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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 41

Constituent Assembly Elections in Nepal

Friday 5 October 2007, by Padmaja Murthy



Jana Andolan-II of April 2006 unleashed three important developments in Nepal: first, the clipping of the powers and privileges of the monarchy drastically and declaring Nepal a secular country; second, the successful process of bringing the Maoists into the political mainstream; and third and the most unexpected, the assertion of their rights by the marginalised sections for an inclusive society. Seen in the context of the evolution of the Nepali polity, this assertion will ensure that the changes sought to be made for their upliftment through the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections will be real as the Marginalised—Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits—will now participate as an awakened people.

The core aim of the CA elections is to draft a new Constitution which would undo the concentration of power—political, social, economic—in a few hands and make the society inclusive and democratic in the widest sense. This process will now take place in the background of the marginalised groups being extremely politicised and aware of what the whole process means. They have also become conscious of their organised power. The marginalised are confident that they can influence the government and the first amendment made after the agitations in the Terai began is a clear pointer of such a development.

This was not the case during Jana Andolan-I of 1990. The democracy that followed, made no change to their lot. The Maoist insurgency did serve their cause by highlighting their grievances and stressing on the CA elections. However, some of these groups are having differences with the Maoists. The marginalised need to be accommodative and flexible. Their interests and welfare cannot now be overlooked by whoever comes to power for their organised power had been in full display during the Terai agitation. This is no small achievement. It will change the way policies are formulated and implemented. Thus, the welfare of the marginalised—Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits—has now come to occupy a significant place in the political agenda of Nepal.

This paper examines the manner in which the marginalised groups, which had only made their presence felt during Jana Andolan-I, in 1990 are post-Jana Andolan-II asserting their way into the political mainstream. While others have acted as a catalyst, most notably this changed situation has come about from the awakening within these groups.

Jana Andolan-I, CA Elections and the Marginalised Groups

FOLLOWING the people’s movement of April 1990— Jana Andolan-I—Nepal witnessed the transition from a partyless panchayat system to a multiparty democracy with constitutional monarchy where sovereignty was vested with the people. The new Constitution enshrining these principles, promulgated on November 9, 1990, however, had its numerous dissenters. This Constitution was not written by an elected Constituent Assembly. The draft was prepared by a Constitution Recommendation Commission (CRC) after holding consultations with various parties and different sections of society. The demands put forward by various groups to the CRC clearly bring out the fact that the ethnic groups realised the importance of the Constitution in institutionalising their rights. Many of these groups felt that no one will have any cause for complaint if an elected Constituent Assembly is formed to frame a new Constitution.

Some of the demands made to the CRC were:

• That suppressed classes be represented in the Constitution Commission.

• The Nepal Goodwill Party put forward the demands of the people of the Terai region with regard to their language. The party stated that the people of Terai had been neglected from the political point of view and many had been denied citizenship.

• The Mongol National Organisation demanded that Nepal be declared a secular state and that powers be restored to the Limbus. It also demanded equality for all languages.

• The Nepal National People’s Liberation Front submitted a 21-point memorandum to the CRC. It included that the new Constitution should provide for local autonomy, with provisions for full democracy and freedom from exploitation in all forms; that the Central Government should be responsible for only foreign relations, nation-level plans , industry, security and foreign policy. The executive and legislative bodies, at both the district and central levels, should provide for development of all local ethnic communities and their languages, culture and traditions.

• The All Nepal Women’s Association spelt out the need for reservation of women and proper representation of women in all constitutional bodies.

A very interesting and significant observation was made by the CRC Chairman. He said that the suggestions put forward to the Commission dealt primarily with the questions of religion, language, and community and not the institutionalisation of democracy on which very few representations had been made. He warned that it would be a tragedy if the country was divided on the issue of language, religion and community. However, this also reflects the discontent within the people and their aspirations. The focus of political movements had always primarily been on establishing democracy. The multi-ethnicity of Nepal and the grievances of these marginalised groups was never on the political agenda.

Upon promulgation of the 1990 Constitution, dissenting notes were expressed by ethnic and other organisations. The Nepal Rashtriya Janajati Party decided not to accept the new Constitution but launch an armed movement as the Constitution had recognised Nepal as a Hindu state and the interim government had ignored that the country be divided into 12 provinces and also neglected the ethnic communities. The Mongol National Organisation held demonstrations saying that they were not Hindus and was determined to establish a Mongol State in Nepal. They opined that they would boycott the elections if the new Constitution did not protect the interests of the Mongols. The National People’s Liberation Front described the Constitution as vague, undemocratic and revivalist. The Nepal Rashtriya Dalit Jana Vikas Parishd pointed out that the new Constitution contained no provisions to promote the interests of the depressed class people, who constituted 20 per cent of the population of Nepal. It demanded the formation of a Constitutional Commission consisting of representatives of depressed communities to protect their rights and solve their problems. The Nepal Goodwill Party declared that by rejecting the demands for a Constituent Assembly, the interim government had undermined the efforts to maintain a balance among different classes, ethnic groups and communal forces in the country. Further, that the Constitution had failed to reflect the aspirations of half of the population of ethnic groups in the hills and no attention had been paid to their demand for a federal state. The Nepal Jana Jatiya Mahasangh (Nepal Ethnic Groups Confederation), a central organisation representing fifteen ethnic organisations, criticised the new Constitution for having granted special recognition to one religion (Hindu), one language (Nepali) and demanded that Nepal be declared a secular state. The Utpidit Jatiya Utthan Manch (Oppressed People’s Upliftment Front) regretted that their demands had been ignored.

The 1990 Constitution and the democratic governments that followed, did not change in any major way the position of the marginalised— politically, economically or socially. In 1991, 37 per cent of the Nepali Congress candidates and 48 per cent of those of the CPN-UML were Bahuns and another 22 per cent and 16 per cent respectively were Chetris, even though these groups have only a share of 13 per cent and 16 per cent respectively in the population of the country according to the Census of 1991. In the 1999 elections, almost 40 per cent of the MPs selected were Bahuns. The rest were dominated by Chetris or some elitist Newar castes. Thus the ethnic groups were clearly underrepresented compared to their over 40 per cent share in the total population.

The year 1996 marked the beginning of a period of instability and conflict. The Maoist insurgency began in three-four mid-western districts but soon spread to almost the entire country. By 1999 the Maoists set up parallel government in many districts denying the government its legitimate control. The Maoists in their forty demands echoed the grievances of the marginalised sections. Over the years the actions of the Maoists politicised these sections of society who were the support base for the insurgents. The success of the Maoists in garnering support reflects not the positive aspects of their policy as much as it indicates the failure of the democratic leadership to do their duty of giving good governance. The leaders of the Nepali Congress and other political parties were engaged in power struggles within their parties. The people of Nepal, including the marginalised, began to question if the democratic system was in any way better than the panchayat system.

The actions of King Gyanendra, moving away from the role of a constitutional monarch to usurp power directly, threatened democracy and gave rise to more instability. The Seven Party Alliance (SPA)-Maoist agreement of November 22, 2005 and the Jana Andolan-II of April 2006 sought to pave the way to stability and, as far as the marginalised are concerned, a more inclusive society.

Jana Andolan-II, CA Elections and the Marginalised Groups

JANA ANDOLAN-II marked the process of bringing the Maoists into the political mainstream. It goes to the credit of the Maoists that their persistence on the demand of holding elections to a Constituent Assembly succeeded in garnering support from across the board. In fact in the government-Maoist talks on earlier occasions, this demand was rejected and termed as non-negotiable. But 2006 was different. Jana Andolan-II succeeded in putting pressure on the monarch and on April 14 King Gyanendra announced the restoration of the House of Representatives (HoR) that was dissolved on May 22, 2002. On April 29 the HoR met after four years and committed itself to holding elections for a Constituent Assembly. The restored HoR also clipped the powers of the monarch. In the following months, the political parties were busy trying to create the necessary environment to make the Maoists part of the government and finally hold the CA elections.

In the midst of these events, while the focus was on the Maoists, none visualised that Jana Andolan-II would actually mark the beginning of a decisive phase of the assertion of rights by the marginalised sections of society. They were convinced that socio-economic marginalisation and political exclusion could be overcome only through the CA elections. Thus, it was necessary to have enough representatives elected to the Constituent Assembly. For, only then their political space will be guaranteed which in turn will determine their economic and social space. The Constitution, which would be framed by an inclusive Constituent Assembly, will change the rules of the game wherein so far only a few families and groups were at the helm in Nepal for over centuries.

Post-Jana Andolan-II, various marginalised groups are organising themselves more effectively and putting forward their demands assertively. The Maoists, through the use of violence, had challenged the government. This has now become a demonstrative effect leading to the belief that resort to violence will draw the government’s attention to their grievances and concessions will be granted. Conflict management, which was earlier thought to be with the Maoists only, now has to include these groups too. Post-Jana Andolan-II, the political experiment in Nepal has become that much more complex and difficult. Most of these groups are demanding complete proportional system for elections to the CA. The demand on the nature of federalism, autonomy and self-determination vary from group to group. They want assurances on all these aspects before the CA elections are held and most of them are using violent means to put forward their demands.

The agitations in the Terai are a major cause of concern. Various groups have come up fighting for the rights of these people and also there is fighting amongst these groups. Half of the country’s population live in the Terai. Of these, according to the 2001 Census, one-third of the Terai residents are hill origin groups. Madhesis have been defined as non-pahadis with the plains language as their mother tongue regardless of their place of birth or residence. The term encompasses caste Hindus, and Muslims and, in some definitions, indigenous Terai groups. Madhesis are under-represented in all areas of national life. They occupy less than 12 per cent of position in influential areas including judiciary, executive, legislature, political parties and less than five per cent in international organisationsand multi-donor projects. The Army has no senior Madhesi officers. The post-1990 democratic period did not change the situation. On the other hand, Terai contributes over two-third of the GDP. It has 60 per cent of agricultural land. Though it is the backbone of the national economy, commensurate investments are not made in the Terai to serve the local population there. Madhesis have lower education and health indicators than the hill communities. There are genuine grievances but the various groups are adopting rigid positions.

The agitations in the Terai in January and February following the adoption of the interim Constitution saw unprecedented violence. Parliament proceedings were also stalled by members belonging to the Terai to press their demands. The first amendment of the Interim Constitution was a result of the agitations. As per the first amendment of the Interim Constitution, the Constituent Assembly elections will be held on mixed system—half the seats through the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and other half through the proportional representation system. In addition to them, 17 seats would be nominated to include personalities from various walks of life. This means that there would be 497 seats in total for the Constituent Assembly. Earlier the Interim Constitution incorporated elections only through the FPTP. However, peace has not been restored. In fact the instability has given rise to concerns regarding a peaceful election process.

The five rounds of talks which the government held with the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) could not reach agreement on key issues. The Madhesi outfit stuck to its demand for a fully proportional representation-based election system and federal autonomy with the right to self-determination before the Constituent Assembly elections. However, the sixth round of talks saw success. The 22-point agreement reached between the two sides includes compensation to those killed during the Terai movement, guarantee of inclusion of Madhesis and other marginalised groups in the Constituent Assembly, autonomy to the States in the federal system to be designed by the Constituent Assembly among others. But immediately upon conclusion of the agreement dissidence surfaced within the party. While this agreement is a major achievement, there are many other groups which are still agitating. The challenge now is to bring them too under the peace umbrella.

The Janatantrik Mukti Morcha (Jwala Group) ordered officials hailing from the hills to leave the Terai plains, thereby vitiating the already tense atmosphere due to the hills versus plains division. Some of these groups had violent conflicts among themselves and also with the Maoist affiliated Madhesi groups. On the other hand the Chure Bhawar Ekta Samaj has been demanding security and protection of rights of people of the hilly region living in the Madhes region and an autonomous status for the Chure Bhawar region.

The government has held several rounds of negotiations with the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NFIN). The government has agreed to ensure at least one representation of the 59 listed ethnic communities. The NFIN also agreed to accept the mixed election system if the government guarantees proportional representation of various communities and regions through this system. The indefinite bandh called by Sanghiya Limbuwan Rajya Morcha and Khumbuvan Rashtriya Morcha (KRM) continue to paralyse life in the eastern districts. The bandh has been called in nine eastern districts, including Ilam, Panchthar, Dhankuta, Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa, demanding autonomy, a federal State and equal representation in the Constituent Assembly. The organisers have demanded that the region beyond the Arun river be declared a ‘Limbuwan State’ in a federal system while the KRM has demanded a ‘Khumbuwan State’ mostly comprising the same districts. There are agitations by the Dalit civil society movement calling for 20 per cent of reservation for people of the Dalit community in the CA.

On the other hand the Maoist affiliated Young Communist League is engaging in indiscriminate abductions and torture. The second round of verification of the Maoist combatants and arms by the United Nations Mission In Nepal (UNMIN) is also facing problems due to non-compliance by the Maoists. They are also going back on their earlier agreed consensus of a mixed electoral system and that the issue of the republic would take up in the first sitting of the elected CA. The CPN (Maoist) on August 19, 2007 set a 22-point precondition for ‘credible’ Constituent Assembly elections and announced a series of protest programmes over the next two months. The Maoist Chairman, Prachanda, announced a two-phase protest programme, reiterating the demand for announcement of a republic from the parliament before the CA polls and proportional electoral system. Prachanda said the party would launch agitation on three fronts—the government, the parliament and the street—for fulfilment of its demands. He warned of a full-blown “people’s movement” if the demands are not met. (The Maoists have now come out of the Koirala Government citing non-fulfilment of their demands.)

The leaders of the SPA and other parties too have expressed concern over the latest Maoist decision of launching an agitation and feel that it could end up disrupting the November elections for the CA. The Nepali Congress termed it a breach of the 12-point agreement of November 2005. These leaders had on earlier occasions expressed their concern over the deteriorating law and order situation in the Terai and the Maoists not implementing their promise of returning seized properties but continuing violence and intimidation at the local level.

Concerns were also expressed by the United Nations Electoral Expert Monitoring Team (EEMT) established under the mandate of the Security Council Resolution 1740 in its first report submitted to the Secretary-General and the Nepal Government on July 17, 2007. They pointed out that the lack of security could seriously threaten the Constituent Assembly polls. They thus recommended that political leaders be encouraged to come to an agreement on security long before the elections, including the signing of appropriate codes of conduct to be widely distributed among party activists. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has warned that failure to ensure a credible election within a realistic and well-planned period could have a much more serious impact on the unity of the eight parties and their ability to act and function in unison within the existing coalition. In his report presented to the Security Council at the UN headquarters, Moonsaid the overall human rights situation continues to be worrying, with the main concerns linked to inadequate public security and law enforcement and to unresolved issues of discrimination with regard to representation and inclusion in the political process. The report further states that the significance of the far-reaching process of democratisation that Nepal is going through cannot be overstated. The successful holding of the Constituent Assembly elections in a manner that meets the aspirations of the majority of the Nepali people is the central element of this process. Similar views have been expressed by other international actors too.

Conclusion: Need for the Marginalised Sections in Nepal to Re-assess their Strategy

THE beginning of change for an inclusive society can take place only after the CA elections are held. The marginalised need to build on the gains made and approach the CA elections positively and confidently. They are sure to get support both nationally and internationally. Ironically, those who will benefit the most if the CA elections are held are creating law and order problems which can defer the elections altogether and lead to anarchy. However, they need to agree to the CA elections not for fear of anarchy but with the confidence of their new found organised power and politicised support base. After a very violent agitation, the MJF has concluded an agreement with the government and is going to participate in the CA elections.

During Jana Andolan-I, the marginalised hardly occupied any significant political space. However, post-Jana Andolan-II they have a permanent place and Nepali politics in the coming years is going to be dominated by issues concerning the welfare of the marginalised. Earlier leaders from other dominant ethnic/caste groups were articulating the demands of the marginalised. Now, the leaders are from within the marginalised sections, leading from the front. Having come so far, the margina-lised should re-assess their strategy. They can put pressure on the elected Constituent Assembly and influence its decisions. Through the CA elections and the process which would follow in framing a new Constitution, these groups can serve their interests better. They should focus on ensuring credible CA elections than putting pre-conditions for holding elections. Issues of the nature of federalism and autonomy can be debated in the CA too. The Constitution so drafted will also with time see changes through amendments as in other countries all over the world. The CA elections are a means to change and not an end in themselves. By denying the process which will draft the new document, the marginalised are denying themselves change and progress.


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- For the text of the 12-point agreement refer CNF World Focus, Monthly Discussion Journal, Vol 317, May 2006. pp. 21-22, Siddharth Vardarajan, “Parliament Reconvenes in Nepal”, The Hindu, April 29, 2006. <>
- Karl-Heinz Kraemer, Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, The Janajati and the Nepali State: Aspects of Identity and Integration, paper presented at the First Annual Workshop of the Himalayan Studies Network, Meudon, C.N.R.S., 25-26 September 1998.
- Nepal’s Troubled Terai Region, International Crisis Group, Asia Report N 136-9 July 2007.
- MJF Dismisses addition of constituencies. <> Apr 13 07.
- MJF presents 26 demands <> sd/mk/ag June 1, 2007; MJF to allow CA only if their demands are met <> sd July 1, 2007.
- Government-MJF reach 22-pt agreement; MJF withdraws protests http://www. ia August 30, 2007.
- MJF dissidents dump Upendra Yadav, <> sd September 3, 2007.
- JTMM Goit kills Maoist activist in Siraha. <> ag July 16 07; Security to Govt Employees is top priority: Minister Gurung <> ag July 23 07; Killings, intimidation continue in Terai <> mk July 08 07 ; Goit withdraws talks offer, launches divisive campaign <> sd January 19, 2007.
- Government-Chure Talks put off till Friday. <> . sd July 26, 2007.
- NFIN climbs down from PR demand: close to sealing deal with the government <> . sd Aug 04 07; Government says no to ethnicity based PR <> sd June 14, 2007.
- Bandh continues to hit normal life in eastern region. <> mk August 8, 2007;
- Linbuwan in extortion drive <> sd August 1, 2007.
- Dalits demand 20 per cent seats in CA. <> ag August 18, 2007.
- UNMIN seeks immediate resumption pf PLA verification <> ia July 16, 2007.
- Prachanda sets 22-pt condition, warns of ‘peoples movement’ <> mk August 20, 2007.
- Deuba doubts CA elections in Mangsir <> sd June 22 07;
- RPP condemns attacks against its offices <> sd July 22, 2007;
- Country in confusion, concludes RJP <> sd July 1, 2007;
- CEC asks government to improve security <> ia July 10, 2007;
- Talks on Maoist seized properties inconclusive <> mk May 6, 2007;
- Seized properties can’t be returned: Baidya <> sd May 2, 2007.
- UN Electoral Monitoring Team starts second visit to Nepal <> mk July 30, 2007
- UN SG stresses on credible election son time <> ia July 25, 2007.

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