Remembering KishunjeeNo other politician of 20th century is probably more relevant than Kishunjee in conflict-ridden atmosphere of Nepal
Kishunjee would have been ninety-two the other day. At times, he spoke of his wish to live beyond hundred. But then he had an attitude towards life. He accepted and welcomed death as an integral part of life itself. Death for him was the final stage of growth. His last years were not very healthy physically. But he never showed any annoyance on that ground. In essence, he took his life as it was handed out to him.
I had quite a long association with him. I first met him when I was in my early twenties, when I was imprisoned in Nakkhu jail in November 1968 to share its miseries with him. He was languishing there for the eighth year of imprisionment. He had spent earlier years in the company of BP Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh in Sundarijal jail. The two stalwarts of Nepali Congress were released from there after an equivocal undertaking as per the Panchayat System. Kishunjee had refused to abide and was consequently sent to Nakkhu jail to be incarcerated further. Such was the background to our meeting.
Personally speaking, I was completely mesmerised by the charismatic personality of BP Koirala as of then.
So I was not inclined to look upon the historic defiance of Kishunjee favourably. Yet, I had to share the jail with him then.
Prisoner of the year
Kishunjee’s lonesome nature made our association difficult to begin with. In personal life, he had always been a loner. The years of solitary confinement had taken a toll on him further. By the time I met him, he was already settled in his jail life and maintained a regular routine. He used to get up by five in the morning. After ablutions he would chant some Sanskrit slokas rather loudly. These chants disturbed my slumber in the most uncomely manner and irritated me greatly. But as I gradually started to know him better, I took many of his idiosyncrasies, including the chants, in my stride, though a little grudgingly.
Now that I had become franker with him, one day I questioned him about his religious beliefs and the worth of the chants with rude skepticism. Kishunji smiled away. Later he told me that he acquired the chanting ritual from his family. Unlike many other leaders, he never boasted of his family background. In fact, he even made fun of himself on this score. He let me know modestly that he had to earn his college fees by conducting such rituals with such non-intelligible mantras during his student days in Benaras. His ancestors were preceptors to the Shah Kings. His grandfather Bishwanath Bhattarai had gone to Beneras in the retinue of Maharani Laxmi Devi, the redoubtable queen of the infamous Kot Massacre. By the time Kishunjee happened to go to school, the patronage of the queen had already become a thing of the past. And the family had to earn its living through puja-paath and chores in Beneras. Now that Kishunjee had to face the ordeals of the Panchayat jails, the chants seemed to have acquired new meaning. They provided him strength and resilience invoking divine dispensation. Besides, Kishunjee had come to appreciate the literal meaning of the chants with his own interpretations. A regular reading of the Geeta followed the chants invariably. Later he added the Batuk-Bhairav Stotra to his repertoire.
Kishunjee was just twenty-one when BP Koriala met him. They remained comrades thereafter and played their respective parts in the history of Nepal together as well as separately.
Kishunjee’s legacy is yet to be identified and evaluated properly in our country. No other politician of the 20th century is probably more relevant than him in the conflict-ridden atmosphere of Nepali society today. Kishunjee was thoroughly committed to non-violence as a political means. But for the youthful involvement in the 1950 insurrection, he always remained committed to the Gandhian example of Satyagraha. That way he was an inheritor of the Buddha-marga too. Most of his colleagues, chiefly his leader BP Koirala after the release from Sundarijal jail, went to India to launch an armed struggle from the security of the Indian base. Kishunjee instead chose to suffer the police atrocities in Nepal in his attempts to further the Satyagraha style of struggle. To pursue this end, he repeatedly attempted to contact common people peacefully through his tours. But he was repeatedly prevented from doing this. Besides, he was again made to spend more than five years in the most inhospitable jails of Nepal. In his last bout of imprisonment, he was nominated as the prisoner of the year by Amnesty International. After one of his relatively longer imprisonment, he chose to go to meet BP Koirala, then in self-exile in Benaras, in the summer of 1976. By that time BP Koirala’s call for an armed-struggle had failed tragically. The gruesome Okhaldhunga kand had taken a toll on some of the finest young cadres of the Nepali Congress. BP Koirala was chastened, but then being the big man that he was, he was ready to accept responsibility as well. Kishunjee did his best to persuade BP Koirala to return to Nepal. That was the genesis of the historic National Reconciliation as enunciated by BP Koirala on 31st December 1976. Rest is history.
But Kishunjee was more than just a politician. He was never mired in power politics. He was a politician with his eyes firmly set on the moral firmament. Politics was but a means of serving people for him. But he was too modest to ever mention his service to people. Borrowing from Gandhi he would generously describe his politics as the means of self-purification. In fact, if and when there was unmanageable acrimony in the party, he would offer to resign from the exalted position of party-president. That way, he let everybody know what a reluctant politician he was. One may say the reluctance did prove his undoing on the one hand, but on the other, he was lovingly called the saint politician by all and sundry. He always wanted to be faithful to his commitment to his self.
He often very loudly stated that he wanted to see god face to face. I was often in his company when he uttered such words. I was simply embarrassed at times. I remember vividly having accompanied him to a South-Asian political conference in Kathmandu in 1991. A number of former prime ministers and presidents were in the audience. Kishunjee was to make the inaugural speech of the day. He started his speech with what he called was his primary desire—to see god face to face! He put aside the prepared text for his speech—which I had had the misfortune of drafting—and started rambling about god. My suggestions about the attainment of peace in South Asia as contained in the draft was discarded. Kishunjee was very categorical that humans simply could not attain peace in the world by themselves. Only god could do so. Kishunjee was not a Christian, but he came close to saying that the ‘original sin’ made it impossible for mankind to achieve peace through its own efforts. Binod Chaudhry, being the convener and organiser of the programme, looked askance at me as he expected Kishunjee to read the regular sort of insipid speech. But Kishunjee was just not that.
The reluctant politician that Kishunjee was made him an apparent failure on many such occasions. But he never bothered about such kinds of failure.
Nepal has been governed and led by so-called practical and successful leaders all these years. But wherever our country has reached is here for everybody to see and experience. It is common knowledge what motivates our leaders and rulers. It is anything but hankering for personal power. Power has always been one of the most important motive forces in history. There is nothing wrong with politicians looking for power as such. But then power for what?
Sooner or later, such a question is bound to arise in Nepal too. The rulers must justify themselves in terms of popular well-being. Even the ruthless Junga Bahadur could not escape the scrutiny of the populace. He did prove his worth by introducing a number of popular measures other than providing the much awaited law and order and stability. Napoleon was the first dictator of modern times. But what a dictator he was! No nation state of our times can speak of its administrative achievements without acknowledging his debt. His detractors have often admitted to his rule as having futhered the mandate of the French revolution. So a politician worth his salt must have something more than personal ambition. This is where our politicians seem to fail today.
Kisunjee is fondly remembered for having ushered in constitutional democracy in 2047 BS absolutely peacefully. He also got the first general election held within the stipulated time under the newly promulgated constitution. The general election saw him lose his parliamentary seat. It was as though he was hell-bent on proving how impartial a sitting prime minister could be while holding a competitive election.
Kishunjee had unbelievable strength of conviction. He was never deterred by the lure of office or wealth. His worst detractors will also grudgingly accept this much. Where did he get such disposition from? Why are our politicians bereft of such traits today? Psychologists from Freud to Abraham Maslow have put forward various theories as the root of good and evil in man. Professional biographers of great leaders have pondered much over the question. The religious tradition has always spoken of the role of spiritual discipline to maintain the serenity of any individual irrespective of his station in life. The Geeta speaks of sthithpragya famously. Dhammapada is primarily an exercise in samata. Kishunjee was conversant wih this tradition and appreciated it greatly. His childhood training might have given him the ‘irritating’ rituals and the chants, but the trials and tribulations of his life led him through the strait gate to his ultimate meaning of life. The sadhus and seers were always welcomed by him.
In his later years, his caretaker Amita Kapali was an influence on him. She seemed to dote on every saffron-clad passerby. Kisunjee regaled on that. Besides, the quest for god often took him to visit various temples and ashrams throughout his life. In later years, he was more prone to it. In Kathmandu, Osho Tapoban was one of his favorite haunts. In fact, he had laid the founding stone of the commune himself. The founder of Osho Tapoban, Swami Anand Arun, was ever solicitous of him. He gifted him audiocassettes of Osho to listen to. Kishunjee could often be seen listening to them raptly. Swami Arun must have been amused that there were so many similarities in the worldview of Osho and Kishunjee. It may sound preposterous to the followers of either, but three points stand out in this connection: firstly, both believed in spirituality without any reference to organised religion; they talked of the fundamental religion above all the religions. Secondly, their attitude to love, life and sex was similar as well. Kishunjee’s personal life was subject to a number of criticisms, as was Osho’s. Kishunjee happily owned up to most of the censures. The devotees of Osho have seen to it that his personal life is not known to the public at large in the proper perspective. There are two extreme views about his personal life. For some he was a libertine; for others he was a celibate saint. Thirdly, Osho advocated community living throughout his life. Kisunjee too did not have any family of his own. More than that, he made fun of the family as an institution. Now and then, he openly discouraged young men from getting married. In a way, his party was his family, which again was a belief in some kind of a commune system.
Kathmandu seems to have forgotten Kishunjee completely but for poor Amita and her small coterie. Sher Bahadur Deuba, during his last prime ministerial tenure, was considerate enough to set up an ashram for him to put up. The ashram at Bodegaun is being maintained and looked after by Amita. The other day, Prime Minister Oli went there to unveil a life-size statue of Kisunjee. The statue was sent by an Indian Yogi Amarjyoti as a tribute to Kisunjee’s memory. Nothing could be more appropriate to the memory of the saint politician than the gift at this juncture of Indo-Nepal impasse.
Giri is a Nepali Congress leader and lawmaker