By C Uday Bhaskar*
The former Prime Minister of Nepal, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, announced his surprise resignation from his parent Maoist party and Parliament on Saturday (September 26) to express his deep disappointment over the just promulgated mew constitution of his country. The fact that the legitimate concerns of the Madhesis and other groups have not been equitably accommodated has already led to considerable violence and loss of life in Nepal but the Bhattarai resignation will be of deep import to the emerging political contour of the contestation now gathering traction in the birthplace of the Buddha.
It may be recalled that the promulgation of the much awaited ‘new’ constitution by the Constituent Assembly (CA) of Nepal on Sunday(September 20) in Kathmandu has led to considerable turmoil and opposition within that country and aroused visible concern and ire in Delhi. This is a great pity given that the people of Nepal have waited for almost seven years for this exercise of consensual drafting and having in place an approved constitution, as the former monarchy makes the transition to a modern democracy.
The approval was far from unanimous and of the 601 lawmakers in the CA – only 507 voted in favour and the others either abstained or opposed the new constitution. The principal domestic opposition to the new Constitution has come from the Madhesis (inhabitants of the plains who are migrants from India) and the jan-jaatis (ethnic indigenous minorities) who together represent almost 69 percent of Nepal’s 26 million population.
The proposed federal re-structuring of Nepal envisages seven new states, wherein the Madhesis would be distributed for electoral purposes – and only one of the new provinces would have a plains-people’s majority – but again with limited fiscal resources and related autonomy.
Women have been treated with scant regard for equality in the new constitution and Nepal continues to be among 26 nations globally that confer citizenship rights based on gender and birth. In a sharp protest, one of Nepal’s best known writers, Manjushree Thapa, posted a searing comment entitled: ‘Why I burned my country’s new constitution.’
The manner in which the elite hill people of Nepal – the traditional ruling class – have retained their primacy has caused deep anguish and C K Lal, one of Nepal’s most respected intellectuals, noted sadly: “Citizenship is the foundational feature of a democratic statute. By conflating nationality with citizenship, a constitution written in the second decade of the twenty-first century ensures that ideas of bloodline, masculinity and patriotism shall continue to be guiding principles of protecting the purity of Nepali Nation. In operative terms, it means that the women and the Madheshis of all genders will have lesser citizenship rights and may be barred from higher public posts if they fail the ancestry test.”
Introducing such gross injustice in a document as central and sacred as the Constitution that in many ways discriminates against more than 70 percent of the population is neither equitable not defensible and hence the current level of protests and street violence is only likely to grow in coming weeks. More than 40 lives have already been lost and any kind of intimidation by those who benefit from the new provisions in the Constitution will only exacerbate an already volatile situation.
Thus India’s concerns are not unfounded and the Delhi response to the new constitution “that its promulgation has been noted” is terse and the diplomatic signal unambiguous. The Modi government has conveyed its disappointment, concern and ire in no uncertain terms and the reasons are varied but valid.
The disappointment stems from the nature of the special relationship that Nepal shares with India. Open borders across 1750 km and recruitment of Nepalese citizens in the Indian army is Nepal-specific and no other neighbour has this status. Furthermore, when Modi visited Nepal in August 2014, soon after he assumed office, it appeared that his exhortation to the members of the CA to adopt an inclusive and equitable document was given the consideration it deserved. The fact that the new constitution is as skewed as it is speaks for itself.
It is understood that Modi had spoken to his Nepali counterpart Sushil Koirala last month urging him to have an inclusive document – but clearly this had little impact. Ad the last-minute dash by Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Kathmandu, advising a delay in the announcement about the Constitution pending negotiations with the disenfranchised groups, fell on deaf ears – and the snub from Nepal was the equivalent of poking Delhi in the eye. Hence the unprecedented turn of phrase in the Indian diplomatic response on Sunday.
The concern in Delhi stems from the manner in which domestic violence and unrest in Nepal – particularly in the plains that adjoin India and where there is an open border – can impact India’s proximate states. Bihar is case in point and the current election cycle can be adversely affected by the fallout from Nepal. The scope for clandestine and criminal activity directed against India by using Nepal as a transit has been an abiding pattern over the last two decades.
And finally the ire in Delhi can be linked to a sense of being deliberately misled by Nepal’s top political leadership apropos the constitution. The PMO in Nepal is being perceived of engaging in double-speak and it is understood that during the Jaishankar visit – attention was drawn to an article by Prateek Pradhan – the former press adviser to the Nepali PM which was very critical of India and PM Modi.
Many constituencies in Nepal empathize with Delhi’s concerns and aver that a high-level political meeting is necessary – to ensure that Nepal does the ‘right’ thing by its own citizens in relation to the constitution. The Modi government will have to find that delicate balance between advising Kathmandu without being accused of interference. Concurrently Delhi will have to review its own capacity to monitor domestic political developments in a proximate state. Is there a pattern here with the Maldives imbroglio that needs rigorous introspection ?
It may be recalled that BR Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Indian Constitution fought tooth and nail with his peers to resist the tyranny of enshrining majority sentiment in a politically sacred document. An equitable and inclusive path was the final outcome. Ambedkar further noted: “My social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.”
The cue for the land of the Buddha’s birth needs little reiteration. Nepal needs to find its own Ambedkar at this critical juncture and restore the normative to the word and spirit of the new constitution. Will the Bhattarai resignation be the appropriate catalyst ? The alternative is bleak.
*C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected]