By Pramod Jaiswal*
Nepal has been in grave crisis since it adopted a new constitution without considering the aspirations of Madhesis and indigenous nationalities (Janjatis) of the Terai region. Locals in the Terai region are up in arms about their demands of representation. This has led to the Madhesis stopping fuel and other essential supplies from entering Nepal. There has been an unusual increase in anti-Indian and anti-Madhesi sentiments among the hill people, stoked by high-pitched political propaganda.
The mass movement in Nepal’s southern plains-right across India’s border- has been on since September, with more than 50 people already dead. The government of Nepal, by not promptly tackling the genuine concerns raised by the Madhesis and Janjatis, appears to be callous to the sufferings of the people. Small positive step would be that the three big parties forward the constitution amendment bill, which they should have done months ago.
Fallacies in the new constitution
The new constitution that got promulgated on September 20 compromises the structures relating to political representation, affirmative action, federalism, and citizenship. It has failed to address the demands of the Madhesis, Janajatis, Tharus, Muslims and Dalits. It has reversed on many of the important achievements of Madhes movement that were ensured by the Interim Constitution of Nepal.
The current federal structure of seven-state model fails to justify the accepted criteria of identity and capability. The criteria used for federating Nepal into seven units is not only unclear, it is arbitrary. It also shrinks the number of constituencies in the Terai. Though the Commission on State Restructuring of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) had proposed two units in the Terai, the present constitution fragmented it into six parts.
The new constitution has reduced the proportionate representation share in the electoral system, backtracked on the right granted by the Interim Constitution on the use of one’s own mother tongue in local bodies, diluted the principle of reservation and gerrymanders the federal boundaries in such a way that 12 out of the 20 districts in the Terai are now merged with the hills to the effect that the Madhes-dominated province of the eastern Terai is resource deprived, and Tharus remains a political minority in the western Terai.
Demands of Madhes
The present crisis in Madhes was triggered when the bigger parties, namely the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (Democratic) rushed through the constitution despite the boycott of the Madhesi parties. Moreover, the Madhesi leaders of the major political parties were also forced to follow the party whips. The promulgation of the Constitution on September 20 further inflamed the Madhesis and Tharus and their agitation has gathered further momentum since then.
The major demands that are being raised by the Madhesis that have not been accommodated in the new Constitution are:
1. Group all the 20 districts of Madhes into two federal provinces. The present federal structure separates five Madhes districts (Kanchanpur, Kailali, Sunsari, Jhapa and Morang) from Madhesh provinces and merges them with other proposed neighbouring provinces.
2. Delineate electoral constituencies based on population, geography and special characteristics which were accepted by the Interim Constitution after the Madhes Movement of 2005 and 2006.
3. Incorporate the right to participate in state structures on the basis of principles of proportional inclusion, which was accepted by the Interim Constitution. Similarly, seats in the national assembly should be allocated on a proportional basis. Since Madhes has 51 per cent of the population, out of the proposed 165 electoral constituencies being proposed for direct elections, 83 should be allocated to the provinces in the Madhes region.
4. Interim Constitution had provided for re-demarcation of electoral constituencies every 10 years, as per the census; the new constitution has increased it to 20 years. The Madhesi parties are against this change.
5. Citizenship should be passed on through the name of the mother as well. There should be no discrimination based on citizenship acquired by descent or naturalisation. The new Constitution states that only citizens by descent will be entitled to hold the posts of President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, Chairperson of National Assembly, Head of Province, Chief Minister, Speaker of Provincial Assembly and Chief of Security Bodies.
Impact on India-Nepal Relations
The Madhesi protestors imposed blockade at India-Nepal border to pressurise government of Nepal to address their demands. However, the government of Nepal termed it an ‘undeclared Indian blockade’. Delhi stated that it’s because of internal protests in Nepal and the government should resolve it and create ‘security and harmony’ in Tarai, to enable ‘uninterrupted commerce’. The transporters feel insecure because of the risks of violence.
Sourness in India-Nepal relations although temporary, is likely to linger on for another few months. India should engage with the present crisis actively and resolve the issue as it can have lasting implications on its security interest. India, being the guarantor to the agreement between Madhesi and the government of Nepal which paved the environment for the first Constituent Assembly election has, in fact, a much greater role to deliver. The present crisis can’t be resolved without its help. India should not shy away for its responsibilities. Nor Madhesi should hesitate seeking their help.
The history of Nepal has always witnessed intense Indian interventions during all the major political transformations, be it the abolition of Rana regime, 1990 Jana Andolan, 2006 Second Jana Andolan and many others. The ruling government has always tried it best to suppress all the democratic changes by stoking anti-Indian sentiments and diverting people’s attention to the threat of Nepal’s independent existence as a sovereign state. Such, traditional tactics is not going to work anymore.
Due to the elongated protest, the idea for a separate Madhes as a nation state is getting firm among the frustrated Madhesi youth. If the government of Nepal fails to reach-out to the disgruntled Madhes people and their parties, they will have to deal with the radical separatists. Mobilising Nepal Army to suppress the genuine voices of Madhesi will only bear disastrous consequences. The government should immediately forward the constitution amendment bill. They should also forge a common stance on the issue and initiative a fruitful dialogue towards resolution. The agitation parties want a ‘package deal’ to address all these issues. The implementation of the Constitution can be possible only by generating a consensus to accommodate dissent rather than by shutting out differences through majoritarian bullying.
The silence in the hills on the issue is very deceptive. The absence of news reports in the media about events opposing the new constitution in the hills is another reason for the impression of this deceptive peace. However, few civil society leaders such as Padma Ratna Tuladhar, Daman Nath Dhungana, Khagendra Sangraula, Shyam Shrestha, Rajendra Maharjan and others have broken their silence.
Only way to resolve the problem is that Nepal should bring the disgruntled parties to the table as soon as possible. Stoking anti-Indian sentiments will not serve any purpose. Damaging its relation with India will only complicate the problem further.
*Pramod Jaiswal is a Senior Research Officer at IPCS, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]