By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On November 29, 2016, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-Maoist Centre)-led Government registered a seven-point Constitution Amendment Bill at the Parliament Secretariat, seeking to amend the Constitution which was adopted in a historical step on September 20, 2015, to address the concerns of Madhes-based parties. The Amendment Bill proposed to leave only six Districts, Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Kapilbastu, Dang, Banke and Bardiya in Province 5, excluding the six hill Districts of Palpa, Arghakhanchi, Gulmi, Rukum, Rolpa and Pyuthan, to add them to Province 4. The Bill also seeks to amend the Constitutional provisions pertaining to citizenship, provincial border, and proportional representation, among others. Later, a Cabinet meeting held the same evening decided to form a High-Level Delineation Commission to settle all issues related to the delineation of Provinces after making a comprehensive study of all past agreements and reports submitted by various commissions. The Government had prepared the Amendment Bill in order to address the demands put forth by the agitating Madhesi parties, as the alliance of Madhesi parties had served an ultimatum, which ended on November 28, 2016, to bring an amendment proposal.
On November 30, 2016, however, the Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N), a key constituent of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) and Federal Alliance, declared in a Press Statement, “The proposed Constitution Amendment Bill registered in the Parliament has not addressed any demands raised by the UDMF and Federal Alliance. We will not accept this Bill as it has been brought despite our disagreement. Our protest will continue against racial discrimination and caste-based rule.” Thus, on December 1, 2016, UDMF and Federal Alliance leaders, during a meeting with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, rejected Dahal’s request to accept the Bill and participate in local polls. After the meeting, Upendra Yadav, Chairperson of the FSF-N observed, “We told the Prime Minister that it was meaningless for us to take part in elections unless our demands were addressed by amending the Constitution. This Bill does not resolve the country’s problems. It does not address the demands raised by Madhesis and Janajatis.”
Further, on December 2, 2016, Mahantha Thakur, Chairman of the Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), another constituent of the UDMF, stated, “The Commission has identified areas from Jhapa to Kanchanpur for two States. The entire Nawalparasi District should be integrated into Madhes. If the Constitution Amendment Bill registered at the Parliament gets revised, we are ready to support its endorsement.” Meanwhile, expressing serious dissatisfaction over the Constitutional provisions that make local units powerful, on December 3, 2016, Keshav Jha, General Secretary of the National Madhes Socialist Party (NMSP), argued “The local units have been given more rights than what is viable and this is against the principles of federalism. The Constitution has granted the local units unnecessary powers because the CPN-UML is against federalism. The National Assembly should be a chamber that represents the provinces at the center and there is no sense in including the chairpersons and vice chairpersons of village councils and mayors and deputy mayors of municipal councils in the Electoral College.” The Constitution has envisaged three tiers of Government in the country but the Madhes-based parties want only two two-tier Government and to keep the local units under the provinces.
The Government’s move also came amidst strong objections from the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML). In particular, the party objected to the proposal to change boundaries of Province No. 4 and Province No. 5. After the Government registered the amendment proposal, on November 30, 2016, the party summoned a Parliamentary Party (PP) meeting and decided to use all its energies to thwart the proposed amendments to the new Constitution, terming these as “an attempt to undermine the sovereign existence of the country.” Separately, a joint meeting of the Youth Association Nepal (YAN), the youth wing of CPN-UML and the All Nepal Free Students Union (ANNFSU), the student wing of CPN-UML, held at the YAN office on November 30, 2016, decided to jointly protest against and relentlessly oppose the Constitution Amendment Bill the Government has registered, until it was withdrawn.
Significantly, on December 1, 2016, CPN-UML obstructed Parliamentary proceedings, terming the Constitution Amendment Bill anti-national. For the second consecutive day, on December 2, 2016, Opposition parties, including CPN-UML, Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) and Rastriya Janamorcha, obstructed the House proceedings. CPN-UML General Secretary C.P. Mainali, while addressing the House meeting after Speaker Onsari Gharti allowed the opposition to put forth their demands, observed, “The Amendment Bill has only invited dispute and divisions among the people. The Government should rescue the country from division by withdrawing the amendment proposal. The proposed revision in provincial boundary is beyond the Constitutional jurisdiction of this Parliament and the wishes as well as demands of the people. The motive of the amendment proposal is a part of a conspiracy to establish two nationalities within the nation. Let’s form a high level political mechanism and settle the Constitutional demarcation dispute.” The opposition parties obstructed the meeting of Parliament for the third consecutive time on December 4, 2016, demanding to withdraw the Constitution Amendment Bill. Following the obstruction, the meeting was deferred till 1 pm on December 7.
Also, as expected, the local populations in both the affected Hill and Tarai Districts started staging protests, demanding that Province 5 be left unchanged. On November 30, 2016, protests soared in the different Districts of Province 5. In Butwal, students from the Lumbini Commerce Campus and Butwal Multiple Campus, among others, enforced a transport strike against the Amendment Bill. In Pyutha, locals enforced a general strike against the Bill and also demonstrated at major thoroughfares in the District headquarters by holding protest assemblies and burning tires. Normal life in Arghakhanchi was also affected due to the indefinite District-wide general strike called by various organizations based in the District. In Gulmi, an indefinite strike was announced at an assembly of political parties, civil society and journalists, among others, organized by the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), Gulmi. In Palpa, Political parties decided to continue protests until the Government addressed the demand of not splitting the Province. On December 1, 2016, protests intensified across the hilly region.
More surprisingly, District-based political parties, both from the ruling and opposition sides, lambasted the Constitution amendment proposal. On December 1, 2016, in Rolpa, party cadres and leaders of the ruling Nepali Congress (NC), openly stood against the decision despite the party’s alliance with the Government. NC lawmaker from Rolpa, Amar Singh Pun, leading the protests, stated, “For me, the people of Rolpa are greater than the party and I cannot stand against them. Here, people are not happy at all to be merged with other provinces. Pyuthan and Rolpa cannot stay under Province 4 as decided now. We want it in Province 5, as decided earlier.” Similarly, Bishnu Muskan, NC District Chairman of Arghakhanchi, observed “There’s overwhelming protests against the decision. How can the Government apply for it? People are not ready for it.”
Further, defying party lines, on December 3, 2016, senior ruling party leaders, NC Central Working Committee member Chandra Bhandari and Deputy Parliamentary Party leader Top Bahadur Rayamajhi of CPN-Maoist-Center, joined the main opposition CPN-UML in demonstrations in Butwal. Going against their party lines, leaders of ruling NC and CPN-Maoist-Center also appealed to their supporters to participate in the protests until the Government withdraws the Amendment Bill. “The people are always above parties. That’s why I am here respecting the people’s will,” CPN-Maoist Center leader Rayamajhi declared, adding that any political party without public support becomes irrelevant. Similarly, NC leader Bhandari noted, “The seven-province federal model was finalized after years of discussions so we cannot make changes to the federal demarcations at the behest of others. If anyone is not happy with federalism let’s go for a referendum.”
Separately, on November 30, 2016, the Nepal Magar Association Central Committee and Joint Magar Manch – Nepal, at a Press Conference held at the Reporters’ Club Nepal in Kathmandu, demanded the formation of an autonomous province by integrating the Magar land in Provinces 4 and 5, when the Government undertakes Constitutional amendment to resolve the dispute dogging the provincial boundaries. They also demanded guaranteeing inclusiveness based on proportional representation of the ethnic population in Parliament. The Magar community makes up 7.12 per cent of the total population of Nepal.
Meanwhile, on December 1, 2016, 27 NC lawmakers representing the Tarai-Madhes region, criticized CPN-UML for describing the Bill as an act of treason. The lawmakers observed, “It feels like UML is heading to make the issue more complex by obstructing the Parliament and taking to the streets. These activities have sent out a message that the party is against elections.” Expressing his confidence that the Constitution Amendment Bill registered at the Parliament would be endorsed by a majority, NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba, stated, on December 2, 2016, “Not only will the UDMF but also the CPN-UML vote in favor of the Constitution amendment bill to the Constitution. UDMF and CPN-UML will also vote in favor of the proposed Bill as the amendment has been brought after consultation with all the political parties.” He further said that the Government registered the Constitution Amendment Bill after the main opposition CPN-UML had consented, and after Madhesi and ethnic communities reiterated their demands for the amendment.
With locals in various mid-western Districts stepping up protests against the Constitution amendment bill, the ruling NC and CPN-Maoist Center are in a “wait and see” mood, before taking any decision on their future course of action. Leaders close to the top leaderships of NC and CPN-Maoist-Center have now shelved their original plan to announce the date for local level elections, as the agitating UDMF, for whose sake the amendment proposal was introduced, has also refused to own it. Moreover, the growing public grievances over the Bill might spur clashes, the Ministry of Home Affairs, on December 3, 2016, circulated special instructions to the security agencies – Nepal Police, Armed Police Force (APF) and National Intelligence Department (NID) – to remain alert about the possible repetition of the Tikapur incident of 2015. On August 24, 2015, eight people including seven Policemen and a two-year-old boy died when demonstrators protesting against proposals for administrative reform clashed with the Police at Tikapur in Kailali District. Scores of others were injured in the incident. The Ministry has also instructed the security agencies to avoid excessive use of force to control mobs.
The Constitution Amendment Bill requires at least a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament for endorsement. As the main opposition party CPN-UML has objected to the amendment and the agitating UDMF remains non-committal toward it, it is uncertain whether the Bill secure passage through Parliament. With anti-amendment protests spreading across the country, it is going to be very tough for the Government to get the amendment bill endorsed by Parliament without the support of the CPN-UML. The Government will need the support of all the other parties in Parliament if the CPN-UML decides to vote against it – an unlikely proposition.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management