By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On November 29, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) [CPN-Maoist-Centre]-led government in Kathmandu got registered a seven-point Constitution Amendment Bill at the Parliament Secretariat, seeking to amend the Constitution — adopted in a historical step on September 20, 2015 – and thereby address the concerns of Madhes-based parties.
The amendment bill proposes to have 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, and adding them to Province 4.
The bill also seeks to amend the constitutional provisions pertaining to citizenship, provincial border, and proportional representation, among others.
In fact, 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 — ending November 28 — to bring an amendment proposal.
However, on November 30, 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 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, UDMF and Federal Alliance leaders, in a meeting with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, rejected his request to accept the Bill and participate in local polls. Disturbingly, on December 4, the leaders of the UDMF warned that Madhes will secede from Nepal if discrimination against Madhesi people continues.
Moreover, the government’s move also came amidst strong objections from the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxists-Leninists) [CPN-UML]. In particular, the party objected to the proposal to change boundaries of Provinces No.4 and No.5.
After the government got registered the amendment proposal, the CPN-UML summoned a Parliamentary Party (PP) meeting on November 30 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”.
Significantly, on December 1, the CPN-UML obstructed parliamentary proceedings, terming the Constitution Amendment Bill anti-national. For the second consecutive day, on December 2, opposition parties, including CPN-UML, Nepal Workers and Peasants Party (NWPP) and Rastriya Janamorcha, obstructed the House proceedings.
The opposition parties obstructed the meeting of Parliament for the third consecutive time on December 4, demanding withdrawal of the Constitution Amendment Bill. Following the obstruction, the meeting was deferred till 1 p.m. on December 7.
Also, as expected, the local populations in both the affected Hill and Terai Districts started staging protests, demanding that Province 5 be left unchanged. On November 30, 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 Pyuthan, locals enforced a general strike against the Bill and also demonstrated at major thoroughfares in the district headquarters by holding protest assemblies and burning tyres.
Normal life in Arghakhanchi was also affected due to the indefinite district-wide general strike called by various organisations based in the district. In Gulmi, an indefinite strike was announced at an assembly of political parties, civil society and journalists, among others, organised 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 to not split the province.
On December 1, 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, in Rolpa, party cadres and leaders of ruling-alliance partner Nepali Congress (NC) openly came out against the decision despite the party being in 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 protest against the decision. How can the Government apply for it? People are not ready for it.”
Further, defying party lines, on December 3, senior ruling party leaders, NC Central Working Committee member Chandra Bhandari and Deputy Parliamentary Party leader Top Bahadur Rayamajhi of CPN (Maoist-Centre), joined the main opposition CPN-UML in demonstrations in Butwal. Going against their party line, leaders of ruling NC and CPN (Maoist-Centre) 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 Centre leader Rayamajhi declared, adding that any political party without public support becomes irrelevant. Similarly, NC leader Bhandari noted: “The seven-province federal model was finalised 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, 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, some 27 NC lawmakers representing the Terai-Madhes region criticised the 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 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 in Parliament would be endorsed by a majority, NC President Sher Bahaur Deuba, stated, on December 2: “Not only will the UDMF but also the CPN-UML will vote in favour of the Constitution Amendment Bill. UDMF and CPN-UML will also vote in favour of the proposed Bill as the amendment has been brought after consultation with all the political parties.”
He further said that the government got 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-Centre) are in a “wait and see” mode, before taking any decision on the future course of action.
Leaders close to the top leaderships of NC and CPN (Maoist- Centre) 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 grievance over the Bill might spur clashes. The Ministry of Home Affairs, on December 3, , circulated special instructions to the security agencies — Nepal Police, Armed Police Force (APF) and National Intelligence Department (NID) — to remain alert about a possible repetition of the Tikapur incident of 2015.
On August 24, 2015, eight people — seven policemen and a two-year-old boy – were killed 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 Home Ministry has also instructed the security agencies to avoid excessive use of force to control mobs.
No doubt, the Constitution Amendment Bill requires at least a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament for endorsement. As the main opposition CPN-UML has objected to the amendment and the agitating UDMF remains non-committal towards it, it is uncertain whether the bill would secure passage in 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 is a Research Associate at the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]