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Meet Manushi Yami Bhattarai, who went underground as Asmita Singh, is the daughter of leaders of the Maoist movement. Her father Baburam Bhattarai was later Prime Minister of Nepal.
Imagine a child being told to leave her home, to live in a foreign country with complete strangers, and to choose a new name and identity for herself. The premise of this story may sound like a work of fiction, but for Manushi, this was just another twist in her very unconventional nine-year-old life.
Manushi was the only child of Baburam Bhattarai and Hisila Yami, two prominent leaders of the Maoist movement in Nepal. She had grown up with revolutionary ideas and also seen them in action. She recalls one interesting incident that made an early impact on her, “I must have been three years old when my mother was taken to the Hanuman Dhoka police custody. Usually all the famous criminals and politicians have spent at least a night there. I remember, as a small kid, I had gone to visit her. She requested the policeman and took me inside for two minutes to give me a quick tour. ‘This is what a prison looks like. Always remember’, she had said.”
Young Manushi with her parents
It was in February 1996 when one faction of the United Left Front, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and other prominent Maoist leaders including Manushi’s parents, began an armed struggle to overthrow the Nepalese monarchy and establish a People’s Republic. Being an only child of parents who would soon go into hiding, Manushi’s fate had become entangled with the fate of her nation. It was decided that Manushi would be sent away to India. She would live with Nepalese families who were sympathetic to their political cause and would have to keep moving her base from time to time so as to keep her anonymity intact.
Manushi remembers the moment clearly, “In a letter, my mother asked me to choose a name which I liked. My name was too obvious – there was no other Yami, and Manushi was also a rare name. I chose Asmita. Some people made fake certificates in my new name so I could get admitted into schools. Right after that I had to leave Kathmandu.”
9 year old Manushi Yami Bhattarai
Shuttling between a Nepalese family on the outskirts of Delhi, a small boarding school in Uttarakhand, a boarding school in north Bengal, another family in south-west Delhi, Asmita became accustomed to moving and living a life of make-believe. Every new place would mean creating a new backstory. While in north Bengal, she was supposed to be from Delhi. While in Delhi, she belonged to Sikkim. Her father was an architect, her mother a teacher. She also gave herself an imaginary younger brother from time to time. She laughs as she tells me this, “Once I almost got caught when I met a girl in Delhi who was from Sikkim. Thankfully, I was a bit familiar with Sikkim so I could get away with it, but there was always a fear of getting caught.”
One would imagine a child like her being hardened by her circumstances or turning into a recluse. Asmita was far from it when I met her in 2004 at Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. We were both in the Political Science department, played sports every morning, and had some common friends. Despite her superior intellectual abilities, she was always humble and ready to have fun. Familiarity soon led to a friendship that blossomed over the next three years. In all that time, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams that she was hiding her real identity from all of us.
During this time, Asmita had discreetly started working with Nepalese community groups in Delhi. She was eager to help her fellow countrymen and women living in India, and in some way contribute to her parents’ struggle in Nepal. She would go for meetings and be away from her college hostel for hours at a time. Her close friends thought she had a love interest, and Asmita would lead them on because it served as an efficient cover for her.
In 2007, the war had ended and Nepal was on the cusp of a new system of governance. Asmita had just completed her Bachelor’s degree and was ready to go back home. Her parents were now out-of-danger, and so was she. Her mother became the Minister of Physical Planning and Works in the interim government. Her father was soon to be the Finance Minister (2008-2009), and would go on to become the Prime Minister of Nepal (2011-2013). The night before Asmita left Delhi, she had quietly revealed her truth to a few close friends.
When I saw her in Kathmandu after a year, Asmita was now Manushi again. Moving back had been challenging for her because she was not used to staying in one place for too long, but her immense love for her country and its people was palpable.
When I ask her about the contradictions of a communist ideology thriving in a Hindu state, she said, “Nepal is made out to be a Hindu nation or a very religious nation but the temples you see in Kathmandu were all built by kings as a symbol of their power. It was meant to help them spread their influence. The Maoist movement gave hope to people in the villages that things could change. Religion does the opposite – it just makes you satisfied or it tries to keep you in the position that you are in. It does not inspire you to change or to question. Religion has a great regressive impact on women and their lives. So this movement gave them certain answers and encouraged them to take action.”
At the time, Manushi was enrolled in a Master’s program at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu. She was also actively involved in student politics and gradually making a name for herself in her own right. As I watched her in this new avatar, I began to think about documenting her incredible journey in the form of a film. It subsequently culminated into ‘Daughter of Nepal’, an intimate look at her life, politics and love for her country.
A year later, this time with a video camera in tow, we had visited her father’s village and political base in Gorkha district. Sitting on the mud wall of her grandfather’s house, Manushi had told me, “No one lives in the villages any more. Most people have left for India or other countries to earn money. Even if they come back to Nepal, they choose to live in and around Kathmandu, and not return to their village. People have forgotten their roots, which is something I don’t want to do.”
Manushi Yami Bhattarai with her grandfather
Baburam Bhattarai and Hisila Yami continue the struggle with their recently established political party called Naya Shakti Nepal (New Force Nepal). This time, their daughter is right by their side.
Manushi is a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee and the Kathmandu District Coordinator. She is also involved with a farmers’ collective that she helped form in her village. Despite all the political chaos, social movements and natural disasters that Nepal has seen over the last decade, Manushi and her parents continue to work with a singular focus of improving the lives of their fellow citizens.
Images source: Manushi Yami Bhattarai & Surbhi Dewan
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Surbhi Dewan is an independent filmmaker & creative producer at Painted Tree Pictures, a media communication
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