Biswokarma says his newspaper generates a decent profit.
Jeewan Dangi, a journalist with another weekly newspaper, Janaakanshya, which is based in Libang, says Rolpa Samachar “safeguards the interests of Dalits”.
“People like it. It is doing a good job,” he adds.
‘Many of our friends became martyrs’
The Maoist call to end discrimination against Dalits and indigenous communities attracted thousands to their ranks.
Biswokarma says he joined them to fight for dignity and to end the centuries of discrimination against his community, who had been considered “untouchable” and relegated to menial jobs such as sewer cleaning.
“We knew we could have died when we joined the war,” he says. “Many of our friends died and became martyrs.”
“But when we looked at the caste and ethnic discrimination, the inequality, the class exploitation, death seemed ordinary.”
In 2005, Biswokarma came close to death during a gunfight between the Maoists and the Nepali forces in Khara village, in the district of Rukum. The Maoists suffered heavy losses and Biswokarma was fortunate to survive.
“I was there as a journalist, but when my friends started to die in the battle front, I fought as well,” he says looking towards the overcast sky.
Less than a year later, the Maoists signed a peace deal.
‘Now, we eat together’
More than 16,000 – men and women – mainly belonging to ethnic minorities and Dalits were killed during the war and hundreds still remain missing .
It was a war that promised to “end the caste and gender discrimination”, Biswokarma says.
“We felt that even if we died it would be for the community, for … those who were facing injustice.”
The powerful Shah monarchy, which was removed in 2008, promoted policies that benefited the upper caste at the cost of Dalits and indigenous communities, who were hugely under-represented in government jobs and the armed forces.
Biswokarma believes that the discrimination has lessened. “Now, we eat together,” he says sheepishly.
But the discrimination hasn’t disappeared altogether.
“Although I myself don’t feel discrimination, my father does,” Biswokarma says. “When he has to go somewhere far, the villagers tell him that he’s a Kami [a local surname of Dalits] and has to sit at a lower place, outside the house.”
“But they don’t do that to me since I am a journalist, and they think I will write about it,” he adds with a wry smile.
‘Our friends didn’t die just for this’
The Maoist rebellion may not have brought a dramatic change to the material conditions of Dalits but, as veteran Nepali Congress leader Pradeep Giri explains, the communist movement “awakened the various ethnic minority groups”.
For the first time, the gates of political opportunity seemed to be opened to the country’s most marginalised communities.
In the first post-war constituent assembly elections, held in 2008, of the 575 people who were elected, 49 were Dalits. No Dalits had been elected in the previous elections, held in 1999.
In September 2015, nearly a decade after the war ended, Nepal passed a new constitution. But it has faced opposition from ethnic minority groups such as the Tharus and Madhesis living in the country’s southern plains.
Madhesis, who form more than one-third of the population, complain of discrimination in jobs and politics while the Tharus have faced cultural and political repression.
They say several progressive provisions of the 2007 interim constitution, such as Proportional Inclusion, have been watered down and that the new constitution fails to address their political and economic exclusion.
Biswokarma is cautious about the new constitution. “This constitution gives priority to proportional representation, although we don’t know how it will be put into practice.
“We Dalits think the clauses on proportional inclusion [or representation] – which ensures Dalit representation in state organs – is better than before,” he says, before adding: “We wanted special rights for Dalits but didn’t get it.”
Following anti-constitution protests that erupted in September 2015, the country is divided between the Madhesis, who demand constitutional amendments, and those from the hills and mountains of Nepal, often referred to as the hill people, who oppose any changes. Hill-based parties have resorted to nationalistic rhetoric, and anti-minority sentiment, particularly targeting Madhesi people.
As the Maoists have failed to deliver on many of their wartime promises they have lost much of the goodwill they had enjoyed from marginalised groups.
Khagendra Sangraula, a prominent Marxist intellectual, describes the Maoists as having been “co-opted” by the same political system against which they waged their decade-long war.
Their promise of an inclusive state structure remains unfulfilled and Dalits remain one of the most marginalised communities in this country of 29 million.
But for now, Biswokarma still holds on to his Maoist ideology, although the status quo has started to bother him.
“Looking at it from yesterday’s eyes, [I ask] did the martyrs die just for this?,” he says, before answering his own question. “No. Our friends didn’t die just for this.”
“Their dream – our dream – was to establish a state for the unhappy poor, to liberate those facing discrimination.”
Additional reporting by Gyanu Adhikari.