Diplomatic Enclave: Charter of consensus

Nepal’s leaders should come up with a constitution that is acceptable to everyone

Nepal’s constitution drafting process was in its last stages this Monday when long simmering differences on the demarcation of provinces flared into violent protests that resulted in the death of eight persons, including six policemen. Drawing provincial boundaries are often highly emotional and polarising issues, and as long years of experience have shown in India, they can arouse passions over ethnic, linguistic and physical demarcations.

After the devastation of the earthquake in April this year, the leaders of the main political parties in Nepal were galvanised into making serious efforts to come to an agreement on a draft constitution. The four main political parties, the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninists), the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) and the Madhesi Janaadhikar Front (Democratic), agreed to a parliamentary system with a combined first past the post and proportional representation electoral system with eight provinces. The contours of the provinces were to be decided later by a federal commission.

However, the Supreme Court directed all constitutional issues including demarcation of provinces be completed before adopting the new constitution.

The government then conducted public hearing around the country to obtain the views of the people. After the hearings, the four parties agreed on a six-province model, but there were several protests against the formula.

Following the protests, the three larger parties decided to replace it with a seven-province model. But the seven-province model upset the only Madhesi party that had agreed to the agreement on the draft constitution. The MJF(D) quit the four-party alliance as the Tharus strongly resented the bifurcation of the western region to create an additional province.

The provinces run on a north-south longitude that incorporates the hills and the plains in single units — map drawing that has upset the hill-dwelling janajatis as well as the Madhesi in the east and the Tharus of the western plains.

The three main political parties are headed by the traditionally dominant hill castes, and the minorities and backward communities believe their interests were sidelined. The Madhesi and the Tharus have been demanding separate states corresponding to their areas of domicile. Madhesi are the people of Nepal’s Terai (plains) region that share close kinship ties with people across the border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Tharus constitute the fourth largest community in Nepal’s diverse society.

In the initial days after the peace accord of 2006 that brought the insurgent Maoists into the political mainstream, it was the Madhesi who had demanded a federal state and separate provinces for the densely populated Madhesi region and the Tharu habitation. Madhesi had long felt discriminated in Nepali society with pending language and citizenship issues.

The Madhesi movement in early 2007 was often violent, cutting off essential supplies to Kathmandu by blocking off the main highway from the Indian border. The movement ended with a promise of a Madhesi province by then prime minister GP Koirala. Demands by other ethnic groups came up at other times even as Nepali leaders gave vague assurances or supported their own ethnic group demands.

The other issue that is a part of the public discourse is the question of a secular constitution. Several Nepali commentators have pointed out that the secularism concept was strongly advocated by donor countries, especially European countries and the United States. But secularism that includes the provision of conversion is opposed by many Nepalis. A recent survey by Himalmedia showed that about 25 per cent of those polled wanted secularism as a defining principle in the new constitution while nearly half the respondents were in favour of Nepal as a hindu state.

The sudden violence shocked the country and prime minister Narendra Modi rang up his Nepali counterpart, Sushil Koirala, to condole the loss of lives. Modi advised Nepali leaders to strive for consensus. It was the same advice that he had given in Kathmandu during his visit to Nepal last year. A constitution is the most important document that enshrines the rights of the people and should be prepared with the widest possible consultation, he had said. When Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba visited Delhi in the past weeks, they received the same advice.

Turmoil in Nepal invariably raises an Indian conspiracy theory. The Indian embassy statement in Kathmandu denied allegations made by home minister and deputy prime minister Bamdev Gautam that a large number of intruders had entered Nepal from the south. The statement expressed concern at “unsubstantiated statements” that could cause misunderstandings between the two countries.

Ignoring legitimate demands will only add fuel to the resentment of minority groups. Instead of ad hoc chopping and changing that raises suspicion, Nepal’s leaders need to listen to the smaller political parties and the public to formulate a constitution that is accepted by the majority of the country’s population.

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