By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Nepal, which had seen 4,896 fatalities, including 3,992 Maoists, 666 Security Force (SF) personnel and 238 civilians, in a single year at the peak of insurgency in 2002, sustained the environment of peace that had been established in 2013, through 2014 and 2015, with not a single insurgency-related fatality on record. However, though the insurgency has subsided, Nepal continued to witness significant political violence through 2015.
The current cycle of political violence began on July 1, 2015, when agitating cadres of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) comprising of the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N), the Mahantha Thakur-led Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), the Rajendra Mahato-led Sadbhawana Party (SP) and the Mahendra Raya Yadav-led Tarai Madhes Sadbhawana Party (TMSP), burnt copies of the preliminary draft of the Constitution in the capital, Kathmandu, as it failed to incorporate their demands. During the first round of violence, between July 1 to September 19, 2015, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 44 persons, including 25 civilians and 19 SF personnel, were killed and another 229, including 166 civilians and 63 SF personnel, were injured in violent protests across the Tarai region. In Surhket District, adjoining the Tarai region, another two civilians were killed and 50 were injured.
Violence continued subsequent to the adoption of the New Constitution on September 20, 2015, with nine civilians killed and another 414 persons, including 321 civilians and 93 SF personnel, injured in violent protests across the Tarai region, according to SATP data. In adjoining Districts, one civilian was killed in Udayapur and another was injured in Dhading District (all data till December 31, 2015).
Warning that the current Tarai turmoil would create a ‘parallel’ economy in the country, Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) President Pashupati Murarka during a Press meet on December 18, 2015, observed,
Tarai protest led by some political parties for the last few months has pushed the economic, social and education, among other sectors, to a serious mode. Nearly 2,000 industries are closed while materials worth billions of rupees have been stranded on the other side of the border. The demurrage charge on these materials is beyond our affordability.
Speaking at the same Press meet, FNCCI Vice President Shekhar Golchha emphasised, “So far, some industries have managed to pay salary and wages, while others have paid half. Now, they are feeling difficulty to withstand such pressure.”
FNCCI estimates that the Tarai turmoil and subsequent unofficial economic blockade have resulted to economic losses to the tune of NR 200 billion. Significantly, in fiscal year 2013-14, Nepal’s economic growth stood at a six-year high of 5.2 per cent. In April 2015, the devastating earthquake reduced the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth to 3.04 per cent. Now, because of protests in the Tarai and blockade along Nepal-India border points, the economy is expected to book a negative growth for the first time since 1983.
Worryingly, signs of continued violence are very much in evidence. On January 2, 2016, SP Chairman Rajendra Mahato emphasized, “Fifty-five people were martyred during Madhes agitation and hundreds of people were injured. Hundreds of people are still in hospitals. As the Government stepped up its repression, we have also stepped up our resolve to fight for our rights.” Earlier, the Tharuhat Struggle Committee (TSC), in a Press Release on December 24, 2015, had threatened that if its demands were not met by January 14, 2016, it would promulgate its own Constitution on January 15, 2016, guaranteeing an autonomous Tharuhat province.
Separately, on December 11, 2015, the Federal Inclusive Madhesi Alliance (FIMA), which brings together the Sharat Singh Bhandari-led National Madhes Socialist Party (NMSP), the Rajkishor Yadav-led Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Republican (MJF-R), the Anil Kumar Jha-led Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP) and the Jay Prakash Prasad Gupta-led Tarai Madhes National Campaign (TMNC), submitted a nine-point demand to the Government. Warning that they would intensify their agitation, FIMA leaders argued, on December 20, 2015, that the ruling parties were not serious about seeking a negotiated settlement of issues raised by Madhes-based parties.
Disturbingly, the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-Maoists), at a proclamation assembly organized in Butwal city of Rupandehi District on January 3, 2016, declared the Rupandehi, Nawalparasi and Kapilvastu Districts as the Abadh autonomous State. Warning that if they were suppressed they would retaliate against the Government, Politburo Member Santosh Budhamagar asserted, “Our party was forced to revive the old structures as the Government was unable to solve the people’s basic problems after India’s blockade of Nepal’s border points.”
Significantly, on June 30, 2015, Nepal’s second Constituent Assembly (CA) constituted on January 21, 2014, accepted the preliminary draft of the Constitution. Though it faced strong opposition, the CA went ahead, and in a historical step forward, endorsed “Nepal’s Constitution” with an overwhelming two-thirds majority on September 16, 2015. The new Constitution with 308 articles, 35 parts and nine schedules, came into effect after President Ram Baran Yadav announced its commencement at 17:00 hrs on September 20, 2015, during the last meeting of the CA. The first CA, constituted on May 28, 2008, with a mandate to deliver the Constitution by May 28, 2010, was dissolved on May 27, 2012, after four extensions. While the adoption of the new Constitution was welcomed by most national and international groups and leaders, a large segment of the population, particularly the Madhesis and Tharus residing in the Tarai region, contested the new Constitution.
To end the political logjam, the three major political parties held a meeting with the UDMF at the Prime Minister’s official residence at Baluwatar in Kathmandu on January 3, 2016, and put forward a proposal to form a Joint Taskforce to finalize a roadmap to an agreement with UDMF. On January 5, 2016, UDMF formed a three-member task force including Hridayesh Tripathi, Vice-Chairman of TMDP, Rajendra Shrestha, Co-Chairman of FSF-N and Ram Naresh Yadav, senior leader of TMSP, to hold talks with the Government on its 11-Point demand. The prominent demands included delineation of autonomous provinces based on historical background and identity in accordance with the Interim Constitution; ensuring a separate article with the clear provision of proportionate inclusion for marginalized communities; proportionate inclusion in all state organs; and determination of population-based constituencies for the election of House of Representatives and mixed electoral system as provisioned in the Interim Constitution. Crucially, on January 7, 2016, a meeting of two taskforces formed by the three major parties and the agitating UDMF concluded on a positive note in Kathmandu. After the meeting, Rajendra Shrestha, Co-Chairman of FSF-N and a task force member of UDMF, observed that it is for the first time the representatives of the major parties dwelled on UDMF’s 11-point demands and termed it a positive development.
Earlier, in order to discuss the issues of the agitating Madhesis, coalition partners Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) held the first three-party meeting with the main opposition Nepali Congress (NC) on November 4, 2015, at Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s residence in Katmandu. Prime Minister Oli met the Madhesi leaders for the first time on November 30, 2015. During the meeting, the Madhesi leaders submitted their 11-Point charter of demands.
Subsequently, the First Constitution Amendment Bill registered by previous NC-led Government on October 7, 2015, was tabled in Parliament on December 15, 2015, and discussions on the Bill commenced on December 28, 2015. Though the deliberations were expected to conclude on December 31, 2015, parties decided to extend the process till January 3, 2016, in the hope of reaching an agreement with the agitating Madhesi parties. Thereafter, with no consensus emerging, the Parliament was adjourned till January 13, 2016, as Speaker Onsari Gharti Magar was going to see her ailing husband, UCPN-Maoist leader Barshaman Pun, in Bangkok, Thailand.
Meanwhile, the Government launched a campaign, ‘People’s Constitution among People’ on December 7, 2015, in a bid to make people aware about the new Constitution. The campaign was extended on January 5, 2016, until February 4, 2016, as its continuation was demanded at local levels and the programme was yet to cover some Tarai and Hill Districts. As part of the campaign, various interactions were held in around 80 per cent of all District headquarters, municipalities and Village Development Committees (VDCs).
In order to prevent further delays on the Constitution Amendment on the basis of proportionate inclusion ensured by the Interim Constitution, the Nepal Bar Association (NBA), after the meeting of the 43rd NBA Executive Council held in Lalitpur District on December 11, 2015, urged Parliament and the political parties to hold a dialogue with agitating Madhes-based parties and to settle issues related to citizenship as well. Similarly, Dr. Mahendra Bista, Chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), speaking at an interaction programme on hardships of Tarai-based journalists organized in the Simara town of Bara District on January 4, 2016, noted, “The issues should be resolved through the medium of talks and dialogue, and media should play positive roles for this to happen.”
Indeed, the promulgation of new Constitution on September 20, 2015, was a historic step forward, but the crisis in the Tarai has created a logjam that is enormously damaging the country, not only materially, but also socially and politically, exacerbating ethnic polarization and anger. 113 days have passed since the promulgation of the Constitution, and the ruling establishment has not been able to convince the people of the southern plains that it addresses their concerns and is not discriminatory. The country has gone through a long and arduous struggle to arrive at the present Constitution, but if ethnic polarization persists, and present trends towards radicalization deepen, the hard won peace could be compromised. Leaders across the political spectrum need to tone down their current polarizing rhetoric and address the legitimate grievances of various population segments.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management