18-24 September 2015 #776

Making the best of it

The 1992 constitution was supposed to be ‘the best in the world’, this one is probably ‘the best we can do’

Nearly ten years after the end of the conflict, two elections to an Assembly to write a new constitution later, and after a month of violence that has threatened to tear apart the ethnic fabric of this country, we are finally on the cusp of passing a new constitution.

Barring a last-minute hitch, the Constituent Assembly is set to promulgate the new constitution in the presence of the President of the Republic on Sunday, 20 September. The journey has been a roller-coaster: rising to the euphoria and hope of the ceasefire to despair at the violence and prolonged deadlock.

Finally, the three main parties have cobbled together a document that they say is the best compromise that could be agreed upon in the present scenario. A fourth member of the alliance that worked on this ‘fast-track’ post-earthquake project, the MJF(D) led by Bijaya Gachhadar, is not fully back on board. Then, the parties that claim to represent Madhesi and Janajati interests have boycotted this latest move to push through the constitution, often leading to violence.

The document is controversial, to say the least. The three main parties, desperate to prove to voters that they have fulfilled their mandate to write a new constitution and in a hurry to form a joint government, have done a rush job.

Especially on the sensitive issue of federal demarcations, they have tried to bulldoze a formula that serves their own immediate political interests rather than have an inclusive, sustainable solution that can bring stability to the country. The seemingly arbitrary boundaries of the six province model were engineered by the Big Three for their own electoral benefits. When violent protests broke out in the Karnali in early-August, those were addressed but not the demands of the Tarai.

In the past month we have seen an eruption of a level of brutality not witnessed since the war. Indeed, many of the lynchings and murders seem to have been perpetrated by ex-combatants. The only difference was that while the conflict was a class revolution, this had a dangerous ethnic edge to it. Played out with graphic images on social media, the violence has disturbed communal harmony and deepened the polarisation between the hill and plains.

The constitution that is going to be passed on Sunday will meet many of the demands that came out of the 2006 Democracy Movement and the Madhes Movement after that.

Federalism has been accepted, although the demarcation and names of future provinces have proved too hot to handle for now, and have been left to a commission. There is an attempt to make Nepali politics more inclusive, just and focused on the welfare of the underprivileged and excluded. The citizenship issue has still not been satisfactorily addressed, and various groups are not happy with the proportional representation quota in future elections.

The document is flawed, but not fatally so. It is a text that is flexible enough to be improved and amended, as most constitutions are supposed to be. The important thing is to keep the channels of communication open with the groups that have opted to stay out of the process. Much of the damage was done by the insensitivity of the Kathmandu establishment to the need for recognition, representation and respect on the part of the Tarai community.

The Madhesi people may be disenchanted with their leadership, but there is genuine public anger about the way Kathmandu has historically treated people from the plains, and they don’t see that having changed much. This manifests itself in the everyday behaviour of bureaucrats and security forces, or in the structural discrimination through citizenship rules, and lack of local autonomy.

After the violence erupted last month, not a single national level leader bothered to make even a token photo-op trip to the Tarai. They did not seem to comprehend that the region is not just five Madhesi leaders, it includes nearly half the country’s population (many of them not even Madhesis) who have been reeling under a crippling strike and violence for a month now.

The open border and the links between the Tarai districts and India make New Delhi a player that cannot be ignored in this crisis. In fact, India’s good offices are going to be essential in returning the region to normalcy in the coming months. The statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, while welcoming the finalisation of the constitution on Wednesday, does warn that India is ‘duty-bound’ to 'stand by' Nepal in times of natural and political adversity in Nepal.

There has to be an independent inquiry into the horrific violence in the past month perpetrated by the agitators using human shields to provoke police backlash. The security forces often over-reacted using excessive and needless violence, alienating Madhesis further.

There is no point getting into a blame game about who started it first, and why. That will lead us nowhere. It is now time to de-escalate, heal the communal wounds and address through the new constitution some of the grievances that were at the root of these protests.

Read also

A constitution, like it or not, , Bidushi Dhungel

Constitution editorials

Masochism in the Madhes, Jivesh Jha

Point of no return, Anurag Acharya

There is a draft, Editorial

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