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August 16, 2000
Bahu Jamalpur awaits tryst with Mahendra Chaudhary
Josy Joseph in Bahu Jamalpur
Deposed Fijian prime minister Mahendra Pal Chaudhary's emotional return to his under-developed ancestral Haryana village could turn out to be a defining movement for his warring relatives, whose ugly feud over four hectares of his property has entered village folklore.
The village, Bahu Jamalpur, which lies on the outskirts of Rohtak town, is dominated by Jats. Farming and military service are the main sources of income.
Villagers are discussing, in hushed tones, the fight between two groups of Chaudhary's relatives to wrest control of four hectares of land belonging to his grandfather.
A court verdict may not satisfy them and the dispute could end up before the man who survived a coup and ethnic onslaught. The prime minister without a land to rule would be the final judge.
Chaudhary's is an epic story of an Indian migrant family. His grandfather, Ram Nath, left Bahu Jamalpur in 1911 for Fiji where he worked in plantations. During his stay there, he married an Indian woman and had three children - Gopal Kishan, Ram Gopal and one daughter.
Both the sons stayed back in Fiji while Ram Nath returned to Bahu Jamalpur with his wife and daughter sometime in 1936-37. He bought four hectares of land and cultivated it. He also built a small house.
In 1960, his farm was completely submerged during floods. Ram Nath's house collapsed and he fell seriously ill. He died within a few months.
"He was a nice person. I remember him very well, but have never seen anyone else from his family," says Sarjo, 65, who claims her husband and Ram Nath were friends.
There are no other records about Ram Nath and his family. Mahendra Chaudhary was born to Ram Gopal. The second generation Indian went on to make history by becoming Fiji's first elected prime minister of Indian origin.
Though he has never visited Bahu Jamalpur, there was euphoria and celebration in the by-lanes of the village in 1997 when Chaudhary became Fiji's premier.
Even as he struggled to overcome the ethnic divide in the panoramic island nation, his relatives in India were strengthening their claim over his family's property.
Grandchildren of his grandfather's brother took possession of the four hectares of land and thus began trouble.
"In fact, we sold off some of our land to protect his property. We will ask him to decide what to do with the land. He can donate it for a cow-shelter, a school, or anything productive," says Kali Ram, one of Chaudhary's second cousins who leads a group of villagers in organising the reception for Chaudhary.
If Kali Ram's claim of protecting it for the famous heir sounds a bit far-fetched, the counter claims are equally incredulous.
Madhubala, who leads the opposing camp, has produced affidavits to show that her mother is authorised by Chaudhary's father to look after the land. The educated English-speaking face of the Chaudhary family during the hostage-taking crisis, she stays in Rohtak.
Kali Ram and his brothers doubt the authenticity of the affidavit. "She is some very distant relative. She is unnecessarily creating trouble," Kali Ram says.
Villagers like Ranvir Balhara, 45, have yet another version. "Kali Ram and brothers were looking after the entire land. Recently, they gave some portion of the land to Madhubala, but the rest is with them. They are now fighting it out in court," says Ranvir.
Chaudhary's grandfather's house lies in shatters. Villagers are speculating if the dispute will come up before Chaudhary during his August 19 visit. It would be a surprise if Chaudhary recognises even one of his relatives.
Apart from that, Bahu Jamalpur is not as fortunate as other villages that VIPs visit, like Nyala, the Rajasthan village United States' President Bill Clinton visited when he was in India. Nyala's roads were spruced up, new telephone lines laid and a water supply system was put in place.
"When prime ministers and presidents visit villages, roads are cleaned, they get water, electricity, but look at our condition," complains Urmila, 29. The village roads are muddy and sewers are overflowing.
Hopefully, the son-of-the-soil would have at least settled the land dispute.
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