Nepal Needs A Constitution

Nepal Needs A Constitution
by Paramendra Bhagat

Major Discontent With The Proposed Draft Constitution

The ever gathering momentum of street protests in Nepal that have seen one dead per day on average, now in its fourth week, shows no signs of abetting, even as the people in power in Kathmandu insist on seeking a security solution to what is essentially a political problem. It is a tussle between the Khas (Bahuns and Chhetris) who are proposing a seven state federalism, cleverly gerrymandered so as to keep them as the largest group in six of them while only being one third of the population, and the Madhesis and Janajatis (indigenous people) who feel shortchanged as federalism and inclusion clauses are being diluted beyond recognition.

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 went through 30 years of absolute monarchy, a brief exercise of multi party democracy, and a decade long civil war, as well a spectacular April 2006 revolution that set the country on its current course, 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 (indigenous people) 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 progressive 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.

The April 2006 revolution gave the country its interim constitution, which is in effect today, but the idea was to give the country a permanent constitution through a duly elected constituent assembly. The first assembly was expected to get the job done within two years, but failed to get it done even in four, the thorny issue being federalism. Agreeing on state boundaries proved to be a tough task, as it is today. But the understanding had been that all other issues were settled. In their post-earthquake mad dash to take the constituent assembly on a fast track to finishing work on the constitution, when the ruling Bahuns finally put forward their proposed draft, it became clear very soon that most of the key achievements of the past decade had been gutted, and that has been the cause of the recent dissatisfaction, overflowing out onto the streets. There is also lingering bitterness that the state apparatus, especially the Nepal Army, helped the anti-federalists win the last election. There are allegations of major electoral fraud.

34 Dead, Hundreds Injured, And Counting

The protests have seen some unexpected violent turns recently, leaving 34 dead, hundreds injured, and counting, from east to west, but most notably in Kailali, Birgunj and Jaleshwar.

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, Jaffna being the Tamil part of Sri Lanka which saw major military action and widespread human rights abuses a few years ago. 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 papers in a country where you can’t do much without that piece of paper. Cross-border marriages are very common, but 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 ethnic group of 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 by security forces, the lead suspects were tortured in custody. Some Tharu women were raped and killed by vigilantes. 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 by the Armed Police, five protesters who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, 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.

What the protesters want is 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. In the final proposed draft of the constitution, most of the achievements have been eviscerated. 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 February 2008 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.

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.

It is telling of the dysfunction at the highest levels that the four billion dollars pledged by donors have remained untouched after three months even as people, mostly Tamangs, Newars and Gurungs, all marginalized groups, stay in dire need of food and shelter in the affected areas after the devastating earthquake earlier in the year. Donors have threatened to walk away, or choose to instead work through non governmental agencies.

Final Lap And Global Implications

It is possible that the Madhesis and Janajatis in the three large parties run by Bahun bosses might rebel and come together and in the process end up meeting the demands of the street protests. It has taken massive street agitation and a large scale shutdown 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.

What happens in Nepal does not stay in Nepal: there are larger implications. If Nepal can be seen successfully bringing armed Maoists, the number one ultra left group on the planet since the Cold War ended, into the mainstream, if democracy can be brought through street agitation, as has happened in Nepal, and if vibrant federalism can sit right next to Tibet, the churn in Nepal is hardly a localized affair. Of the three, federalism seems to be the trickiest.


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