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Presidential roadshow for unity -By Kunda Dixit

Nearly 250 years after Nepal’s unification, the Timal region with its historic Hindu and Buddhist shrines gets its first visit by a national leader. President Ram Baran Yadav tells a cheering crowd it has never been more important to protect that unity.

With just a month to go to finish writing the new constitution that will carve Nepal into federal units and decide on a new form of government, President Yadav is on a personal crusade to drive home the message of unity, democracy and development.

On Nepali new year’s day on 13 April, he flew across central Nepal with symbolic stops at a renovated Buddhist monastery and Hindu temple in Kavre, garlanded freedom fighters in Okhaldhunga and graced Siraha’s Sahlesh festival.

Everywhere he went, the President’s message was the same: “We may be Himali Nepalis, Pahadi Nepalis, Madhesi Nepalis, but we are all Nepalis first.” And judging from the applause he got in the mountains or the plains, it was clear the first president of republican Nepal was voicing the people’s fears of ethnic fragmentation, and hopes for a more prosperous future.”I want to assure you that I will always work to safeguard Nepal’s unity, and social harmony,” he told a large crowd in Rampur in Okhaldhunga, a centre of pro-democracy activism during the Panchayat period, “we will work together to fulfil the aspirations of those who sacrificed their lives for democracy.”

Born to a simple peasant family in the Tarai, the 64-year-old president was influenced by Nepali Congress leaders like BP Koirala who were living in exile in Calcutta where he was a medical student. He later became BP’s personal physician, spent nearly a year in jail, and after 1990 served as health minister. He is one of the few NC leaders who did not join a Madhesi party in 2007 for which his home in Janakpur was bombed, and he was ridiculed for being a “Pahadi lackey”.

“As president I have to stay above ethnicity and party affiliation, but I have been influenced by three of BP’s goals: democracy, nationalism and socialism,” Yadav tells us during the stopover in Okhaldhunga, “and I identify strongly with Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence and the sacrifices he made for communal harmony.”

Everywhere he goes, the President is greeted with garlands and people showering him with flower petals. Ordinary Nepalis seem to be drawn by his refreshing simplicity and humility, something they haven’t seen in former kings and rulers. “He is just like us,” said elderly Kavre farmer Man Bahadur Lama, after draping a khada on the President, and in return Yadav clasped Man Bahadur’s hands that were joined in a namaste.Accompanying the President to the monastery is the Maoist State Minister for Energy, Surya Man Dong, who is one of those accused in the murder in 2005 of a Dolakha UML activist. It is a sign of how far we have come that Dong is now sitting next to the President in a night-vision helicopter that used to drop “Tora Bora” mortar bombs on Maoist positions during the war. At the monastery function, Dong credits the President for “standing up for national unity”.

After the function in Okhaldhunga, President Yadav changes from his labeda-suruwal to a spotless white Madhesi pajama-kurta and gamchha. But he keeps on his dhaka topi. A short 20-minute flight and the helicopter alights in a cloud of yellow dust near the Sahlesh Mela site in Siraha where a rare orchid is said to bloom exactly on new year’s day every year.

There is loud applause from the thousands gathered here as Maithili writer Dhirendra Premarshi welcomes the President as “the pride of Mithila, and pride of the Nepali nation”. As ‘Sayaun Thunga Phul Ka Hami’ is played, dhoti-clad people clap and dance to the national anthem, and Maithili school children sing along in Nepali to Byakul Maila’s powerful lyrics and Amber Gurung’s folksy melody.The President switches to Maithili to deliver the same message of unity to the people, half of whom are Maithili-speaking pilgrims from across the border in Bihar. It is an emotional speech, and the President has established a bond of kinship with the crowd. “With our diversity of mountains and plains this land is nature’s jewel, a botanical garden, yet our own brothers are grazing goats in the deserts of Arabia,” he says, “with your support I pledge to work to institutionalise democracy, harness our water and agriculture, and protect our forests and soil so Nepalis don’t have to migrate to find work.”

Taking off for Kathmandu from near the Indian border, President Yadav looks despondent as he gazes down at the barren Chure hills. The President has been trying to get the government to protect these fragile foothills, without much success. “You can see that wherever the forests have gone, there is erosion and landslides,” Yadav says, “if we don’t do something, in a few years the Chure and Tarai will be deserts.”When he was a boy, Ram Baran Yadav used to graze buffaloes together with his Pahadi neighbours at the edge of the Char Kose Jhari, the forests that have now vanished. “In my life I have seen it all gone,” he says.

The sun is about to set as the Nepal Army MI-17 lands near Shital Niwas at the Bhairavnath Battalion, the notorious barracks where during the war at least 48 suspected Maoists were detained, tortured and taken away for execution in Shivapuri.

“Our descendants will never forgive us if we let Nepal disintegrate,” the President says before taking the motorcade back to his residence, “I have to do what I can to protect Nepal’s national unity and democracy. This is my dharma.” (Source : Nepali Times)

Published Date: Friday, April 20th, 2012 | 10:05 AM

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