A lot of people know Hisila Yami only as the wife of former Maoist ideologue and ex-prime minister Baburam Bhattarai. Her critics, of which she has many, have portrayed her as being Bhattarai’s domineering better-half, or worse.
As Bhattarai’s partner before the Maoist conflict, through the insurgency from 1996-2006, and after, Yami was an insider within the Maoist party. But she has always been in Bhattarai’s shadows, and we have not heard much about her own role in shaping recent Nepali history. Till now.
In her new book Hisila: from Revolutionary to First Lady that was launched this week on Amazon, Yami chronicles her many roles as a daughter in an elite Newa family in Kathmandu, a college student in India, meeting and marrying Bhattarai, becoming an underground revolutionary, a three-time minister, the wife of a prime minister, as well as a mother and a feminist.
In Hisila, she combines this personal journey with revelations about the revolution that shaped Nepal for the past three decades. Because of her husband, and her own role in the party, what we have is an intimate account its internal dynamics from someone who was in the thick of it.
It is understandable that Baburam Bhattarai (BRB) looms large in the book. Because of this, Hisila is not just about Hisila Yami — it offers unique insight into Bhattarai’s personality and his role in planning and executing the revolution. The book details his love-hate relationship with Prachanda during the conflict, his role in the constitution-drafting process, rise to prime ministership, and finally his departure from the Maoist party.
Hisila Yami and Baburam Bhattarai.
What makes this perspective unique is Yami’s position within the Maoist party as an outsider on the inside. Her background was different from most other comrades: she was urban, highly educated, and an outspoken woman.
“It may read like an auto-biography, but it is a political history of the movement, and a documentation of what happened from inside it. I know many Communists and non-Communists will not like some parts, but I have given a truthful personal account of our experience,” Yami told us about her book this week.
Divided into three sections, Hisila begins with young Yami in Delhi where Bhattarai becomes her mentor and political guide. The middle section goes into details about the insurgent years, most of which were spent in India, and then the post-conflict period.
She writes: ‘Before I met BRB in Delhi, my concern for my country was social, not political. On the IIT campus, I used to see Nepali maids working in professors’ houses and feel uncomfortable when invited to their houses for dinner. In most hostels, the cooks and helpers were from Nepal … Seeing the plight of some of the Nepali workers in India, I had a social awakening, which was to be transformed into a political awakening.’
Sita Dahal, Prachanda, Baburam Bhattarai and Hisila Yami on their way from India to Rolpa for the Phuntiwang meeting in 2004.
Her account of the internal dynamics, especially between BRB and PKD (Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prachanda) provide a rare and first-ever glimpse into what was going on inside the party during the historical milestones of the launch of the ‘Peoples War’ in February 1996, the various Maoist central committee meetings in Indian cities, the Phuntiwang, Luwang and Chunwang gatherings, the November 2005 conclave in Delhi with the Seven-Party Alliance, the ceasefire, and two Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 and 2013.
It is a widely known fact that PKD and BRB did not get along. But Yami tries to be objective in analysing their relationship, portraying Prachanda as a ‘pragmatist’ and Baburam as an ‘idealist’. But there is no doubt where her sympathies lie: she details how it is BRB’s antipathy to PKD’s Stalinist personality cult that brings about a rift between them. PKD is portrayed as a ‘conspirator’ who believes in ‘conspiracies’.
There were also differences between PKD’s nationalist, revolutionary anti-India line and BRB’s support for a ‘21st century democracy’. After senior Maoist leaders were arrested in India, BRB comes under suspicion, and both husband and wife are disciplined and detained for six months in Rolpa in 2005.
She presents the other leaders as she knows them, Prachanda’s personality she says does not match his name. (‘Politically he may look fierce, being the leader of a Maoist movement, but in person he is flexible.’) She says his real name Pushpa Kamal which translates to lotus flower suited him better, as he is soft and charismatic.
Mohan Vaidya is ‘devoid of colour and is too serious’. Ram Bahadur Thapa is ‘philosophical when he describes contradiction, dialectic and relativity, but when it comes to inner party struggle, he often fails to firmly assert his political stance’.
Like Ram Bahadur Thapa (Badal) and Prachanda, many of the other characters in Hisila are still major players on Nepal’s political stage during the current crisis: Sher Bahadur Deuba, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Jhalnath Khanal, K P Oli. The book is therefore an important backgrounder that sets present-day politics in historical context.
Her description of Pushpa Kamal Dahal is especially apt: ‘Prachanda always needed to create two opposing sides to make himself invincible.’
The book details what was going on in the corridors of power during the CA elections, and Yami analyses the reasons why the Maoists won the first one and how it was relegated to third position in the second.
One wishes in places that Yami gave us more information, for example about the role of UNMIN in the peace process, and BRB’s controversial op-ed after the 2001 royal massacre. While the book mentions that many women joined the revolution because they were oppressed and the Royal Nepal Army had used rape as a weapon of war, it fails to address the same crimes from the Maoist side.
A photograph of Baburam Bhattarai, Hisila Yami, Ram Bahadur Thapa and Prachanda that was retrieved by the Nepal Army during the conflict. Photo: A PEOPLE WAR
Despite the rough edges and a few important omissions, Yami has tried to be as honest as possible, and has not shied away from knotty issues like the ‘war within the war’ between PKD and BRB, the Maoists’ India connection, as well as allegations of corruption against herself when she was in government (which she blames on PKD’s smear campaign).
Throughout the book, Yami talks about her feminist bent: how she became socially aware about the issues around women when she was in IIT Kanpur, her work with women trafficked in India, the surveys she ran among the female combatants.
The book doesn’t necessarily follow a chronological order, and there is some confusion with unnecessary repetition which could have easily been avoided with finer editing. We turn the pages waiting for some acknowledgement of the grief and suffering that the conflict caused to Nepalis, but it never comes.
Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady.