“Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady” by Hisila Yami

Election poster featuring Hisila Yami (Photo: 
Adam Jones
) Election poster featuring Hisila Yami (Photo: Adam Jones )

While in the mid 1990s, with China rapidly embracing capitalism, a Maoist insurgency may have seemed an incongruous  throwback to the numerous proxy conflicts that had raged throughout the Cold War. Yet in Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had never been more relevant.

In 1996, Hisila Yami, daughter of a former government minister, went underground to take part in Nepal’s People’s War, as Maoists battled the Nepali state, fighting against a repressive monarchy. 11 years later, Hisilia was a Minister in Nepal’s new government and would go onto be an elected member of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. Yet despite these achievements, Hisila is often regarded as merely the wife of former Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattari (BRB), rather than an influential politician in her own right. This is her chance to set the record straight.

The first section of the book details her political transition from a member of the political elite who enjoyed, in her own words, a “pampered upbringing”, studying classical music and transcendental meditation in an elite college in Delhi, to a political revolutionary. However, as interesting as the anecdotes of her student days are, it is her account of the 10-year People’s War and the Maoist transition to mainstream political party that will interest most readers.

These accounts detail her role in the party during her time spent in hiding in India and in the Maoist stronghold of Thawang in western Nepal as the war raged on. These accounts provide a welcome, and crucially important feminist perspective of life in the Maoist camp. Despite the party’s vocal desire for gender equality, she outlines her own struggle for acceptance, how she faced gender discrimination and suspicion about her bourgeois education.

 

Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady, Hisila Yami (Penguin India, new edition, May 2021)
Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady, Hisila Yami (Penguin India, new edition, May 2021)

Inter-party disputes are a major theme and the book dedicates significant time to BRB’s decades long spat with Pushpa Kumal Dahal, the leader of the Community Party of Nepal (Maoist) and better known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda. So much time is given to her accounts of these disputes, at times it appears that the Maoist leadership spent most of the 10 years of the People’s War engaged in academic theoretical disputes and conferences, rather than a bloody war that left more than 17,000 people dead.

It is no surprise she falls in support of her husband and as she admits BRB is unlikely to write an autobiography of his own, these sections of the book may be the closest we will get to hearing his side of the argument. Prachanda comes across as a ruthless individual, the head of a Stalinesque cult of personality while BRB becomes the dedicated ideologue. A man who sabotaged his own political ambitions out of a sense of loyalty to a political idea, repeatedly attacked for his intellect and education. At times the contrast between the two seems somewhat incredible. While Prachanda was seen to “enjoy consumerism where he could. He sported expensive watches and preferred expensive cars. In contrast, BRB was more detached from worldly possessions”. Hisila unsubtly hints at Prachanda’s drinking problem and there is even a claim that Prachanda was busy trying to sell the weapons of the People’s Liberation Army to a foreign country, only for BRB to stop him and save him “from a big embarrassment and act of treachery”. While the book isn’t a complete hagiography of BRB, there is a notable absence of criticism aimed at him, and any problems within party leadership swiftly are attributed to faults within the Prachanda faction.

The book can as a result at times feel somewhat split in its aim. Is it a personal account of a female PLA cadre, or is it a blow-to-blow account of the inner line split in the Maoist party?

 

After the end of the People’s War, the book moves into a discussion of the political world following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Maoists role in government, her time as First Lady when BRB served as Prime Minister and BRB’s eventual split from the Maoists in 2015 to form his own political party.

It is a shame that the extensive number of pages dedicated to BRB’s spat with Prachanda threatens to drown out Hisila’s own astute and thoughtful insights. Hisila comes across as erudite and highly personable and anyone who has plodded through dry political autobiographies will appreciate her engaging writing style. There are moving passages on the death of her first-born son, on her depression while a post-graduate student and on the racist abuse her daughter suffered in the UK.

The book nevertheless remains a must-read for those interested in Nepal’s recent political history, offering a vital female perspective on the People’s War and the Maoists’ commitment to gender equality as well as a vivid portrayal of a deeply divided party.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.