Last Days with BP Koirala
20 July 1982. Naresh Koirala vividly remembers the humid afternoon in Hong Kong when the telephone rang. His wife said it was Girija Prasad Koirala (affectionately called Sanobabu in the family).
It was four days since BP Koirala had been flown to Bangkok for treatment, and Naresh Koirala, BP’s nephew and a geotechnicial engineer based in Hong Kong at the time, was preparing to fly to Bangkok.
Girija Koirala’s voice on the phone was sombre: “You don’t have to come now. We are taking Sandaju (BP) back to Nepal as the doctor suggested. There is no hope now.”
There was silence on the line, there was not much to say. Naresh Koirala put the receiver down and with a heavy heart walked quietly to the balcony on the 14th floor of his flat overlooking the South China Sea. The ocean shimmered in the afternoon sun.
Two years before, BP and Naresh had met on that same balcony, talking about Nepal’s democratic future. BP was returning to Nepal from a conference in Japan and was making a weeklong stopover in Hong Kong. BP’s wife, Sushila, and his sister Bunu were also with him.
Naresh remembers that this was after the May 1980 referendum in which the people were asked to choose between continuing with a reformed party-less Panchayat system, or a multi-party system. BP had supported multi-party, but despite the growing pro-democracy movement in the country, his side lost by about 400,000 votes.
It was widely believed that the Panchayat system won because the referendum was rigged. But BP decided to accept the result in spite of the heavy pressure from his own party colleagues like Ganesh Man Singh to reject the outcome.
Naresh Koirala asked BP about this, who explained his reasoning: once you take part in a voting exercise, it is your responsibility to accept the results, whether you win or lose. The days and weeks following the result of the referendum were the most disheartening for BP.
Yet, he did not abandon hope nor the struggle to restore democracy in Nepal. He had faith in the Nepali people and their desire for freedom.
Naresh Koirala had become a de facto spokesperson for Hong Kong-based media covering the referendum and remembers an Australian friend telling him: “You had a choice of continuing to live in chains or freedom, you chose chains.”
Naresh himself had been puzzled by his uncle’s decision to accept the result. On that balcony that day, he broached the touchy subject: perhaps Nepal was not yet ready for a western parliamentary style democracy – maybe only the literate and those with college degrees should be allowed to vote, he asked.
BP had a sharp and quick response: “That is exactly how tyrants think. That the common citizen knows nothing while the dictator himself, being all-knowing, holds all authority over the people’s choices and rights. That is exactly the type of thinking that gave rise to Hitlers and Stalins.”https://youtu.be/p2WA1bGOcPc
BP Koirala listed three reasons why he accepted the referendum result: first, he could not say without a doubt that even his own multiparty supporters had not cheated. Second, he believed complaints about irregularities should have been raised before the result was announced, not after his side lost. (“What if we had won, how would we have considered the irregularities then?”)
The third reason was that he feared rejecting the referendum verdict could have precipitated a civil war. “I would not be able to live with such a heavy burden,” he told Naresh.
Always thinking about the future consequences of his actions and not just the immediate present, BP Koirala’s politics was heavily guided by his moral ethics and humanist philosophy.
That is why to this day, as his Nepali Congress party under the leadership of Sher Bahadur Deuba is questioned about its adherence to democratic ideals, BP Koirala’s name is often invoked. BP’s own son, Shashank, is in the race for party leadership in the upcoming general convention.
That evening in Hong Kong, Naresh Koirala also asked BP if he had any resentment or a sense of revenge against kings Mahendra and Birendra for the years of persecution and torment. His reply was: “Such feelings take one nowhere near one’s goal, I am certain the kings themselves judge and evaluate their own actions.”
BP Koirala’s dramatic political career spanned the end of the 104-year-old Rana regime in 1950 and the restoration of democracy in 1959. He was the first democratically elected prime minister of the country, and held the office for 18 months before being deposed and imprisoned by King Mahendra in the coup of 15 December 1960. He spent the rest of his life either in prison or exile, and in steadily deteriorating health.
Even then, he used to say that he endured physical, emotional, and familial troubles because of the love and support of the Nepali people, friends, and family. The hurdles that punctuated his life all came with the job description of politics. In fact, he always said that he was more worried about Sushila, and how to give his wife the life she deserved.
Naresh Koirala recalls that during his Hong Kong stopover in 1982, BP, Sushila and Bunu were returning to their car at Ocean Park after sight-seeing, when BP was slightly separated from the group.
Naresh looked back and took a picture of BP lost in thought, hands akimbo. Bunu whispered to Naresh that BP was not well, and he went back to where he was standing. BP waved his hand as if to say not to worry: “It is all right, I will join you.”
Naresh Koirala has kept a letter BP wrote to him dated 14 December 1981, asking him not to be despondent. He writes: ‘I have undergone all kinds of hardship and deprivation. I have no sense of suffering.’
He was at the time undergoing chemotherapy in Nepal for throat cancer and had returned from Bombay’s Tata Hospital. Weakened by the disease and chemotherapy, his days were spent in the company of visitors and well-wishers with whom he engaged in lively conversations.
He continues in the letter: ‘Do not be despondent, I have lived a full life – very exciting, adventurous and, in my term, a missionary life … The greatest satisfaction in life is the constant awareness that you are constantly being used up by your own mission – I have that satisfaction.’
He said his only regret was that he wished that he had spent more time with his children, especially his daughter, Chetana.
BP Koirala’s handwritten letter in English to Naresh Koirala from his hospital bed while undergoing chemotherapy in 1982.
That evening in Hong Kong a year earlier, BP confided to Naresh: “If anyone can say when confronting death that they have no regrets and resentment, and that they were dedicated to their work, that is a content and satisfied life.”
In July 1982, when Naresh came to Kathmandu, BP was already severely worn out by cancer.
BP dedicated his life to uplifting the living standard of Nepalis through genuine democracy, but he feared that he would not live to see his life’s work completed. It is worth pondering what he would have thought of Nepal today, nearly 40 years after his death.
In the last four decades, the country saw a People’s Movement that turned the country into a constitutional monarchy, a decade-long war, a massacre of the royal family, an unstable transition to federalism, a secular republican constitution, and the current Nepali Congress-led coalition with the Maoists.
The cancer spread, and family members decided to take him abroad for treatment. On the morning of the day of departure, Ganesh Raj Sharma came to BP’s residence at Chabahil with a tape to record his autobiography, as he had been doing for two months.
The interview is yet to be published, Nepali edition of his Atmabrittanta memoir only include photos taken at the time. At one point in the tape, Sharma asks BP, “How do you want the Nepali people to remember you?”
Lying on his bed, surrounded by his niece, Sailaja, and his daughter-in-law, Nona, BP looked tired. Naresh Koirala was taking photographs and remembers thinking that BP must have been weary with the thoughts of the impending travel.
BP replied in his rasping voice into a small microphone: “I do not think I have done anything great or worth remembering, but if people wish to remember me, I hope they think of me as a decent human being who tried to honestly, sincerely and wholeheartedly to work for the welfare of the people and the nation.”
For BP’s diary from Sundarijal Jail: read series in Nepali Times, Back at Sundarijal.