From the jungle to the table: A Former Child Soldier's Transition to Nonviolent Action

Photo source: Sabrina Dangol/TRIAL International

Lenin Bista from Kavrepalanchok district was recruited as a child soldier in 2002 when he was 12 

Author: Lenin Bista

Whilst most twelve-year-olds trudge their way through a typical school day with a pen in their hand, Lenin Bista was making his way through rural Nepal with a gun slung on his shoulder. Infatuated with the idea that he was contributing to the building of a better country, Lenin believed that to die in the revolution would be an ultimate sacrifice to these aspirations. He was one of the thousands of child soldiers recruited by the Maoist rebels into their People Liberation Army (PLA) in order to fight the security forces of the country. Despite the loss of his childhood to a civil-war, Lenin counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

Lenin Bista flipping through his photo album. Photo by Sabrina Dangol/TRIAL International
Photo by Sabrina Dangol/TRIAL International

Born in Kavrepalanchok, a district in central Nepal, Lenin was visiting his uncle at the time he was recruited. Whilst playing outside with his friends, they became aware of an exuberant crowd nearby. Pursuing the melodies and boisterous speeches, they found themselves in the midst of a cultural program. These Maoist cultural programs were frequent in rural Nepal. They would consist of singing and dancing to revolutionary songs as well as speeches. These speeches would denounce imperialism as well as the intersectional nature of discrimination in Nepal. Finally, after fostering nationalist sympathies in the crowd, an antidote was given to the ailments of the nation: armed revolution. This was a very successful recruitment tactic. There was no shortage of disaffected men and women of fighting age in the villages who felt that their grievances were ignored by the regime.

Despite what his name might suggest, Lenin Bista did not join the PLA due to their communist philosophy. He humbly states that he was just twelve and did not understand any of the communist ideology that was relayed to him. In fact, his involvement came from his own nationalist sentiments and a desire to be an agent of positive change in the country. With this desire in mind, Bista and his friends joined the PLA. As he was better educated than his peers, Bista was mainly involved in the intelligence branch of the PLA. He would escort leaders in the villages, deliver documents and survey barracks. Despite this involvement, he was still given weapons training.

lenin bista looking through the window at parliamentary house
Photo by Sabrina Dangol/TRIAL International

With the conclusion of the war in 2006 and Nepal’s transition to peace, Bista and other ex-child soldiers grew discontented. They grew increasingly disillusioned with the revolution and felt ignored by the peace process. The powers that be had previously stressed the importance of education for the child soldiers but whilst making an effort to get themselves formally educated, Bista and his contemporaries found themselves actively discouraged. They were reassured that they would have much better futures if they were to join the integrated National Army. Under Lenin’s leadership, a group of ex-child soldiers were able to pressure leaders into providing them with formal education. Lenin eventually went on to complete his School Leaving Certificate (SLC) as well as a bachelor’s degree. Currently pursuing a postgraduate degree, Lenin considers himself lucky to be able to pursue an education unlike most of his comrades. This was also Lenin’s first experience with a non-violent form of protest which paid dividends in the form of education.

The end of the war and the peace process did not quell the desire for political change inside Lenin or other ex-soldiers. Lenin noticed that the revolution had been mostly symbolic with few substantial institutional changes. Ex-combatants had three paths they could take after the formal end of the war. The first of these was to find work as many of them were of working age. However, a severe lack of employment in the country forced most of these ex-soldiers to find work abroad as migrant labourers. Motivated by the unaddressed socio-economic issues and forced to survive by any means, Lenin and a network of ex-soldiers took the second path: the path of violence. Through their training, they were adept at building weapons and improvised explosive devices and considered using violent means to address their complaints. He staged bandhs (strikes) and burned cars to raise awareness about the issues that affected him and those around him. He was eventually arrested on what he claims to be bogus charges and used his one-year time in prison to reflect.

lenin bista at a training session on empowering victims to better advocate for their rights
Photo by Sabrina Dangol/TRIAL International

Following his release, Lenin forged a third path for himself and other ex-combatants as he abandoned his semi-violent approach and embraced a more peaceful means of protest. This was not an easy transition and he used his time behind bars effectively to reflect. He was ashamed of his violent and semi-violent past as he acknowledged that this method only affected those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and never reached the elites. He convinced many of the ex-soldiers he knew to also do the same. He states that violence has the potential to achieve goals, but it has severe implications which makes the method unfavourable. Nonviolent approach on the other hand, he credits, allowed him to voice the concerns of ex-child soldiers and provided him with a platform towards empowerment.

Since his adoption of a nonviolent approach, Lenin has been a popular voice of ex-child soldiers. He has been vocal about their treatment in both the domestic and international space. He stresses the importance of surrounding himself with non-violent agitators as this has helped him avoid an environment that is conducive to violence. From a child soldier to a violent agitator, Lenin Bista is now undeterred in his commitment to nonviolent methods of resistance and determined to continue to highlight the plight of those in his situation.

(This blog by Raunak Mainali, a CSC Research Fellow, is based on a conversation with Lenin Bista)

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

lenin bista headshot

Lenin Bista, is a former child soldier who was recruited from Kavrepalanchok district in 2002 when he was 12 years old. He served the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist’s ‘People’s War’ for seven years before the peace process started in November 2006. During the verification for integration into the Nepal Army by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), Bista along with other 2,973 child soldiers were declared unfit and incapable. Since then, Bista has been leading the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Struggle Committee along with his friends demanding the fair treatment of the discharged child soldiers and remove the label of ‘unqualified’ given during the integration process.

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