28 Aug - 3 Sep 2015 #773

Votebank constitution

Never leave maps in the hands of politicians. Never mix politics with boundaries

Parts of this editorial were written before the Kailali killings on 24 August and indicate how the anger was boiling over in the western Tarai, how the constitution carvers in Kathmandu seemed to be insensitive or didn’t care about the demands of the Tharu people for recognition, and how the radical breakaway Maoists were spoiling for a fight. All these factors led to the deadly confluence of events in Tikapur that left nine dead, including a senior police officer and a two-year-old child. Far from being extinguished, the violence threatens to spread elsewhere in the plains and has taken on ominous ethnic tones.

We have updated the editorial, with the story so far: the four main political parties made up of the ruling NC and UML with the opposition UCPN(Maoists) and MJF(D)signed an agreement on 8 June to speed up the constitution draft with a provision for eight provinces, but leave the demarcation of provincial boundaries to a future Federal Commission and their names to state legislatures.

After protests erupted, the parties said “oops” and went back to the drawing board earlier this month, demarcating boundaries not for eight but six provinces. How that number was picked out of a hat, we don’t know. But it set off a maelstrom of protests by various groups which felt left out.

The people of the Province #6 in the west were for and against six and went on a weeklong arson spree in mid-August. The folks in Baglung and Rukum found their districts cut cleanly in half and were unhappy. The Tharus wanted their own homeland in the western Tarai and were on warpath. And the Madhesis were suddenly not satisfied with just the plains in Province #2 and also wanted a piece of the Pahad.

So the constitution framers went back to the maps and decided on seven provinces by dividing Province #6 into two: the trans-Karnali and the Mid-West. This put out the flames in Surkhet and Jumla, but angered the Tharus who felt their demands had been ignored by politicians from the west in the NC and UML.

It got serious enough for the Tharu chief of the MJF(D), [Bijay Gachhadar, to disassociate himself from the four-party grouping](Bijay Gachhadar, to disassociate himself from the four-party grouping) and join other Madhesi and Janajati parties at the barricades. There is now quite a lot of evidence pointing at the involvement of ex-combatants from the Chand and Baidya factions of the Maoists, many of them ethnic Tharus themselves, in planning the killings in Kailali this week. That plan rested on exploiting Tharu anger at being left out again.

Even before the Tikapur lynching, the Tharuhat Struggle Committee and Madhesi activists had shut down Nepal’s plains for a week or more, essentially blockading the hill and mountains. In Kailali, serious ethnic tensions were building up between the Tharus and NC-UML activists belonging to those supporting an ‘undivided’ far-west.

So, as the number of proposed provinces goes from the original 14 to 8 to 6 then 7, the number of parties in the constitution alliance goes from 4 to 3 and parties are leaving the Constituent Assembly. The NC-UML-UCPN(M) say they are determined to take the process forward with an amendment bill, clause-by-clause debate and voting so that the constitution will be ready. But the legitimacy of such a constitution will be questioned if so many stakeholders are out of it.

While we can go along with the argument that there is no compromise that will satisfy everyone, the process so far has lacked transparency, appears arbitrary and reeks of vote bank politics of the main protagonists: Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC, KP Oli of the UML, Bijay Gachhadar of the MJF(D) and Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists. It is also driven by the impatience of all these gentlemen to get to power in the national unity government after the constitution is passed.

Among the parties that have most reason to be aggrieved are the indigenous Tharus who have found themselves disenfranchised by the process. Even when the demands of the Karnali was heard by the Big Three in Kathmandu last week, they failed to meet the Tharu demand for greater autonomy in the western Tarai. This has brought the Tharus and Madhesis, who had no love lost for each other, together to find common cause. The government has to act urgently, and leaders including Gachhadar need to try to put out this fire instead of fanning it.

Those behaving the most irresponsibly are the Madhesi parties which lost in the 2013 elections and have been trying to whip up the Tarai to drum up support. They have pledged Rs 5 million to anyone who is killed in future street protests. Three Madhesi leaders had visited Kailali a week before the violence, making irresponsible and incendiary remarks exhorting the Tharus to take up axes and knives and chase the hill people out of the Tarai.

Meanwhile, Kathmandu lives in a bubble. Rulers here tend not to notice, or underestimate the anger outside. The Madhesi people may be disillusioned with their leaders, but there is simmering distrust over Pahadi politicians in Kathmandu not treating them with enough respect. But they are much angrier about the state’s neglect of their region, the poorest in terms of Human Development.

The lesson from all this is never to leave maps in the hands of politicians. Never mix politics with boundaries. Demarcation is a technical subject with implications for viability that is best left to experts. Politicians just mess it up with their short-term time horizons. For immediate firefighting, top leaders from all parties and groups must find a way that doesn’t involve more bloodshed.

Read also

Whose constitution is it anyway?, Anurag Acharya

Ground zero in Kailali, Om Astha Rai

Twist in the tale, Om Astha Rai