Photos by Jed Smith
Vijay shouldn’t have been mad.
Born into the elite Brahman caste, in the famed Ghorka province of Nepal, his family was wealthy by local standards. They had food, housing, heating, and ample access to jobs and opportunity. The problem was no one else did. “I am a Brahman from the high caste system but I have many friend in the school who are poor, so maybe I can carry some of it in myself,” he begins.
Each year as the cold, harsh winter swept through the Himalayan foothills, he was horrified to watch many of friends struggling to stay alive. Low on food and unable to stay warm in their rudimentary mountain huts, his family would often be forced to clothe, feed and house the less fortunate. They were happy to do so, but the injustice of it all eventually wore Vijay down. The inequality was too in-your-face to ignore and asked too many questions, to which there was no logical answer.
“We, the young generation from school, saw that the hierarchical caste system is not good,” he says. “The high caste people dominate the low caste people, the rich people having always more and more money, the poor are working all the day but to eat is difficult. When it is cold they do not have enough clothes, they don’t have enough food, they are always almost like a servant of the rich people,” he says.
The Ghorkas are a proud people. You might already know them as the world famous fighting force whose soldiers occupy pride of place in the British armed forces. Born at high altitude and raised in some of the most inhospitable and rugged terrain on the planet, they possess near superhuman resilience and dexterity in the face of extreme conditions (their motto, “better to die than be a coward,” speaks to their values). From the mid-1700s until 2008, the Ghorkas ruled all of Nepal, which was once known as Ghorka Kingdom (it became Nepal in 1930). Their proud history only exacerbated the humiliation of poverty. It was Vijay’s grandad who first sowed the seeds of rebellion in him—as is customary in Nepal, Vijay was raised by his grandparents while his mother and father tended to the fields.
“My grandfather was one of the rebel ones,” he says. “He is always doing the new things, he has new ideas and he always says not to believe in religion because religion divides between the people and the hierarchy of the high caste and low caste.”
By the time Vijay reached high school, his village was a hotbed of revolutionary zeal. What began as a whisper quickly turned into a roar and Vijay was swept up in it. “I saw the energy in the hill in the mountain and it was like, wow, something is changing. I feel it, so I start to go to their meetings, go to support, and every time my blood is getting warm and warm. When I hear and when I think maybe someday this country will change and we are the people who change the country, I feel really grateful,” he says.
As the movement took off, his village began implementing their utopian vision of equality. “In the revolutionary time they speak about the hierarchy, how the class system must end in my village, how we have to change Nepal, we have to change everything, and in my village the land is free, everyone has to get the right to food, housing, and clothing,” he says, adding, “The idea was nice, but it did not succeed.”
Vijay and his friends signed up to the revolutionary force. They helped round up money from nearby villages. Weapons were secured through the black market, and the revolution began. “The rebel group create their own army, they declare their own state, their own government, and there is another group, another government, two governments, two armies. There was fighting. If you go one side, you are a target of the other,” he says.
The government-controlled capital, Kathmandu, was set-up by the Ghorka King for a specific reason—it sits in a valley surrounded by hills on every side and can be defended easily from various vantage points. Everything else—the foothills, Himalayas and motorways—belonged to the rebels. Vijay’s job was to run communications and hard currency across enemy lines to rebels elsewhere in the country. With his fair skin and fluent English, he was able to pose as a tourist to avoid detection. Had he been caught, he would have faced imprisonment, torture and death.
“They torture you a lot, a lot. They say, ‘Where is your leader?’ when they torture you, very tough torture, and when they find you say nothing they kill you,” he says. “It’s a bit risky, I knew that, but I did it for the name of the revolution because I love to change Nepal.”
Had it not been for his mother falling ill, Vijay would have been among the 11 rebels shot dead during a government raid in the village he was stationed in. He had returned home to care for her when a helicopter, acting on a tip-off from a local government informant, arrived.
“They come by helicopter and shoot everyone. One of the supporters of the government was in the village and he gave notice that rebels are in that house and they kill everyone… I had friends who were killed,” he says. After the ambush, his network of rebels were forced underground, relying on the goodwill of sympathetic villagers to avoid detection. As crippling paranoia set in, the Ghorka motto kicked in.
“After I speak with friends and my villagers, ‘Well, guys, this is the time to change,’” he says. “We had to hide as much as possible at that time. To hide is to not expose anything. You say nothing, you are normal people of the village. When they come to search in the village for us we are just like the other normal people in the village. Life is getting tough more and more,” he says.
Elsewhere, the rebels were continuing to breathe life into their vision, rounding up funds for the creation of various unions representing everyone from farmers and teachers, to ethical committees and the various castes. In doing so, however, the cracks had begun to appear. To secure financing rebels would often be forced to stand over the rich, which Vijay was okay with, “because I am against rich people.” But he drew the line at extorting the poor and the working classes, which was also often required.
“They [the rebels] collect the money and then the high ranking leader spend it themselves, and maybe they have to break the leg of the people and the hands of the people who don’t give the money,” Vijay says. “People who are honest working people have to do it when the high command says you have to do it. So I didn’t like that, and when they collect money they don’t really invest for the poor,” he says.
As a Brahman, Vijay had more insight than most into the machinations of the rebellion and its leaders. Once he saw where the money was going, and the reasons why, he became disillusioned. “The hierarchy was still there. There were no lower class people who were the leader. Always the leader is the high-class leader, so they will not change themselves. Still now, power is always in the high-class people, they can’t give it up,” he says.
When Vijay spoke out, he was ostracised to the point he could no longer trust in the rebels to deliver him reliable intelligence about the threat of government raids in the regions he was working in. He had to get out or risk being offed in an ambush that was either set up, or one he was never told about.
Nevertheless, the communist insurgency prevailed in Nepal, leaving the nation with female communist Bidhya Devi Bhandari (Unified Marxist-Leninist), their current president. After 10 years of fighting, in which 19,000 were killed, the conflict climaxed with the grizzly slaughter of nine members of the royal family at the dinner table, the circumstances and motivations for which remain shrouded in mystery. (The “carefree” prince Dipendra was fingered as the culprit, but conspiracy theories continue to swirl that his brother and soon-to-be monarch, Gyanendra was responsible.)
Vijay has long parted ways with the rebel movement by then, picking up work as a porter and a guide in the Himalayas for half the year and spending the other half as a farmhand on a property in Italy owned by some tourists he’d accompanied on a trek. Eventually, he’s accrued the capital to buy a share in a quaint Wes Anderson-esque bed and breakfast called Peace and Park, in the famous Thamel district in Kathmandu, where you can still find him today.