Che Guevara in Nepal

Che Guevara never actually visited Nepal. But the country is marked by his legacy.

A billboard with Che Guevara's image outside of the Workers and Peasants Party office in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Juha Uitto / Flickr

In his long years as a rebel, Che Guevara never actually visited Nepal. But the country is still in a way marked by his legacy.

Several Nepali revolutionary leaders claim to have been directly inspired by Guevara’s example; and one (Ram Raja Prasad Singh) recalls in his memoirs that he actually met him (in Burma). He remains a vital point of reference for today’s activists. Che’s ideas about revolution run like a bright thread through the country’s radical tradition.

Singh, a Nepali political activist whom C. K. Lal describes as “the warrior revolutionary,” was born in 1936 in the Saptari district on the terai (plains). At the time, the border between Nepal and the Indian state of Bihar was virtually nonexistent. Singh grew up in the political ferment of the 1940s, when Mahatma Gandhi’s supporters faced ruthless and, at times, bloody suppression during their nonviolent protests.

Ram Raja recalls a particular incident from his childhood: during a rally organized by the Quit India Movement across the border from his home, he witnessed a shooting. As the protester died, some of the dissidents applied his blood to their foreheads, shouting “He has attained martyrdom; he is a martyr.” The incident remained vivid in Singh’s memory many years later. In his memoir, he wrote, “I realized how sacrosanct was the blood of a revolutionary!”

Ram Raja also highlights the role his own father, Jay Mangal Prasad Singh — known as Jangali babu because of his physical strength, quick temper, and fearless nature — played during the attack on the Hanumananagar jail.

The Indian socialist leaders, Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya and Jaya Prakash Narayan, had taken refuge in the Singh family home while training their cadres in armed combat. The Nepali authorities imprisoned them, pending transfer back to India.

A group of Nepali sympathizers attacked the jail, freed all the prisoners, and helped Lohiya and Narayan escape. Ram Raja recalls that his father, arrested and tortured, refused to divulge any details about the Indian revolutionaries whom he had befriended and liberated.

Jangali babu remained at the Central Prison in Kathmandu for nearly two years. Pressure from Indian nationalist leaders and the Nepali rulers’ growing recognition that Indian independence was inevitable finally led to his release. While their father was in jail, Ram Raja and his brother, although still minors, were also detained, although never formally arrested or charged.

After his father’s release, Ram Raja started attending boarding school in Darbhanga, India, where he was attracted to the Hindu fundamentalist group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), although he insists he never joined the organization. When Nathuram Gode, an RSS cadre, assassinated Gandhi, all the known RSS sympathizers were rounded up. Ram Raja avoided jail thanks to his Nepali citizenship. He was still only a teenager.

His father next sent Ram Raja to Banaras Hindu University (BHU), where he spent four years studying English literature and liberal arts. But after joining a general strike, he was expelled. He tried other schools — including the Aligarh Muslim University — but eventually ended up at the University of Delhi, where he mixed with many different kinds of radicals and began his revolutionary career.

In his memoir, Ram Raja recalls his friendship with a South American girl named Clara. He claims that Clara arranged for him and some of his friends to meet Guevara on an island off the Burmese coast in 1961.

As C. K. Lal remarks, “there is no way to confirm that the meeting took place. If Singh did indeed meet Che, as he claims, he is the only Nepalese person to have done so.” Regardless, Lal adds that, “nearly half a century after that meeting, Singh still became excited at the mere memory of Che’s charisma.”

Other sources suggest that Ram Raja met Che Guevara, although the details vary. For example, “Indian Freedom Fighters behind Nepal Revolution” reports that they met while Ram Raja was studying at Delhi University, and that Che told him to start a revolution.

Che’s World Tour

The details of Guevara’s international travels neither confirm nor preclude a meeting between the two men. In June 1959, Castro sent Guevara on a three-month tour of Africa, Asia, and Europe, during which he mainly visited Bandung Pact nations. This trip would have allowed Guevara to make contact with radical leaders and potential revolutionaries across these regions.

Guevara left Havana on June 12, 1959. He celebrated his thirty-first birthday in Madrid and then visited Egypt, where he met President Nasser and also Janio Quadro, president of Brazil. After that, he flew to Delhi, reaching Palam on the night of June 30. While in India, Che met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other political leaders. He went on to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and then to Burma before traveling to Indonesia and Japan.

No details of Che’s visit to Burma exist. Presumably, he would have met General Ne Win, who until 1960 led an ostensibly socialist caretaker government. (Ne Win would return to power in 1962, after overthrowing U Nu’s democratically elected government.)

In Jakarta, Guevara met with President Sukarno to discuss the recent Indonesian revolution and establish trade relations between their nations. The men quickly bonded. Sukarno was attracted to Guevara’s energy and informal approach, and they shared revolutionary, anti-imperialist politics. From July 15 to 27, Guevara negotiated with Japan in hopes of further expanding Cuba’s trade relations.

On his return journey, Che visited Singapore and stopped in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), then began his visits to Africa and Europe. Beginning to hear rumors about Castro’s ill health, he returned to Havana on September 8.

But this wasn’t the end of his travels in Asia. The next November, he and other international communist delegates met Chairman Mao in China. During a two-hour conversation, the two revolutionaries had the following exchange:

Chairman Mao: Last year you visited a few Asian countries?

Guevara: A few countries, such as India, Siam [Thailand], Indonesia, Burma, Japan, Pakistan.

Mao: Except for China, [you] have you been to all major Asian countries.

Guevara: That’s why I am now in China.

Mao: Welcome to you.

At the end of that year, Che also visited Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Hungary, and East Germany. On December 17, he signed a trade agreement in East Berlin. There, Tamara Bunke, later known as Tania, worked as Che’s interpreter. Years later, she was killed with him in Bolivia.

We have fewer details about Guevara’s travels in 1961, the year Ram Raja claims to have met him. He was certainly in Cuba during the first half of the year, because we know he was involved in the Bay of Pigs Invasion that April. Guevara did not participate in the main battle: the day before fourteen-hundred American-trained exiles landed on Cuba’s southern coast, a warship carrying marines faked an attack to the west, drawing the soldiers under Guevara’s command. Regardless, historians give him a share of credit for the Cuban victory thanks to his work as director of instruction for the armed forces.

No independent evidence indicates that Che visited Burma during the second part of 1961. That said, he had by then become Cuba’s international face and was traveling widely to see how to export the Cuban experience to help revolutionary movements around the world.

I have previously described how Che tried to assist the Congolese revolutionaries in 1965, and it became clear during my research that he had spent a considerable amount of time in other parts of the world during the early 1960s, identifying causes that would benefit from Cuban support.

If he had visited Burma in 1961, as Ram Raja claims, he would presumably have spoken with the elected prime minister U Nu. He may also have talked with young revolutionaries from other countries. We know for certain that he established a lasting legacy in Burma after his 1959 visit.

Many reports state that the iconic Burmese political dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, idolizes Che Guevara. When she was released from house arrest in November 2010, her party’s headquarters reportedly featured “tattered posters of Che Guevara . . . and her father, Aung San, a Burmese freedom fighter who helped negotiate the country’s independence from Great Britain.”

The All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF), which sought to mobilize an armed resistance movement in the late 1980s, also took inspiration from revolutionaries like Guevara.

His legacy persists to this day. A profile of Myat Thu, a Burmese dissident forced to flee the country after the military crushed nationwide protests in 1988, describes the restaurant he ran in Mae Sot, a small city across the border in Thailand, where “portraits of Che Guevara and Aung San Suu Kyi look down from the balcony.”

Some remain convinced that Ram Raja’s account is accurate. R. D. U. Lal writes that Ram Raja “was the only leader from Nepal who had met with Revolutionary Leader Che Guevara in Burma during his law studies, and it is believed that the meeting drew republican inspiration from him.”

A Committed Group of Revolutionaries

Although previously reluctant to describe himself as a Marxist, Guevara explained Cuba’s ideology at the First Latin American Congress in September 1960 this way: “l would define it as Marxist. Our revolution has discovered by its methods the paths that Marx pointed out.”

In later statements, Guevara echoed the American Declaration of Independence, describing “truths so evident, so much a part of people’s knowledge, that it is now useless to discuss them. One ought to be Marxist with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics, or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology.”

According to Guevara, Cuba’s “practical revolutionaries” aimed to “simply fulfill laws foreseen by Marx, the scientist,” but he also took the role of moral commitment seriously. In the words of C. K. Lal:

In Che’s formulation, all that was needed to stage a revolution was a committed group of revolutionaries. A popular guerrilla force could then be raised to a sufficient level to defeat the incumbent government. Unlike traditional Marxists, he believed that the attitude of the people was more important and there was no need for “special war conditions” to start a revolution. Finally, the countryside was crucial as the “base area” for guerrillas fighting in poor countries.

Lal tells us that “Singh translated some of Che’s essays into Nepali, although none of them can now be traced.” He also remembers that Ram Raja told Babu Ram Bhattarai, the main ideologue of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and its People’s War, “every revolution is an original creation. No revolutionary can replicate the other’s experience. Every revolutionary has to be original.”

There can be no doubt — because they have said as much — that Bhattarai and other Maoist leaders took this advice to heart when they decided to launch the People’s War in 1996. But Ram Raja’s Singh’s own revolutionary career took a different turn.

For Democracy

After finishing his studies in Delhi, Ram Raja read law at Bihar University, returning to Nepal in 1964. Three years later, he contested one of the four seats reserved for national graduates in the assembly elections.

His pamphlet outlined his argument that “political transformation in Nepal had to undergo the process of representation, persuasion, agitation, and revolution.” “Revolutionaries,” he declared, should be prepared for “the annihilation of the old order.” Given such an apocalyptic vision, he was arrested, barred from the election, and charged with sedition.

He secured his release through familial connections to the Indian establishment and by persuading the court that he had only discussed the theoretical stages of revolution and was therefore not guilty.

His defense resembles the argument Nelson Mandela made during his three-hour speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1963–64, when he justified the African National Congress’s (ANC) decision to launch a sabotage campaign and begin training a military wing. Mandela explained that, considering the growing restrictions on political activity, the ANC elected to abandon its earlier reliance on constitutional methods and nonviolent opposition.

By the 1970s, Ram Raja and his party, the Nepali Congress Party (NCP), had begun to disagree about the best strategy for building democracy in Nepal. The party leadership had lost faith in armed struggle and had handed over their weapons to insurrectionists in East Pakistan. In contrast, Ram Raja, along with many others in the NCP and the Nepali communist movement, thought that reform from within was impossible. They considered taking up arms.

In 1968, Pushpa Lal, the founder of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), left the main body to establish a separate group, which became known as the CPN (Pushpa Lal). More communist groupings developed from this original split. In 1971, a group of CPN leaders — Manmohan Adhikari, Shambhu Ram, and Mohan Bikram Singh — were released from jail and formed the Central Nucleus, which tried to unite with Pushpa Lal’s group. This failed, and Central Nucleus itself broke apart.

Adhikari formed the Communist Party of Nepal (Manmohan), which developed close relations with the Communist Party of India (Marxist); M. B. Singh’s group became known as Communist Party of Nepal (4th Congress); other splinter groups included the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Krishna Das), the Communist Party of Nepal (Burma), and the Communist Party of Nepal (Manandhar). In 1975, Pushpa Lal’s group developed into the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist). The original CPN became just one of many factions, eventually taking the name CPN (Amatya) and adopting a pro-Soviet position.

Ram Raja once again ran as a graduate constituency candidate for the national assembly in 1971. He began a whirlwind tour of the country, promoting a platform that called for an end to the undemocratic panchayat system. His inflammatory pamphlet, C. K. Lal writes, “sent teenagers who hardly understood its meaning into a frenzy.”

On October 22, 1971, the Naya Sandeh weekly reported on a speech Ram Raja made in Biratnagar, writing that the candidate “went beyond the limits” and told the audience, “if the panchayat system is not abolished peacefully . . . the leaves of the trees will turn into bombs, grains of paddy will become bullets.”

He won his seat, marking a significant defeat for the regime, which prevented him from taking an oath of office and arrested him. After a special tribunal convicted him, King Mahendra invited Ram Raja to the palace, a method the monarchy used to woo dissenters. Mahendra granted him a royal pardon, allowing him to take his place in the assembly.

In 1975, he again toured the country, this time in his official capacity as a NCP activist and an assemblyman. His rousing speeches decried the regime’s undemocratic control over the nation. Once again, he was expelled from the national assembly and arrested. Indeed, he spent much of his time over the next few years in and out of jail.

In 1976, he established the Nepal Democratic Front as a left-wing political movement; the party changed its name to the Multi-Party Democratic Front when King Birendra called a referendum to decide the future of the panchayat system in 1980.

To prepare for the vote, other prominent NCP activists were released from jail. The whole spectrum of communist parties — some of which, like the CPN (Fourth Convention) or CPN (Masal) under M.B. Singh, refused to endorse the referendum but were prepared to participate in it. Ram Raja himself began to call not only for multi-party democracy but also for a constituent assembly. Meanwhile, he started mobilizing support for a guerrilla struggle.

Ram Raja’s Guerrilla War

Ram Raja began recruiting fighters from the NCP’s left wing, while seeking out weapons and support. He tried to establish training camps in his old stomping ground of Bihar and reached out to the Tamil freedom fighters and Tiger Siddiqui, the nephew of the assassinated Bangladeshi prime minister Mujibur Rahman. All of this was to no avail.

So, he went to Chambal and bought guns from the bandits there. One recommended he use explosives rather than guns, and he took this advice. He recruited some ex-servicemen from the Nepal army to train his young guerrillas.

K. Lal remarks that “not much is known about what Singh and his band of guerrillas did between 1980 and 1985 — he claims they were being trained in handling fire-arms and explosives in different locations around northern India.”

Whatever they were doing, they felt sufficiently prepared to act in the summer of 1985. That May, the NCP had called for a civil disobedience action, which won support from other left-wing activists, including most of the communist parties. The media described the event as a sign of a gathering storm. Then, on June 20, 1985, a series of coordinated blasts in the capital and in other cities rocked Nepal.

At least eight people died, including a member of parliament. In Kathmandu, the explosions went off near the royal palace, at the Hotel de l’Annapurna, at the prime minister’s office, and near the national assembly, killing a politician. A staff member at the Annapurna Hotel also lost her life.

In Pokhara, the person responsible for the bomb was killed, along with another woman in Birgunj. Bombs also went off at the Bhairahawa airport, Nepalganj and Mahendranagar in the west, and Janakpur, Biratnagar, and Jhapa in the east.

Singh and his guerrillas admitted responsibility but defended their actions. They explained that they had planned the bombing at the national assembly for a holiday, believing no one would be there. Unfortunately, the rain drove some people to take shelter, turning them into unintended victims.

Likewise, the guerrillas had left the explosive device on the Annapurna Hotel’s lawn, but someone had inadvertently deposited it in the lobby. Once again, parallels with the ANC’s actions stand out: Mandela explained that they intended to wage war against the apartheid state and had no intention of killing anyone.

After the explosions, hundreds were arrested. Ram Raja Singh was charged and found guilty in absentia. He, his brother Laxman, Bisheshwar Mandal, and Prem Bahadur Vishwakarma were given the death penalty; others received life sentences, and many had their property confiscated. These named leaders went underground, but five others disappeared while in custody.

After the first spectacular attacks, Ram Raja’s outfit could not continue. The Nepali Congress withdrew its call for civil disobedience but blamed the palace for the blasts. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi expressed his “deep distress and shock at the bomb blasts” and reiterated his strong opposition to terrorism.

Singh was arrested in India, but the state subsequently released him secretly and allowed him to live quietly in Patna.

The revolution ended in less than a year, almost without a trace. In 2008, Ram Raja tried to explain his group’s decision. He asserted that the bombings were intended to bolster the NCP’s civil disobedience and compared them to the activities of the armed revolutionaries who had supported protests during the Quit India Movement.

After G. P. Koirala became the first elected prime minister of the new multiparty democratic order in 1990, the state withdrew all charges against Ram Raja. He even stood as an NCP candidate in the midterm elections of 1994, but he lost badly and retired.

The Legacy Continues

Unpersuaded by the new democratic order’s progressive potential, Nepal’s various communist parties struggled during the early 1990s to find a path to promote revolutionary transformation. Keshar Jung Rayamaji’s faction aligned itself with the palace; another formed a coalition under the name CPN (United Marxist Leninist). This party became widely referred to as the UML and participated in elections, briefly holding office in 1994.

In 1985, the Maoists, notably M. B. Singh’s CPN (Masal), split into two main factions: the CPN (Masal) and a new CPN (Mashal). It divided again, and a group of younger revolutionaries, including Prachanda and Babu Ram Bhattarai, called for armed struggle to achieve their aims, forming the CPN (Maoist) — the party that launched the People’s War in 1996.

Ram Karki, an old Democratic Front worker who had joined the People’s War, took Bhattarai and his wife Hisilia Yami to meet Ram Raja, who was by then leading a quiet life of obscurity. C. K. Lal remarks that “Singh does not recollect the exact date of the meeting but believes it was some time after Gyanendra’s ascension to the throne,” which would have been sometime in 2001. Ram Raja later met Prachandra in his New Delhi safe house.

There can be little doubt that these leaders decided to launch their armed insurgency in part because of a belief they shared with both Ram Raja and Che Guevara: “all that was needed to stage a revolution was a committed group of revolutionaries.” In 1996, few regarded the conditions as appropriate for revolution. Nevertheless, Bhattarai and his comrades started the People’s War and continued it into the twenty-first century.

Bhattarai himself claims that, while a student, he “encountered a small book about a person I had never heard of before . . . and it shook up my life. This was the biography of Che Guevara, and after I read it I swore to do everything in my power to help my people live in real economic and social freedom.”

Che Guevara’s influence on Nepali revolutionaries continues. In December 2010, the Maoist All Nepal National Independent Students Union – Revolutionary (ANNISU-R) invited Manuel Abimael Guzman’s son and Che Guevara’s granddaughter to its conference along with Maoist student leaders from eighteen countries.

In 2015, Ranjit Bhushan described Prachanda as a member of the league of “great communist underground warriors, a sort of an Asian Fidel Castro or Che Guevara.” Bhushan also cites what he calls “a rare interview” with Prachanda. In this conversation, Prachanda was asked whether he counts himself among “those heroic communist leaders who have led revolutions, like Mao, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others.” Prachanda replied:

In the communist movement it has been established that a revolution cannot be repeated. Revolution can only be developed according to the concrete situation of every nation and every country.

The revolution that Lenin led in the Soviet Union cannot be repeated, nor Mao’s in China, nor Castro’s and Guevara’s in Cuba. In other words — in fact, in Che’s words — “every revolution is an original creation; no revolutionary can replicate the other’s experience; every revolutionary has to be original.”