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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The tree of liberty


The tree of liberty : Once upon a time in Kathmandu 


Roshan Sedhai


It was on a Thursday, January 23, 1941 (Magh 10, 1997 BS) that a khari ko bot (fig tree) in Teku bore witness to the ruthless murder of patriot Shukra Raj Shastri. The tree quietly observed Shastri’s merciless hanging on its robust branches. But time passes and revolutions come and go. The only surviving spectator of the dreadful execution, the tree, once young and supple, is now getting old. 

So much has changed since then—the roads, rivers, buildings, even the polluted city and its people. History has taken a turn, replacing old traditions with the new ones. The tree has silently watched new martyrs being born everyday while the old die many deaths.

Back then, the country had long been oppressed by the autocratic Rana regime and was desperate for a change. The impetus was to come from the young generation, able and willing to sacrifice their lives in the face of something greater: freedom. 

Forming various organisations, they started underground campaigns to reach out to people with strong voices for change. One such organisation was the Nepali Rights Committee (NRC) established in 1937 with Shastri as its chairman. The frontline of the group comprised renowned faces like Rajalal, Kedar Man Vyathit and Ganga Lal Shrestha. 

Like the pro-democracy dissidents of the Nepal Praja Parishad, NRC was also raising awareness among the public but their path was different. Their inspiration came from various religious texts including Hindu Purans and Vedas. Shukra Raj Shastri, a Sanskrit scholar, used these scriptures to awaken the people against the autocrats.

Fearful of a conspiracy against the Rana regime, the government began attacking dissidents and their political activism. The educated youths who spoke for socio-political change in the country were easy targets for the callous rulers. Shastri was the first to be targeted. He was arrested at Indra Chowk while lecturing to the youth on Hindu philosophy.

Shastri was born Shukra Raj Joshi in Kathmandu in 1894 (1950 BS) to Madhav Raj Joshi and Ratna Maya. Though a Newar Joshi, he began to be called Shastri upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit. 
He worked as a Sanskrit teacher at a school in Allahabad for four years, during which time he was a prolific writer, authoring numerous books including Satya Prakash and Sanskrit. While in India, he met scholars and great leaders including Mahatma Gandhi.  

Historians think Shastri had his own way of changing society. He worshipped education and knowledge as catalysts for change. 

“But the Ranas misunderstood him and did not like his close relations with underground dissidents and Indian leaders. Given his excellent educational background and association with radical leaders, they thought he would corrupt the youth,” said Tri Ratna Manandhar, history professor at the Central Department of Tribhuvan University. 

Rana Prime Minister Juddha Shumsher charged Shastri with hatching a plot against the government. He was put under house arrest, then imprisoned and tortured. Citing danger to their rule, the Rana government finally hanged Shastri on a fateful Thursday.

Following Shastri’s murder, three other martyrs Ganga Lal Shrestha, Dharma Bhakta Mathema and Dasharath Chand also saw similarly gruesome deaths.

The giant khari ko bot, selflessly providing shade, was implicated in the bloody murder of a patriot. The same tree that people seldom noticed became the centre of attraction overnight. The heartbreaking image of Shastri, dead and swinging on its strong branches, was engraved in the minds of those present. 
Nestled among the busy streets of Kathmandu, the tree still remains standing, maybe thanks to the emotional attachment locals have with it and its history. 

Manandhar said the tree stands as testimony to the bravery of those strong enough to stand for their beliefs in the face of overwhelming odds. “Though other martyrs were associated with the Nepal Praja Parishad, Shastri was not. He became a scapegoat, used by the Ranas to evoke terror in people,” said Manandhar. “He was simply a scholar and was disseminating knowledge to the people through the Purans.”  

Those who witnessed Shastri’s execution firsthand are long gone but the tree is still alive, half myth and half reality. The locals, now elderly themselves, who often heard of the incident from an older generation, have lost half their story. The younger generations, on the other hand, have almost no idea of Shastri or the tree.
Ram Maharjan, 65, a local of Teku, represents the generation born in the aftermath of the incident. Maharjan learned of the tree and its history from his elders.  “The tree must be over a hundred years old. The fact that its branches were strong enough to hold Shastri’s weight even at that time means it had already lived many years by then,” opined Maharjan. 

The tree recalls a famous line from the great American freedom fighter Thomas Jefferson: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”  

Nurtured by the blood-manure of a patriot like Shastri, this enormous “tree of liberty” has flourished for quite some time now. It shares the same space that history has given to Shastri. The tree is now fragile, maybe reflecting the freedom and liberty that this country still desires. It has already once been washed in the blood of a patriot, maybe next time, it will be that of a tyrant.

Source : http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/2012/06/26/metro/once-upon-a-time-in-kathmandu--the-tree-of-liberty/236476.html

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