31 July - 6 Aug 2015 #769

Vox populism

The people do not want the new constitution to make anyone stateless or second-class citizens, and they want a better quality of life.

Even skeptics who had described the government’s public consultation on the draft constitution as a sham had to reluctantly admit that it went quite well. The Madhesi parties and the Hindu royalist Rashtriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N) rejected both the draft and the feedback exercise, and the breakway UCPN-M even forcibly shut down the country by indulging in arson to terrorise the people. However, the enthusiasm with which Nepalis from all walks of life took part, rain or shine, in the process proved the public’s acceptance of this part of constitution writing.

Suggestions range from the absurd to the sublime. But there is quite a chunk in the middle that is truly the voice of the people, and raises their concerns about development, decentralisation, citizenship, equality. Their message is clear: the draft is flawed, needs to be improved and the disgruntled Madhesi parties’ participation in the process is necessary. Now, the four main political parties behind the 16-point deal (which was actually an excuse for regime change post-earthquake) need to grasp this message and turn it into an opportunity to engage the parties who did not sign in on the 16-point agreement.  

People from across the country have expressed their concerns mainly over demarcation of federal provinces, citizenship provisions, secularism, inclusion and form of governance.

No surprise, these were the very issues that had stalled the draft for six long years. Most of the worries are genuine. For example, a dubious sentence that ‘only those born in Nepal will get citizenship by descent’ has raised fears of statelessness among those Nepalis who live near the border and go to Indian hospitals to deliver babies. The provision that forces Nepali women to prove that their husbands are Nepali has also enraged many.

People have also reminded the political parties that they had pledged federalism with demarcation before the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, and promulgating the new constitution without names and boundaries of federal provinces will be violation of a Supreme Court (SC) order.

So, the parties now need to agree on a fresh deal to name and demarcate federal provinces before passing the new constitution. That will not just be honouring the SC order but also ensuring that the disgruntled Madhesi and Janjatis are not left out. given that this was the sticking point for eight long years, a compromise will leave most (if not all) dissatisfied.

Meanwhile, the political parties also need to remind people that certain provisions, even though that were challenged during the feedback collection campaign, cannot be retracted. Secularism is one of these irreversible provisions. All parties that are now steering the constitution writing process had vowed to embrace federalism during the CA elections. Their electoral triumph was also an endorsement of secularism. Just because some parties and leaders have now been able to rally people for a Hindu state, the agenda of secularism cannot just be abandoned.

The real problem here is of semantics. A lot was lost in translating 'secularism' as 'dharma niripekchyata' which in the mind of many devout Nepalis is an imported term that reeks of atheism and has the conotation of sanctioning coversion. A more neutral, but equally effective formulation, would be 'freedom of religion'.

Similarly, the fact that the NC is now the largest party in the CA is also an endorsement of its agenda, including that of the Westminster model of governance. While negotiating on a constitution deal, the UML, UCPN (M) and MJF (D) also agreed on the NC’s proposal. The current clamour for a directly elected Prime Minister is probably a result of the parties’ failure to convince people that the Westminster model is not the reason for chronic instability, and that it is an idea they themselves endorsed by voting for the NC in 2013.

Feedback is just feedback, as CA Chair Subhas Nembang likes to say, it is not the people’s verdict. People gave their verdict when they voted in 2013. It will be impractical to include all public feedback in the new constitution. But the parties must grasp the gist. And the gist is: Nepalis do not want the new constitution to make any one of them stateless or second-class citizens, and they want to ensure governance that improves their quality of life.

Cartoon: Diwakar Chettri

Read also:

Faith in the future, Om Astha Rai

Federalism, republicanism and secularism, Anurag Acharya

The shameless, Foreign Hand

Let’s move on, Damakant Jayshi

Constitution as if the people mattered, Anurag Acharya

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