Millennium Post

Constitutional conundrum

Last week Nepal promulgated its new Constitution, amid both fanfare and violence. The journey Nepal has undertaken since the abolition of its monarchy in 2008 witnessed a combination of both successes and failures. Political commentators from across the board have spoken of how the creation of a Constitution was the culmination of painstaking efforts by various political outfits that represent a plethora of political interests and ethnic groups. The purported aim of such a consultative process was frame a constitutional charter, which would be inclusive of major interests. 

To an extent, the document is a reflection of that consultative process. Despite being a Hindu-majority nation, the Constitution makers were steadfast in their belief that Nepal should be a secular, democratic and federal republic. On the question of federalism, Nepal had no choice but to abide by the principle due to the plethora of different languages, ethnic and religious groups spread across the country. Other impressive elements of the Constitution includes the rejection of capital punishment, confirmation of basic social and economic rights to not only the general populace but also to marginalised communities, including the disabled, sexual minorities and Dalits. Despite such positive features, there are fundamental aspects that the Constitution fails to address, given its purported “inclusive” nature.  

It is rather clear that the current Constitution has been a cause of much civil strife in the nation. More than fifty people have been killed thus far in police firing and ethnic clashes. The primary source of conflict has arisen from Madhesis and Tharus inhabiting the Terai plains in Nepal, a region that is contiguous to India. The Madhesis constitute a significant chunk of the <g data-gr-id="41">Neplaese</g> population. Moreover, its people share close ethnic ties with Bihar. Certain leaders of the Madhesi community allege that Nepal’s lawmakers backtracked on its promise to create a “fully autonomous” federal state in the plains. The Constitution has sought to merge the plain areas with provinces that will reportedly include large tracts of the hills. Such a formulation, according to the Madhesis, will leave them under the thumb of the hill population. 

Besides fears of violence in the Terai plains spilling over into India, New Delhi is confronted by other <g data-gr-id="42">geo-strategic</g> challenges posed by China. According to certain strategic experts, certain segments of the Communist leadership in Nepal have furthered Beijing’s agenda in the promulgation of the Constitution, which largely keeps the Madhesis politically under-represented. These experts go <g data-gr-id="43">onto</g> suggest that Beijing deems the Madhesis to be “stooges” of the Indian establishment. Such claims, however, are contested by the fact that out of 116 seats occupied by representatives from the Terai-Madhes plains in the Constituent Assembly, 105 voted for the Constitution, while 11 boycotted it. 

Nonetheless, it is true that China’s growing influence in the region has made India rather nervous. What is even more worrisome for the Indian government is that Nepal’s political leadership has completely ignored New Delhi’s policy demands during the formulation of its Constitution. As a result, New Delhi has taken the unusual step of asking Nepal’s political leadership to make seven specific changes to its Constitution. However, India’s demands have been met with a severe backlash from certain sections of the Nepalese media. Notwithstanding good suggestions, it is clear that New Delhi has failed to enhance its sphere of influence in Nepal. That said there are certain suggestions that Nepal’s lawmakers must address. 

The Constitution clearly discriminates against Nepali women, in what is already a patriarchal society. Nepalese women are barred from conferring citizenship to their children independently of men. Certain statutes also debar such children from holding political office. New Delhi has asked for the amendment of these statutes, besides those pertaining to the Terai plains. Kathmandu, however, seems unmoved for the time being.

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