A Window on Madesh – Pahad Relations

Birgunj: Mero Saharko Katha, by Girish Giri
Book review by Kul Chandra Gautam

May 20, 2017-

  • Girish Giri’s Birgunj is a balanced, first-hand perspective by someone of a Pahadi stock but with deep roots in Madhes

For those of us baffled by the dynamics of Madhes-Pahad relations in Nepal in recent decades, journalist Girish Giri’s book Birgunj: Mero Saharko Katha provides a balanced, first-hand perspective by someone of a Pahadi stock but with deep roots in Madhes.

Birgunj is a non-fiction narrative written in simple but elegant style. The book nicely weaves the author’s life with that of his native city. It shows the author’s lasting love and deep affinity for the city. One can feel his genuine joy in the city’s progress and pain in its decline.

The story of Giri’s grand-parents moving from remote Jajarkot to Dhading and Bhairahawa, and eventually settling down in Birgunj is beautifully told. It is a classic story of Nepal’s internal migration and population settlement patterns. The experience of the author’s

father Gopal Giri—first joining government civil service, then moving to politics with deep leftist sympathies but rightist party affiliation, and onto progressive journalism—is less typical though not unusual. Gopal Giri’s sincere efforts for the development of Birgunj against many odds is an example of the contribution of many Pahadi settlers in the heartland of Madhes.

The author recounts the Maoist’s extortion drive that resulted in the brutal, execution-style killing of his own father and that of many other innocent commoners, merchants and government officials, in a matter-of-fact, serene and touching manner. His lack of overt outrage and denunciation of the Maoist thuggery contrasts sharply with the profound pain he felt when watching a cultural programme at the Academy Hall in Kathmandu. The scene of another proud father rejoicing in the achievements of his son made Girish miss his father so much that he simply could not control his emotions and had to walk out of the theatre in the middle of a rapt performance.

The Maoists were not unique in killing the hen that laid the golden eggs. The author highlights vividly the politics of extortion and rent-seeking that hides under the guise of trade union activism and equitable sharing of spoils by different political parties. A prime example of this is the bankruptcy and closure of the once thriving Birgunj Sugar Factory that provided employment and income for thousands of labourers and sugarcane farmers.

The book contains fascinating accounts of a poor Madhesi dalit barber displaced by even poorer Bihari migrants; a touching story of long-time resident Sikh truck drivers having difficulty to obtain Nepali citizenship because they could not wear Nepali Dhaka topi whereas more recent arrivals from India got their citizenship certificates relatively easily, especially during election times.

The book is highly educational for those unfamiliar with the evolution of the Madhesh movement. For example, it explains how the controversial Harka Gurung report of BS 2040 triggered the birth of the Sadbhawana Party and the Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum as its later offshoot.

Girish’s account of the Madhes andolan that gripped Birgunj, particularly during the time of the Indian border blockade in 2015-16, sounds objective, fair and balanced. He expresses his genuine empathy with ordinary Madhesis who joined the andolan out of sincere conviction, partly in response to the discriminatory behaviour of the Pahadi-dominated state institutions. He tells the touching tale of solidarity marches by Pahadi residents hand-in-hand with their Madhesi neighbours in response to brutal police action in a Birgunj hospital yard.

The spontaneous response of the Madhesi community to help the victims of the 2015 earthquake in the hills is equally touching.

On the other hand, the author recounts how the Madhesi movement was at times infiltrated by criminal elements or self-serving politicians inciting innocent Madhesis with fear-mongering and fake promises.

On the whole, Girish’s account of the Madhes andolan appears more balanced and objective than the partisan analyses and accounts by most other better-known Madhesi journalists, columnists and activists who write in English and appeal

to the expatriate diplomatic and donor community. Too bad this book and similar narratives are not available in English.

The book does not pretend to be an in-depth analysis of the dynamics of Madhes-Pahad relations. In fact, the most illuminating stories in the book are narrated as brief anecdotes involving some exceptional individuals who made unique and exemplary contribution for Birgunj’s development. Some examples of these are:

l Educationist Dipak Shakya who founded and heads the Birgunj Public College, and was earlier associated with Thakur Ram College, who helped organise Pahadi community’s march of solidarity with Madhes andolan.

l The saga of leftist journalist and scholar Madan Mani Dixit, who served briefly as an illustrious head-master of Birgunj’s Tri-Juddha High School but who was hounded out by Kathmandu’s conspiratorial aristocratic families.

l “Kaji Saheb” Gajendra Bahadur Basnet who helped the poor and needy at the Birgunj hospital with exemplary selfless devotion

l The fearless and daring police SSPs Ramesh Kharel and Rajendra Man Shrestha who cracked down on institutionalised corruption, smuggling, marijuana trade; and fought mafia-style extortion gangs protected by political party leaders and a network of senior police officers who enriched themselves by protecting such gangs and thugs.

l The touching story of CC TV cameras installed by the Nepal Police to control crime and enhance public security with the help of Rotary and Lions clubs and other citizen groups, that were vandalised and destroyed by criminal gangs and political activists during the Madhes andolan.

l The idiosyncrasies of a royalist sycophant Pashupati Rauniyar who tried to help Birgunj and himself in his own unique ways.

l The charitable actions of some of Birgunj’s generous Marwari families and businessmen, particularly philanthropist Raghubir Ram and his siblings.

l The fascinating story of the clock-tower (Ghantaghar) of Birgunj built with the help of Japanese Rotary and Jaycees clubs, and the visit of a Japanese photographer who stayed with the author’s family. The impressions of young Girish watching the unfamiliar tastes and habits of the stranger (including the use of toilet paper and the struggle to eat with fingers) are refreshingly humourous and entertaining.

It was from this book that I learned about a prominent Gautam family of Birgunj—the Madan Puraskar winning brothers Dhruba Chandra and Dhanush Chandra Gautam, and more importantly, journalist Gopal Chandra Gotamé—the latter whom Girish calls a “citizen of the world”, an identity that I fancy myself!

Girish Giri’s Birgunj reminded me of Siddhicharan Shrestha’s “Mero Pyaro Okhaldhunga”; some of Bandipur residents’ nostalgic accounts of their lovely hill town popularised by the song “Bandipuri ukali lamo…” and author Jagadish Ghimire’s efforts to help rebuild his hometown of Manthali in Ramechhap.

Birgunj, the major gateway to Nepal from India, that literally provides a life-line to land-locked Kathmandu and much of the rest of Nepal’s hinterland, has suffered enormously as a result of multiple andolans that have resulted in few tangible benefits for its citizens. It certainly deserves to be rebuilt to its historic glory with joint efforts of all concerned. That is the wish of its native son and author Girish Giri that I am sure is widely shared by the city’s denizens.

Published: 20-05-2017 08:15

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