(Source: The Hindu, Sunday, July 29, 2001)
The autobiography of Nepali politician and sometime Prime Minister B.P. Koirala is a vivid account of personal and social turmoil and of exile and rebellion that provides acute insights into the history and politics of the 20th Century. Formally released in New Delhi in April, this book’s compelling themes have been made more poignant by the recent happenings in the Kathmandu palace, says historian RAMACHANDRA GUHA.
“EVERY man’s life,” remarked Dr. Johnson, “should be best written by himself”. Strangely, Johnson did not carry out his own injunction, for it was another pen, that of James Boswell, that set out for posterity the main contours of his life.
One must not unduly regret Johnson’s failure. For one thing, it allowed Boswell to write what is still the most widely read of all biographies. For another, the autobiography is the most perilous of literary forms. As the French scholar Andr Maurois pointed out many years ago, it is marked by a “deliberate forgetfulness”, a willed failure to remember failure, a desire to omit from one’s authorised account events that were unpleasant or that might undermine one’s reputation. The autobiography, writes Maurois, is a genre marked by a lack of sincerity. It forgets and it rationalises. It gives order and retrospective coherence to decisions made ad hoc or more-or-less on the spot.
The memoirs that rationalise the most, further notes Maurois, are those written by military men and politicians. The General’s victories in his re-telling owe nothing to accident and impulse, or luck: they are the product of planning and tactical skill alone. The Prime Minister’s policies owe nothing to expediency or compromise; they are made exclusively on the basis of ideology and principle. I have no interest in military history myself, but the political memoirs I have read tend to confirm Maurois’s judgment. For the most part, these are exercises in vanity and self-justification, and the less authentic (or readable) for that.
The autobiography of the Nepali politician and sometime Prime Minister B.P. Koirala stands as a stunning exception to the rule. This is a remarkable document of personal and social history, a vivid account of exile and rebellion that provides acute insights into the history and politics of the 20th Century. Koirala’s memoirs were not written but spoken, dictated into a microphone held by his friend and associate, the Kathmandu lawyer Ganesh Raj Sharma. When he began the exercise, in December 1981, the politician was already in the advanced stages of throat cancer. The transcripts remained with Sharma for years; only when Nepal renewed its acquaintance with democracy, in the 1990s, was it deemed safe to place them before the public. A Nepali edition appeared in 1998, published by Jagdamba Prakashan in Lalitpur. Now, three years later, we have an English version, translated by Kanak Mani Dixit and published by Himal Books under the title: Atmabrittanta: Late Life Recollections.
Born in 1914, B.P. was the son of Krishna Prasad Koirala, a poet, businessman and reformer who fought and made up – and then fought again – with the Rana rulers of Nepal. Krishna Prasad helped establish the town of Biratnagar in the Terai, where he made his money running a series of customs posts. He opened a school and a hospital, and promoted the uplift of women. He believed that girls must ride bicycles and horses and learn to use daggers and guns – if only to keep away lecherous louts. He once remarked that “women and men are like two wheels of a chariot and that you needed both wheels to run the chariot”. With ideas such as these it is not surprising that he fell foul of the Ranas, and sought exile in British India. His son’s memoirs narrate the ups and downs of the Koirala fortunes; the business bought by the father and sold or run into the ground; the homes fitfully occupied by the family in the towns of Bihar and the United Provinces.
B.P. grew up in the India of the 1920s, a place and time with a plenitude of political choices. There was Gandhi, and there was Lenin. And there was Attaturk, an appealing model for rationalists seeking to rid their own society of tradition and custom.
Koirala chose Gandhi. After hearing the Mahatma speak he told his father he would now join an ashram school. The patriarch encouraged him, for he believed that the Indian National Movement “was also our movement because the autocracy of the Ranas was supported by British imperialists”. The boy, meanwhile, was soaking in the progressive writing of the Indo-Gangetic plain. He read Maithili Sharan Gupt and Jai Shanker Prasad, and above all, Premchand. Indeed, it was in Premchand’s journal Hans that B.P. made his literary debut.
Along with the brother Matrika Prasad Koirala, B.P. was arrested during the 1930 movment, suspected of being part of a terrorist ring. He was, however, released for lack of evidence. The father had, meanwhile, made up with the Ranas and gone back to Nepal. The son stayed on in India, and turned leftwards. He read Marx, listened to Radio Moscow, and hung about with the communists. The Assamese writer Dev Kanta Baruah (still a honest radical then, not the craven chamcha of Indira Gandhi that he was to later became) alerted B.P. to the exploitation of farm workers by landlords. Koirala was impressed by Marxist theory, but less so by Communist politics. He could not accept the Communist Party of India’s view that the national movement “was nothing, that it was being masterminded by the British themselves, and that Gandhi was an unknowing agent of the British.”
It was at about this time that the Nepali radical made the acquaintance of that other oscillator between Gandhi and Marx, Jayaprakash Narayan. “I was greatly impressed by him,” writes Koirala: “he did not use sophisticated language and exhibited a simple personality.” B.P. also befriended Acharya Narendra Dev and Ram Manohar Lohia. He was studying at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), a hotbed of the Congress Socialists. Like them, and like Jawaharlal Nehru, he thought of going to Spain to fight on the Republican side in the civil war.
After graduating from BHU, Koirala tried his hand at law, and also worked as a labour organiser in north Bihar. He was arrested for inciting workers, but quickly released. He was “out” only for a little while, for he got caught up in the Quit India movement. He was now lodged in Bankipur Jail, where one of his colleagues was Dr. Rajendra Prasad. They engaged in friendly but vigorous debate; Rajen babu on the side of spiritualism, the Nepali on behalf of scientific socialism.
Koirala was released in 1945, and began plotting a successful return to his native land. The War was over, and Indian independence seemed imminent. The formation of an interim government led by Nehru in September 1946 encouraged the Nepali exiles to think seriously of fighting for democracy themselves. Their country had for a century been in the control of Ranas. This lineage of aristocrats owned the land, controlled the army, monopolised the top administrative jobs and manipulated the hereditary monarch. As the historian Aniruddh Gupta has written, “the survival of the Rana rule mainly depended on his capacity to suppress the growth of political awakening in the country”. The most effective way of retaining control was to deny the privileges of higher education to commoners.
To get himself a college degree, the ambitious young Nepali had necessarily to travel to India. With education came political radicalism. By the 1940s, were plenty of young men like the Koirala brothers, who believed (to quote an emigr journal) that “the salvation of the Nepalese lies in struggle”, that “to hope for reforms from the Ranas is like hoping for milk from a dry cow”. On January 25, 1947, these men established the Nepali National Congress, with the help of funds from a handful of disgruntled Ranas. In March of that year, B.P’s younger brother Girija Prasad helped instigate a strike of jute mill workers in Biratnagar. B.P. crossed over to help. He was arrested, and taken with his fellow agitators to Kathmandu, a long, slow walk across the hills. It took three weeks to get to the capital, the prisoners’ march attracting much attention and helping to radicalise the peasants whose villages lay en route.
The Koiralas were kept in a Kathmandu bungalow. Letters to the Rana Prime Minister by Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad and others helped bring about an early release. B.P. went back to India, and began looking for arms to storm Kathmandu. He tells a lovely story, possibly embroidered, of how he journeyed to Calcutta in the last week of January 1948, to buy arms. He made contact with an arms dealer, and at 6 p.m. on January 30 was met on a Calcutta street corner by a stranger who passed on a parcel and vanished. The parcel was to be passed on in turn to a dissident Rana named Basanta Shumshere, who was to throw its contents at his assembled kinsmen in Nepal. As Koirala waited, the grenades wrapped in a hand towel, “from the radio of a cigarette and paan vendor nearby I heard the news – Gandhi has died.” The Rana arrived: the bundle was handed over. B.P. came back to his boarding house and wept through the night in remorse. In time, he was consoled by the words of Ho Chi Minh: “Whatever may be my disagreements with Gandhi, we are all his products. Wherever there is a struggle, he has given his support and moral leadership. Even as someone who believes in violence, I can say that we are all his progeny.”
The story has a tame ending: the Rana entrusted with the job was too scared to set off the grenades. So later in 1948 B.P. entered Kathmandu himself, disguised as a pandit. He made contact with other democrats, but was found out and put once more in jail. The conditions were awful. Fetters were fixed on his feet, and “a blacksmith was brought from outside to do the job. He had to hammer vertically in order to fix the fetters, but in order not to hurt my foot in case the hammer slipped, he was striking at a slant. Once, the hammer did slip and struck the stone on which the fetters rested. At that, the officer who was standing next to me scolded the blacksmith, ‘Careful! You might break the slab!’ The blacksmith replied, ‘I was aiming at the foot but it slipped and hit the stone. If his bone is broken it will mend, but will you give me money for this broken piece of stone?’ Such harsh words serve to illustrate the attitude of my jailers.”
The blacksmith visited the prisoner twice a day, to remove and put on his fetters before and after his meals. The British jails he had been in, writes Koirala, were a model of decency and cleanliness in comparison. To draw attention to his condition, B.P. went on a fast, which stretched on for nearly four weeks. He was then freed, and trekked once more into India. It was now June 1949. After a hasty medical check-up, the exile began planning his return. In April 1950, the coming together of two factions created a brand new party named the Nepali Congress. Then, in November, King Tribhuvan fled to India. The struggle accelerated. A band of Nepali Congressmen stormed a treasury in Birganj. A tractor dressed up as a tank – by covering its sides with metal sheets – forced its way into the governor’s garrison in the key town of Biratnagar.
Meanwhile, the Ranas in Kathmandu were growing nervous. King Tribhuvan’s flight, remarks Aniruddh Gupta in his book
Politics in Nepal, “not only dealt an irreparable blow to Rana prestige, it made the people anxious about the safety of their Monarch whom they regarded as a divine being.” From his exile, the King published an appeal for reconciliation. The Indian Government convened a conference in Delhi, after which Tribhuvan returned with honour to his capital, and put in place a coalition of the Ranas and the Nepali Congress. The union was uncertain from the start, plagued by mutual suspicion (it seems in this respect to have been much like the coalition between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League in Delhi in 1946-47.) B.P. was Home Minister, but had to resign after his policemen fired on a students’ demonstration. The Government fell, to be replaced by another with Matrika Prasad Koirala as the head.
A revealing aspect of these memoirs is the bitter rivalry between the Koirala brothers. One was cautious, the other hot-headed. One was a moderate monarchist, the other a republican. Their disagreements were political and they were personal. B.P. even alleges that his brother once tried to bump him off. Jayaprakash Narayan tried, without success, to effect a reconciliation. Eventually the Nepali Congress split into two parties, one for each brother.
In 1955, King Tribhuvan was succeeded by his son Mahendra, a man of greater ambition and resolve. The politicians were dismissed to the margins, with powers centralised in the hands of the monarch. After half-a-decade of rule of puppet Prime Ministers, the King was forced to call a general election in 1959, Nepal’s first. The Nepali Congress swept the polls, winning 74 out of 109 seats. B.P. took office as Prime Minister. He stayed in the job for 18 months, visiting India and China on state visits, and consorting with Nikita Khruschev at the United Nations. King Mahendra was resentful of Koirala’s popularity within and (especially) outside Nepal. Late in 1960, the King organised a coup, sending his royal guards to arrest the Prime Minister and put him in jail. Mahendra was being pushed by the landed aristocracy to act before the Congress put in place radical land reforms. And, like monarchs everywhere, he had a congenital suspicion of democracy.
While his brother was in jail, Matrika Prasad went off as King Mahendra’s Ambassador to the United States. His family was fearful that B.P. would be bumped off, thus to meet the fate of the independent-minded Prime Minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba. Jawaharlal Nehru sent a message of reassurance through Koirala’s sister. Nehru’s “level of personal interest,” remarks B.P. was “a source of great and reliable moral support for us prisoners who were so suddenly isolated.”
In 1965, with B.P. in jail, the Oxford University Press published a book called Heroes and Builders of Nepal. The author, the civil servant and diplomat Rishikesh Shaha, began his narrative with Janaka and Buddha and ended it with Tribhuvan and Mahendra, paying his dues en route to the great medieval warrior-kings such as Pratap Malla and Prithvinarayan Shah. The last chapter, titled “The Dawn of Democracy in Nepal”, is a paean to the monarchy. The ending of Rana autocracy is attributed solely to Tribhuvan: “never before had there been a king who staked his life and throne to secure the liberty of his subjects”. Mahendra is praised for his “successful foreign policy” and his “work on national construction”, “his leadership and personality,” it is said, “have aroused a deep awareness of national purpose.”
Given its author’s position and the timing of its publication, the book makes no mention of the Nepali Congress or of that hero and builder of modern Nepal: B.P. Koirala. It would be interesting to know if B.P. read Shaha’s book. Alas, his memoirs do not say. In any case, the narrative of the Atmabrittanta perceptibly flags after Koirala’s arrest. The eight years in Sundarijal jail are quickly glossed over. The text ends with his release and exile to India.
The printed book could have done with an editorial epilogue on Koirala’s later life which, as always, was chockful of incident and controversy. Exiled once more to India, he prepared his comrades in the Nepali Congress for a fresh round of armed struggle. Thirty-five of his young followers perished in one encounter, wiped out by the Nepali army while taking shelter in a cave. In 1976, Koirala himself returned to his country, sensing perhaps that he had not long to live. He was immediately arrested, and made a remarkable speech at his trial where he defended armed rebellion. In these last years in Nepal, he also supervised a transition in his party’s leadership, before dying of cancer in July 1982.
B.P. Koirala came of age while in exile in India. He first went to prison fighting for the freedom of a country not his own. He struck close friendships with Indian politicians. Jayaprakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru were to him like big brothers. But after his return to Nepal, India itself reappeared as Big Brother. As Home Minister and Prime Minister, writes Koirala, he had to fight against three forces: the royal palace, the land- holding elite, and India. Nehru might have been kind and polite, but his government deeply resented Koirala’s independent foreign policy. The Indian ambassador in Kathmandu “believed that he was even greater than the King”. One envoy, C.P.N. Singh, so readily threw his weight around that Koirala was constrained to tell a press conference in Benares that “the Indian ambassador wishes that our country be like his district board, and he regards himself as chairman of that district board”. Once, in New York, V. K. Krishna Menon asked Koirala, a sovereign Prime Minister himself, to accompany him to the airport to receive Nehru, a gesture that would tell all the world that Nepal wished to be seen as a client state of India. Naturally he declined, but the wound festered: 20 years later he mentioned the incident in his memoirs, as an example of how “they (the Indians) just did not understand clean diplomacy.”
B. P. Koirala’s Atmabrittanta was formally released in New Delhi in April 2001. Its themes are compelling anyway, but have been made more poignant by the recent happenings in the Kathmandu palace. The book now enjoys a more than ordinary resonance, speaking as it does of the remarkable hold of the monarchy in the popular imagination, of the fragility of Nepal’s democracy, of the endemic hostility towards India, and of the desperate inequality in the countryside. (The rise of the Maoists is a consequence of the failures of previous regimes to more effectively carry out the land reforms that Koirala had called for.) And the Prime Minister of Nepal at the time of this great tragedy was none other than the leader of the Biratnagar strikers of 1947, B.P’s younger brother Girija. Koirala’s memoirs should be read for its insights into Nepali politics. It should be read for what it tells us about India and Indians. It should be read as a moving testament of one who was caught, on the right side, in the great (and unfinished) battle of the modern world, that between autocracy and democracy. And it should be read for its literary qualities. For B.P. was one of his country’s finest writers as well as its most prominent political rebel. His works include six novels, two collections of short stories, and hundreds of essays. As the critic C.K. Lal points out, B.P. was a literary innovator, perhaps the first Nepali writer to sensitively portray women and to look towards local dialect rather than Sanskrit for his inspiration. “It is baffling,” writes Lal, “that no writer in Nepal to date has been able to reach the depth of mind of characters in a story the way B.P. did.”
As for the Atmabrittanta, even in this English version it sparkles. The book is rich in descriptions of scenes and people closely and penetratingly observed. I read, with a flash of self- recognition, these remarks on Kathmandu’s intellectuals: “They love to highlight unimportant matters … They are big on discussion, but do not give a paisa of support”. And again: “Whoever came (to India) from Kathmandu in those days used to arrive with a great air of mystery, as if they alone were carrying the heavy burden of revolution.”
The narrative glows with images both precise and illuminating. Here is Koirala on one of the many places he was obliged to call home: “The jailer led me to my place of incarceration. There was no light other than one smoky lantern with a weak flame. I was led into a cell, but I could not see anything. There was a bedstead made of wood so unseasoned that it looked like it would drip water; half the room had bluish algae on the walls. This much I could see. The ceiling was very low, and because it had been newly plastered the cement was still wet. The walls were cold and damp. They put my rug on the ground.”
Exile, jail, exile again; life underground and life as the Prime Minister of his people: only Nelson Mandela among modern statesmen could so completely have known the highs and the lows of politics. But even Mandela was not attacked by his fellow freedom fighters. This book has a fascinating account of a demonstration orchestrated against Koirala by his brother Matrika Prasad. He was due to speak at the town of Palpa. But the dissidents were determined to keep him out: “Murderer! Go back! was the slogan they used, but I insisted on entering the town. It was quite a climb to get up there, and the road was difficult. Along the road, they had tied bones and skeletons on bamboo poles, and had put up bamboo barriers across the path. They threw stones at us, tried to hit me from the trail-side, and also tried to splatter me with black paint … The copper and bronze gaagri put out for my arrival had all been damaged, as were the welcome arches”. His associates were suitably intimidated, but Koirala insisted on going ahead with the public meeting, working through the night to organise it. The meeting, in the end, was successful. In the crowd to hear Koirala speak was the wandering American ornithologist, S. Dillon Ripley.
B.P. provides a superb, if chilling, description of the lifestyle of those celebrated fighters for the world’s poor, the Chinese Communists. In Beijing, Mao Zedong and Chou En-Lai stayed in lakeside palaces in the former emperor’s grounds, their dwellings marked by great marble staircases and wall-to-wall carpeting. “The grandeur amidst which the Chinese leaders were living”, remarks Koirala, “could not have been matched by any ruler of a capitalist state”. The visitor was allowed to joy ride in Mao’s personal train, with its well-appointed bedroom and its porcelain bath-tub. Koirala, like China’s Chairman, spent his time watching the countryside from the living room, this a large hall with glass walls and a glass roof, with “a library, a table for playing cards, a chessboard, and waiters serving tea. Also, a sofa and revolving chairs.”
Reading B.P. Koirala’s memoirs, I was struck by the parallels between his life and Nehru’s. Both were democratic socialists who learnt much from Gandhi and a little from Marx. Both had fathers who were strong-minded and authoritative, self-made men who made a great deal of money and had a political orientation besides. The sons both became traitors to their class. Their own political choices exposed them to poverty and oppression. Nonetheless, both enjoyed the ceremony of power: the bowing and scraping at state visits and the meetings at the U.N.. Both were truly charismatic figures who towered over their colleagues. B.P’s description of the 1959 elections in this book recalls the role played by Nehru in the Indian elections of 1952. Victory for the party candidate was assured only after Koirala or Nehru had descended from the air to speak. Each constituency had, so to say, to be sanctified by a speech by the Great Leader. Their names got their party into power, but once in office, both were hemmed in by more cautious men on their own side. The programmes of economic and social justice that they were in principle committed to never seriously took effect. (Nehru might well have written, as Koirala does here, that “real and effective support I did not get from my own party”.) And in either case, politics became a kind of family business: Nehru’s daughter and grandson, and Koirala’s elder and younger brother, also held office as Prime Minister of their country.
To this already extensive list one must add: both Koirala and Nehru had developed literary sensibilities, their political obligations coming in the way of their secondary careers as writers. But there are some notable divergences as well. Koirala appears to have had a more satisfactory married life. His experience of jail was certainly more painful. And his experience of power was more fleeting. Nehru, writes this book’s translator wistfully, “survived and led India for 17 years after its independence. Fate would not extend a similar privilege to B.P. Koirala, and even as his co-equals settled down to enjoy the fruits of post-colonial India, B.P.’s fight for his people was just beginning. Ahead lay years more of imprisonment and in exile.”
One is tempted to say: politics’ loss has been literature’s gain. Nehru himself wrote a fine work of autobiography. It was published in 1936, when he had years in jail ahead of him. That book is persuasive because it is the testament of a rebel. Nehru did not write at all of his years in office: perhaps because he was too busy, or perhaps because he knew that any such account would necessarily have to be evasive and euphemistic. Now had B.P. Koirala been Prime Minister from (say) 1952 to 1967 Nepal might today have been a more contented society. But we would then have been denied these extraordinary memoirs, this nearly unique combination of political candour and literary elegance.
(I am deeply grateful to C. K. Lal for his help and advice in the writing of this article.)
Ramachandra Guha is a writer and historian based in Bangalore. His books include Environmentalism: A Global History; Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals and India and An Anthropologist Among Marxists and Other Essays. He is also the editor of the newly released Picador Book of Cricket. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org