After nearly a decade of political struggle, the land-locked South Asian nation of Nepal recently passed a constitution. Nepal has adopted a new constitution aimed at bolstering its transformation to a peaceful democracy after decades of political instability and a long civil war.
Nepal’s monarchy, which ruled the country for more than 2 centuries, came to a formal end in 2008, and birthed the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. The new constitution is the final stage in a peace process that began when Maoist fighters laid down their arms in 2006 after a decade-long insurgency aimed at abolishing an autocratic monarchy and creating a more equal society.
The country, still reeling from a devastating earthquake in April that killed nearly 10,000 people, passed the new constitution with majority support, but riots and violence marred the celebrations with some groups contending that their rights had been trampled upon.
The move to create a new federal structure that will devolve power from the center has widespread support, but critics say the planned internal borders will leave some historically marginalized groups under-represented in Parliament. They include the Madhesi and Tharu ethnic minorities who mainly inhabit Nepal’s southern plains, along the border with India.
Nepal has adopted a new constitution aimed at bolstering its transformation from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, as violent protests raged against some of the terms of the charter. There has been strong opposition from some quarters, including Hindu groups who do not believe Nepal should be a secular state.
The key part of the constitution sets the country up as a secular federation of seven states, each with a legislature and chief minister. However, some ethnic and religious groups say lawmakers ignored their concerns over how state borders should be defined. They want more states, including ethnically based ones, bigger territory for larger groups and more seats for ethnic minorities in parliament and government.
The lawmakers from Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and UCPN- Maoist supported the draft constitution. The three main political parties backing the constitution have made a fresh appeal for Madhesi to join talks. There are more than 100 ethnic groups in Nepal, and some say the new constitution still limits their representation. Though members of parliament are to be chosen through a proportional representation vote to ensure that minority groups are represented, the groups say the number needs to be increased.
The constitution has failed to satisfy the Madheshis and Tharus who constitute 70 per cent of the Terai population, who regard the formation of seven federal provinces as per the Constitution as grossly unfair to them. Only eight districts in the Terai region have been given the status of a province; the remaining 14 districts are to be joined with the hill districts, with the sole purpose of converting the local people into a minority.
Many members of traditionally marginalized groups fear that the constitution will still work against them as it’s been rushed through by established parties which-including the Maoists-are dominated by high-caste, mostly male, leaders.
Some ethnic communities are unhappy at the proposed boundaries of the new provinces, although these may be subject to change. This disquiet has been especially intense in the Terai-Nepal’s long southern lowland strip bordering India, where recent years have seen tensions between lowlanders and highlanders who have migrated there over recent decades.
Neighboring India has also shown concern over the protest and violence in Nepal. India said in a statement it was concerned by the clashes near the border and called for differences to be resolved “through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation.” Although Delhi was one of the major backers of the process over the past decade, it believes the new constitution is not broad-based and is concerned that it could spur violence which could spill over into its own territory.
Many people in Nepal have long accused India of interfering in the country’s affairs, but India’s concern is genuine because whatever happens in the Terai will spill over into India. So the violence is really worrying. India shares a 1,751 km open border with Nepal through which people pass freely but which has often concerned the country’s security agencies because of its use by smugglers, human traffickers and terror suspects.
However as China has been warmer towards welcoming the Nepalese constitution, experts believe that India should also give some time as Nepal has just adopted a constitution after a long struggle and like all other constitutions of the world, this too will mature and evolve.
The impact of the ongoing Madheshi agitation in Nepal as a whole in general and in the Terai region in particular is quite severe. For more than one-and-a-half months now, life in the Terai region has been paralyzed. All the educational institutions, hospitals, government offices, industries, banks, shops, agricultural activities and transport services have been crippled. Most of the essential items including food grains, petrol and gas are in short supply. Those who depend on daily wages for their livelihood are suffering the most. Movement of people is restricted because of continuous curfew in several places and also due to the deteriorating law and order situation. Amidst all this, unscrupulous elements hostile to India could pose a security risk by taking advantage of the open border between the two countries.
However, the government and the main political parties in Nepal are least sensitive to the needs of their own people. Instead of taking any initiative to defuse the crisis, some of them have started blaming India for the troubles in Nepal. Rumors are rife that India has imposed a blockade as trucks loaded with goods are not coming from India to Nepal. In a deliberate manner, wrong information is being fed to the people of Nepal by the media that the sealing of the border by India at certain locations has caused food scarcity in Nepal. The truth, however, is that the private trucks plying on the Indian side of the border cannot afford to cross the border and come to Nepal because of the fragile law and order situation, which is due to the mishandling of the situation by the Nepalese government.
Further women’s groups and campaigners on women’s issues say the new constitution discriminates against Nepalese women in what is already a patriarchal society. Under the new constitution it will be difficult for a single mother to pass her citizenship to her child. And if a Nepali woman marries a foreign man, their children cannot become Nepali unless the man first takes Nepali citizenship; whereas if the father is Nepali, his children can also be Nepali regardless of the wife’s nationality.
It is disheartening to know that the constitution that is supposed to unite the people has resulted in disunity. To claim that ninety percent voted for the constitution is statistically right but everyone knows that the Madhesis and most of the janjathi communities are unhappy with the new constitution.
For all its weaknesses, though, the Constitution has progressive elements that would do all of South Asia proud, from institutionalizing the republic and secularism, to confirming social and economic rights as fundamental, to rejecting the death penalty. The needs of marginalized communities, including the Dalits, the disabled and those from the LGBT community, are addressed. There is a genuine attempt to safeguard the rights of women, though it is not seen to be enough.
Perhaps the most welcome aspect is that amendments can be adopted with relative ease over the next two years and four months, as the Constituent Assembly enjoys a kind of afterlife as a Parliament with the same party-based configuration. Everything except sovereignty and national integrity are open to amendment.
If the government and the main political parties are really serious about defusing the present crisis, they should accept it as a political problem and take steps to ensure that Nepalese people of all ethnicities, including the Madheshis and the Tharus, develop a sense of ownership in the new Constitution. For this, it is urgently required to initiate a dialogue with the aggrieved Madeshi and Tharu political leaders and address some of their demands. A forward looking Constitution must take adequate care to accommodate rather than leave out the genuine aspirations of a substantial cross-section of people.
Constructive efforts from every level of society, from the Constituent Assembly down to community members in the remotest villages, are essential for the numerous dialogues yet to come, and to ensure a peaceful promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution, its local ownership, and peaceful implementation. The path will not be easy but there is always light at the end of the tunnel.