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Monday, June 01, 2020

The Terai Socialists

Vignettes tracing the pioneers of Nepal’s democracy and their struggle for freedom in the 1940s

Published: April 27, 2019 12:22:41 am
Ravindra Bharti, Nepal urf Latthapar ki Diary, india nepal ties, indo nepal relations, Ravindra Bharti is primarily a poet, and has numerous other accomplishments in Hindi literature.

Written by Shashi Bhushan

Nepal urf Latthapar ki Diary
Ravindra Bharti (Author)
Ashok Kumar (Translator)
Sharare Prakashan
156 pages
Rs 275

Nonfiction is not a very rich genre in Hindi, and the weaving-in of fictional elements is particularly rare. Ravindra Bharti is primarily a poet, and has numerous other accomplishments in Hindi literature. But his work on Nepal is extraordinary, blending non-fiction into a fictionalised narrative investigating politics, history, ideology and even polemics.

This work is particularly important because it deals with Nepal, our nearest neighbour, with which relationships are now strained and it drifts towards China. The central theme is the socialist movement in Nepal and India, from the 1940s to the 1980s. One would like to see this work reaching non-Hindi readers, especially those who influence the making of foreign policy.

Much of the narrative hovers around Varanasi and Patna, with digressions to Kathmandu and even to Delhi, and all the socialist titans of the time are present — Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and their many comrades from the Indian side. And there’s VP Koirala, Matrika Prasad Koirala, Ganesh Man Singh, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, Subarna Shamsher Rana and a host of others on the Nepal side. Even Jawaharlal Nehru figures in the story once or twice, and in very crucial moments intervenes in Nepal’s politics.

The title of the book is people-centric and defies nation-state nomenclatures. People of the Terai region, whether this side of the border or that, consider themselves one. For those on this side, the place beyond the customs barrier is lattha par, and not a different country called Nepal. On the other side, the people living in the hills now talk loudly of Madhesias, the people settled from the Indian side. But this is a negation of historical truth.

Gorkhas, Newars, Limbus, Rais and about a dozen more tribes are now settled in marked territories in the upper Himalayas, but in ancient times, hordes of central Asian tribes like the Sakas and Huns moved in here, and were treated as outsiders by the indigenous tribes. It was only after the 15th century that they were identified as coming from Madhya Asia (Central Asia). Ironically, the term Madhesia is now used for people of the Terai region, who settled there from the Indian plains.

Today, nobody recalls that only half a century ago, the kingdom of Nepal depended heavily on the agrarian economy of the Terai, and the first generation of educated and enlightened middle class of Nepal, the Madhesia population, started changing the economic and political landscape. This book is a very passionate story of all that present-day Nepalese largely overlook.

The narrative begins with the Hazaribagh jail-break of 1942, when JP and his comrades escaped after their arrest in the Quit India movement. It was natural that they would sneak into Nepal, especially because friends of the Nepali Congress were there to help. The story now moves around Biratnagar, Janakpur, Saptari, Siraha and other small towns of Nepal, all in the Kosi river basin. Kusma Tapu, an island formed on the meandering Kosi, becomes the base camp for armed struggle against the British.

This book covers in minute detail guerrilla activities, attacks and counter-attacks, and their impact on the national arena. But by 1946, the British had decided to withdraw from the empire, paving the way for India’s freedom and the establishment of democracy. In the Terai, the Nepali Congress came to centre-stage, with some hand-holding by Indian socialists.

Though this work is comparatively slim, Bharati has dug up enough historical facts on the pioneers of democracy in Nepal. On September 7, 1940, JB Mull floated the idea of a republic in a pamphlet: “Long Live the Republic of Nepali” — and not of Nepal, which would have connoted the territorial expanse or the nature of the state to be founded. Nepal was then a kingdom only in the formal sense, as the usurper clan of hereditary prime ministers ruled as a feudal oligarchy.

After the initial sections, this work focuses on the persona of VP, as Koirala was fondly called. On October 2, 1946 he called for a freedom struggle to end Ranashahi and to establish democracy. Constitutional monarchy was a compromise, since VP or the Nepali Congress could not have carried over their socialistic agenda at the time. After 1950, a new spell of struggles began. An interim government was formed and VP was briefly prime minister, against a backdrop of intermittent struggles: guerrilla wars and even the hijacking of planes, went on until VP’s death in 1982.

The book is remarkable for its attention to people on the ground. Bharti has brought to life over 500 people, whose contribution is unknown even in the contemporary history of Nepal. For a slim work, it is a significant feat.

Bhushan is an academic based in Hyderabad

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