Destiny has brought the graduates of a small school in Gorkha together again.
THOMAS BELL and MAARTEN POST in GORKHA
Once upon a time, there was a school in Nepal where every student passed the SLC exams. It was the United Mission to Nepal’s Amar Jyoti Janata School in Gorkha, and it was a remarkable institution with remarkable students.
The class of 1970 stands out because its graduates have lived and led Nepal’s recent history. The chief ideologue of the Maoist movement, Baburam Bhattarai, and the health minister in the royal government, Upendra Devkota, were classmates. (In picture taken circa 1969, Bhattarai is at extreme left, and Devkota second from right.)
Today, in a dramatic instance of history coming full circle, the two are members of negotiating teams from opposite sides in proposed peace talks to end seven years of conflict.
“We were torch-bearers for our generation, extremely competitive,” says Devkota before his face darkens with the memory of his classmate. “You don’t say one person is better than another just because he got more marks in the SLC 30 years ago.”
Bhattarai came Board First and Devkota was Board Second in the 1970 SLC exams. The two have not met since Bhattarai went underground eight years ago. “He’s serving the old regime, I’m serving the new regime,” Baburam Bhattarai tells us, smiling. “We are in opposite camps.” Years ago they were in different camps too: Devkota and his friends from Bohoragau and Bhattarai and his friends from Kaplung were rivals.
Krishna Pokharel was in Baburam Bhattarai’s group. “Gradually Baburam and Upendra didn’t even want to talk to each other because Baburam wanted to stand first and Upendra was competition.” Devkota and Pokharel were leaders of different groups in school, while Bhattarai had has nose in his books and by all accounts was a serious student.
Pokharel recalls: “He (Baburam) was always afraid of the teachers, he wanted to be obedient.he was the most obedient student in the school.” Thomas Varghuese, who was principal of the school and his wife Mary who taught the boys Math, English and Science, both agree. “Baburam was extremely disciplined, very sharp and he had a phenomenal memory,” recalls Mary Varughuese, “Upendra was the more vocal one.” But both were eager to learn, and soaked everything in.
CLASSMATES: (From Left to Right) Baburam Bhattarai, Upendra Devkota and Krishna Pokharel pointing out the bullet holes in the wall of his school in Gorkha where Maoists tried to kill him two years ago.
The rivalry between the two groups took on a political dimension. The poet and TU lecturer Sita Ram Adhikary was two years senior, and remembers Upendra Devkota’s older brother as being attracted to communist ideology. In school, he says it was Devkota who appeared to be more influenced by communism than Bhattarai, and started a student union in school to oppose the authorities. Baburam, reportedly did not join the union. Surprisingly, Bhattarai who had a slight pro-Congress leaning in school went on to become a revolutionary, while the left-leaning Devkota is now a monarchist.
Upendra Devkota also rallied his friends against Christian activities at the missionary school. “Even in grade five, he used to say that it wasn’t proper to have to study the bible and go to church,” recalls Pokharel. “He called it religious imperialism, but I don’t think anybody at that time even knew what ‘imperialism’ meant. We used to say we were Nepali Congress and we liked BP Koirala just to oppose Upendra.”
After leaving school in 1970, the politics became more serious. Both Upendra Devkota and Baburam Bhattarai were passionate opponents of the Panchayat system, but differences remained. Pokharel, Devkota and Bhattarai went to Amrit Science College, now Amrit Campus. Bhattarai and Pokharel were roommates and remained close friends.
“In this period Devkota was still very interested in communism,” Pokharel recalls. “We used to discuss politics every day on the rooftop of the college. He believed that communism was the best political system for the poor.” But because communism did not guarantee personal freedom, Pokharel developed an antipathy towards it-a feeling that has lasted to this day. Baburam Bhattarai wasn’t particularly attracted by communism even then, but Pokharel says he was resolutely against absolute monarchy.
After college, the school friends went their separate ways. Sita Ram Adhikary returned to Gorkha to work as a teacher. But being a member of the Nepali Congress-affiliated Tarun Dal he was driven out for his anti-Panchayat activities in 1975. Upendra Devkota became a renowned neurosurgeon, studying and working in Britain and Hong Kong before returning to Nepal. Baburam Bhattarai went to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi to study architecture and did his PhD in urban planning.
Baburam stayed in touch with his friend Krishna Pokharel in Kathmandu, writing letters that described his political journey. He was impressed by his meetings with BP and Girija Koirala, then living in exile in India. “BP Koirala is the most patriotic personality in Nepal,” he wrote, “Girija is the most revolutionary personality.” Later, at JNU when he heard that BP Koirala had accepted the result of the narrowly-endorsed referendum on the Panchayat system in 1980, Bhattarai became a communist. “I think Marxism is better,” Baburam wrote to Pokharel.
Krishna Pokharel disagreed with Baburam, and recalls: “I also wanted to defeat the Panchayat system, but I accepted the result of the referendum.” Bhattarai tried to persuade Pokharel to start teaching communism in school, but he refused. Their correspondence then tapered off.
After the 1990 Peoples’ Movement, ideological differences were briefly set aside. Baburam Bhattarai’s United Left Front formed a pragmatic alliance with the Nepali Congress, but differences quickly re-emerged and this was to have dramatic consequences for the classmates from Gorkha.
While Baburam Bhattarai and his Maoist comrades launched the ‘peoples war’ in February 1996, Krishna Pokharel took out a bi-weekly newspaper called Daraundi. It was strongly critical of the Maoists, and Pokharel wrote an open letter to his classmate and friend: “Our society has invested so much in you and what are you giving back? I have two friends who are doctors now. One is saving people and one is killing them.”
Bhattarai responded in the Maoist mouthpiece, Janadesh, calling his old friend a government servant and a reactionary, and threatening that the role of the ‘peoples war’ was to eliminate people like Krishna Pokharel. That threat was nearly carried out: on 24 January 2001 four Maoists armed with revolvers came to the teacher training college in Gorkha where Pokharel was conducting class. They fired three shots, which missed and Pokharel fought them off.
Sita Ram Adhikary was in Gorkha at the time to vote in the general election. “I heard the shots and ran to the school,” he recalls. “I advised Krishna to move to Kathmandu. “When there is a famine, save grain. When there is disorder, save yourself,” Adhikary told Pokharel, quoting a Nepali proverb. Krishna did go to Kathmandu, but within a year was back in Gorkha to carry on teaching.
While Pokharel was in Kathmandu he witnessed the chaos following the royal massacre. He met his old friend, Upendra Devkota who was now a famous neurosurgeon. “We talked about the palace incident, he had treated Crown Prince Dipendra when he was in a coma. He still had strong convictions, but he is a monarchist now.”
For his part, Adhikary is pained by the violence of the past seven years. “I hate it,” he says simply, “change comes from the mind not from the barrel of a gun.” But he also regrets the path his own party has taken. “I remained a kangresi throughout but I am sad about how our leaders have let us down, our party has lost its prestige.”
And what about his school friends? “Upendra is the best doctor I know. He cares for his duty. Baburam is a unique personality, very creative, and kind-hearted. But both are ambitious.” The batch of 1970 is having a class reunion picnic this weekend in Kathmandu, but Upendra Devkota is not planning to attend. Baburam did not know about the event, but said, “I’ll go if they invite me. I’m proud of my school.”