Martyrdom as Generative Sacrifice in the Nepal People’s War
Marie Lecomte-Tilouine
A condensed version of Marie Lecomte-Tilouine's paper appears below.
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Marie Lecomte-Tilouine is Senior Researcher in Social Anthropology at CNRS, France, and teaches at the Institut National des Langues Orientales, Paris.
Her book Revolution in Nepal: An Anthropological and Historical Approach to the People's War is available from Amazon.

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Abstract: In Nepal, war is a sacrifice. The warrior maintains a direct and unique relationship with the divine, since in warfare he makes a sacrificial gift of his own person, the bali dân—a gift that results in a ‘noble death’. The warrior can offer the sacrifice or be offered in sacrifice.

Launched in February 1996, the People’s War has, over the course of 10 years, caused at least 13,000 deaths. The Nepalese Maoists have a dual organization, comprising a political wing (the Communist Party of Nepal, CPN [Maoist]) and a military wing (the People’s Liberation Army, PLA), both of which are under the leadership of Chairman Prachanda, a Nepalese Brahman who gave his name to a local adaptation of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism called the Prachandapath, or Path of Prachanda.

In Nepal in the past, war was equated with sacrifice. This equivalence was made explicit in various practices, such as the conventional understanding that death on the battlefield does not pollute the relatives as death normally does, or the act of offering the body of slain enemies to a temple, which was observed by a Capucin father in the eighteenth century.

The warrior’s engagement is still described in present-day Nepal as a sacrificial gift of his own person, or bali dân. The warrior’s sacrifice is not a substitution as in the Brahminic theory but an alternative: to offer the sacrifice (to kill) or to be offered in sacrifice (to die). The unknown presides over this alternative, which, in both cases, leads to glory.

With the Maoist ideology, death loses its character of reciprocity: one’s own warriors are noble and heroic, while the valor of the opponents is denied or scorned. Whereas the rebel reaches a ‘noble death’ and becomes an ‘eternal martyr’, the Royal Nepalese Army soldier or the oppressor is ‘eliminated’ or ‘cleansed’, or meets an ‘infamous’ death.

Although they demonize the ‘enemy’ in an outrageous way in their weekly publications, the Maoists also depict themselves through demonic imagery. Thus, they often portray themselves as the well-known demon killed by the Goddess: every drop of blood that touches the ground gives birth to another demon. The Maoist martyr’s blood, similarly, forms blood-seeds (raktabij) that germinate in the land and give birth to 100 warriors. Death and destruction are seen as creative in compounded ways.

Within the People’s War, sacrifice aims at creating a better world on earth through its generative power of multiplication, which will help realize the ‘dreams of the martyrs’. This expectation contrasts with the promise of a personal celestial paradise to those who have offered their lives as martyrs within the Muslim or Christian traditions. The Nepalese revolutionary warriors appear in many ways as a type of renouncer.

They detach themselves from all the selfish components of life and even from their material bodies, which they offer to the war sacrifice ‘on the altar (vedi) of the revolution’. Their renouncement is motivated by altruism. They act for the liberation of the people and for the advent of a better world in a future that they will probably not enjoy.

But the Maoist journals also stress the benefits obtained by those who accept voluntary death. Self-sacrifice confers grandeur, shining glory, and an abstract sort of immortality on the fallen. It transforms them into stars that light up the dark world.
Without valorization of military sacrifice, few wars could be undertaken. Its instrumentalization obviously depends on the form of the combat and, in particular, on the mode of recruitment. In the Nepalese revolutionary movement, which has lasted now for more than 10 years without the immediate prospect of seizing power, the horizon of victory and of a possible rebuilding of society seems far away.

The Maoists have not been able to mobilize the masses. A military stalemate, whereby neither side can produce a victory, has been established, and chronic guerrilla warfare prevails. The Maoists present their goals as ‘a remote and luminous horizon’ or ‘a mountain’ that one endeavors to climb toward its unreachable top.

Since enrollment in the PLA is based on free will, there must be very strong symbolic motivations to induce recruits to offer themselves deliberately in sacrifice for a cause that is not likely to be successful any time soon. One can hardly give credence to the alternative notion that the rebel villagers are naive, suicidal, or seeking monetary recompense.

The Martyred Body

Violence and martyrdom occupy a large place in this literature, which defines nature as well as the history of humanity as violent and war as a means to obtain political power. Although the Maoists present themselves as fundamentally superior to their ‘enemies’ in terms of military ability, they also view themselves as martyred people. Their violent actions are seen as a legitimate response to the long history of violence inflicted by the state on the people, who form a vast suffering ensemble, suddenly set ablaze.

This ‘body of the revolution’, of which each member forms a part, materializes at large popular assemblies that often take place around the homage to martyrs. These gatherings—at which relatives of martyred soldiers, as well as wounded soldiers and their close relations, appear—are organized by the ‘family of martyrs’ or by the ‘association of self-sacrifice’.

At these meetings, all listen to the speeches and appreciate the honorable attitude of this core of afflicted people, who are placed in a front row, their faces covered with vermilion powder symbolizing the blood of the martyrs.

These living martyrs call for revenge and ask for blood, enhancing the anger of the assembled people. The mothers of the martyrs, in particular, seem to hold the role of pasionaria. One speaker, the mother of the martyr Vinita (alias Mandhu Bhattarai), addressed the revolutionary warriors in these terms: “My sons must bring the hot blood of the enemies to me, because it is necessary that I drink some before dying.”

Family Ties

The martyr forms a creative embryo that is propagated and extended in an inexorable way, because each of his ‘blood-seeds’ gives birth to new warriors. Within the family of the martyrs, as many texts testify, real kinship links are first of all activated to perpetuate the movement.

The martyrs’ blood not only gives rise to new soldiers but also is elevated to the status of a holy creative substance, one generating new social or political structures. It brings strength and energy to the revolutionary movement, solidifies the earth upon which the revolution exists, and forms the foundations for the new revolutionary order. As the martyrs are immortal, their blood, which contains their vital energy, is “a never drying blood”.

Those engaged in the armed struggle incorporate this vital substance by collecting the martyr’s blood (or a handful of earth mixed with it, or a symbolic red powder) and placing it on the forehead as a visible sign of this unification. At this moment, too, one swears an oath to carry the martyr’s weapons and to fulfill his or her ‘dreams’.

The martyr thus not only survives in a spiritual form but also is physically replaced by other warriors. These new recruits adopt a new name, signifying a change of identity when entering into the party. They no longer belong to themselves after this ‘gift’. Despite such symbolic readjustments, once a party member dies, his or her familial links are reiterated in a complicated manner.

The martyr’s family is accorded a central place at the moment of homage, but the martyrs’ mourning rituals are usually, it is said, not performed by relatives. This seeming innovation may be grounded in two facets of past practice: first, death on the battlefield was traditionally accorded purity, and, second, martyrs are likened to ascetics, figures understood to have burned their normal life away and secured immortality.


Because of strong friendship ties, and also perhaps because it prefigures one’s own fate, the loss of a comrade is evoked in extremely touching terms. Similar expressions of determination and feelings of revenge are then aroused. The texts of commemoration give the impression that the sentiment brought up by the experience of an alter ego’s death is one way to transform loss and sorrow into destructive energy. At the same time, the publication of these intimate texts communicates this transformation and this energy to others.

Human Weapons, Cast Indestructible

Contrary to the ‘heroes’, the red soldiers are not just equipped with weapons—they are themselves the human weapons of the apocalypse. In this perception, nothing can affect the revolutionary soldier, whose destructive capacity is increased by his mutilation, just as the revolutionary Maoist Army grows from the repression directed against it.

Cut my hands, break my legs
Pull out my tongue, extract my eyes
I won’t stop speaking, I won’t stop walking I’ll write ever and ever,
I’ll rather see better Destroy villages
Make a river of blood flow
Blood-seeds will germinate.

Beautiful Death

In the Nepalese Maoist philosophy, the meaning of human life is principally focused on death: achievements during lifetime and the value of human life are treated as negligible. Repetitively, the reader of Maoist literature is taught that to be born means to die and that self-sacrifice brings a meaning to this inescapable event. It is death that distinguishes the immortals from those whose fate is to be simply ‘cleaned’:

Human beings are born and then die. No one can divert or stop it. The only difference in death is for what purpose one dies, how one dies and which death brings honor. The one who considers that his personal interest is meaningless and who offers himself in sacrifice in the People’s War, to this one death confers splendor of honor. Or the one who understood the definition of life and death and who understood that once born, it is necessary to die, only this one can know a splendid and elevated death.

In the class struggle for the liberation of the members of the oppressed class, more than 8,000 heroic sons and daughters of Mother Nepal sacrificed their life. The sacrifice and the renunciation of these sacrificed soldiers made it possible to reach the top of Everest.

The great warrior Comrade Rejina, having given up her pleasure and her material well-being, having understood that birth means death, is known by her death in the Great People’s War, a death heavier than a mountain, higher than the top of Everest.

Thus, as part of their mobilizing strategies, the Maoist leaders propagate the idea that to die right now is not so terrible. The grandeur and heights of a splendid death are hence offered to the most humble peasants in the People’s War.

In Nepal, the concept of martyrdom is clearly dependent on the revolt against an established power and thus on the imbalance in the conflict, one that pits the weak against the mighty. In the PLA representations, the first martyrs of Nepal are those who fought against the powerful Rana government, which they helped overthrow in 1951. In fact, the Maoists seek to federate all of the revolutionary movements under their own banner.

Demonic Enemies

The development of this martyrology is made possible by the construction of an asymmetry between revolutionary forces and governmental forces, which is engineered through an emphasis on the enemy’s radical alterity. Thus, one strand of representation denigrates the state soldiers by depicting them as cowards who run away, denying them the honorable status of warriors, in contrast with the revolutionary soldiers, who are ready to face the enemy and bare their chests.

Another strand of imagery portrays the governmental forces as mad assassins who kill everyone, from newborn babies up to grandmothers, just for pleasure. They are even denied a human status through such disparaging and ill-omened designations as bloodthirsty lions, vultures, 5 dogs, or jackals.

The dehumanization of the state forces is hammered in by referring to them ‘demons’ who drink blood, imbibe intoxicating alcohol, and eat human flesh. They are said to carry out man-hunting, to throw little children into the fire, and to torture their prisoners in abominable ways. In this manner, the People’s War is cast as a re-enactment of the war between human beings (Mânava) and demons (Dânava).

The widespread negation of the enemy’s humanity enables the PLA to assert that ‘to clean’ is not to kill. As in the sacrificial context, murder is denied. Though in both contexts (Brahmanic sacrifice and the People’s War) the violence is directed toward the unification of the collective and toward creating a better world, the victims are treated in a reverse way by the sacrificer. In the sacrificial context, the animal is treated as a human (or conscious) being and is asked for its consent before being killed.

Inverted Values

Fire, corpses, and chains are the very weapons used by the revolutionary warrior, who thus diverts the forces of coercion, denying them power over body and spirit, which have already embraced death. The process resembles a conversion to symbolic self-martyrdom, which then enables the warrior to face his or her real (or physical) demise, for it has already taken place mentally. Death is interiorized and accepted in advance.

To be close to death—and more still, to touch it, to touch the corpses—transforms one’s perception of it. Death then becomes beautiful and desirable, as are the people whom one still loves in this state, a position expressed by Ganga Shrestha, another female warrior:

Dear death
One might wonder how death can be dear? How death can be beautiful?
But death can be dear, as no one can believe,
Can be beautiful as no one can imagine.
If you don’t believe it
Touch and look at the death of Basu. Touch and look at the death of Icchuk
There, you’ll meet the dream of Communism
There you’ll see the definition of life.

It is in the death of martyrs that the definition of life can be grasped, because it is a worthy promise of life for future generations. If one lives as if dead, one enters the true life by death, contributing to its occurrence in the ‘material world’.

Consequently, all values are inverted: happiness is misfortune, and misfortune brings happiness; life (under the present regime) is death, and death (in the People’s War) is eternal life.