11-17 September 2015 #775

Just do it

A new constitution that lays the foundation for a just, democratic and prosperous Nepal is within grasp, but it first needs confidence-building measures

Writing an inclusive, democratic constitution was supposed to be the final chapter in the country’s peace process, which has now lasted nearly as long as the conflict. In the past decade, Nepal has gone from war to peace, from a monarchy to republic, the former guerrillas have been disarmed and demobilised and some integrated into the national army to serve in UN peacekeeping.

The Maoists waged war for a new constitution that would ensure equality, social justice and  devolution of political power from Kathmandu to people who had been historically excluded from decision-making. And that is where things have been stuck: despite two elections for a Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution, negotiations on its content have been deadlocked, mainly over the issue of how many federal states there should be and what they should be called. 

Under fire for delayed earthquake relief, politicians in Kathmandu tried to redeem themselves by putting constitution-writing on a “fast track” to show voters that they were not completely feckless. On 8 June, the four of the main political forces in the governing coalition and the opposition struck a deal that they would form a national unity government after the constitution was promulgated.

However, the draft they rushed to the Assembly had major flaws: clauses treated women as second class citizens, it left loopholes to muzzle the media, and didn’t satisfy the demands for greater autonomy from the leaders of the Madhesi and other marginalised ethnicities. These groups were particularly incensed that when the number of provinces went from 8 to 6 and then 7, it left them out.

Violent protests then broke out in different parts of the country, and 35 people have been killed in the past four weeks – including eight policemen who were lynched in Kailali on 24 August by Maoists who had infiltrated the Tharu protest. Large swathes of the country have now been shut down or are under curfew for nearly a month, blocking the country’s trade lifeline with India.

The MJF-D having quit the four-party group that signed the fast-track agreement, the NC, UML and the main Maoists pushed ahead with debating the draft in the Constituent Assembly this week. The process is fraught because this hurried draft is neither inclusive nor sustainable. It may be true, as the government argues, that this is the best that can be expected after eight years of deadlocked negotiations. But the boundaries appear to be an exercise in electoral gerrymandering more than a blueprint for stability and prosperity. The aboriginal Tharu community feels particularly overlooked by the boundaries that have been drawn.

The whole premise about this constitution is all wrong: the top guns from the three main parties are trying to bulldoze the document through because they are in a hurry to form a new government. Under a backroom deal, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is supposed to step down after the constitution to make way for the UML’s K P Oli. Pushpa Kamal Dahal probably has the promise of a high-profile position. It is truly tragic that a document that has such importance for the future of Nepal is being decided on the basis of such short-term power play.

Oli figures that the current level of violence in the Tarai is containable and he can fix things once he becomes prime minister, address the demands of the plains-based and indigenous parties, resolve the crisis, and take full credit for rescuing the country from the brink. But that is a dangerous gamble. Anger is rising among the disenfranchised in the plains and among indigenous ethnicities which feel that their demands for political autonomy are being ignored by the political class in Kathmandu.

Nepalis have suffered enough from a decade of war, another decade waiting for a peace dividend that never materialised, and then this year’s devastating earthquake. The last thing we need is for ethnic and communal tensions to flare up over the constitution. A note of caution for outsiders meddling in the Tarai right now: it is not making Nepal more stable. 

The three parties must try harder to get dissidents on board before they pass the constitution all by themselves as they are planning to do by 21 September. Symbolic gestures do matter, and so do meaningful concessions. The gap between the two sides on federal boundaries is not very difficult to resolve, the Tharus can be convinced to move three Kailali constituencies to Province 5 and Province 2 can be extended eastwards.

A new constitution that lays the foundation for a just, democratic and prosperous Nepal is within grasp. But first it needs confidence-building measures for trust, and then the political will to move forward together without leaving anyone behind.

The constitution should not be a document that pushes the country into another violent multi-ethnic conflict, but one that ensures true devolution for peace and prosperity.    

Read also:

Point of no return, Anurag Acharya

Open and shut case, Editorial

Whose constitution is it anyway?, Anurag Acharya

The federalisation folly, Bihari K Shrestha

Votebank constitution, Editorial

Ground Zero in Kailali, Om Astha Rai

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