By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
On 20th December, the Nepal Cabinet finally decided to move for constitutional amendments supposedly to please the marginalised communities including the Madhes groups. The Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa called up his Indian counterpart to inform her of the good news the same night. India was delighted.
Everyone appears to be happy except the affected Madhes groups who are now left to fend for themselves without knowing what had hit them!
The Cabinet Decisions:
On 20th afternoon, PM Oli’s cabinet decided to move for constitutional amendments and described it in a “three point” road map. This included
- The Government declaring its commitment to participation in the State Organs on the basis of proportionate inclusion and the delineation of electoral constituencies on the basis of the population besides ensuring of at least one constituency in each district.
- Appropriate constitutional arrangement will be made through political consensus regarding the boundaries of the federal units by addressing the concerns of the agitating parties.
- A mechanism will be formed to redress the concerns and a report will be submitted within three months. A solution will be sought through talks on other demands including those related to citizenship.
Soon after Kamal Thapa’s call, India issued a formal statement welcoming the developments as positive that will help create the basis for a resolution of the current impasse in Nepal. India also urged all the Nepali political groups to find a satisfactory solution.
The issues relating to delineation of electoral constituencies and the inclusive and proportionate participation was already conceded soon after the announcement of the new constitution by the Sushil Koirala led Government.
The addition is the third one- of a high level political mechanism to consider the delineation of boundaries of the federal units through a consensus with a report to be given within three months.
The third point is as vague as it could be and it looks like a play of words to save the faces of all the stake holders- most probably the three main political parties and India too.
We know that it took eight long years to draft a constitution and that too without any consensus. It was promulgated without consultations or approval of representatives of over forty percent of the population.
If we go by past history when an elusive consensus was not possible for the new constitution even after eight long years, it is very doubtful whether any report could emerge within three months as mandated by the cabinet. What is more- a political consensus can only be a theoretical possibility and nothing else.
Reaction of Madhes Groups:
The UDMF groups representing the agitating Madhes Groups that met on 22nd December rejected the proposals though they kept the door open for further talks. They said that the proposal did not address the 11 point demands of the Madhes Groups that were conceded by the earlier government. The three point road map did not consider the issues of equal citizenship and linguistic rights that were the main basis of demands of the groups. The bottom line of delineation of boundaries of the federal was also left vague with an undefined political mechanism that is supposed take care of the concerns of the Madhes groups.
The UDMF group pointed out that a day after the meeting, Prime Minister Oli in a meeting in Jhapa declared that Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari will not be split. It looked as if Oli wanted to jump the gun in briefing the High level mechanism to be formed by the government not to split the three of the five disputed districts (the other two are Kailali and Kanchanpur in the west).
The Madhes Groups appear to be very disappointed with the developments. What is offered now is not different from what was conceded by the Koirala government when the amendment to the constitution including the draft was ready to be moved. It was the change of the government and the obstinacy of Oli’s government that delayed the amendments. Meanwhile many lives were unfortunately lost since the promulgation.
The Indian welcome of the amendments was also surprising as nothing has changed in the narrative and even the “political mechanism” was suggested by the Nepali Congress leadership in their talks with the agitating groups much earlier and rejected by the agitating groups.
Terai Continues to be Tense
Many areas in Madhes continue to be tense. There is a three-day curfew in Rautahat after one youth was killed by Police firing. Two other districts- Birgunj (Parsa?) and Sarlahi have serious law and order problems.
The attitude of the Police has also not changed and they continue to be harsh in dealing with the agitators. The firing incident at Gaur resulting in the death of one youth was avoidable.
One should recall the statement of the spokesperson of UNHCR in end November that urged the Nepali authorities to follow international standards on use of force, respect dissenting voices and engage them with “meaningful, inclusive and an open dialogue”- unfortunately these steps have not been taken and more lives have been lost, she said.
- The Madhes population and particularly the Madhesi leaders must have felt let down by the new government of Nepal led by UML chief K.P. Oli.
- If the package now offered with amendments for meeting two of the demands of the agitating groups with a very vague assurance of the third one- viz delineation of the federal boundaries was the final stand of the government, then there was no need for an agitation that involved disruption of normal life both in Terai and Kathmandu valley and resulting loss of life of over fifty persons in the agitation so far. There was no need for talks either.
- Prime Minister Oli has stuck to his ground and has not conceded anything despite the agitation. It is doubtful whether he would allow any further concession -High level mechanism not withstanding or by any other means. His mind set could be gauged by his speech at Jhapa after the cabinet meeting where in a public meeting he assured the people that there will be no split up of the three eastern districts.
- Madhesi leaders are said to be disappointed. Had it not been for India’s indirect support to their perceived just cause, the agitation would not have dragged on for over hundred days. The resultant deaths and economic deprivation were avoidable. Here is a lesson for Terains too- to keep united and not depend on any external sources for support. For India- Indian interests are more important than the Terain interests and those in Madhes should by now have realised it.