Nepal Needs A Constitution

Nepal Needs A Constitution (Draft 6)
by Paramendra Bhagat

Street Protests, Four Weeks In A Row, In Half The Country

Nepal’s journey for a democratic constitution started in 1951, not long after the British left India, and just when it felt like the process might conclude, and the country might finally get its constitution, the streets across the southern plains, home primarily to the Madhesi and the Tharu, have erupted, effectively engineering a near total shutdown of the national economy, now in its fourth week. A multitude of hill districts that are ethnic Janajati strongholds might soon be joining in, starting with the Limbus in the eastern hills, and the Magars in the mid hills. The Sherpas, probably the most famous Nepali ethnic group on the planet, have also been warming up: they want a state in their name, as do about 10 other groups. The proposed boundaries and names for federal states and affirmative action clauses to bring about ethnic, gender, and caste inclusion are causing much heartburn among the ruling elite.

These ethnic groups are agitated that the ruling elite composed of the high caste hill men, the Khas (Brahmins and Chhetris), have proposed a draft that again promises to marginalize them, which goes contrary to what has already been achieved in the interim constitution, and the agreements forged in the first constituent assembly (2008-2012) and the current, second constituent assembly (2013-now). Things came to loggerheads after the ruling Khas elite, primarily Bahuns but also Chhetris, decided the post-earthquake trauma and the monsoon rains would be perfect time to shove a constitution down the country’s throat that will keep their power that was meant to be shared with all after the historic April 2006 revolution (19 martyrs) waged against a king that pulled a military coup early in 2005, the subsequent Madhesi uprising (56 martyrs), and various ethnic protests and movements. And just so as to not take any chances, they had, over the recent years, concentrated much of the security forces - the police, the armed police (put together in response to the 1996-2006 civil war, but never disbanded in the aftermath), and the army - in the southern plains whose residents, the Madhesis, are not even thought of as Nepalis by the ruling elite but Indians who crossed the border, even though history proves otherwise, that Madhesis have a continuous history going back to the Hindu holy epic Ramayana. Janakpur, after all, was capital to King Janak, whose daughter Sita married Lord Rama of Ayodhya, the lead character in the holy book Ramayana. The land that is Madhesh was, to note, gifted by the British to the rulers in Kathmandu in two phases, in 1816 and 1860. It can be argued, a genuine, just integration never really happened.

The Home Minister Bamdev Gautam has repeatedly shown fascist tendencies, the ageing Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has proven inept (four billion dollars pledged by donors for post earthquake relief and reconstruction have gone untouched for four months now with donors threatening to pull away); when he is active he is expressing his ethnic prejudices. They come from different parties, and don’t much coordinate with each other. Gautam was the mastermind of the 2000 Hrithik Roshan riots during which the Bollywood heartthrob was alleged to have made anti Indian remarks which he clearly had not made as was proven later, but that was used to engineer massive rioting against the Madhesis in the capital city Kathmandu: lives were lost, property was damaged in the sweep. Gautam’s underworld connections are legion. Many of them are to do with people who are favored when being awarded government contracts across the country. His repeated tenures as Home Minister have allowed him to become useful to his stable of dons, and that serves his party well; in fact his party hopes to grab the Prime Ministership after the new constitution is promulgated. Gautam issued a shoot at sight order to the Armed Police weeks before the final round of work on constitution making started. The act was protested by his own Nepal Police and the two agencies in the Home Ministry have seen a rift since, with the Home Minister berating the Chief of Police in at least two public speeches so far. His most recent act has been to get the police to take pictures and videos of protesters so they can be identified and sought out in the dead of night, like was done in Burma in 2007 long before Aang Sang Su Kyi was released.

29 Dead, Hundreds Injured, And Counting

The protests have seen some unexpected violent turns recently, leaving 29 dead, hundreds injured, and counting. An angry crowd of protesting Tharus demanding a state in their name in a federal Nepal, estimated 20,000 strong, thronging from neighboring villages, carrying homemade weapons like sticks and spears, not necessarily meaning harm, but as a matter of protests, converged on the central town in the disputed district of Kailali in far west Nepal on August 24. A small handful of infiltrators, feared to be former Maoist combatants, leftovers from the decade long civil war Nepal was engulfed in prior to 2006, managed to mow down nine security personnel, including the commanding officer. That act of violence suddenly caught the attention of the people in power in Kathmandu; the Indian Prime Minister called his counterpart in Nepal suggesting “a constitution can not be written by 5-10 people sitting in a room;” and the global media chimed in. A few days later the Indian Home Minister traveled to a border town and warned against any attempts at Jaffnaization inside Nepal. He said India will protect “the 10 million Indians living in Nepal.” That was a reference to Madhesis with close cultural ties to India. He meant like US citizens of Indian origin can be called “Indian.” 40% of Madhesis so far have been denied citizenship rights. Cross-border marriages are very common, and the proposed draft of the constitution says Indian daughters that might come to Nepal by way of marriage will get a class of citizenship that will bar them from holding the top offices in the country, effectively a second class citizenship.

The security forces retaliated to the Kailali incident by imposing a curfew during which roving mobs representing the ruling elite voicing a counterclaim to the same district were allowed to burn scores of houses belonging to Tharus. Many Tharu men were harassed and apprehended, the lead suspects were tortured in custody. Some Tharu women were raped and killed. The army was also illegally deployed in some of the eastern districts. According to the interim constitution, it is the president who commands the army and effects its mobilization, but the president, a Madhesi, was bypassed during the decision making process. Tensions came to a head in Birgunj where five men were shot in the head, their brains scattered on the streets, leading to gory pictures shared on social media. According to the law, the police are to shoot beneath the knee in the most extreme of scenarios.

Only A Political Solution

The Nepal Army itself has time and again reminded the political leadership at the highest levels that the protests do not have a security solution, only a political solution, and the ground situation is becoming more liquid by the day. The International Crisis Group has come out criticizing the government saying it has been seeking a security solution to a political problem. So far those protestations have fallen on deaf ears.

The Madhesis and Tharus are close to 40% of the population of Nepal, and they have been joined to an extent by the Janajatis, the indigenous peoples in the hills and the mountains, also marginalized for 250 plus years by the unitary state largely run by the Khas (Bahuns and Chhetris). The ruling elite are like Saddam’s Sunnis, less than one third of the population (15% if you count that just the men hold the power) but holding over 90% of the country’s power, not just in the government but also in the media, the human rights organizations, and elsewhere.

What the protesters want are already in the interim constitution and the agreements reached during the first constituent assembly, and the current, second constituent assembly. There are no new demands. But the Bahuns that rule the country seem to think they are neo monarchs who are above the law. The rules don’t apply to them. They insist on playing soccer with their hands. That leaves room for little else but yet another revolution, which is what we are seeing happen right now. The agreement reached between the Madhesis and the then Nepali Congress Prime Minister Girija Koirala in 2007 after the revolution that saw 56 martyrs is not being honored by his successor and cousin, current Prime Minister Sushil Koirala. Protesters in the central Madhesh town of Birgunj toppled a statue of Girija Koirala on August 31 along the lines of Saddam Hussein and Lenin statues getting toppled, as if to express anger at the betrayal.

Nepal is in the throes of one hopes its final revolution. In these years of transition the two largest political parties have come firmly in the grips of the mafia. A recent police encounter death of Don Ghainte, thought of as close to the Nepali Congress, the largest and ruling party, and last year’s police encounter death of Don Chari, thought to be close to the CPN UML, Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninist, the second largest party and a partner in the current government, is widely thought to be but the tip of the iceberg. The Prime Minister in waiting, CPN UML’s president KP Oli, is known to have close ties with numerous such underworld figures who serve in double roles also as party members. Some argue, that is the mainstay of his power base that allowed him to win his party’s presidency in the first place.

Together they loot the national treasury through government awarded contracts, and have severely weakened the law and order fabric of the country. Corruption is at an all time high. The four billion dollars that foreign donors pledged in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake a few months back is the carcass these political vultures are in a hurry to pounce on. And that is why they want to shove a severely flawed constitution down the country’s throat. There is a feeling they can not be allowed their way. The Nepali people deserve a constitution that fully respects the letter and spirit of democracy, human rights, republic, federalism and inclusion, that they fought so hard for and sacrificed so much for during the various movements spread over 10 years. Nepal deserves a constitution that will give the country double digit growth rates for decades to come, not a piece of paper that will leave large parts of the population out of the mainstream, wasting the next few decades fighting for basic rights. It adds salt to the injury that the most severely affected from the earthquake are the Tamangs, the Newars and the Gurungs, all three marginalized groups.

It is telling that Sushil Koirala, a Bahun, has risked losing his party’s registration with the Election Commission by not holding a convention, required by law to be held every five years, rather than hold one and lose the party presidency to a non Bahun. Such is the Bahun grip of power and the Bahun fear and desperation of losing it. When his cousin Girija Koirala was Prime Minister for the first time in the early 1990s when the country shifted from having a partyless system to one where political parties were now allowed after the Cold War ended and made space for a small democracy movement in Nepal and the then king, Birendra, agreed to become a constitutional monarch, and Girija lost the confidence of his parliamentary party, instead of making way like Margaret Thatcher made way for John Major, instead of making way for the very likely Mahendra Narayan Nidhi of his party, a Madhesi, he chose to dissolve the parliament and send his party into the political wilderness for years to come.

Girija Koirala’s elder brother BP Koirala first launched an armed struggle for democracy in 1951, with help from Nehru. Even though successful, it took him another decade to see elections held, which he won. Two years later he was captured by the king and thrown into jail, so the king and later his son could rule for 30 years.

Final Lap

Soon the revolution, if left unaddressed, might hit the streets of Kathmandu. The interim constitution stays. But the current government goes, the constituent assembly goes, an interim government of the revolutionary forces takes over, and elections are held to a new constituent assembly. The Madhesis and the Janajatis would get the federalism they deserve. But the Federal Alliance, formed a few days after the protests erupted and composed of a melange of Madhesi and Janajati parties, has shown some cracks in recent days, and that lack of solid unity lessens the chances of a revolutionary conclusion to these protests. There is no clear leadership, not a clear enough roadmap.

More likely, just like the 58 Madhesis lawmakers and 40 Janajati lawmakers inside the ruling Nepali Congress have started to do, the Dalits and Janajatis inside the constituent assembly might also disobey their party leaders, and bring forth amendments to address the dissatisfaction on the ground. It has taken massive street protests to get them to show some signs of life, such is the grip of party presidents on their parliamentarians, even though this is a constituent assembly where party whips don’t apply. Street protests, perhaps, will create sufficient pressure that the constituent assembly will do what it was supposed to do in the first place. Over 50 amendments were filed over the weekend.

Nepal needs a constitution that restructures the unitary state run by the upper caste Hindu men from the hills for over 250 years into a federal, inclusive one that also gives equal space to the Madhesis, the Janajatis, the Dalits, and the women. The work has already been done. If only the people in power did not insist on overturning many of the achievements, Nepal would be on its way to tapping its huge hydro potential, 40,000 MW of which can readily be harnessed, perhaps turning Nepal into a First World country at a fast pace. Neighboring Bhutan has already shown it can happen.

Global Implications: What Happens In Nepal Does Not Stay In Nepal

For the poorest country outside of Africa, the political changes of the past decade have been mind boggling. The Nepali Maoists were the number one ultra left group on the planet, at their peak holding sway over 80% of the country’s territory, and now they are firmly in a multi-party framework. Nepal must be a rare country that became a republic without beheading a king or imprisoning him. Nepal’s first constituent assembly that got elected in 2008 was hailed as the most diverse and inclusive parliament on the planet. But that revolutionary zeal has waned in the recent years. There is hope the current agitation might bring back some of the lustre, and give Nepal a progressive, exemplary federalism.

Nepal and Iraq are similar sized populations. After three trillion dollars, and a million lives lost, democracy in Iraq is still iffy. In Nepal, democracy was the result of peaceful street agitations lasting over 19 days in 2006. For countries that are not yet democracies, the Nepal model might have a message.

The Maoist insurgency in India is that country’s number one security threat. If Nepal can perhaps be turned into a multi-party democracy of state funded parties, and good work can be shown in terms of education, health and income generation for the poorest of the poor, it is possible the Nepali Maoists might be the antidote that the Indian Maoists need. The Nepali Maoists might also be able to play a small role in political reforms in China. After all, until 2005 they were fighting for a one party state just like any ultra left group was expected to. The two top Nepali Maoist leaders imitate Mao’s hairstyle. To them communism hardly ended with the Cold War.

In a far fetched scenario, it is possible to imagine a political and economic union between India and Nepal. The countries of South Asia (or at least India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh) have already set a goal of a Europe style economic union within a decade. Nepal could be home to the two warring ideologies of the past century, a fusion is being attempted, and the leading Maoist ideologue, former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, still talks in terms of “developing communism for the 21st century.” The solace is he does so within the framework of multi-party democracy and human rights. He quotes Piketty as a fellow critic of the capitalist ways.

For a country so promising to struggle to politically handle its rich cultural diversity also has global overtones. Identity is a strong element in what we call the War On Terror. Identity politics seems to be a necessary accompaniment to the massive winds of globalization. As mobility increases, people seem to want to clutch to their cultural and religious identities even stronger. Most countries that are young democracies in the Global South are also dizzyingly diverse within, although it did not appear so when they were perhaps oppressed, first by colonizers and later dictators. New democracies need to learn to handle that diversity well. And if Nepal can show it can do it, that will be an example to other poor countries that might go down the democracy path. Cultural diversity, after all, is wealth, and not some kind of a problem.

Nepal also has a Muslim minority, and hence has the opportunity to show to the world, democracy works for Muslims and beautifully too. The Muslims of Nepal are not up in arms. They are out in the streets agitating.

Tibet is north to Nepal. A vibrant federalism in Nepal where its colorful diversity is celebrated by the political system and the various ethnic groups are outspoken within a democratic framework might help draw a sharp contrast to the cultural and political restraints placed upon the Tibetan people by the Chinese authorities. That is not the goal of the federalist movement in Nepal, but that might be a welcome side effect.

What happens in Nepal does not stay in Nepal.


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