28 February, 2004

Goodwill Hunting: Sadbhawana Party

Sushma Joshi

On January 23, 2004, dozens of students were imprisoned in Janakpurdham for their activism against regression. Janakpur, viewed by local inhabitants with pride as one of the first gadatantra in history - its democratic politics is written about in the epic Ramayana, claim local scholars - is a place where students would rebel against a repressive system. But local inhabitants had another related event to mark on the same day - January 23th was also the third death anniversary of Gajendra Narayan Singh, the charismatic leader and founder of the Sadhbhawana Party.
The Sadhbhawana Party represents the broad swath of the Terai belt, and raises issues of citizenship, language, culture and decentralized government-central to the concerns of the madesh's inhabitants-on a national level. The current Constitution discriminates against the Terai people in many ways, say political leaders. Sadhbhawana's platform is based on redressing these discriminatory system, and in taking the madesh into the political mainstream.
Citizenship is a central concern. "Indigenous peoples like Musahar, Khattabay, Dom, Dushad, Halkhor and Leheri remain unable to get their citizenship papers," says Shyam Sundar Sashi, a Janakpur-based reporter. "A recently arrived Marwari can get his citizenship after five years, but indigenous people, with no land or money, have a harder time." Citizenship rights are still being granted according to the now defunct Constitution of 2020, with no correction being made for the new constitution of 2047. Women who are married across the border to Indian husbands, and who return home due to abusive spouses, find that they are unable to get citizenship papers for their children.
Decentralized government is another concern. "We get a holiday during Kukur Puja in Tihar," says Sashi, "But we do not celebrate this holiday. We should get a day off in Maghay Sangranti, which is our main festival." A decentralized government would allow local administrations to follow their own schedules, language and dress. Madeshiyas should be allowed to wear their own clothes, including the dhoti and the gamcha, at government offices, is a popular demand. Adequate representation in police, army and civil administration is another.
The Sadhbhawana Party, in spite of their championing of local issues, did not win in the last election in Dhanusa district. The Nepali Congress won two seats, the CPN-UML won one, and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party won one. Sadbhawana has a strong base of support in Rajbiraj, Sarlahi and Siraha, but seems to have little popular support in Dhanusa.
"The Sadhbhawana Party doesn't have strong leaders," says Ramkumar Yadav, a member of the CPN-UML party. "They say they will take the concerns of madeshiyas to a national level. They make a lot of noise, but can't translate it into action. Look at Gajendra Narayan Singh - he became a minister and started to wear pahadiya clothes. Yo kursi-ko lagi halla cha." Yadav, who runs a travel agency, says that the Terai will not develop by distinguishing the madesh from the pahad, but by taking part in an integrated national politics.
Rajeswor Nepali, a member of the Nepali Congress, has his own take on the Sadhbhawana Party. Sitting in an office filled with respectful followers, the white-haired Mr. Nepali has a commanding presence and an open smile. After 42 years of reporting for various papers, he also developed a photographic memory. A man with a stooped back wanders in and sits on the bed. This is Arvind Kumar Thakur, a "living martyr", the assembled men explain. Mr. Thakur was imprisoned and tortured for sixteen years in Nakkhu jail for attempting to kill King Mahendra with a bomb. The presence of older political activists with the weight of history behind them is palpable.
The name Sadhbhawana (good-will), Mr. Nepali claims, was chosen at his suggestion two decades ago, in 2040. "I was one of the four people who convened the first meeting," he says. Initially started as the Nepali Sadhbhawana Parishad, the organization was formed as a cultural advocacy forum to raise the concerns of the madesh on a national level. The founding members were active in the Purbanchal Congress, which later became integrated in the Nepali Congress after BP Koirala returned to Nepal in 2035.
"I chose the name "Sadhbhawana" to show that the madesh and pahad could work in harmony for the same goals," he says. The other three founding members were Balram Nayak, Ramjanak Tiwari and Sankar Keriya. Dr. Harka Gurung had written the Basai-sarai pratibedan, a paper that suggested that Madeshiya people had major allegiances to India, and therefore should only marry within Nepal. The meeting was convened in response to this piece of literature.
Mr. Nepali, who ran a paper called Lokmat Saptahik, disagreed with Dr. Gurung's viewpoint. His newspaper was promptly banned. Mr. Nepali's writings continued to be published in Samiksha, a newspaper edited by Madanmani Dixit. Mr. Dixit strongly supported their case.
On Shivaratri of 2040, a central committee of Sadhbhawana was formed, with 9 members, and Gajendra Narayan Singh as convener. On Chaitra 12, Mr. Singh was caught in Mahottari, and imprisoned. Mr. Nepali, who was also imprisoned, managed to run away. ""I told the police I have to give my exams. I was studying for my MA in Maithili at this time. "You don't want to spoil my studies, do you?" I asked them.""
A major meeting was held in Shankar Hotel on Jeth 4-7, 2041, to protest against Mr. Singh's imprisonment. Many national leaders supported this meeting, and Mr. Singh was released the next day. Mr Singh's political activism led him to spend seven years in prison, and eleven years in exile in India. Influenced by Gandhi, Mr. Singh was known to lead a simple life. He also started a social services organization for the poor.
With the advent of democracy in 1991, Gajendra Narayan Singh declared that the Sadhbhawana Parishad had turned into the Sadhbhawana Party. Mr. Nepali, who wanted to keep the Parishad as a united front that would advocate for madeshiya issues, disagreed with this move, but was overridden. "I did not support the idea of it turning into a political party because it would become a regional party, one that could not go into the hills. I wanted the Parishad to stay a united front that would lobby for madeshiya issues." Mr. Nepali left Sadhbhawana at this point, and has remained an active member of the Nepali Congress Party.
Mr. Nepali's prophecy of regionalism seem to be come true after the death of Gajendra Narayan Singh. Immediately after his death, the party broke into two factions - one supporting Anandi Devi, Mr. Singh's wife, and one supporting Badri Prasad Mandal. The Anandi Devi faction is known to support the democratic parties. Mr. Mandal, true to his name, is seen to be part of the Royalist faction. This fracture has weakened the already shaky base of Sadbhawana.
Bijaya Lal Das, the President of the Badri Mandal faction in Janakpur, seems uncertain when asked if their party would win in a future election. "No," he says definitively, then revises his first thought with a second, "Yes, we will." Sitting in his newly opened store, Mr. Das seems more like a storekeeper than a political leader-he lacks the charisma and the intellectual rigor of the older leaders I have just left behind, proving right Mr. Yadav's assertion that Sadhbhawana lacks strong leaders. He seems equally uncertain about the political mandate of the party. "We are also Nepali citizens - two children of the same mother," he says but then seems at a loss to proceed further.
"We have the sign of the hand that belongs to Sadhbhawana," he says, "The Anandi Devi faction will definitely have to join us during elections." He points out that Hridesh Tripathi and Rajendra Mahato, members of Sadhbhawana who initially left the party, have re-entered the party again. "They accuse Badri Mandal of taking police protection," he says. "But the police gives protection to all parties." Mr. Lal's concerns about internal divisions, delivered in a fractious manner, seem far removed from the gracious and broad-minded vision of Mr. Nepali.
There is no disagreement in Janakpur that the status quo has to change. The discrimination against the madesh, imposed by the pahadiya government and administrations, has to stop. Even the political parties, who advocate equality, only have a minority of madeshiyas in top positions, and this has to be redressed. But few people, it seem, are willing to follow the Sadhbhawana's party line. "We live in the same country. We won't get anywhere by saying we are madeshiyas, and you are pahadiyas. Sadhbhawana espouses sampradahik views that will split the country, that's why I don't support it," says Ram Kumar Yadav. Three years after the death of Gajendra Man Singh, a fractured Sadhbhawana Party, it is clear, won't be winning any votes of popularity in this district.

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