She was once a formidable commander of the People’s Liberation Army but today has a new cause – that of her fellow women fighters who bravely fought a war, but are struggling to survive the peace
When Leela Sharma, a 17-year-old college student, went to a Maoist gathering organised by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to give a lecture on women’s issues in September 1997, she thought she’d only be away for a few days.
She had recently enrolled as a student at Mahendra Multiple Campus in Ghorahi, a town in Dang district, moving away from her home in Deukhuri. She was staying in a rented room, cooking her own meals and studying to realise her dream of becoming a school teacher. She was focused on her studies, but she also wanted to learn about life in rural areas.
She told the Maoist cadre member who approached her that she would join him only for four days. But as things turned out, she never went back to college. She had never thought that this sojourn would turn into a life-long commitment to the party.
It took her several months to adjust to the new life as a Maoist, trekking through mountain trails, meeting villagers and spreading the party ideology. “I really felt uncomfortable. I would go hungry for several days because I wasn’t used to food available there,” she said. She was served nettle soup, a staple diet for rural folk but hard for her to get down. The lack of sanitation in rural households made her nauseous.
Despite her discomfort, in Sharma, who later adopted the nom de guerre of Asmita, the Maoists found a dynamic young woman ripe for radicalisation. In fact, her political education had started at home in 1990, after the restoration of democracy in Nepal. As a sixth grader, she participated in a political rally, walking for several hours.
Both of her parents were local political leaders, but their ideologies were poles apart. And both wanted their children to join their party. Her mother, Kunda Devi Sharma, a member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal), encouraged her to become a communist. Her father, Dilli Raj Sharma, a member of the Nepali Congress and a landholder who employed bonded labourers, on the other hand, would urge her to join his party. Dama Sharma, her elder sister, was married to Yagyashwar Sharma, a Maoist cadre member.
Life as a guerrilla
Not long after joining the insurgents, she was caught up in their war against the state, often narrowly escaping death. In February 1998, when the police stormed the rebels’ hideout in the hamlet of Phata in Dang. Asmita and another female comrade only narrowly managed to escape, spending the night in the jungle without food and with swollen feet. Their two male colleagues were not so lucky; one was shot dead and the other has been missing since.
Such experiences grew routine as Asmita rose up the ranks to become president of the Dang district committee of the party’s All Nepal Women’s Association (Revolutionary). Once, in the district’s southern plains, her unit faced a security patrol while waiting to annihilate a man her party designated as a ‘class enemy’. “I thought we were all going to be killed. First my thoughts turned to my mother. I thought of my elder sister (Dama Sharma), who was in jail,” she said. Luckily for the rebels, the house owner saved them by diverting the security forces and allowed the guerrillas to escape.
Asmita took part in a dozen battles, but the one in Khara of Rukum in April 2005 proved to be a turning point. She was a commissar while Sita Bishwakarma ‘Samjhana’ was the commander in the only PLA company led by women. The battle resulted in huge losses to the PLA; many commanders were wounded and killed.
After the battle of Khara, Asmita was promoted to become a battalion commander and later brigade vice commander. On the frontline, Asmita said the growing strength of the then Royal Nepal Army, especially its helicopter gunships, was instrumental to the Maoist defeat in several battles. Asmita lost many of her comrades to such aerial blitz. On November 29, 2005, PLA division commander and Asmita’s mentor Khim Bahadur Thapa ‘Sunil’ was killed in an aerial attack during a programme to announce the 5th division of the PLA.
In November 2005, the rebels and a coalition of seven parliamentary parties struck a 12-point deal in New Delhi, paving the way for mass protests against King Gyanendra Shah, who had seized executive power earlier that year. In October, 2005 the party central committee approved Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai’s proposal to join hands with the mainstream parties.
The Maoist leadership, according to Asmita, sold the new party line to cadres as a tactical move. “Ever since our party entered the peace process, we have given up our war-time institutions such as people’s government and people’s court, one after another. Then we realised it was not a tactic (karyaniti) but a strategy (rananiti),” she said.
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 was estimated to be just 3,000.
Asmita was prevented from joining the army because her party had earlier deployed her to the Young Communist League (YCL), the party’s youth wing, and hence she was not counted as a combatant. Having also been appointed Dang district incharge of the Tharuwan State Committee, she had to return to her home district to carry out her responsibilities.
Back to civilian life
Transitioning to a civilian life wasn’t easy. In 2007, she married a fellow Maoist, Deepak Devkota. The war and her party’s ideology had made a dent on her belief system and personality. Like hundreds of women Maoists, she wore shirts and pants, traditionally considered male attire. “It was really tough for me to adjust to the life of a daughter-in-law. My in-laws were uncomfortable with the way I dressed,” she said. She was expected to wear a sari and behave like a typical middle-class housewife.
After she gave birth to a baby boy in 2009, she had to move back to Kathmandu from Dang, leaving her party work and becoming a central member of the YCL. She faced hostilities outside her home as well. In her Kathmandu neighbourhood, she tried to persuade her neighbours to collect funds to upgrade the road to the locality. “But everyone opposed it, saying that it was the state’s job,” she said. Then she realised that she had to readjust to life in the city, where individualism was the norm.
Nepal has since turned from a Hindu kingdom to a secular republic. Her party has headed a coalition government on two occasions in the past seven year, and Maoist leader Prachanda is now set to take over the government after former Prime Minister K.P. Oli resigned just before a no-confidence vote against him was to occur. The drafting of a constitution through an elected constituent assembly was a major Maoist condition for giving up arms. The hope was that such a charter would usher in an era of economic prosperity and political stability in Nepal. But on September 20, 2015, when the much-awaited constitution was promulgated by an overwhelming majority of lawmakers, it triggered protests across the country’s southern plains. By the end of the year, 60 people including 10 police officers and protesters from the Madhesi community of the plains were killed. The clashes calmed down only after an amendment of the constitution, though leaders of the Madhesi Morcha continued to protest.
Although Asmita is proud to be part of the force credited with playing significant role in bringing about the changes, she still feels that the decision to enter a peace process after ten long years was a mistake. “If we were going to end up in a situation that we are in today, our party should not have let so many of my fellow rebels shed their blood and sacrifice their lives,” she said.
A new fight for rights
In May 2011, Asmita was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she fought with the same determination and courage with which she waged her physical battles. The party collected funds for her treatment at New Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre, where she was eventually cured.
Surviving cancer was akin to getting a second life. She has considerably slowed down, venturing out of her home in Kathmandu only for urgent work. However, Asmita’s life still revolves around politics. She can’t imagine an apolitical life, she said. Living with her husband’s joint family, she’s often consumed by duties as a mother, wife and daughter-in-law. But her fellow rebels are never far from her thoughts.
In the summer of 2014, she and Kushal Rakshya, a battle hardened guerrilla who went on to become a brigade vice commander of the PLA, started the Former PLA Women’s Academy. Based on their surveys, the academy has estimated that the actual figure of women fighters in the PLA was close to 10,000, contrary to the UN estimate of 3,000. Asmita said that the discrepancy exists because many like her were transferred to other wings of the party after hostilities ended in 2006. The academy, which has 5,000 members, is determined to look after these former fighters, she said.
A year ago, she and her colleagues from the academy carried out a study on the plight of former women Maoist fighters across the country, which revealed the majority of them to be in dire straits. “Most of them are frustrated and disillusioned. Hundreds of them have disabilities from the war. Many have set up grocery shops, restaurants or livestock and poultry farms (from the retirement package of between 5,00,000 and 8,00,000 Nepali rupees offered to them in 2012). But most have suffered losses because they don’t have business acumen,” she said.
Despite the difficulties Asmita faced in reintegrating into a society she left to fight for the revolution, she holds out hope that the war veterans, who are still young, can start life anew. “We need to change ourselves from cadres dependent on the party for everything to civilians who can be models for others,” she said.
When asked about what she would have done differently if she had had a second chance, Asmita said, “I would have lobbied our leaders to ensure social benefits, at least for women who became mothers at the cantonments. Or I would have pressurised the government to integrate a large number of women into the Nepal Army.”
But this remains a wish. “First our party abandoned us. Now there’s no one to look after us,” she said. “If I could get help for these people, who are wounded and are struggling to get by, I would feel immensely satisfied.”