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Presidential roadshow for unity

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

CATCHING UP: President Ram Baran Yadav with the Friday papers before flying off on a five-stop tour through central Nepal on Nepali New Year’s Day.

Nearly 250 years after Nepal’s unification, the Timal region with its historic Hindu and Buddhist shrines gets its first visit by a national leader. President Ram Baran Yadav tells a cheering crowd it has never been more important to protect that unity.

Landing on a clear sunny new year’s morning in Kavre’s historic Timal region.

With just a month to go to finish writing the new constitution that will carve Nepal into federal units and decide on a new form of government, President Yadav is on a personal crusade to drive home the message of unity, democracy and development.

Welcomed by residents of Kanpur in Kavre.

On Nepali new year’s day on 13 April, he flew across central Nepal with symbolic stops at a renovated Buddhist monastery and Hindu temple in Kavre, garland freedom fighters in Okhaldhunga and grace Siraha’s Sahlesh festival.

Large gathering at the inauguration of a stupa in Narayanthan of Kavre.

Everywhere he went, the President’s message was the same: “We may be Himali Nepalis, Pahadi Nepalis, Madhesi Nepalis, but we are all Nepalis first.” And judging from the applause he got in the mountains or the plains, it was clear the first president of republican Nepal was voicing the people’s fears of ethnic fragmentation, and hopes for a more prosperous future.

Okhaldhunga’s Rampur still has the ruins of an agriculture extension office bombed by Maoists during the war.

“I want to assure you that I will always work to safeguard Nepal’s unity, and social harmony,” he told a large crowd in Rampur in Okhaldhunga, a centre of pro-democracy activism during the Panchayat period, “we will work together to fulfil the aspirations of those who sacrificed their lives for democracy.”

Quick lunch in Okhaldhunga.

Born to a simple peasant family in the Tarai, the 64-year-old president was influenced by Nepali Congress leaders like B P Koirala who were living in exile in Calcutta where he was a medical student. He later became BP’s personal physican, spent nearly a year in jail, and after 1990 served as health minister. He is one of the few NC leaders who did not join a Madhesi party in 2007 for which his home in Janakpur was bombed, and he was ridiculed for being a “Pahadi lackey”.

“As president I have to stay above ethnicity and party affiliation, but I have been influenced by three of BP’s goals: democracy, nationalism and socialism,” Yadav tells us during the stopover in Okhaldhunga, “and I identify strongly with Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence and the sacrifices he made for communal harmony.”

Everywhere he goes, the President is greeted with garlands and people showering him with flower petals. Ordinary Nepalis seem to be drawn by his refreshing simplicity and humility, something they haven’t seen in former kings and rulers. “He is just like us,” said elderly Kavre farmer Man Bahadur Lama, after draping a khada on the president, and in return President Yadav clasped Man Bahadur’s hands that were joined in a namaste.

Being greeted by Prime Minister Bhattarai’s press adviser, Ram Rijan Yadav on arrival in Lahan of Siraha.

Accompanying the President to the monastery is the Maoist State Minister for Energy, Surya Man Dong, who is one of those accused in the murder in 2005 of a Dolakha UML activist. It is a sign of how far we have come that Dong is now sitting next to the president in a night-vision helicopter that used to drop “Tora Bora” mortar bombs on Maoist positions during the war. At the monastery function, Dong credits the president for “standing up for national unity”.

Huge crowd of pilgrims at the Sahlesh Festival in Siraha.

After the function in Okhaldhunga, President Yadav changes from his labeda-suruwal to a spotless white Madhesi pajama-kurta and gamchha. But he keeps on his dhaka topi. A short 20-minute flight and the helicopter alights in a cloud of yellow dust near the Sahlesh Mela site in Siraha where a rare orchid is said to bloom exactly on new year’s day every year.

President addresses crowd in Maithili.

There is loud applause from the thousands gathered here as Maithili writer Dhirendra Premarshi welcomes the president as “the pride of Mithila, and pride of the Nepali nation”. As ‘Sayaun Thunga Phul Ka Hami’ is played, dhoti-clad people clap and dance to the national anthem, as Maithili school children sing along in Nepali to Byakul Maila’s powerful lyrics and Amber Gurung’s folk melody.

Dressed in traditional local headgear.

The president switches to Maithili to deliver the same message of unity to people, half of whom are Maithili-speaking pilgrims from across the border in Bihar. It is an emotional speech, and the President has established a bond of kinship with the crowd. “With our diversity of mountains and plains this land is nature’s jewel, a botanical garden, yet our own brothers are grazing goats in the deserts of Arabia,” he says, “with your support I pledge to work to institutionalise democracy, harness our water and agriculture, and protect our forests and soil so Nepalis don’t have to migrate to find work.”

Just before heading back to Kathmandu.

Taking off for Kathmandu from near the Indian border, President Yadav looks despondent as he gazes down at the barren Chure hills. The President has been trying to get the government to protect these fragile foothills, without much success. “You can see that wherever the forests have gone, there is erosion and landslides,” Yadav says, “if we don’t do something, in a few years the Chure and Tarai will be desert.”

Back in Kathmandu after a five-stop ten-hour new year tour.

When he was a boy, Ram Baran Yadav used to graze buffaloes together with his Pahadi neighbours at the edge of the Char Kose Jhari, the forests that have now vanished. “In my life I have seen it all gone,” he says.

The sun is about to set as the Nepal Army MI-17 lands near Shital Niwas at the Bhairavnath Battalion, the notorious barracks where during the war at least 48 suspected Maoists were detained, tortured and taken away for execution in Shivapuri.

“Our descendants will never forgive us if we let Nepal disintegrate,” the President says before taking the motorcade back to the residence, “I have
to do what I can to protect Nepal’s national unity and democracy. This is my dharma.”

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3 Responses to “Presidential roadshow for unity”

  1. oysim on Says:

    Dear Kunda,

    Thank you for a wonderful story! Stirring, upbeat, great addition to the blog.

    The President doing this on new year’s day lends a nice touch. And it’s most timely and refreshing to have such a positive, feel-good story.

    But his “dharma” and “personal crusade” aside, when he speaks of safeguarding Nepal’s unity and social harmony etc, what role does/can/should he play in bringing about that of which he waxed lyrical? Forgive the outsider’s ignorance, but I don’t really comprehend the roles/powers of Prime Minister and President in Nepal. How does the optimism I feel from this piece fit in with the much more ominous feeling I get from your recent editorials, particularly in Nepali Times #599? Possessing, as I do, only a very superficial understanding of Nepali politics, political structure and machinations, I am glad for the President’s efforts, and for the news about it, but it makes me ask, “So what? How does/will this change anything?”. From your story, he seems a man of conviction, and “simplicity and humility”, but can he make a palpable difference?

    Could you please consider addressing this in NT #601, maybe in your upcoming editorial? Perhaps have this story in the paper itself, and then craft an editorial that looks at how the new year’s day roadshow fits in the bigger scheme of what is going on currently, and what is foreseen / hoped for / feared in Nepal’s future? I would really like to read about how it all fits together.

    p/s. Kudos to you and your team on publishing the 600th issue of Nepali Times! *Congratulations*.

  2. Nirmal on Says:

    All conflicts related to separatist movements, in reality, have less to see with the territory but it has more to do with how the people from those territories view their respective territorial reality. For example, the unrest we could see in Kashmir, Tibet or elsewhere. Had it been for the control of those lands by the state there wouldn’t have been any problem. However the conflicts grow when the people from there start to ressent and feel excluded. The same happens in some areas from Terai like Janakpur, Jaleshwor. People there have to fulfill their basic needs from the other side of the border. They buy gas, clothes, rice and other basic commodities from India at reasonable price while for the same things they need to pay hefty sum of money to get them available from the black market. As one commoner said to me, ” IF we are reliable practically on everything from India there is no point to protest the annexation of this part of Nepal with India.” Tourists of “pahade origin” are charged double or tripple price(or exaggerated prices sometimes) on everything as we do with khare dai and didis, from lodging to fooding whenever they realised pilgrimages. The madhesi govt officials put many obstacles to pahadiya while soliciting for legal documents. I was asked If I was trying for a govt job and when they were assured of me not vying for it they facilitated me the paper I needed.

    This is a brief description of what is going on throughtout those parts of Nepal. I believe that what Nepal needs to do -If there is any national leader or leaders- is to formulate policies which could make people from there to be the part of Nepal. It is not a piece of land that should be a matter of concern for any state rather the wellbeing of the locals. That the State mechanisms to provide facilities local people’s reach is of primordial than a mass gathering or sermon by the President, then only we could talk about preventing the Nation from disintegration and disunity.

  3. Portlander on Says:

    Kunda Sir,

    Thank you for the blog. Well I admire our President, Mr.Yadav. He has experienced it all, but he can do more in terms of being more humble and making an effort to improve his hometown Janakpur. That is just my opinion, but I guess things are different when if I put his President boots on.

    Come walk down Lazimpat and meet the locals and ask them about their daily routines.

    Go visit your temples in Janakpur and restore them by just chipping in money from your own pocket, may it be a very small amount. The terai is getting worse day by day.

    Meet the poor struggling youths to tell them you story about how to came about from herding cows to getting a education degree and finally being the president of your nation.

    Do it, you are one example we admire, but at the current situation we need MORE OF WHAT YOU HAVE GOT. We need you to set more examples.

    Thank you.

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