Sunday, December 25, 2016

‘Nepal Bhasa Patrika’: The Pioneering Daily Newspaper in Nepal Bhasa

By Dr Rabin Man Shakya
President, Newah American Buddhist Association

Nepal was totally isolated from the outside world during the Rana autocracy, even as Nepal was not colonized by any foreign power during her entire history. The coup d’ etat orchestrated by Jung Bahadur Rana in 1846 empowered the Ranas to usurp power and rule the nation until 1951. Rana autocracy’s downfall at the hands of the popular upheaval in the modern history of Nepal had stunning implications for the Nepalese people.

But before the downfall of the Rana oligarchy, Nepal was under the repressive rule of Rana tyranny. There was no press freedom and no freedom of expression. Lack of conducive political conditions and specter of Rana regime’s repression — those were some of the reasons that prompted some Nepal Bhasa advocates to embark on the first “magazine publication venture” in Nepal Bhasa not from within the territory of Nepal, but from abroad.

Therefore, if the “Buddha Dharma” which was the first monthly publication edited and published by Dharmaditya Dharmacharya  in Kolkata, British India in 1925 AD was like a ‘bell’ that alarmed the Newah people against the Rana regime for the cause of Theravada Buddhism and Nepal Bhasa language, the ‘Nepal Bhasa Patrika’ , which was the first Nepal Bhasa daily newspaper edited and published by Phatte Bahadur Singh in 1955 in Kathmandu, worked like a revolutionary ‘buglar’ who blew the trumpet for disseminating radical views on linguistic and ethnic freedom during the repressive Panchayat period. The fact that the Nepal Bhasa Patrika was able to come out for 28  consecutive years continuously not only during the short parliamentary democracy period but during the autocratic Panchayat system was a testimony of its commitment to the Nepal Bhasa journalism.

The Nepal Bhasa Patrika was an one-man-show of its founding editor Phatte Bahadur Singh in the beginning, and the newspaper was printed in a primitive letter press at Bhedasingh, Kathmandu, and it  usually used to come out everyday with four pages but sometimes with two pages too. Nepal Bhasa Patrika had an unprecedented historical significance. The newspaper had witnessed a number of vicissitudes and political upheavals in the nation ruled by the Shah Kings.

Just as significantly, however, the 28 years history of the first Nepal Bhasa newspaper mirrors the trajectory of the struggle of the Newah people for the linguistic freedom, movement for secularism and due recognition of Nepal Sambat. Nepal Bhasa Patrika was the first and pioneering daily newspaper in Nepal Bhasa, and the historical significance of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika lies on being the first daily newspaper in Nepal Bhasa. Therefore, the role of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika in enhancing and enriching the Nepal Bhasa journalism is immense and tremendous. Actually, it will not be an exaggeration to assert that the history of modern Nepal Bhasa journalism is closely inter-related with the history of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika itself. Judging by the news stories, editorials and commentaries published in the Nepal Bhasa Patrika, the daily newspaper was a bullhorn for middle class Newah people in the Kathmandu valley.

Phatte Bahadur Singh, the editor of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika, was born in 1902 in Kathmandu to father Kuldip Singh and mother Dev Lani Singh. The pioneer poet of Nepal Bhasa late Siddhi Das Mahaju was the grand father of late Singh. Well, Nepal was under the misrule and tyranny of the Rana rulers until 1951. As a matter of fact, suppression of Nepal Bhasa started immediately after the advent of Shah dynasty in 1768 AD. It is to be noted that the coup d’ etat orchestrated by Jung Bahadur Rana in 1846 AD further paved the way for brutal and repressive hereditary Rana prime ministership which lasted for more than a century (1846-1951). Except for the Mulki Ain, there were no press laws and regulations during the notorious rule of Rana generalissimo. More often than not, the words coming from the mouth of the Rana prime minister used to be the ‘law’.

As morning shows the day, young Phatte was interested in poems and writings since the childhood. But his first poem “Bamalagu Chaal” (Bad move) was published in “Buddha Dharma Wa Nepal Bhasa” only in 1930 AD. The period of century old Rana regime was the period that was void of press freedom, freedom of expression and literary activities. The Ranas were notorious  for harshly punishing the people for  participating in the political and social activities. Late Singh was not an exception. An anthology of poems by various poets “Nepali Vihar” was edited and published by late Singh in 1939. The magnum opus was printed in Bettiah, British India.

That was a really challenging act. Publication of undesired materials was considered a criminal offense that could result in life in prison with confiscation of properties. Late Singh was incarcerated from 1941 to 1945 for his literary activities.

The editor of the first Nepal Bhasa daily newspaper has had significant triumphs in his long journalistic innings. In 1962, late Phatte Bahadur Singh was elected the president of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) the umbrella organization of the Nepalese journalists, which was then called the Nepal Journalists Association (NJA). Late Singh also held the leadership position of Nepal Bhasa Parishad from 1955 to 1960. Late Singh was one of the members of the Nepalese journalists’ delegation that had visited the former Soviet Union in 1957. 

It is to be noted that the Nepal Bhasa Patrika was brought out from Kathmandu on September 28, 1955 and continued to be published until 1983. About two  and half decades  of the existence of the newspaper was during the authoritarian Panchayat system. It was the time when editors and journalists were reminded not to publish information, news and views that could jeopardize the “so-called” national sensitivities. Nepal was officially proclaimed a Hindu Kingdom. The newspapers could not openly and directly say anything in support of secularism. But the Nepal Bhasa Patrika always indirectly campaigned for ethnic freedom and secularism. News and views on Buddhism and Buddhist activities were abundantly disseminated by the Nepal Bhasa Patrika. 

As soon as the Panchayat system of governance was introduced, the Nepal Bhasa daily news broadcasting was stopped by Radio Nepal. Later on, a radio program “Jeevan Daboo” was also scrapped. The study of Nepal Bhasa as an optional language in the high schools was also discontinued. These were just the tips of the iceberg. The press had an important role to play to denounce such activities of the Panchayat government. Nepal Bhasa Patrika and some other Nepali newspapers deplored those government acts but they all fell on deaf ears. The Nepal Bhasa Patrika as such was unabashedly anti-Panchayat. Nepal Bhasa Patrika was clearly not shy about disseminating  news and views on Nepal Bhasa movement that would displease the Panchayat stalwarts. 

One of the distinctive features of the journalistic period during the Panchayat system is that while the opposition newspapers, which included the Nepal Bhasa Patrika, were busy doing the “mission journalism” playing the watchdog role, the pro-Panchayat newspapers were playing lapdog roles at the hands of the powerful regime stalwarts. 

Similarly, one of the distinctive characteristics of the Nepalese print media during the Panchayat period was publishing speculative and sensational pieces of news. Various Nepalese newspapers were found disseminating speculative pieces or overhyping some political events. But the Nepal Bhasa Patrika always distanced itself from gossips, speculations and sensationalism.

Even during the authoritarian Panchayat  regime so many publications existed, competition was intense. Criticism of monarchy and the Panchayat system was severely dealt with, but those— which were able to indirectly denounce and criticize the Panchayat system and its leaders— sold the most newspapers and the Nepal Bhasa Patrika was also one of them. 

Therefore, during the tyrannical Panchayat period, Nepal Bhasa Patrika was increasingly becoming a household name among the Newah community in the Kathmandu Valley, and the journalistic legacy it bore was incomparable. 

Given the lackluster performance of the media lapdogs and their pro-Panchayat agenda and seemingly sycophantic attitudes of those newspapers, the role played by the newspapers like Nepal Bhasa Patrika and other anti-Panchayat Nepali newspapers was really formidable. And to be anti-Panchayat during the Panchayat period was like playing with fire. The newspaper had to face the trials and tribulations for being a true voice of the Newah people. Its editor Phatte Bahadur Singh was interrogated and even intimidated by the Panchayat government for what the newspaper wrote. It was obvious that the accusations and charges made against the newspaper by the authoritarian Panchayat government were trumped up and possibly politically motivated.

The economic challenges and problems which were faced by the Nepal Bhasa Patrika vis-a vis other  Nepali newspapers at that time were in deed  palpable since it had to compete in the news stands with the Nepali newspapers with more resources, readership and influence.

During the Panchayat regime, the political parties and organizations were not allowed to function. It was the media which had to work as the platforms for disseminating political awareness. Many anti-Panchayat newspapers including the Nepal Bhasa Patrika always raised their voice for more press freedom, freedom of expression and restoration of democracy.

Taking into consideration the fact that there  simply were no TV and Internet at that time (not even radio programs for Newah listeners), the Nepal Bhasa Patrika was the only newspaper to which the Newah readers could rely on for news, views and other information in their own language. During the Panchayat period, the newspapers had an important role to play to create an environment in order to save the nation from the tyranny, to wage the war for the press freedom and freedom of expression. It was at that juncture that the importance of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika, as the only one newspaper for the Newah community, had been increased greatly by the spread of awareness of the united Nepal Bhasa movement. If we go by the assumption that a local newspaper in your own mother tongue is a key source for local information, then the only Nepal Bhasa daily newspaper had a major impact on the lives of the Newah people in the Kathmandu valley.

Quintessentially, Nepal Bhasa Patrika was a daily newspaper which championed the cause of Nepal Bhasa development and linguistic freedom in Nepal, which is why there is no doubt that the first Nepal Bhasa newspaper was an effective voice that was instrumental in disseminating news stories and views about Nepal Bhasa movement and about the activities of the local Newah organizations.

The Nepal Bhasa Patrika has always been about the community events of the Newah people in the Kathmandu valley. Six decades ago, Nepal Bhasa Patrika’s visionary founder Phatte Bahadur Singh introduced Newah readers to a new kind of newspaper, one that gave Newah readers news and views in their own language and the materials they could not find in other Nepali newspapers: clear, concise and unbiased. Well, the pro-Nepal Bhasa bias   of the newspaper was always palpable. But given the step-motherly attitude of the Panchayat government vis-a-vis the Nepal Bhasa and Nepal Sambat, that bias was was genuine, relevant and time tested.

The antagonism that flared between the anti and pro Nepal Bhasa movement during the Panchayat regime and the fight against the Bahunbadi elites appeared to have been the focus of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika.

The struggle of the Newah people for the equal linguistic freedom and activities to bolster movement for recognition of Nepal Sambat were reflected in the contents of the Nepal Bhasa Patrika: in the news stories, commentaries, editorial and letters to editor.

As soon as Nepal was declared a republic in 2006, journalistic scenario in Nepal Bhasa started to flourish. Yet that optimistic scenario is doing little to duly recognize Nepal Bhasa and Nepal Sambat. Therefore, it is a bitter truth there are too many Nepal Bhasa newspapers and periodicals today but too little national will to duly recognize Nepal Bhasa and Nepal Sambat.

Today, Nepal is a democratic republic. But the democratically elected government is not paying due attention to the peoples’ woes. The ethnic problem is enflaming  the nation, but the government does not give  a damn about it. This is a testimony that the ruling as well as the opposition parties are not serious about the nation and the people, they are just preoccupied with their partisan agenda of “sticking to power” and enforcing the grand designs of “changing the government.”

Looking at the modus operandi of the mainstream Nepalese political parties, it looks like they lack the democratic culture and political credibility. The mainstream political parties are still ill-prepared and lack credibility to deal with wide ranging issues including the ethnic movement with the demand of identity.

(Dr Shakya is a former lecturer of journalism at the People's Campus, Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus and some other journalism schools in Kathmandu and also a former associate editor of The Rising Nepal. This article was originally published in 'Chicago Newa' 1137 Nepal Sambat brought out by Newa American Dabu, Chicago, USA.)

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