This paper explores the ambivalent relationship between Dalits and Maoists in the Nepali Civil War (1996-2006) using three field studies of villages in western and eastern Nepal. The aim is to investigate whether this period of social upheaval brought about lasting changes in caste discrimination practices in rural Nepal and through this investigation to ask larger, critical questions about the type of transformation achieved by Maoism in Nepal and its relation to the aspiration for ‘modernity’ in subaltern populations.

In order to address these questions three village cases were selected: two in Kalikot District in western Nepal (Malkot and Manma) and one in eastern Nepal (Kubinde in Sindhupalchok District). Malkot was selected because it was a Maoist ‘model village’ during the war period and was well known as a center for Dalit empowerment activities before and during the war. Manma shares Malkot’s demographic and socio-economic characteristics but was not a ‘model village’ during the war due to the presence of an army barracks in the town. Kubinde was an area of high Maoist social power, but not a model village and was selected to give an indication of how Dalits interacted with Maoists in eastern Nepal where Dalits comprise a lower percentage of the population. In each village we conducted extensive field interviews (in Summer 2014) and attempted to measure levels of caste discrimination in each village. Our aim was to find out whether discrimination practices (such as separate taps, excluded temple entry, denial of home and hotel entry and caste based economic practices) had changed during or after the ‘People’s War’.

Our main finding is that where Dalits had been able to infiltrate Maoist power structures before hostilities began a ‘synergy’ was created which enabled them to build on consciousness raising activities and bring about some enduring changes in caste practices. This was the case in Malkot. In the other two cases a relationship of co-optation (of Dalits by Maoist leaders) or indifference to Dalit issues appeared to be characteristic.

We conclude by exploring the implications for our understanding of Maoism as a social and political movement; what kind of ‘modernity’ did it try to bring about and what kind of local aspirations for modernity did it work with or against? In particular, local Dalit leaders appear to have wanted ‘locally embedded’ forms of modern development, that were arguably in tension with the Maoists’ ‘abstract’ and state-power directed goals. We also ask what implications these case studies have for the Dalit social movement in Nepal and look ahead to further field research (in Summer 2015) that will try and pinpoint more generally the legacies of Maoist ‘model villages’ on social transformation.