42 MIN READ
Padma Ratna Tuladhar (1940-2018) was well known as a non-aligned leftist politician and literary activist. First elected to the National Assembly under the Panchayat regime in 1986, he was outstanding for his bravery in openly criticizing the system from within its highest body. He is also known for his absolute integrity and incorruptibility. The following interview took place in his home in Lazimpat on 9th January 1996. Gregory Sharkey checked and corrected it with Padma Ratna in September 1996. David N. Gellner translated and edited the Nepal Bhasa (Newari) original. English words and phrases used in the middle of Nepal Bhasa sentences are given in italics.
DNG: If I could start by asking about your childhood, your family home was in Kathmandu, wasn't it?
PRT: Yes, in Asan, in Nhayka Twah.
DNG: Was it a large family?
PRT: My father was one of four brothers and I had one brother, now deceased. I still have one sister.
DNG: When you were young, were your uncles still living together? How many people were there in the house?
PRT: Let's see if I can remember: there was my grandmother (my father's step-mother), my father, my mother, my aunt (my father's younger sister), and my grandmother's two daughters, my uncles (my father's younger brothers), their children. Before we separated, yes, there would have been about twenty-five people in the household. But when I was small my father and uncles were often in Lhasa trading. Even my older brother went to Lhasa. Only I didn't have that opportunity.
DNG: What did your father hope or expect that you would do in life?
PRT: I was also supposed to be a trader. My father had a shop in Lhasa; after that he had contracts to supply goods. Later we opened a shop and I also worked there at the beginning. It was a provisions business, in Nhayka Twah. Later we had two plastic goods shops. I worked in four different shops at different times. But from my childhood I was always very straightforward/naive (swaja), quiet, shy. When I was a student too I was always, shy, quiet, not liking to speak. I studied Nepal Bhasa and Prem Bahadur Kansakar was my teacher up to SLC. He used to teach us all kinds of things, not just the curriculum. When I was studying in 9th class, there was the very first Inter-High School Conference Symposium of Nepal Bhasa Literature.
DNG: Which year was that in?
PRT: That was in the year [V.S.] '13 [1956-7]. My brother and my father's younger brother were both studying in the same school and they were part of the organizing committee. Because I was shy and quiet I was just a supporter, helping out, taking letters to Bhaktapur or Lalitpur, for example. It was held in my own school, in our own language. Now in our locality there was courtyard where the famous poet, Durga Lal Shrestha, lived. When I was child I used to go and study Nepal Bhasa in his house. I used to write one or two poems, even though I didn't really know how to, and Durga Lal would help improve them (bhinka biye).
After that I went to Trichandra College. I wasn't in the first batch that studied Nepal Bhasa there. Next there was Hitkarabir Singh Kansakar and others, more active than me, such as Dibya Ratna Shakya, who is nowadays in Moscow University having become a Russian citizen. The students' union brought out a magazine with articles in English and Nepali. It was called Light in English and Jyoti in Nepali. Prem Bahadur Kansakar, who had been chairman, and others who had been in the High-School Literature Symposium, as soon as they reached College, said, “You should have articles and writings in our language too.” This wasn't accepted; the union student leaders wouldn't allow any other languages than English and Nepali. Eventually after much pressing they formed a committee and brought out a magazine called Jah ['Light' in Nepal Bhasa]. This was about five to ten years before I reached College and the committee they formed was called Nepal Bhasa Sahitya Pala. When I and my friends reached College we revived that committee. I should have done business -- my family were known as Lhasa Newars -- but I was influenced by Prem Bahadur, Durga Lal...
DNG: Who would you say were the greatest influences on you?
PRT: At school it was Prem Bahadur and Durga Lal; later it was Chittadhar Hridaya. Actually he was distantly related to me. He would often come to the house and encourage me to write.
DNG: So would it be right to say that when you were a student you were mainly interested in literature and not at all in politics?
PRT: Let me tell you how I first got involved in politics. In the year '14 or '15 [1957-9] I took my SLC and entered Trichandra College. The same year  there was, finally, the first general election ever in Nepal. It took seven years after the coming of democracy for us to get a Constitution and a general election. Here in Kathmandu Valley, especially in Kathmandu city, there was fierce competition between Congress and the Communists. For Congress Ganesh Man Singh was standing, for the Communists Pushpa Lal Shrestha, one of the founders of the Communist Party. The students divided into factions, and I was on Pushpa Lal's side. I'll tell you why. Pushpa Lal’s neighbourhood was not far from Durga Lal’s. Even in literature there are divisions, and Durga Lal Shrestha was a progressive, and, under his influence, I supported Pushpa Lal. Durga Lal composed a song in support of Pushpa Lal. The famous singer, now deceased, Narayan Gopal, sang it, and so did Prem Dhoj. During the election they would go around in a truck singing that song. So Durga Lal went frequently to Pushpa Lal's house to see the song being practised and I went too. And when Durga Lal went round in a truck, I went too. Even so, I wasn't particularly active politically, I was very shy and quiet, that's the sort of person I was.
Because I had to both stay in the shop and study in college at the same time, I didn't do very well in education, whereas my friends studied and succeeded very well. But I was quite guileless. Whatever my father and uncles told me to do, I did. Because I had to stay in the shop, I didn't get the opportunity to study consistently. For example, when I wrote letters to my father in Lhasa I would say, “I'm going to study well and become a doctor.” My elder brother and one of my uncles were sent to study at St Augustine's School in Kalimpong. And I said to my father, “Let me go and study there too.” And I had a friend, Naramadeshwar, a poet of Nepal Bhasa, who was prepared to go to Allahabad to study, and I asked my father to send me too, but that wish of mine was not fulfilled. The reason was that I was guileless (swaja), whereas my brother and uncle were difficult (haraa). Perhaps it is like that in other societies too: parents will pay more attention to the difficult ones in the family. So I was never able to progress much in education. I completed the I.A., and then B.A. with a major in Nepal Bhasa at Trichandra College.
Now I explained about the Inter-College Literary Conference. Because the union wouldn't give any place to Nepal Bhasa, we had to organize both a magazine and a conference of our own, separately. So we had a really well-organized Inter-College Nepal Bhasa Literary Conference. It was the time of the Congress government, and the Home Minister, Surya Prasad Upadhyaya, came to present the prizes. At that time there was news on the radio in Nepal Bhasa. The students had made a petition to the government to allow also a cultural programme, and at that meeting the Home Minister gave assurances. So the programme called Jivan Dabu [Life’s Theatre] began. The editors, organizers, and producers of the programme were the students from Trichandra College. All the other programmes on Radio Nepal were funded and organized by the government. That one programme the government didn't pay for at all; we did it all as volunteers. The leader at this time was Hitkarabir Singh Kansakar. And when he wasn't there I went and did the programme. So I was involved from the beginning in the movement of language and literature.
DNG: At that time did you have any experience outside the Kathmandu Valley?
PRT: Not at that time. In 1965-6, after the beginning of the Panchayat period, they removed Nepal Bhasa and Hindi [from the radio], both the newscasts and Jivan Dabu. There was a protest movement against this.
So the government of the time would send police to attack and arrest people even at literary and cultural meetings. They had arrested Hitkarbir Singh, they had arrested Bhikshu Sudarshan, and they had arrested Surya Bahadur Piwa. So it happened that there was a gap in the speakers for the Literary Conference.
I had been studying for my M.A. at Tribhuvan University, but my results hadn't come yet. Vishwa Niketan High School in Tripureshwar needed a teacher of English and Nepal Bhasa. I knew one of the English teachers there, who was also a story writer in Nepal Bhasa, Gambhir Man Maske. He had to go for further training in English, so they needed someone to teach English; so I went to teach English and Nepal Bhasa to the 9th and 10th class. Now it so happened that at that very time the students of that school had undertaken to organize that year's Inter-High School Nepal Bhasa Conference. We Newars still have that tradition of taking turns (pa phayegu), even when organizing events between campuses. Now because I was teaching at that school, people started to say that I had to speak at the conference. Up to that time, I'd never made a speech. That was the first time.
DNG: Which year would that have been?
PRT: That must have been [V.S.] '24 or '25 [1967-8 or 1968-9]. Now there was this gap. Hitkarabir Singh couldn't come. Bhikshu Sudarshan was also in jail, and so was Surya Bahadur Piwa. So I had to speak. And after that I was asked to speak again and again.
Now, I was doing business, but really I didn't know how to do it properly, because I was guileless: I could not make a good profit. So, it was decided that I should do some other kind of work. With Raja Shakya, the writer of Nepal Bhasa stories, now the chief librarian at the Asha Archives, I bought an old printing press and put it in an old house we have in Asan. When I used to have the shop in Nhayka Twah, there was the daily newspaper Nepal Bhasa Patrika, published and edited by Fatteh Bahadur Singh, who used to come regularly to our house. When I was a student of Nepal Bhasa, I went to help with it, doing things like translating English bulletins from AFP or whoever. He would sometimes tell me to write an editorial. Now I have this habit, whenever anyone asks me to do something, of always saying OK, whether I knew how to or not! Later we formed a special group to help bring out the paper and it was published on our press, and I became its editor.
There was also a literary magazine called Jhi, which came out very well at first. Later Chittadhar Hridaya was the editor. Then we, four or five of us, took that over too, and I became the editor and publisher of that.
For the newspaper I had to do regular interviews with the major political leaders such as Ganesh Man [Singh], Tanka Prasad [Acharya]. Also I became a writer of essays. And I used to write comedies too (khyalah) -- I brought out two collections of these -- and plays. So I became known as a Leftist writer. After the students' movement of [V.S.] '36 [1979-80] -- it must have been the following year -- a Progressive Writers' Union (Pragatisil Lekhak Sangh) was formed. So I also became acquainted with writers of Nepali too, as well as politicians. And I became known as a public speaker, not just of Nepal Bhasa, but of Nepali too.
About that time we formed the Matribhasa Parishad (Mother Tongue Movement) which brought together activists of Nepal Bhasa, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tamang, Rai, Limbu, etc. The chairman was Ramananda Prasad Singh. After the students' movement the King announced a referendum: Which is better, the Panchayat system or a multi-party system? We held a mass meeting in Jana Bahal: there were representatives of the different languages and I was the speaker for Nepal Bhasa.
We had just formed the Nepal Bhasa Manka Khalah. There were all kinds of organizations for Nepal Bhasa in different localities, such as Cwasa Pasa, the Nepal Bhasa Parishad, Pasa Muna, and so on. Some would put on satirical plays, some would organize music evenings, some would have literary meetings. We brought them all together to work cooperatively [under the umbrella of the Nepal Bhasa Manka Khalah]. They made me chairman. This was about 17 or 18 years ago.
So I spoke in Jana Bahal and said that this referendum was a great decision for Nepal, but Radio Nepal had said that according to one survey only 54% of Nepalis understand Nepali, which means that 46% did not. There are so many who don't understand Nepali: the King's announcements must be translated into all languages of Nepal, otherwise the referendum is pointless, and the King will have no authority [to hold it]. For saying this, they arrested me.
Also in [V.S.] '38 [1981-2] Pushpa Lal [Shrestha, founder of the Communist Party] died [in exile] in India. There was a memorial meeting at the open-air theatre. I was one of the speakers, and I said the same as I had said in Jana Bahal. Next day they came and arrested me again and put me in the Central Jail. There were political prisoners in there, mostly Communist activists, who used to accused of being Naxalites at that time. I got to know them. A month or six weeks later there was a mass meeting of the Nepal Bhasa activists, and thanks to their pressure I was released.
What I came to appreciate in jail was that there was basically no human rights movement in Nepal in those days. Only Amnesty International was covering it. In jail you couldn't see newspapers. Those who needed certain kinds of medical or dental treatment couldn't get it, those who needed spectacles couldn't get them. So when I came out I formed a group called Rajbandi Vimocan Samiti (Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners). I was the chairman, and there were representatives of different parties as well as independents. This brought me into closer contact with political leaders.
DNG: How many times were you put in jail?
PRT: Once in Central Jail, once in Bhadragol Jail. Later during the pro-democracy movement I was put in Nakhu Jail and then moved to Chautara Jail.
DNG: Altogether how long did you spend in inside?
PRT: About 3 months altogether. That's all. After the referendum politics became a bit more open. Even though the multi-party side lost and parties were still banned, comparatively political activity increased. But student unions weren't banned. The biggest student union in Nepal, which is now aligned with the UML, was the Fifth Convention faction [of the All-Nepal National Free Students’ Union]. At their conference they invited me as a speaker, since I was recognized as a writer and speaker with Leftist sympathies. I was very weak in Nepali: from childhood I had just spoken Newari, all my friends in school and college spoke Newari, and I didn't know how to [speak publicly in Nepali]. They wouldn't accept this; they insisted I come. And the speech was alright! Up till then I'd only spoken in Nepal Bhasa at literary congresses. After that I was invited to speak in Nepali at other such meetings, to the Teachers' Union, for instance.
So although I got involved in politics, I didn't have a political background. My background was in the language movement, or literary movement; also in the human rights movement.
Then after the referendum there was the general election of [V.S.] '38 , the first general election under the Panchayat system. You couldn't stand for parties, but you could stand as an individual. The Left had many divisions; some of them were in favour of taking part in the elections. The question arose of who should stand in Kathmandu and my name was put forward. When my name appeared in the Gorkhapatra as a candidate, some parties objected to my standing for election. There were meetings and the majority agreed that I should stand down. Now although I was a leftist and he was in Congress, I respected Ganesh Man [Singh]. I went to see him and he asked me to withdraw, so I did.
Five years later there was the second general election. Again people said I should stand. I should go and fight from within the Assembly. Compared to before, more thought I should stand. I went to take advice from all the senior political leaders of different parties: Ganesh Man Singh, Rishikesh Shaha, Tanka Prasad Acharya, Dilli Raman Regmi. The majority opinion was that I should stand, providing I didn't become a Pancha and fought for the multi-party system. Kathmandu was the capital city so there was a lot of international attention. There was a mass meeting in Basantapur. I spoke against the Panchayat system and in favour of democracy and a multi-party system; I spoke against corruption and the suffering of the people, the problem of water, and so on. I spoke very freely, frankly and without fear. Cassettes of that speech became famous and reached every district of Nepal, and even reached as far as America. Even though I was not a political leader, I was nothing at all, but suddenly I was very popular. So even after that, whatever I say, even though I point out that there are others who have suffered more than I have and know more than I do, they insist that I stand, saying that others won't win.
DNG: Others have told me that in this cassette you said that if people were giving you their vote because you were a Newar, you didn't want it. Is that true?
PRT: Yes, it is. The reason for that is this. I was in the movement for Nepal Bhasa. People were accusing us of being communal, just saying what we were “because we were Newars”. There was the same debate in the Manka Khalah too, where some people said that we shouldn't get involved in politics. Now there were others who said that we have one national language, Nepali, and that support for other languages is a form of communalism. There are still such people. Now I was standing for the National Assembly. For this there were many issues, of which language was just one. The major issue was democracy itself, freedom of expression. Also the development of the country is a major issue. Now among the major issues, one is that of language, nationality/ethnicity (jati), and religion (dharma). That's my opinion. Because of this, the papers kept accusing me of being communal, that I was only winning thanks to the vote of the Newar community. So what I said to the Newars was, “Don't give me a vote as a Newar, give me a vote because of my opinions, because of my politics. I'm going to fight for the multi-party system and against the Panchayat system. I want peace, development, equality, human rights, an end to corruption. I am going as an independent leftist. I am not going as a communalist or as a Newar. If you are giving me your vote only because I am a Newar, please don't do so.” That's what I said; it wasn't that I didn't want Newar votes. Obviously you can't win in Kathmandu without the votes of Newars.
DNG: These days there seems to be an upsurge of ethnic feeling. From one point of view this is understandable, but from another it could be seen as dangerous. What is your opinion about that?
PRT: Nepal is a multi-national (bahujatiya) country. It doesn't have just one nationality/ethnic group, one language, one culture (samskrti), one religion. Different groups took part in the movement of 1990 and this was recognized. In the new Constitution it says that Nepal is a bahujatiya, bahubhasiya, a multi-national, multi-lingual country. There isn't just one language but many languages, there isn't just one group but many groups, there isn't just culture but many cultures, and there isn't just one religion but many religions. Whether you base it on democracy, on the International Declaration of Human Rights, or even on Nepal's own Constitution, all groups (jati) are equal: equal under the Constitution, equal before the law.
DNG: If that's so, do you agree that the government should provide primary education in the mother tongue throughout the country?
PRT: That's what we demanded! All languages are equal, so the speakers of all languages should be treated equally. If primary education is provided in the medium of Nepali, it should also be provided in Nepal Bhasa, Tamang, and in all languages. Otherwise all these other languages will die out.
DNG: Radio Nepal is one thing. But surely, if we have to take all the school textbooks that currently exist, and have to translate them all into Tamang and all the other languages, print them, and distribute them, won't that take an awful lot of money?
PRT: It will. But the main question is, should we save the Tamang language or not? That's the major problem. Should we save all the languages of Nepal or not? If the government can spend tens of millions of rupees for the development of Nepali, surely there must be a share for Nepal Bhasa. No one is saying that the other languages must immediately be given the same position as Nepali which is used from primary education up to university, on the radio, television, everything. But our languages are about to die out. So at the very least the government must give recognition, at least now at the initial stages it must support primary education. The Constitution now says that we have the right to open primary schools for education in the mother tongue. Newars are now comparatively well off: from an economic and an educational point of view. Even so, they haven't been able to create more than a single school. There is no curriculum and there are no textbooks. So until the government has a policy and implements it, it will not be possible. What the government says is, “We don't have the money.” Take the example of the Kanya Mandir, a girls' high school in Nhyaka_Twah, a completely Newar area. There the language of primary instruction should be Nepal Bhasa. The government wouldn't have to spend much money: all they would have to do is put in Newar school teachers and provide books in Nepal Bhasa. Or take Labsiphedi, an area which is 90% Tamang, the school should be changed to Tamang medium.
The problem is that the leaders’ intentions are not good. Nepali, they say, is the national language. But Nepali is the rulers' language. They think it is OK if the Tamang language dies out. People talk about human rights. These Tamang children don't understand Nepali or English. How will the Tamangs ever progress if their education isn't given in Tamang? It isn't a question of money. First we have to accept the proposition that Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, and that all people and all languages should have equal rights. First of all, the parties have to accept this proposition.
DNG: Up till now am I right in thinking that neither the Congress nor the UML have accepted this proposition?
PRT: Orally they accept it, they say that all languages and all groups are equal, but seriously they haven't adopted it. So that why this separate Janajati movement has arisen. Nepal is a small country with many ethnic diversities. Before, the Limbus, the Gurungs, and other groups, weren't very educated. In the future their children, once they've been educated, will reject unequal treatment. Will they rise up or not? Look at the Soviet Union: for 75 years the Communists were said to be very democratic. Allegedly, everything was equal; but languages and nationalities weren't really equal. Perhaps if, as Lenin said, they had treated all languages equally, the USSR wouldn't have split up. But the Russian Empire dominated all the others, the Byelorussians, the Ukrainians, and all the rest.
Nepal, though it is a small country compared to the Soviet Union, is still very diverse. In the same way, if no recognition is given to different languages, cultures, and nationalities, they will rise up against the government, just as some Limbus have already demanded an independent Limbuwan. What's the reason they are demanding this? Because their language isn't recognized, because their nationality (jatiyata) isn't recognized, or because the government does nothing to develop their area. In human rights there are the principles of self-determination, autonomy, and self-rule. If they say, “As part of democracy, we need to have self-rule, we need to have autonomy,” -- is it permissible to ask for this or not? Why should that be a problem for Nepal? We have to find a political solution, a democratic solution. We have to find a way to bring about equal rights.
DNG: You've had experience of being a Minister. You were in the UML government [of 1994-5], but you have never joined the UML. What is the main reason for that?
PRT: As I explained, my background isn't really political. So, from the beginning I didn't join any party. But I had to stand for election, and I had close relations with the Left. And in the elections, the UML supported me, and other leftist parties didn't put up candidates against me. So I became like a common personality for the communist parties. There are those who say that communists should be united and they demand that left independent intellectuals should all join in one place. Opinions may indeed differ. But at least as long as they [the independents] are as one [i.e. support the Communists] at elections, then the Communists can win and form the government. When an election comes, there will be dialogue, talk of unity, but they don't succeed. They then invite us independents to help them. For example, the other day during the mid-term elections the Communists couldn't agree so they called me to arbitrate. It is the same on the campuses: if the left students are united, they win; if they are divided, the Congress’s Nepal Students Union (Ne. Bi. Sangh) will win. When they can't agree, among them also I have been asked to arbitrate. So that's another reason why I haven't joined.
In the election under the Panchayat regime, I was known as someone who spoke in favour of the people and of multi-party democracy. Some people have criticized me, saying, “Now that we have parties, he doesn't even join his own party!”
Not long ago Madan Bhandari, the General Secretary of the UML, who was killed in the [motor] accident -- a great loss to them --, and the present UML Secretary, Madhav Nepal, came to me and seriously requested me to join. I discussed it with my supporters, and with a meeting of the Padma Ratna Sahayog Samiti (Padma Ratna Support Committee) which has existed since the Panchayat election. And I discussed it with my friends and with left intellectuals. They all said I should join the Party, nearly 90% of them, that I ought to join and take a leadership role. But I myself have not been able to take that decision. For one thing, I am by nature a very peaceful, quiet, shy, candid person. Whatever the truth is, I say it; whatever is in my mind, I have to say it. Such people are no use in the Party. Even if people criticize me, I don't get angry. The newspapers often criticize me and write what isn't true, but the editors are still friends of mine, and I never get angry.
Then there is something else. To be a Communist, to be a Communist worker or a Communist leader, one should cultivate a proletarian character. But if you look at the Communist leaders, you don't see it. There are so many hundreds of thousands of poor people, people who don't get enough to eat. There ought to be workers in the Communist leadership, but in practice there aren't any. So I'm just a Communist supporter, but not a Communist Party member.
There are friends of mine who say that none of this is an obstacle. That I am candid is a good quality; that I speak freely and frankly is also a good quality. “You can still go into the party.” But I have decided that I am not suitable (yogya) to be a Communist Party leader. So I decided to try and make whatever contribution I could as an independent outside the party.
Now in the Panchayat time my symbol was a sun. I was a popular candidate; I got the second largest vote in the election. I was popular not just in Kathmandu but in the entire country. So my symbol, the sun, was known, and associated with the multi-party cause throughout the country. After 1990, with the restoration of the multi-party system, there came the first general election [of 1991]. People said I had to stand whether or not I was member of the party. Without any conditions the Communists supported me. Now what symbol to take? According to the Constitution independent candidates should each take a different symbol, and I too thought to take a different symbol. But my supporters wouldn't hear of it. I had to keep the sun, even though it was the symbol of a party. So even though I didn't have to accept any conditions or submit to the party's discipline, I fought the election with the same symbol. So afterwards, from one point of view, I was independent, but from another I was aligned with the UML because I had fought the election under their symbol. I have been criticized for this, and still am.
It was the same in recent mid-term elections. They supported me in my constituency and I supported them in the other constituencies in Kathmandu. Now when they formed a minority government -- perhaps it is a weakness of mine -- I had no ambition to be minister.
DNG: Did you choose to be Minister of Health or did they give it to you?
PRT: My friends insisted that I should be a minister. But I said, “How can I be a minister? I'm not even a member of the Party; I have neither the right nor the ambition to be one.” They said, “If the Party offers, don't refuse it.” Then a phone call came at 12 o'clock at night that I was to be offered a ministry. I said, “If it is going to cause problems for the Party, I don't need to a Minister,” because, as you know, there are only about 15 ministries, but about 30 or 40 people would have been waiting to be ministers. They said, “No, the Party is agreed, you should be a minister.” My friends also said, “Yes, you must be a minister; if you've been offered don't refuse.” So I agreed, but I didn't ask what portfolio I'd been given. That was what I got, the Ministry of Health and Labour.
Now there are those who said that this wasn't an important post: “You should have taken another one.” But I don't agree. There are many poor labourers who live in very poor conditions and in the Ministry of Labour I could help to ameliorate their condition. The health service outside the city is also extremely bad. Basic health provisions haven't reached the villages. So I was very happy to be able to do something about this.
DNG: The UML government only lasted nine months. What do you think its main accomplishments were?
PRT: The Labour Ministry is one of the most neglected ministries. The majority of Nepal's people are workers. So this ought to be one of the most important ministries. So it should have a higher budget, for training, etc. Obviously it was impossible to complete everything, but the basics were begun. In the Health Ministry, what I said was that we must make basic health services reach all the people, even in the villages in the most remote areas. We had good relations with WHO and other donor agencies; for example, with Dr Bradley from the mission hospitals. Very good relations were established with him: he too has come here to serve the Nepali people. Likewise with the WHO.
We have various problems here: we have to lessen corruption, the bureaucracy is very slow. So I asked them freely and frankly what problems they have, and I promised to give my personal attention to solving them. I used meet with them regularly. It's not the kind of thing that can be solved instantly. We don't have the money or the manpower. Nevertheless, we have to do something. In three or four districts we established mobile hospitals and announced where they would be on the radio. We recruited doctors and surgeons from the capital and other main cities and asked them to go out there. Within 4 or 5 months we managed to help over 100,000 people in different districts. In various places hospital buildings were on the point of falling down. We got help from the mission hospitals and WHO. We managed to do something about that. But of course though we accomplished something in nine months, it wasn't complete. Had we been in place for 18 months or two years, we could have achieved a lot. If Ministers are really dedicated and really honest they can achieve a lot. The Minister has to give his personal attention, and if he does so, any ministry can achieve substantial progress and reform.
DNG: In your opinion would you say that, compared to Congress, Communist ministers are better people?
PRT: One can't say better or worse; it is a question of ideology. Where the Communists are concerned there is a kind of discipline, you have to be pro-people, you cannot be corrupt. Congress is the same of course: they too should not be corrupt, should not tell lies. But they have a class character. There is a trend: the Communists have from the beginning been dedicated to the workers and the peasants, so the people have come to have the impression that the Communists are not corrupt, that the Communists serve the people. If you go to the Congress or other Minister's house you'll see hundreds of people, coming to beg a government job, some kind of work, to seek an agency, a dealership. But if you go to a Communist Minister's office there won't be that kind of crowd, because people know that he won't give it.
I established this when I stood in the Panchayat period, that I would not be corrupt. I stood up and said that I would not take bribes. If I were to eat just one paisa, the people must punish me. I have nothing, but I have this one thing, honesty, to be proud of. I said in mass meetings that I wouldn't do any individual's selfish work. So people with a personal interest don't come to me. One or two people, who don't know or who are really suffering, come to me. And I do help them. But I won't do any irregular kind of work. But anything that is in accordance with the law I will do. I told people from the start that I would not engage in corruption for myself, and nor would I do it for anyone else either, not for my brother or for friends. So that kind of people don't come to me.
Comparatively the same is true of the Communists. Take Man Mohan Adhikari, the former Communist Prime Minister, for example. His image must be the best of any Prime Minister. He wasn't involved in a single scandal: there was no question of corruption or commission. So, to him also, businessmen and others didn't go and ask him to fix things, because they knew he wouldn't do it. If people know that someone isn't like that, they won't go there.
It is also a question of class character. The Congress Party's supporters are mostly businessmen, rich capitalists, and so on. Most of the supporters of the Communists are people without money, just peasants and workers. So, because of this class character or class connexion, for that reason also there was less of that kind of problem.
You can tell if you look at the election booths. Congress supporters will be drinking beer and eating in restaurants whereas the Communists will be sitting there eating Waiwai instant noodles. It's a kind of trend, from the student level upwards, the Congress are capitalist, the Communists progressive. For that reason too corruption is comparatively less.
DNG: It doesn't seem right.
PRT: No, it isn't right. These international agencies should pay according to Nepali standards. This is the problem of NGO culture. They spend 90% of their budget on directors' salaries, conferences, publicity, expenses on hotel dinners. In a university professor only gets 6,000 a month. But somebody just graduating and going to work in an NGO gets 15 or 20,000. This NGO culture will have a negative effect in the future. So people are saying this has to stop. Foreign aid has been misused. Nepal has received aid worth tens of millions of dollars, but where is the development? There is so little.
In the health field the Netherlands government has made hospital buildings in various districts but they aren't maintained, and two years later they are falling down. The Americans have built various buildings, but when the Ambassador goes to see one year later, they aren't there! So the Americans should say to the Nepalese government in friendly terms: “We have come to help work for the benefit of the Nepali people. But you don't maintain what we build. If you continue like that, we can't help you.” If they said that the government would have to take it seriously. So there is fault not just on the Nepali side, but also on the side of the donor countries. They have taken American taxpayers' money. The Nepali people are their target group. They will only be happy if the money reaches the Nepali people. They didn't give the money so that because of corruption some Nepali could make himself into a rupee millionaire! From that point of view also they ought to take care.
But if you stopped foreign aid altogether, this country would not be able to manage. In order to develop the country, the only possibility is for us to earn Himalayan dollars just like the Arabs have earned petrodollars! So the solution to this problem is that the government must stop corruption and the foreign donors must make maximum use of the money they give and make sure it reaches the Nepali people.
DNG: Another thing I feel I have to ask about is the famous Cow Controversy (gai kand). Did you or did you not say that Muslims or others who have the custom of eating beef in Nepal ought to have the right to slaughter cattle?
PRT: I was one of the founding members of the Nepal Human Rights Organization (Nepal Manavadhikar Sangathan, HURON); Rishikesh Shaha is the chairman. At the HURON convention in Bara district I was the chief guest. The subject was human rights. It is my habit, wherever I go, to speak strictly on whatever the subject is: if it is literature, I speak on literature; if it is sports, I speak on sports. Some people, when invited to speak at a sports occasion, speak about politics; but I am not like that. So what I said, at this national human rights meeting, was that since the restoration of democracy, the major human rights have been restored: freedom of expression, the freedom to establish and register a political party, etc. But in other, different contexts there are still other human rights problems. That's how I started.
Nepal doesn't have just one jati and one religion, but people of various different religions. During the Nepali Congress government’s rule, different groups made different demands. For example, the Tamangs wanted Lhosar, their New Year, recognized as a holiday. Similarly, Muslims have many festivals, like the Hindus. Now for Hindus, there is 15 days' holiday every Bada Dasain. Then there is Swanti-Tihar: again there are 3, 4, or 5 days' holiday. After that there is Ram Jayanti, Buddha Jayanti, and so on. How many [public] holidays they have! But the Muslims don't have a single holiday recognized by the government. They are a Nepali community too. So when the UML government came, it was recognized that this demand made sense. Nepal is a poor country with too many holidays! We ought to be working to develop, but actually we are always taking holidays!
What I said was, it was good that the UML-Congress government gave the Id festival as a public holiday for Muslims. And the Tamangs were given one day for Lhosar. But there are others. Should the Newars be given a holiday for their Nepal Samvat-New Year celebration or not? In the same way, the Gurungs, Magars, Limbus, Rais, Maithili-speakers are coming: should they be given holidays or not? They should. But how many holidays should there be in Nepal? There are already too many, and they should be cut. If Nepal is a country of religious harmony (dharmik sahishnuta), Hindus should reduce their own holidays and give them to the others. Of the 15 days at Dasain, they should give one to Muslims, one to Rais, and so on. In this way I spoke about religious harmony, national unity, and so on.
Now there are other human rights problems in the religious field. In Nepal there are not just Hindus, but Buddhists as well. Nepal has been begging money internationally on the grounds that it is the Lord Buddha's birthplace. Yet in the Constitution the very word Buddhism doesn't even appear! So there is no constitutional recognition of Buddhism. But I was a Minister, don't forget. So I said, as long as the Constitution hasn't been amended, it will be a Hindu kingdom; that's fine. But at least we should acknowledge the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which supports freedom of religions and equality of religions. Even our Constitution, even though it is a Hindu kingdom, talks of freedom of religions and equality of religions too. If you call Nepal a Hindu kingdom, there is no recognition (manyata) for other religions: Nepal has Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, followers of Bon, followers of the Kirant religion. They have no recognition. So that is the problem. So what I said was, there will only be religious harmony in Nepal when everyone has the right to carry on their own religious customs, traditions, and practices.
Let me give you an example. Nepal has many Muslims. Now their customs require them to eat beef. Even in a Hindu kingdom, it should be possible for them, within the boundaries of their settlements, in accordance with their culture and religion, to have that practice. In my opinion they should be allowed to eat beef in that way, if their culture requires it. Just within their own settlements. The Tamangs, also, who are Buddhists, have to have beef, just as the Newars have to have buffalo meat. Because it's a Hindu kingdom, the law doesn't allow them to kill cattle, so they go up to the hills and make the cow fall down the hillside. That way they can say the cow died [rather than being killed] and can eat it. In the same way, the Tamangs should be given permission to eat beef within their own settlements. If we look at it from the point of view of human rights, they should be given that permission. That's all I said.
But when it was reported [by the newspapers], I was supposed to have said that cows should be slaughtered. What I said was, there are many problems of human rights remaining, but people don't talk about them. Now I am also a human rights worker. Human rights workers have to have the courage to say things. I was talking from the point of religious equality, religious freedom, and human rights. I never said that I myself should kill cows!
DNG: But you did say that they should have the right to kill cows?
PRT: Yes, I did. Just as in Hindu religion and culture one kills buffaloes, sheep, goats, and among Newars, some kill ducks or chickens, in the same way, there are Muslims in this country: 2 or 2.5 million according to different reports. They are one of the Nepalese communities, they are Nepalese citizens. Whatever rights to religious practice Hindus have, Muslims and Christians should have too. If we ask whether they should have the right to practise their religion within the boundaries of their own settlements, we have to say they do. But I never said, “Now cows must be killed.”
When I was a member of the National Panchayat, there was a Finance Minister called Bharat Bahadur Pradhan, and there was the question of tariffs on various imported goods. One of these tariffs was imported canned beef: "the rate of tariff is 10%". This is printed. The Hindus protested against this. The ex-Prime Minister Nagendra Prasad Rijal, one of the leaders of the Hinduism movement, called for the resignation of the Finance Minister. Even before that, when Dr Prakash Chandra Lohani, the present Foreign Minister, when he was Finance Minister, introduced such a tariff: canned beef.
DNG: Which year was that in?
PRT: It must have been from about '41 or '42 [c.1985]. The tariff was allowed and so you can get canned beef in cold stores, so the importation was allowed. I was all in favour of this being a country of religious harmony where no one fights for religion. I said the same things then: there are those who eat beef: Muslims, Christians; and as individuals Hindus and Buddhists can eat it too. But then I was alone and no one paid any attention.
DNG: Obviously the fact that you were a Minister was behind a lot of the criticism. Who was it who mainly criticized you for this?
PRT: It was friends in the Nepali Congress Party who began it. They made the topic religion, but the motive was political. It is the Nepali Congress activists from Asan and Indra Chok who are against me: I know them very well. One or two of them said straight out to me that we have to defeat you in the election and we won't let go of this. But when I went out to various districts as Minister of Health there would be demonstrations with black flags, but only 15, 20, or 30 people. Mostly Congress people. You could tell because at the end of my speech they would shout "Jay Nepal". Only Congress activists do that, not anyone else! In some places I knew them personally.
From that it was taken up by Hindu fanatics. There was a mass meeting in Janakpur where there was an Indian speaker. The border is open of course. He announced a Rs. 50,000 reward on the head of Padma Ratna Tuladhar, which came out in various newspapers. Then there is a Hindu fanatic called Yogi Narahari, who is also a historian. He also spoke on one place and said that Padma Ratna should be cut up into as many pieces as he has hairs on his head. So in the beginning it was political; then the Hindu fanatics reacted to it. But the general populace weren't that impressed by this. Firstly, some thought it was OK what I said about human rights. Then, one or two Hindu scholars pointed out that nowhere in the Hindu scriptures is it written that one shouldn't eat beef. Rather, in the ancient Hindu religion one had to eat beef.
So, it was first political, then the fanatics came in, but they didn't have all that much success. For my part, I was trying to be very restrained; because, if I had been provoked those opposed to me would have been successful. The Tamangs and Gurungs came to my office in the Ministry -- they are martial races, aren't they! -- and said, “We are ready to do whatever you want, kill Brahmans, or whatever. Just say the word.” I said to them, “No, this issue is very dangerous, very sentimental. We mustn't do what our opponents want. We must stay peaceful.” And finally it died down.
During my time as Minister there was this one controversy. But from one point of view it was a good thing. Because at least it was discussed. People talk about human rights all the time, but never about rights in the religious field. They talk about equality and equal rights, but never discuss about where these equal rights should be. At least, along with the negative there was this positive fact that these issues were discussed.
DNG: Thank you very much for your time and frankness.
This interview was originally published in HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. This work is licensed under CC -BY-NC-ND 4.0.
We welcome your comments at [email protected]
David Gellner And Gregory N Sharkey David N. Gellner is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Fr Gregory Sharkey SJ is a research professor of Comparative Theology and resident director of the Boston College Nepal Program.
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