November 3, 2011


[Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Prime Minister of Nepal, visited JNU campus on 22nd October, 2011, in the midst of his other engagements during his first official visit as PM to India. An eminent alumnus of our university, where he completed his doctorate in the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, in 1986, Dr. Bhattarai has always graciously and affectionately recalled the influence of his alma mater on his political career.

Professor Atiya Habeeb Kidwai was his Research Superivisor at JNU and the relationship between guide and student has been as special as JNU has had the reputation of fostering from its inception. Prof Atiya Habeeb Kidwai spoke at the reception organised to honour Dr. Baburam Bhattarai at JNU.

The JNU Alumni site, as it says, is proud to carry Professor Atiya Habeeb Kidwai’s speech. The full text of her speech is given below.]

Prof Atiya Habeeb Kidwai’s speech

Wecome – Dr. Baburam Bhattarai,  Hon’ble Prime Minister of Nepal

It is a rare occasion indeed when a teacher gets the opportunity to introduce one of his or her students as a Prime Minister. The occasion becomes the rarest of the rare when that Prime Minister  is one who has led a Revolution, freed  a country from oppression and has earned the respect and affection of millions of his countrymen.

I stand here, tall and proud today, Mr. Prime Minister, as I recall  some incidents that define my association with you as your Doctoral Supervisor. In doing so I may at times disrespect protocol, for which I hope, Mr. Adhikari and members of the Nepalese delegation,  you will forgive me.  Sitting here with us today is not only your Prime Minister but  our  own Baburam- batch of 1979-80 and  a CSRDian. For me,  a member of my family, much admired by my late husband and ‘babu uncle’ to my children. It is in terms of these relationships that  I will speak, not about, but to your Prime Minister today. It is only in this very  personal way, that I find myself able  to share a  journey that began 32 years ago with this exceptional human being.

He has made me play many roles in his life. That of an elder sister, a guardian, a friend and occasionally of a teacher. While he has played only one role in my life, which he himself once defined as that of a problem child, one who can only give worries. He continues to play that role.

Mr. Vice Chancellor, I am going to exceed the time alloted  to me. Do allow me. I want the JNU students to know the man they have come to applaud and I want them to  learn from his life how  a teacher-student relationship is developed and maintained. It is this  relationship  that has been the hallmark of this university and I sometimes find that hallmark fading. I want the people of Nepal to know about the integrity and simplicity of the man who is leading them.  I cannot do this in the seven minutes given to me. The tea can wait.

I now address you Mr. Prime Minister.

I take you back to 1979 when you became a part of our Centre. I am sure you remember its vibrancy and the atmosphere of informality. The faculty was young and was led by a grand man, Professor Monis Raza, part philosopher, part poet, in totality an intellectual “bindas”. He  would, time and again, tell us that  there are two types of students. Those who have the spark of intelligence  in their eyes and those who only have innocence and both these types are important to the system.  While allotting supervisors Professor Monis Raza would invariably keep the “innocent” students to himself. Those with a spark were allotted to the younger faculty - not yet seasoned in the art of research supervision.  And so Mr. Prime Minister you were given to me. You not  only had the spark but a twinkle in your eyes. The other reason why you came to me was more academic. You were a professionally qualified  Architect and Urban Planner. I too had a planning degree and, before I joined JNU in 1971, I had taught architects and planners at IIT Kharagpur. Professor Raza  considered me as the best running mate for you.

I remember his  words to me, “ See what you can do with this boy”.

Mr. Prime Minister,

I share my first impression of you. Boyish looks, small frame, pleasant face and a very  impish smile. Your answers were in the shortest of sentences and the smile never left your face.  Your reticence  gave me the liberty to become, perhaps, the first dictator in your life. I took it for granted that with your technical academic background your knowledge of the social sciences must be  very limited and so I had to enlarge your vision.  I also immediately decided your area of research. Since you  were from Nepal you had to  naturally work on  that  country as my Bangledeshi  students were working on theirs.  And I clearly pointed out  the main problem you  faced - you knew very little about Nepal as you had left your country after  school.  I, also, had  all the solutions ready for you. You had to start with the basic Marxist or neo Marxist texts in Development theory because nothing else had explained the world better to me. Your next assignment was also decided – you had to travel in your country to understand  the ground reality.

When I look back, I feel that in imposing these dictates on you, perhaps I was right.

Mr Prime Minister, With little choice given, you  followed my instructions. You read extensively. Your capacity to read sometimes astonished me. You also travelled in the interiors of Nepal and saw the extent of poverty . On your return I noticed a change in you. You had become more reflective, slightly less reticent and now, on your own, would start a conversation with me. You would also now come to my house like most of my students did, and endeared yourself to my family. This was at 36 Dakshinapuram, JNU.

Mr Vice Chancellor in those days you were my neighbour living in 34 Dakshinapuram. I marvel at this coincidence. The same  young boy who so many times walked past your house, unnoticed, is being celebrated today at his Alma Mater, by you, as its Vice Chancellor.

Mr Prime Minister,

I recall the days in 1981 when you were writing your Ph.D. synopsis. I had a bad reputation with my students of never being satisfied with their work. Here I had  a student who was not satisfied with his. So many drafts were hand written, corrected and hand written again. You faced the faculty only when your   synopsis reflected the understanding of a theoretically  grounded and sensitive social scientist  -- one who was better than the best.

My memory is slightly  nebulous about the period that followed. But I do remember very distinctly, Mr. Prime Minister, that you had started playing the disappearing game with me.  In JNU this has always  been  a very popular pastime which PhD students. I was used to it but in your case it bothered me. I had wanted you to complete your thesis in four years and  return to Nepal as its most qualified planner. Also different from the others because your thesis would have given you a grounded understanding of your country and a sharpened sensitivity towards poverty and inequality. I was aware that  this was a very insipid version of a meaningful life -  but with  my limited capacities,  this is the best I thought I could do for you.

I, however, soon  realized that  things were gradually moving away from my chosen path for you. You confessed to me one day that you were dividing your time between your academic work and your social responsibilities towards the Nepalese workers in India. I was disturbed but, in a way, also happy. In Delhi I had seen their plight. They needed a voice. I did not dissuade you.

Sometime during this period an incident convinced me that you have an inner strength  which will help you  overcome the worst of situations. You had a road accident near JNU. There were head injuries which impaired your memory for recent events. I recall that I would show you books you  had read and ask you if you remembered them and you would quietly nod a “No”. Throughout this turmoil, however, you always looked at  peace with yourself and your smile never left you. It was just tinged with a strange sadness sometimes. You re-read what was essential and re-worked your thesis. We waited for things to get normal and fortunately they did.

And then, to my delight, you married Hisila  whom I had met way back in 1969 as a chirpy little school girl in IIT Kanpur, that is, much before you would have met her. At least that is my belief, Mr. Prime Minister.

Between 1982 and 1984 you did become my “problem child”. I had taken study leave and was to be out of the country for almost an year. I had made work schedules for all my PhD students. Instructions to you were “stop reading and start writing”. On my return you were not on campus. Hisila met me instead with a letter from you. It stunned me. In that letter you had given  voice to your dilemmas. I quote “If it were not for the social cost invested in me I would not give much to the degree, as I have firmly resolved to devote all my time to practical revolutionary activities”. You also wrote that you greatly valued my trust in your integrity and giving up your research would break that trust. That was your dilemma. The letter is dated August 12, 1982.

I decided that day that I would let you follow your heart because that heart had dreams few of us would dare to dream. And that heart was kind and simple.

Mr. Prime Minister,

But I knew that if I let you go without a  thesis your conscience would not allow you to rest.You were carrying the weight of obligation to  ICSSR for its  fellowship. Public money was being spent  on you and you felt accountable. I requested Hisila to step in. She could take over the  drudgery of the manual work that went in the production of a CSRD thesis those days. I started building pressure on you to complete your work.  When you could not keep deadlines a very apologetic letter would arrive and I was assured that you were trying your best. Your letters indicate that those were tortured years for you.   Finally you came with the thesis draft. The main text covered  about  500 pages and the Appendices, maps, etc., another 300.

I was petrified. However, after a quick scan of the thesis I could see that this was the most comprehensive work on Nepal done yet. But something had to be done about its length. The easiest way out, I felt, would be to summarise the very elaborate thematic discussion of Marxian theory in  each chapter. I would sit with you, Mr. Prime Minister, and politely suggest to abbreviate a page here or delete a  paragraph there.  But equally politely you would nod your head  in a “No”. I would see pain in your eyes. Each and every line you had written was precious to you because it had increased your understanding of the soul of Nepal. I decided the thesis will go as it was and I will face the examiners. Today when I mercilessly put red lines across the pages of my students’ work  I sometimes stop to ask myself, “Why could I not do this to Baburam?” I also know the answer. The degree was granted to you on June the 16th 1987. I wonder if you have collected it.

After the thesis was done I had thought that my association with you, Mr Prime Minister, would be over as you were now in  a different country and had  a different calling. But you and Hisila kept the relationship alive on a very personal level. During the years when you had to be  underground for long periods I would see more of Hisila and we would worry together about Manushi, your little daughter.  You would occasionally come to see us and that would give us  great pleasure. On some visits you looked very tired, unkempt  and  withdrawn. To make such situations light I would scold you about your dirty feet and chappals, give you a towel, and point you to the bathroom. You would laugh and obey. Rarely would you stay back for a meal with us though I could see you had not eaten properly for days. One question never asked was “where have you come from and where were you going”.

Things must have gradually become more difficult for you, Mr. Prime Minister because your visits  stopped and  our only link became the small, simple cards you sent me every New Year with just Baburam written in a corner. The card would arrive anytime in January and I would share it with my family. That card was a message that all was well. One year the card did not come until early March. I panicked and tried to find out what had happened. That was not easy.  To my relief the card did finally come at the end of March. You had given me three months of worry.

Mr. Prime Minister,

I wish to share with you what my husband would say to me when I was concerned about you. “Baburam will survive all turmoil. His inner strength comes from the fact that he has no personal ambitions. Only ambitions for a cause”. He understood, because that was also his inner strength.

In September 2004 I was surprised to get a phone call from you Mr. Prime Minister. You said you wanted to come home and meet us. The newspapers had been  reporting that the police was after you, perhaps there was also an Interpol alert. I pleaded with you not to take the risk. “Tomorrow at 5 pm” is all I got to hear before the phone was disconnected .  At  5 pm the next day the doorbell rang and you were there. You had a long relaxed conversation  with my husband that day. It was like old times. I just watched. Two finest of men, one terminally ill because, while trying to establish an institution of some repute, and  then trying to save it, he never had the time to rest and recoup from a rare affliction. The other, hounded by the police for trying to free his countrymen.

I saluted your fearlessness that day Mr. Prime minister. When you wanted to leave, I asked you how would you go. “By a bus” you said in your simple manner. I looked at my husband and could see that he did not want me to interfere. From a distance I watched you walk to the Godavari bus stop. I waited till a bus came and left.  Both of us restlessly waited for the next day’s newspaper.

I am grateful to you Mr. Prime Minister for giving those two hours of happiness to my husband. That was his last meeting with you.

A few months later the political situation changed. Some organization was honouring you and insisted that I came. I sat in a corner at the back and wondered at the ways of the world. Same man, same city, no police in pursuit.   A young girl came and sat next to me and asked me my name. I looked at her face, and, instinctively asked - Manushi? Yes, she said. Circumstances  allowed us to hug each other for the first time. She must have been eighteen  years old then.

After the function you extricated yourself from all the adulation and approached me - just to ask “ “How is sir?” “No more,” I said. You were whisked away by your security men. You turned back several times. Your expression will always remain vivid in my memory. Your face was pale and you  angry about your status because that did not allow you to spend a few moments with someone you wanted to console. Once again I said to myself. That’s my Baburam!

Mr. Prime Minister, I must stop now.

Guide Manushi to create a world where I do not have to wait for eighteen years to hug her. Also tell her that all the letters and cards you sent to me  and the flow charts you made for your thesis are well preserved and will be my gift to her children.

But before I leave,   I want you to recall that you owe me my Guru Dakshina. I want it from you today. A promise that you will send me that little card every year and it will come in January.

Thank you.