Nepali Times
Peace pretence


After a drawn-out debate heavily skewed in favour of why Nepalis didn't need a constitutional assembly, the Maoists last week began presenting their case in the form of a discursive discourse immediately followed by a deadly trail of devastation.

"[G]overnments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed-whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

This is not a legalistic translation of Maoist ideologue Dr Baburam Bhattarai's latest exegesis on why Nepalis need a genuine constitution drafted by their true representatives. It's a quote from the Declaration of Independence the Americans adopted in 1776. At that time Nepal had just emerged as a unified country, and stood on the threshold of its first war with Tibet.

If the rhetoric of Nepali Maoists resonates with the conviction of the Continental Congress, it is because those white men assembled in Philadelphia were also revolutionaries who inspired the creation of the world's first written constitution, unless you count Cromwell's 1653 Instrument of Government as one.

With almost every Nepali political party working within the multiparty system evidently in favour of amending the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990, it was believed the Maoists (or at least the top leadership) would inevitably be drawn into the political mainstream once they were given lucrative ministerial portfolios in an elected government.

But Comrade Prachanda's bombshell last week convulsed a nation that was still digesting Dr Bhattarai's argument in a newspaper article that morning why Nepalis couldn't expect to move ahead as long as the "we" in the constitution's preamble did not refer to the people. In less than 50 hours, it became clear what the Maoists actually meant when they decided to withhold their demand on declaring Nepal a republic during the third round of peace talks. Government negotiators simply failed to grasp the substance of Maoist semantics, and were as startled as anyone else by the scale of the violence the rebels unleashed to shatter the four-month-old truce.

The roots of the current crisis lie in the monumental misjudgement the agents of the 1990 change made by enshrining in the preamble the people's movement as the inspiration for the constitution. This had the virulent effect of sanctioning violence as the catalyst for political change. There was another serious flaw: a hastily appointed interim cabinet exercising the legislative powers of a dissolved unicameral partyless chamber endorsed a text prepared by a panel of judge/politicians/lawyers in which one of the king's nominees was too ill to participate. The first session of the parliament elected in 1991 squandered a major opportunity to plug the loophole by failing to endorse the new basic law.

Over the years, leaders of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, the Nepal Sadbhavana Party and other political groups could afford to wear that don't-blame-us smirk every time the constitution was castigated because they weren't on the drafting panel. Many of those who make up today's Maoist leadership feel they have a greater claim to condemning the constitution today because they had already rejected it in 1990. (Don't even try contemplating a Maoist-RPP-Sadbhavana coalition government under these circumstances.) As a result, the Nepali Congress, the UML and all the other parties were left voicing platitudes on the irrelevance of a constitutional assembly while the Maoists were providing specifics on how this constitution blocked their vision for Nepal.

The key argument with which the sansadbadis hoped to score over the Maobadis in the court of public opinion-that a constitutional assembly might help the monarchy get back the powers it lost in 1990-was contradicted from the outset by their assertion the palace had witnessed an erosion of authority and influence after the tragedy of 1 June, 2001. Amid the blood and tears that flowed last week, this recapitulation of contemporary political history may have been reduced to little more than academic relevance.

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed," the American revolutionaries said. The Maoists leadership would probably tell you that their favourite sentence in the Jeffersonian affirmation is the one that comes next: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is [the people's] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

Whether Nepalis have reached the point where they should be killing each other in the quest for a more inclusive alternative to multiparty democracy will be discussed more energetically in the days ahead. The debate over whether the country requires a constitutional assembly will refuse to go away with greater stubbornness. Exercising my personal share of popular sovereignty, I submit my case against such an assembly: why waste time and money on electing the same sample of people who have barely shown a capacity to follow the constitution, let alone draft a new one? Since a panel of experts with perceptible political allegiances would be doing the writing anyway, why force ourselves into the quagmire of having to draft a new constitution every time there is a demonstrable shift in the balance of power?

After the latest carnage, the political discourse will be defined by an additional element: the profound sense of betrayal felt by those who wanted to give the peace process a chance and thought they had almost succeeded.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)