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New Constitution, problems galore

New Constitution, problems galore
Framing a democratic Constitution for Nepal has been a difficult and intractable job since the monarchy was abolished in 2008. Several draft constitutions were presented to the Constituent Assembly (CA). However,  each effort was aborted because the members of the CA, representing different political interests and ethnic groups, could not come to an agreement. Such an agreement would have paved a way for the adoption of an inclusive constitutional charter.

Ultimately, last week Nepal President Ram Baran Yadav announced the promulgation of the new Constitution that has several laudable features. The first is that despite being an overwhelmingly Hindu-majority country, the Constitution makers wisely decided to make their country a secular, democratic, and a federal republic. Thankfully, the political establishment ignored blandishments from several quarters in India to make Nepal a Hindu Rashtra. 

Federalism is a “must” for Nepal, which has people speaking over a hundred different tongues. Then there are differences in their ethnic identities. The people are divided on many counts – the high versus low caste, Nepali-speaking versus those speaking “indigenous” languages, people of hill-ethnic origin and plains-ethnic origin. The high-caste community from the hills is the supremely dominant group. The others communities resent this fact. Reconciling so many conflicting interests was no easy job.

Violence broke out even before the Constitution was adopted and continues even after its adoption. Nearly fifty people have so far been killed in group clashes or police firing. India anticipated the consequences of forcing a Constitution down the throats of the people and advised lawmakers not to hurry in passing the document. But they chose to ignore the advice. In fact, India’s advice was taken as “interference” in Nepal’s internal affairs.

Inevitably, clashes broke out. The main conflict is with the Madhesis and Tharus inhabiting the plains of Nepal known as the Terai region that is contiguous to India. They are people of Indian origin long settled in Nepal. The Madhesis constitute nearly 22 <g data-gr-id="77">per cent</g> of Nepal’s population and they cannot be ignored in any Constitutional or electoral exercise. Their main grievance is that the commitment the Nepal Government gave them in 2008 has been blatantly violated. They allege that the agreement had committed the Government to create “fully autonomous” federal states in the plains.

But that has not happened. The Constitution seeks to merge the Madhesi (and the Tharu) areas with provinces that will include large tracts of the hills and will have a hill-majority population. The Terai people of the plains will be “dominated” by the people from the hills. They strongly feel this will go against their interests. Clubbing the plains and the hills together is reneging on the solemn assurance that was given them way back in 2008, they say.

Shivaji Yadav, leader of a Madhesi party called Federal Socialist Forum, has alleged that the “big parties have tried to crush the minority groups” and “pushed the nation into chaos”. In his opinion, the Constitution that has been rushed through will entrench the position of the “privileged old guard politicians”, not that of the people. He is not alone. Bhoj Raj Pokhrel, a former Election Commissioner, has said that the Constitution has given rise to conflicts. The Government, according to him, must immediately address the grievances of those who are opposing it because “the country’s future depends on it.”

But the Terai people apart, there are other conflicts also. The Constitution that has been adopted has created seven provinces but neither their names nor their boundaries have been fixed. This task has been left to the individual provincial Assemblies and a boundary commission that will be set up. Civil society in Nepal has become deeply polarised on the question whether the provinces would be ethnically delineated.

The Nepal Maoists are among those that have welcomed the new Constitution. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, has said that the adoption of the Constitution is a “victory of the dreams of thousands of martyred and disappeared fighters.” The Maoists have reasons to be happy. They had been consistently fighting for a Constitution that will be both secular and federal.They have succeeded.

But women’s bodies think the Constitution discriminates against Nepali women in what is already a rigidly patriarchal society. Now it will be difficult for a single mother to pass her citizenship on to her child. Similarly, children born of a Nepali mother and a non-Nepali father will be debarred from inheriting Nepali citizenship. These and many more problems remain to be resolved. Nepal needs an “inclusive” Constitution.

New Delhi proposes Kathmandu should implement “seven amendments” to include the Madhesis and Janjatis. These “amendments” have been conveyed to Nepal’s leadership by the Indian government through official channels, i.e., through Ranjit Rae, India’s Ambassador to Nepal, who is in New Delhi for consultations. These amendments are at the heart of the protests and violence in Nepal, which have left over 40 dead.

Now that a Constitution has been passed and promulgated, it will put to the test the wisdom, maturity, farsightedness, and flexibility of the current Nepali leadership formed by leaders of different political parties. The task will not be easy.

(The views expressed are personal)
Barun Das Gupta

Barun Das Gupta

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