Kolkata to Kathmandu: Nepal’s long march to democracy

September 18th, 2010 - 3:45 pm ICT by IANS  

By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, Sep 18 (IANS) When Tundikhel, Nepal’s Hyde Park, turned into a sea of humanity with flags fluttering and hundreds of people cheering the nation’s oldest party’s six-decade-long march for democracy, few remembered that the fight had started from Kolkata in India.

Only a few veterans, like Purushottam Basnet, who was only two years old at that time, remembers how the Nepali Congress (NC), the largest party in the ruling alliance today and the leader of two pro-democracy movements in 1950 and 1990, was conceived in Kolkata and nurtured in Benaras and Patna.

As the party, founded by B.P. Koirala, the first elected prime minister of Nepal, holds its 12th general convention in Kathmandu - it began Friday and will also elect a new party chief - its roots go back to a low-profile meeting that took place in Bhowanipore in Kolkata in January 1947.

Seven months before India was to shake off British colonial rule, Nepal, though never a British colony, also remained deprived of democracy and rights under the oligarchy of the hereditary Rana prime ministers with a ban on political parties.

Koirala, whose family had been exiled to India, founded the Nepali Rastriya Congress that held its first general convention in Kolkata in 1947.

“They chose Kolkata because BP himself had been educated in that city,” says Basnet, a veteran member of the NC. “Also, there were two active Nepali organisations in Kolkata - the Gorkha Dukh Nibaran Sangh and Gorkha Congress - that facilitated the work of the new party.”

The two-day general convention, which has today become part of Nepal’s history, was held at the Khalsa School that is now known as the Khalsa English High School. The party members elected Tanka Prasad Acharya, one of its founder members, though at that time Acharya was in the Kathmandu Central Jail, imprisoned for his involvement in the democracy movement.

The second convention of the party was held in 1948 in the Harish Chandra High School in Benaras.

At that time, it was Koirala who was in prison.

“Koirala went incognito to his hometown Biratnagar (in eastern Nepal) to boost the labour movement when he was arrested and jailed,” says Basnet.

“At that time, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer. He was released after Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Acharya Jai Prakash Narayan interceded from India on his behalf.”

The next year, the third general convention was held in Darbhanga in Bihar, when Koirala was still in prison.

After his release, his party merged with the Democratic Congress of Nepali aristocrat Subarna Shumsher Rana to become the present NC. In 1950, the fourth general convention was held in Kolkata once more with the then Tiger cinema in the Chowringhee area being the venue.

“The Tiger cinema was owned by Subarna Shumsher,” says Basnet. “Subarna Shumsher also had a house in Chowringhee that was the centre of the party. It was probably at 40, Chowringhee Road.”

Subarna’s brother Mahabir Shumsher owned an airline, the Himalayan Airlines that ran flights between Kathmandu, Delhi, Kolkata and Patna. Basnet says the airline was also used to smuggle arms from then Burma when the Nepali Congress decided to start an armed struggle against the Rana rule.

Basnet names two Indians from Kolkata, socialist leaders Gunada Mazumdar and Bhola Chatterjee, who were close to Koirala and were actively associated with Nepal’s pro-democracy movement. Chatterjee went to Burma to pick up arms for the Nepali Congress.

When the arms struggle started, the centre of the movement shifted from Kolkata to Patna.

The pro-democracy movement of 1950 saw an end to the Rana rule and the ban on political parties was removed.

Then the Nepali Congress activities shifted to Nepal with the fifth convention taking place in the temple town of Janakpur on the Indo-Nepal border.

Since then, the conventions have been held in Nepal. However, it was only from the ninth convention, held 50 years after the first one, that it shifted to the capital city.

(Sudeshna Sarkar can be contacted at sudeshna.s@ians.in)

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