A tale of teacher and her student

2014-04-05

Himalayan News Service

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Uncharacteristic for someone who is generally perceived as rational, calm, and even ‘emotionless’, PM Baburam Bhattarai broke down when he returned to his alma mater, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). As his PhD supervisor, Professor Atiya Habib, recounted her association with the man who is ‘Babu Uncle’ to her children, Bhattarai wept quietly and later, his voice quivering, said he had turned ‘utterly emotional’.

While the fact that Bhattarai went to JNU is well-known, the details of his years there are not in public domain—a gap that his teacher filled with personal anecdotes on Saturday. Habib’s first impression of Bhattarai, when he came to her 32 years ago, was that of a man ‘with boyish looks, small frame, and an impish smile’. She encouraged him to read Marxist and neo-Marxist theories on development as the best guide to understand the world, which he did at a rate that ‘astonished’ Habib.

Bhattarai also travelled back to Nepal, and once he returned, he was ‘more reflective and less reticent.”

Soon after though, Bhattarai began his ‘disappearing act’, and his long struggle to ‘balance’ academic work and social responsibility towards Nepali workers in India began, much to the exasperation of his academic guide. This was the time, in the early 80s, when Bhattarai also had an accident which impaired his recent memory considerably. As Habib remembers it, his face was now tinged with sadness, but Bhattarai worked hard with enormous discipline, re-reading and re-writing his work. On August 11, 1982, Bhattarai sent a letter to Habib through Hisila Yami, who he had married by then. In it, he wrote, “I have decided to give all my remaining time to practical revolutionary work.”

But his conscience did not permit him to leave academic life, since he had an ICSSR scholarship and quitting mid-way would have meant that public money spent on him already would go waste. This, according to Habib, tormented him for years. Eventually, with his wife’s support, he finally submitted a thesis that ran 500 pages, with another 300 pages of appendix and maps. Habib was shocked at the length, but Bhattarai felt possessive of each sentence and was reluctant to remove anything. She let him have his way.

Bhattarai was awarded his PhD degree in 1987, but he continued to keep in touch with Habib and her family, including in the underground years. “He would come home sometime, tired, unkempt, and withdrawn. The one question that was never asked is where are you coming from, and where are you going.” Every New Year, he sent a greeting card to his teacher, and when one year, the card did not arrive on time, his teacher panicked, fearing the worst. It eventually came in March.

Thirty-four years later Bhattarai had returned to JNU as Nepal’s prime minister. Students in the audience greeted him with a ‘Lal Salaam’ and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’. The PM said that he was truly overwhelmed by the reception at the university, and that Habib was like his mother. ‘Without her motherly affection, I would not have been able to complete the PhD.” Declaring it to be ‘among the best universities’ in the world, he said, “I am what I am because of JNU.”

Bhattarai added he was very happy to see that the university’s culture had not changed.  “It is the culture of revolutionary fervor and zeal, the combination of academic excellence and revolutionary activism, and that is why I came back today.” His formal lecture focused on Nepal’s political transition, with Bhattarai claiming that the Maoists had made the right political decisions based on a concrete analysis of the concrete conditions.

Habib has kept all letters and the personal communication from the PM, and asked for a guru dakshina at the end of her speech— that Bhattarai send her a New Year card every year. That is one wish that Baburam Bhattarai is sure to deliver on.

(Source: The Kathmandu Post, Published on 23 October)