Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tribute To A True Son Of The Soil

To the very end, the man embodied Old Nepal.
Refusing the honors perfunctorily bestowed by the state, family and friends of Marich Man Singh Shrestha bid the former prime minister a tearful farewell to the tune of the old national anthem. What was ostensibly a lyrical paean to the erstwhile monarchy became an enduring symbol of a nation’s tribute to a commoner.
Shrestha, reconciling to his imminent defeat to lung cancer after a month-long treatment regimen in New Delhi, landed in Kathmandu to die on his native soil. The gesture merely capped a life that was laced with dignity and courage.
The longest-serving prime minister of post-Rana Nepal, Shrestha had risen through the ranks of the Panchayat system from the village up. In 1986, he defied the conventional wisdom that a Shah king would never appoint a Newar prime minister. Yet Shrestha was late addition to his long-familiar surname, Singh, an adjustment some attributed to the palace’s emphasis on its own propensity to change.
Still, many Kathmandu Valley-based Newars remained unimpressed by the royal appointment, especially since Shrestha was from distant Salyan, and not, say, Sankhu.
Shrestha didn’t seem bothered by the quibbling. From Maila Baje’s vantage point, the man seemed firm in his belief that the partyless Panchayat system was the political model most suited to Nepal’s innate socio-economic and cultural needs as well as the prevailing geopolitical realities. As soft-spoken as he could be, Shrestha was stern when it came to defending the partyless system.
As the People’s Movement for the restoration of multiparty democracy took a sharp violent turn in April 1990, Shrestha was dismissed for having employed unnecessary force against the protestors. Although many long-time panchas were appalled by how Shrestha was made the sacrificial lamb, he gracefully exited the scene to let history take its course.
It was that courage of conviction that allowed him to become a virtual recluse but rational observer of the emerging national scene. Maila Baje never detected an iota of bitterness in Shrestha, who seemed to be shunned by, if not the palace, his Panchayat colleagues.
Shrestha, like many recent associates of successive kings, could have blamed the palace for ignoring his wise counsels on dealing with the 1990 movement. He could have castigated any number of underground cabals for misleading the king toward their devious ends. He could have blamed foreign powers for engineering his political demise.
Yet Shrestha maintained a quiet dignity, never flaunting his ‘nationalistic’ credentials. He left his record to the ultimate judges, the people. They, in turn, helped him emerge third in a Kathmandu constituency barely four years after adjacent streets had reverberated with ‘Hang Marich Man’ slogans. No, he didn’t win a seat in parliament. But the country, quick to sense how its hopes had been belied, could not ignore the symbolism of his vote count.
Ultimately, Shrestha had to go to India for medical treatment. He could do so without a tinge of irony because he had not engaged in petty India-baiting before or after his premiership. He stood up to India’s trade and transit embargo while also seeking to preserve the partyless polity. From the outset, he must have sensed the hopelessness of the twin challenge, but Shrestha pursued it with all the commitment and assurance of the prime minister of a sovereign and independent nation.
The Shrestha family had to issue a public appeal for funds for his medical treatment in India. The public outrage at this official disdain of an ex-premier was so conspicuous that our current leaders thought it best to silently endure the collective slap on their faces.
In the annals of the lifestyle of Nepal’s modern political leadership, Shrestha was an aberration. What better tribute to the departed soul than that so many Nepalis belonging to a generation with barely a personal recollection of his premiership look upon his life and times with such deferential amazement?