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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 42, New Delhi, October 10, 2015

Nepal’s New Constitution and Contending Voices

Saturday 10 October 2015

by Sangeeta Thapliyal

Nepal created history by writing a new Constitution through an elected Constituent Assembly. The Constitution was promulgated on September 20 in the Constituent Assembly hall which acted as working place for the CA. On the historic day, the CA building was decorated with lights, flowers and balloons. People were invited to witness and be part of the occasion. The CA members, heads of diplomatic missions, party leaders, and invited guests were inside the main hall. In the adjacent halls and outside in pandals, people had gathered to witness the event on screen. Everyone present there wanted to be part of the historic occasion. There was festivity in the air. The fireworks added to the celebratory atmosphere. Outside the CA, a huge crowd had gathered screaming, shouting ‘Nepal’, ‘Jai Nepal’. They were congratu-lating the CA members, shaking hands with them amidst loud, deafening cheers.

The scene changed a few blocks away. There was business as usual. Due to public holiday and bandh (called by the Madhesis, Tharus and Janjatis) there was less traffic on the roads. Barring a few road-crossings, where enthusiasts had painted Nepal’s map with new provinces and lit candles on them, there was a sombre atmosphere.

The difference in the responses and reactions of the people was starkly visible. The divide on regional and ethnic lines was quite evident.

The government had declared two days of public holiday and the major parties had asked the people to celebrate the function akin to diwali whereas the Madhesi, Tharu and Janjati parties had called for a blackout. In Kathmandu, a day before the event, some Madhesis and Janjatis had assembled near Hotel Everest and protested against the new Constitution. Except two or three known names, the rest were young leaders leading the young crowd. The next line of leaders is getting ready to lead the protests unless some political solution is arrived at. Next to them the Dalits were sitting on bhookh hartal.

The regional difference between the Pahad and Madhes begins from the attitudinal difference. In popular perception Nepal is a Himalayan country. The Madhesis consider that the hill identity was carefully constructed in Nepal with the people of the plains projected as outsiders. The close socio-cultural linkages with the people across the border further refurbished their image as people from UP and Bihar.

The issues of borderland are complex where cultural boundaries transcend political boun-daries whether it is the Terai of Nepal or the hills in western Nepal bordering Uttarakhand or Sikkim and Darjeeling in the east. The cultural overlapping has led to a greater flexibility in the attitudes of the people in accepting the move-ment of masses from each other’s country and it continues unabated. Hence, one finds the same people across the border even though the administrative boundaries have cut them into two. But for the Madhesis it brought socio-political and economic complexities within Nepal.

The cultural distinction of the people from the hills and plains is the existing reality but translating the differences into political inclusiveness has been a challenge for Nepal. The Madhes has felt marginalised socially, political and economically. Their representation in the state structures and private sector has been negligible. Madhesi leaders have been demanding for sharing of power and resources with the dominant hill people through federalism and inclusive democracy. In fact, their demand of federalism has been in the political discourse since 1951.

The new Constitution has made an attempt to address the concerns of Madhes by state restructuring and proportional representation in the parliament but this is being considered ‘tokenism’ by the Madhesi leaders. For them the issues of state restructuring, citizenship rights, social justice, representation in state structures at all levels cannot be ignored. Primary among them is the issue of provinces. The new Consti-tution has carved seven new provinces. The Madhesi parties have rejected it and demanded inclusion of the Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa districts with the Central Madhes Province. The Madhsi parties are also demanding delimitation of constituencies based on population. The present Constitution has given 65 seats to Madhes and 100 to the hills. These differences cannot be resolved unless there is an attitudinal shift in not treating them (Madhesis) as “the other”.

India’s response, last minute visits of digni-taries has propped up nationalism in Nepal. The earlier sentiment of the Madhes movement of ‘looking towards India’ is shifting to the Madhesis ‘lead by India’. Taking advantage of their strategic positioning, Madhesi agitators are obstructing entries of goods carriers from India resulting in shortage of essential supplies and fuel. This has further added fuel to fire with the impression that both the Madhesis and India are trying to pressurise Nepal for a political outcome. Social media is agog with reactions on the role of India. A closer exami-nation reveals strong nationalistic sentiments more from the dominant communities of the hills. The Madhesis, Tharus and Janjatis consider these reactions to be the hype by the dominant communities of the hills to corner them.

In this charged atmosphere of heightened emotions, the genuine issue of the marginalised communities is sidelined. The contention between the hill and plains of Nepal is for their national status, equitable sharing of power and resources. The Janjatis (ethnic tribes) and Tharus have been demanding their cultural identity and representation through ethnic-based federa-lism. The Dalits are demanding life with dignity and representation in parliament and other bodies. The women have been struggling for equal social, political and economic rights. These groups have been protesting against the dominant communities for their inclusion in the state structures. The Maoists had extended support to the demands of the marginalised groups.

The present Constitution has addressed many demands of the marginalised groups, such as proportional representation in the parliament or reservations in government jobs etc. But many issues remain unsettled, such as ethnicity- based provinces, citizenship rights, represen-tation in state structures like army or bureau-cracy based on population and delimitation of constituencies. These unmet expectations have led to new protests and violent agitations. The protesting groups are trying to give a united opposition. The supporters of the present Consti-tution contend that the Constitution is a living document and the remaining concerns of the protesting groups can be taken care of through amendments. The protestors fear that too much of water has flown under the bridge and now the time has come for redressal of their grievances.

Protest is an integral part of the democratic process. Through such contestations and accommodations new politics should emerge. Since 1990, Nepal is struggling and striving towards inclusive democracy. Contestations between the monarchy, parties, Maoists brought them to the stage of Constitution-building through the Constituent Assembly. Inclusiveness will come to fruition if other protesting voices are accommodated.

On the historic day, there were many gentle, sombre, understanding, silent voices in Nepal witnessing the entire episode and wondering if this was indeed the historic event or how would history judge us.

Prof Sangeeta Thapliyal is the Chairperson, Centre for Inner Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.