“My father was a non-conformist in the true sense. He was religious, but not given to rituals. He was progressive. Truth be told, he was quite revolutionary in his thinking. His view was that a politician should not limit himself to politics, but should also understand education and many other aspects of social life. Somehow, his views were akin to those of Gandhiji’s,” Bishweshwar Prasad (BP) Koirala thus depicts his father Krishna Prasad in his autobiography ‘Atmabrittanta’.
“Actually, in later life even his face had begun to resemble Gandhiji’s. Same facial features, same attitude, and he even used to sit cross-legged,” BP then adds. The Mahatma Gandhi comparison may look farfetched -- a eulogy from a proud son -- but Krishna Prasad did play his part in liberation of his countrymen.
Born as the youngest son of Nandikeshar in a Brahmin family of Dumja in Sindhuli district, Krishna Prasad earned a lot of money very early in his life. But far from being content with the affluence, he decided to do something for the poor people -- a decision that didn’t go down well with then Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher, with whom he, otherwise, had cordial relations.
During his business stint in Chandragunj (now Saptari) -- the place he settled and named after the then prime minister -- he saw porters from hills with torn filthy clothes in the chilling winter. He ordered his staffers to buy new clothes for them and bought the torn clothes from one of the porters.
He got them parceled, wrote a sarcastic accompanying note warning to get the parcel opened at some distance to avoid the stench and asked Chandra Shumsher to compare his own clothes with them and relate about the status and suffering of the people.
He used to regularly write to Chandra Shumsher mildly suggesting him to make social reforms and Chandra Shumsher used to answer those mails. But the parcel proved to be the final straw and a few months later during Dashain he was forced into exile. He avoided arrest as the local administrator of Bratnagar Jit Bahadur tipped him off and suggested to flee to India.
He had decided to devote himself to transforming the society during an encounter with his conscience. He was returning from his customs office in Dhulabari on a horse and he heard someone belittling him for his non-achievement while approaching Rangeli. He had everything that a man in that context would aspire to have and was quite proud of his achievements. He replied thus but this voice, there was nobody near him, mocked him and asked what he had done for others. His new perspective after that encounter with conscience may have spurred him for the daring step of sending the parcel.
It’s not that he hadn’t done anything before that. He had already established a temple, school and a hospital at his personal expense in Biratnagar. In fact he had himself started settlement in Biratnagar that was previously called Gograha after he moved from Rangeli, which was the business center of Morang then.
He already had his share of experience with Ranas and seen his elder brother Kalidas, a dittha, humiliated by Prime Minsiter Bir Shumsher for making a fair verdict while growing up with him in Kathmandu. Bir Shumsher had fired Kalidas for delivering the verdict as a sister of the culprit turned out to be Bir’s concubine.
Krishna Prasad had therefore decided never to join a government service. But he had to break the vow, albeit for 18 months, on insistence of the same Jit Bahadur and the title khardar stuck for the rest of his life even after his meteoric rise in business and subsequent exile.
EXILE IN INDIA
His 12-year exile in India that ended only after Chandra Shumsher’s death, and the hardship the family suffered from during those years shaped the thinking of his sons and family. The extended family lived in great hardship in Banaras, India, with difficulty for feeding 45 mouths that also included his sister’s son Ram Chandra Adhikari -- father of former Prime Minister Man Mohan and a distant relative Bodh Prasad, the father of Sushil Koirala, among others.
The family later moved to Deepnagar village of Tedhi in Bhagalpur, Bihar. They bought some land in the small village surrounded by Koshi River from both sides with money lent by one Basu Dev Burma of Banaras. Girija Prasad Koirala was born while the family was in Tedhi.
They were somehow managing in Tedhi for around seven years before Koshi flood displaced them. They then moved to Bettiah where they faced immense hardship. Krishna Prasad was working elsewhere with wife Divya Devi all alone in Bettiah.
“The mensfolk sold newspapers, and with the small income it was possible to make koondo, mixing flour and vegetable to make a meal … Sushil’s (Sushil Koirala) father Bodh Prasad worked in a shop and sold newspapers in the evening. I also sold papers,” BP recalls in his Atmabrittanta.
BP’s immediate younger brother Harihar died of Cholera in lack of treatment during the Bettiah stay. The family didn’t even have money to buy a cremation shroud and had to borrow from a neighboring family.
Chandra Shumsher had respect for him and even used to send chest medicines while in Tedhi as Chandra Shumsher himself suffered from chest ailment. Chandra Shumsher would also regularly send new Nepali books for him. Chandra Shumsher had also written to him through Kaji Ratnaman to inform about abolition of slavery in Nepal and know his reactions as he had regularly written against slave system to the prime minister. All Chandra Shumsher wanted was an apology from him but he would not budge despite the back-breaking poverty.
During the exile, he once stayed in Kolkata as a hawker selling goods on a tray at railway stations and footpaths. There he came in contact with Swami Vivekananda’s younger brother who was a militant leader against the British regime.
Swami Vivekananda’s brother got him acquainted with a militant organization called Anushilan (discipline) and he later came close to the Sikhs from Canada who started a party called Gadhar (mutiny). He used to transport literature and arms for the organizations. “I was very much affected by father’s activities during that period. He was in such difficult circumstances, working as a street hawker, yet maintaining such ideals,” BP talks about his Kolkata stay.
During his Banaras stay, Krishna Prasad had even taken membership of Congresss Party (India) that was fighting against the British rule.
RETURN FROM THE EXILE
He returned home after Bhim Shumsher invited him following the death of Chandra Shumsher. He found Bhim Shumsher pretty liberal. After return to Nepal, Krishna Prasad regained his financial status pretty soon by starting new business.
Bhim Shumsher died and Juddha Shumsher succeeded. “What have the prime ministers (Rana) done to date? Neglected the country and made arrangements for their sons and for their grand palaces. And, today the public is fearful because Your Highness has 21 sons. Now, sir, the public will lose everything it has,” BP quotes his father as bluntly telling Juddha Shumsher when he was asked what he thought the new prime minister would do.
“You may be right. This may be what everyone is thinking, but that is not what I will do. Yes, I have my sons and I will arrange for them, but I will build them simple houses rather than large palaces…What you say may reflect the fears of the public, of my subjects, but I will chart a different course” was Juddha Shumsher’s response and he tried to keep his word.
He worked more for the people and established school, hospital and temple in Chandragunj apart from the ones established in Biratnagar before exile. He had also established a school in Tedhi during the exile. Before the parcel episode, he had settled Biratnagar by inviting Marwari businessmen from India and Rangeli. He also lobbied for extension of the railway link up to Jogbani from Forbesgunj and establishment of a temporary post office in Jogbani.
“My father himself paid for the post master and wrote numerous letters to make up for the minimum daily quota required,” BP says in his ‘Afno Katha’ (My Story).
His home was the focal point of Biratnagar and had numerous Indian and Nepali visitors. Girija Prasad Koirala has talked with Jagat Nepal about one particular incident where a Marwari businessman was sent to the Koiralas’ abode when he asked about a place to stay for the night.
The businessman thought the house to be a hotel and made a plethora of demands regarding food, water and so on. He only realized it was a family home while asking to pay before leaving and was red with embarrassment.
The Koiralas treated people with dignity and made everyone feel equal. “In this family, no one uses the word nokar (servant) even in indirect references, and the driver is always referred to as guruji,” Pana Urab, a 50-year-old woman from a disadvantaged ethnic group, who has lived with the Koiralas for the last 35 years, says.
Krishna Prasad continued to host visitors and even gave shelter to Indian revolutionaries who had fled India in 1943. He was arrested supposedly on British pressure and remained in prison in Kathmandu till he died in January, 1945. He was handed over to the family with a weak heart, dysfunctional kidney, lungs with pneumonia patch and bodily swelling after his health deteriorated in jail and died on the day BP was to be released from the Hajaribagh Jail in India.
Daring Divya Devi
Divya Devi was a pillar of strength for Krishna Prasad Koirala and proved inspirational for her sons like Bishweshwar Prasad (BP) and Girija Prasad.
Divya Devi was the last of Krishna Prasad’s three wives -- the first died due to first labor pain and the second was Matrika Prasad’s mother -- and she was from a modern Acharya family in Balaju, Kathmandu.
She was familiar with the modern ways and had also studied providing perfect foil for her revolutionary husband. BP credits her for bringing urban culture into the family and feels the family with rural background needed the change. She gave birth to five sons -- BP, Harihar, Keshav, Tarini Prasad and Girija Prasad -- and daughter Vijaya Laxmi.
“Mother was the only one to know the restless spirit of father and she used to try her best to keep up with her husband’s energy. Perhaps she derived this ability from the strength of her love toward father,” BP has explained while talking of the phase when his young father was taking great strides in business.
She was the pillar of strength for Krishna Prasad during the 12-year exile and never complained a bit about the hardship. Her strength was the cornerstone of Krishna Prasad’s determination to not apologize to Chandra Shumsher during the exile.
BP has also referred how his father had once written to Prime Minsiter Chandra Shumsher’s youngest wife about forming a women’s organization for their emancipation before the parcel episode. Chandra Shumsher’s wife agreed to become president and patron of the organization and Dibya Devi was its secretary.
The bolder side of Divya Devi came to the fore during BP’s hunger strike in jail under Mohan Shumsher’s rule in 1948. The jail authority brought her after the 24th day and asked her to take responsibility of BP but she refused saying he was the government’s responsibility while in custody. She would come daily to see BP but was firm and never asked him to end the fasting.
Mohan Shumsher invited her to his palace and warned her that BP may even die if he continued the hunger strike. “I cremated my husband in this place, and I have come to cremate my son. You do not have to threaten me,” she replied.
Dr Shekhar Koirala -- her grandson and son of Keshav -- recalls how the mother wearing specs, as she was called by children, once refused to meet Bishwabandhu Thapa during the Panchayat regime. Bishwabandhu’s house was near the Koiralas’ home in Biratnagar and had grown up with her sons. “She loved him very much and used to call him her sixth son,” Shekhar explains.
Thapa was Home Minister in the Panchayat regime and BP was in prison. “He had come to meet her while on a visit to Biratnagar. But she didn’t allow him inside the house saying he was an enemy who had imprisoned her sons,” Shekhar recalls his childhood