Bharat Shumsher was born at Singha Durbar 90 years ago, the first great grandson of Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana. The birth of a future democracy warrior was celebrated by Nepal’s absolutist rulers as a day of national rejoicing.
When in 1929 Chandra died and the family moved to Baber Mahal, Bharat was still a toddler. He grew up in the comforts of the palaces, but the luxuries of most of the Rana households were curtailed by Baber Shumsher: he believed in austerity and disciplined life style.
‘Leadership’ came naturally to Bharat and he was the domineering figure among his two sisters and four brothers – one of them me. Somehow, ‘rebellion’ was instilled early in him against the on going social mores and lifestyle, including religious rites. There was a small shrine of Bhimsen in the palace grounds venerated by all. Bharat used to hurl objects at it, saying if this be Bhimsen, I am Arjun.
Later in life he wrote:
‘The head of the family had unquestionable authority over property and the household, and often exercised these powers arbitrarily. We grew up under the theory of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. Everyone was compelled to observe and suffer through all the archaic rites and rituals, use cow urine or dung to purify oneself, accept injustice, discrimination and prejudice – unfortunately they still persist in society.’
Bharat’s father Mrigendra strived to ensure the best possible education to his sons and daughters. Bharat was admitted to St Xavier’s’ College, Bombay. Once out of the stagnant air of a feudal society and authoritarian regime Bharat spread his wings, in the liberal and cosmopolitan environment of Bombay.
Under a professor who happened to be a left leaning atheist, the angry young man of Baber Mahal turned into an eternal rebel. Bharat’s letter of commitment to B P Koirala’s call in 1946 for a united force of Nepalis to bring down the Rana regime, was the natural reaction of a rebel.
Circumstances altered this course and he returned to Kathmandu with excellent grades in BA Honours. Prime Minister Mohan quickly persuaded him to join the government as Minister of Agriculture. He served in that capacity, not with great enthusiasm until the historical day of the fall of Rana oligarchy.
For Bharat it was not the end but beginning of his illustrious political career. In 1952-53 he joined and then guided and inspired the Gorkha Dal, at that time scattered in several groups of mainly Chetris from the Kaanth area, raged against the excesses of Brahman-Newar dominated Nepali Congress, with rare verve.
In the general elections of 1958,the NC led by stalwarts such as BP Koirala, Subarna Shumsher, Ganeshman Singh and KP Bhattarai, with a proven record of long struggle against the Rana rulers scored a major victory with 74 seats in Parliament. Gorkha Dal secured 19 seats, as against four of the communist party and fewer of parties such as Praja Parishad led by Tanka Prasad Acharya and Ram Hari Joshi, the ‘living martyrs’.
Bharat became the leader of opposition in Parliament. During 18 months, from May 1959 to December 1960 that this government was allowed to function, issues were debated fiercely at times but backed by sensible reasoning. The proceedings of the House was disrupted just one day and for a few hours.
A common front was presented on matters of grave inter state issues. When Chinese troops intruded into Nepal’s territory in Mustang, fired on an unarmed police sub-post killing one officer, BP shared the concern with Bharat outside of Parliament and evolved a common strategy that led China to accept the mistake and pay a token compensation of Rs 50,000.
Bharat stayed firmly by the side of BP Koirala when King Mahendra moved to dismiss the duly elected government through the military backed coup in December 1960. Arrested and jailed along with leaders of NC, he contrived to get released after about six months, and then, as was his plan, slipped away to India.
In September 1961 he issued a public statement merging Gorkha Parishad into NC, to wage a common fight to restore democracy in Nepal. He was co-opted by Subarna Shumsher the acting Chairman into the ‘High Command’ of NC.
In absence of BP, Bharat always sided with and led the wing within NC that opted for armed struggle against the King as against the conciliatory approach of Subarna. He was at the forefront of the two phases of insurgency and raids inside Nepali territory that NC carried out before BP advocated his policy of reconciliation ‘melmilap’ and with Ganeshman and other leaders, entered Nepal in December 1976 risking possible conviction for treason, and capital punishment. Bharat and Girija Koirala followed in April 1980.
In May 1979 King Birendra announced a Referendum to decide between a multiparty democracy or ‘reformed’ Panchayat. The latter prevailed, with backing of the government and alleged large scale manipulation. BP felt that even in defeat the door for open canvassing and meetings with the people was now open and opted to accept the verdict of the referendum. Leaders including Ganeshman were reluctant, but followed BP’s decision. Bharat was also convinced BP was right, and continued to actively support the party, moving between Calcutta and Kathmandu.
BP’s death in July 1982 was followed by a smooth transition of leadership to Ganeshman as the Supreme commander and KP Bhattarai continuing as Acting President of the party. Bharat was close to Ganeshman personally, admired his courage and grit but found a great void in the intellectual content and commitment to the ‘social revolution’ that he shared with BP.
Ganeshman’s contribution to the restoration of democracy in 1989, as undisputed leader Sarbamanya Neta, of NC and the newly formed United Marxist Leninists (UML), after 30 years of bitter struggle, is an unparalleled achievement. Bharat was a leading actor in that final round of struggle. He continued to visit Kathmandu after restoration of democracy and during the formation and promulgation of the new constitution under premiership of KP Bhattarai and his coalition government.
He campaigned in many parts of the country during the parliamentary election of 1991. However thereafter he gradually moved out of national politics perhaps dismayed at the lack of sufficient interest of the party for a social ‘revolution’ against ‘injustice, discrimination, and prejudice’.
In his last days, when he felt death approaching, he left a note for his family to follow: his body was not to be cremated but donated to a hospital, and his family not to perform any rites and customs associated with such occasions or advised by priests or friends.
He had walked his talk even in death.
Sagar Rana is the brother of Bharat ShumsherRana, who died this week in Kolkata, and the author of the book, Singha Darbar: Rise and Fall of the Rana Regime in Nepal.