The firebrand feminist
- Nepali women owe much to the late Sahana Pradhan for the opportunities they enjoy today
Sep 26, 2014-
Sahana Pradhan was known for never mincing her words. And she
was known for never giving up on a cause she believed in.
In 2004 BS, Nepali women finally started getting a formal education; in 2007 BS, they got their right to vote and after the demise of the Panchayat regime, women finally started leading political parties: in fact, there are currently 174 women in parliament. But if it weren’t for Pradhan and her uncompromising ways, these rights might
have been deferred for much longer. Pradhan was a fighter and her battles started long ago, back in the waning days of the Rana autocracy.
She actually started out battling on two fronts: as a political activist demanding democracy, and as a first-generation feminist demanding women’s rights. She was doing this at a time when most men couldn’t gather the courage to speak out against the Rana regime.
Pradhan, who was born into a Newar family in July 1927, started her political career in 1947, at the tender age of 20, and grew to become an astute, principled, democratic leader. Her contemporaries note that family support helped her along on her journey: she was married to communist stalwart Pushpa Lal Shrestha, while her sister Sadhana married yet another founding member of the Communist Party
of Nepal and former prime
minister, Manmohan Adhikari. But her firebrand personality, which would brook no quarter, was all her own.
Back when she started, campaigning against the Rana regime was strictly prohibited, and yet she pounded the pavements, shouting slogans against the authorities and calling for the instituting of democracy. Back then, getting involved in politics was something women could not even imagine: in the patriarchal culture of the time, which limited women to the household sphere, such involvements were considered sacrilegious. But as the records show, Pradhan hit the streets, demanding that the government provide education for women, and along with three other women--Sadhana Adhikari, Snehlata Shrestha and Kanaklata Bajracharya--she was promptly arrested by the Rana administration. But the protests forced the then prime minister, Padma Shumsher, to establish Padma Kanya School, an
educational institution for girls, and the institution, to this day, focuses on educating women.
In 2007 BS, the autocratic Rana rule came to an end, but Pradhan soon had a new regime to contend with: the Panchayat rulers. By then she had already become a prominent leader, and she played a huge role in uniting the fringe Left parties before the 1990 movement; she even helped the Left parties forge an alliance with the Nepali Congress for the sake of establishing democracy in the country. And even as she talked the language of political reconciliation among the pro-democracy leaders, when it came time to negotiate with King Birendra, she did not mince her words. During one of these negotiations held at Narayanhiti Palace, when King Birendra brought up a proposal to continue the Panchyat system in exchange for granting certain leverages to the political parties, Pradhan rejected it outright. “While the other leaders, such as Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Girija Prasad Koirala were confused about how to respond
to the king’s proposal, Sahana, who had been taken to the meeting directly from custody, was the first leader to refuse the proposal,” remembers Sushila Shrestha, her fellow activist. “Unlike our incumbent leaders, her demands were always the demands of the people protesting on the street,” says Shrestha. And just like the everyman, she believed that the protests against the Panchayat regime should not stop unless full-fledged democracy was ensured.
During the 1990s, Pradhan became a familiar presence in the media: she may have come across a tad unsophisticated, for she spoke a Nepali tinged with a strong Newari accent, but on parsing the content of her speeches, many observers came to understand that she spoke a sophisticated political language, one that was informed by Left theory and literature.
After democracy had been re-instituted, Pradhan was appointed second-in-command (after the then prime minister, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai) in the interim government. In 1991 and 1994, she was elected as a member of parliament, with overwhelming majority.
But despite being very popular among the party cadres and the people, some of her actions didn’t go unchallenged. Pradhan faced criticism for siding with the CPN-ML (a breakaway faction of the CPN-UML) right after the party’s victory subsequent to the local elections held in 1998. Later, she was forced to retract her decision and move back into the folds of the older party.
After the abolishment of the monarchy, Pradhan led the UML in the Girija Prasad-led interim government, as the minister of foreign affairs. She was, however, unhappy with the Congress government after it refused to make her the deputy prime minister in the Cabinet.
Over the years, she continued to get passed over--so much so that the supporters within her party were not happy with the UML when it did not field her as a presidential candidate during the 2008 constituent assembly elections. Pradhan never did make such demands within the party herself, and it was her supporters who lobbied for her, and they even garnered support for her from other parties, including the UCPN (Maoist).
While there are many who argue that the UML adopted democratic measures within the party after the charismatic leader Madan Bhandari propounded the principles of ‘People’s Multi-party Democracy’, there are also many who credit Pradhan’s efforts to forge alliances with the Congress party for bringing about intra-party change. “That was the start of the democratising of the communist parties. Earlier, communist parties rarely adopted measures to democratise their own parties, and instead focused on masquerading as communists merely by criticising Ganeshmanji,” says veteran communist leader Govinda Gyawali.
It wasn’t just her contemporaries who appreciated Pradhan’s presence among them. She was also a source of inspiration for her party’s cadres and mentored many of the juniors in her party. Many leaders, especially women, credit her with breaking the glass ceiling in her party and helping them in their campaigns.
UML Central Committee member Ram Kumari Jhankri, for example, remembers how Pradhan cut short her London visit to support Jhankri, after the younger leader had filed her candidacy in the All Nepal National Free Students’ Union’s election. “Although she was not in a position to influence the party enough to ensure my victory, she supported me in order to boost my morale. Her support extended to all women leaders in the party,” says Jhankri.
Pradhan’s later years
were spent in political oblivion and in the years leading up to her demise, she was starting to show signs of dementia. She would forget the details of her daily life. But Nepal’s women leaders will never forget the path she blazed, and many Nepali women will never forget her for the battles she waged on their behalf.
Published: 27-09-2014 10:35