DAMBAR K SHRESTHA
JANAKPUR - There are Shiva temples here, but this is essentially a town of Vaishnavs where the main Hindu castes have their own kutis or cults that celebrate different aspects of the life of Sita and Ram.
Many of these cults are in decline as their landholdings have shrunk and pilgrims increasingly limit their visits to the more celebrated temples. But the diversity of faiths even within the Vaishnav sect has bred a culture of dissent and tolerance that has defined the way of life here for years.
Though Tulsi Giri hardly ever visits his hometown, locals still claim the hardcore royalist as one of their own. Ramraja Prasad Singh may have been born and bred in Rajbiraj, but when the avowed republican decided to fight an election in the 1990s, he came here to test the strength of his ideas. Whether it's TMDP strategist Hridayesh Tripathi or MJF ideologue Jayprakash Prasad Gupta, the titans of Madhesi politics feel that they are received more warmly in Janakpur than in their home constituencies. Despite the filth, crime and corruption, the one good thing about this town is that it has managed to maintain its composure. The soul of the settlement is alive even though the body of the town urgently needs some physical treatment.
Perhaps due to the diversity of its religious roots, Janakpur has prided itself on positing itself as the 'other' of the national 'self'. When post-colonial nation building was the main agenda, Ramnarayan Mishra challenged his own superiors in the Nepali Congress by stressing the need for a federal structure and inclusive polity. During the early years of the reign of King Mahendra, Kathmandu was monarchical and all that Biratnagar ever wished was to add the constitutional adjective to it. But it was Durgananda Jha who actually lobbed a bomb at the king in Janakpur, the only time in modern history a commoner attempted regicide. Saroj Koirala, too, thought that the monarchy had outlived its utility. Destiny may have had a hand in choosing his acolyte as the first head of state of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.
Janakpur's political legacy doesn't end there. Almost a decade before the Maoist insurgency made forced disappearances routine, Dr Laxmi Narayan Jha was picked up from his clinic by law enforcement agencies, in June 1985. His remains are yet to be found. Surprisingly, even though Mahottary-Dhanusha has always been a NC stronghold, almost all prominent communist leaders have spent some time in this part of the country. Madhav Nepal stayed in Mahottary. Pushpa Kamal Dahal learned to handle guns in Dhanusha. Ishwar Pokharel honed his debating skills at the local college. And Gore Bahadur Khapangi practiced his pre-royalist demagoguery in the surrounding villages.
The Maoist leadership may congratulate itself on being the first to grant Madhesis their long-cherished self-rule, but once again Janakpur is a step ahead of the rest of the country. At teashops and newspaper stalls, people have begun to debate post-Maoist futures. A neo-con wave seems to be sweeping through the hinterland, where religion has once again become the main mobilising force. Temples are being built, mosques are coming up and churches have found place in the most innocuous of spaces - makeshift huts meant to shelter cattle.
For the first time, Janakpur has a direct stake in the political contestations of the capital city, but nobody seems too concerned about the fate of the first president of the country. There is a deep suspicion above the intentions of all the political leaders. The Maoist assessment that rightwing assertions will end up strengthening their political hold may be theoretically correct. But whenever pitted against religion, political ideologies invariably crumble.