There is a saying that truly great personalities in Nepal come to limelight only after their deaths. Of course, the reason some of them might be relatively unknown outside a small circle of friends and well-wishers could be that they never wanted the limelight in the first place. In Bhim Bahadur Tamang’s case, both these notions held true. When the 78-year-old Senior Nepali Congress leader died of heart attack on Sunday morning, the level of respect Tamang commanded was evident from the huge outpouring of grief and the heartfelt sadness at the passing of one of very few Nepali politicians who practiced what they preached, and who stood for unity in a fast-fracturing polity.
Although famous among the political and intellectual circles for his Gandhian way of life, unparalleled honesty and integrity, and unflinching commitment to democratic values, Tamang was hardly a household name. The headmaster-turned-politician started his political life after joining Nepali Congress in 1957. Subsequently, Tamang became an MP and Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs in 1994. But unlike most senior NC leaders, who started acting as if the freedom afforded by the 1990 changes was an opportunity to extract concessions from the state for the many years of their persecution under the one-party system, Tamang shunned a life of luxury.
According to a legend, the day he was relieved of his duty as the Minister of Law, he didn’t even have enough money to pay the fare of a local bus that took him home from office. For the past 15 years, Tamang had been living in a small room given to him by NC leader Radhe Shyam Adhikari in Thapagaun, where he didn’t own anything beyond bare necessities. Tamang, a stalwart socialist democrat in the image of BP Koirala, devoted his whole life to the cause of democracy, all the while suffering for his beliefs. His wife left him, he had to serve multiple prison terms, and had to live in exile for a number of years.
Tamang’s credentials as a humanitarian were also impeccable. Sent by his father to reclaim ancestral property in the village of Jhule in Dolakha district, Tamang was greatly troubled by the widespread poverty in the village. He stayed back and started tutoring local children, and in no time earned popularity as ‘Master Bhim Bahadur’ in and around Jhule. He built two schools in the village and ventured as far as Kalimpong to procure textbooks for them. Even when many senior indigenous leaders of NC defected to eventually set up an exclusively indigenous party, Tamang continued to believe that a solution could be found from among the existing political setup.
The solution, in his view, was not more polarizing politics but BP-like statesmanship able to take tough decisions to make the Nepali society more inclusive. He was dismayed by NC’s failure to address the spirit of change. “If the Congress can leave behind the power mongering frame of mind,” he said in one of his last interviews before his death, “we can lead and create policies which are people-oriented and take this nation forward.” He was speaking for NC but parties across the political spectrum would do well to heed the timely advice of this great sage