The Interim Constitution; the Madhesi Turmoil
The Interim Constitution; the Madhesi Turmoil
By Dr Bal Gopal Shrestha
Ending a long uncertainty, Nepal received its interim constitution and a new parliament with the Maoist rebels on 15 January 2007. The old parliament that King Gyanendra was forced to revive on April 2006 has been dissolved. This was a big leap forward in Nepal’s history because it completely denies any power to the king, which signals a virtual end of the 239 year old feudal Shah dynastic rule in Nepal. Most importantly the preamble of the constitution states, the sovereign people of Nepal has promulgated this constitution but not by any single person or a power centre. This makes it clear that for the first time in the history of Nepal, people in Nepal made a constitution for themselves. This is a landmark victory achieved by the Nepalese people. It can be said that this is also the beginning of a new era in the history of Nepal. Nepalese people can be proud of it and cheer it in many ways.However, my concern here is (not that we do not rejoice in the achievement) in seeing why so many people are angry about this constitution compelling them to agitate against it. Right from the time the seven-party alliance (SPA) and the Maoists agreed to proclaim this constitution we felt something was wrong with it, as the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, one of the constituents of the seven-party alliance had to write a note of dissent. However, the SPA and the Maoists leaders failed to realize the gravity of the matter. Especially, the four big constituents, namely the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), Nepali Congress (Democratic) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) appeared unprepared to understand the genuine demands of the Madhesi community and the indigenous nationalities. Instead of paying attention to their demands, they were busy in bargaining for parliamentary seats for themselves. No doubt that the interim constitution is a document of compromise and is not in any way a definitive one. It, however, shows the leaders of these parties are not ready to change their mindset to give up the privileges that they had been enjoying. This is the root cause that sparked the fire in the Terai and now it is burning throughout eastern Terai.
Of course, we can put the blame on the palace, reactionary forces or any other seen or unseen apparition for the unrest in the Terai, but that would not diminish the weight of the genuine demands put forward by the Madhesi community for equal rights. We must admit the fact that for centuries, people of Madhesi origin and all other nationalities remained exploited under the hands of the Shah ruler and their cliques- the hill people, the Khasa or the Brahmin and Chetris. After the April 2006 revolution, there were lots of discussions on restructuring of the state, but the ruling Brahmin and Chetris managed to secure a safe haven for themselves by denying any clear commitments to oppressed nationalities, Madhesi and low caste people.
For instance, article 5 of the interim constitution terms only Khasa as Nepali and made it a single official language, which is a clear sign of the continuation of the Panchayat era mentality that the leaders of these parties inherited. Although it says there is no prohibition in using other languages in local bodies, it is unclear if they can also be used in higher administrative bodies. Similarly, article 17 of the constitution says, each community is entitled to receive education in one’s own mother tongue, but it is not clear how it will be implemented, as it says it will be done according to the law, which does not exist.
Article 33 (gha) of the constitution states to end discriminations based on class, ethnicity, lingual, gender, cultural, religion and region and to deconstruct the present centralized and unitary structure of the state to reconstruct it into an inclusive, democratic and forward looking one by addressing women, low caste (dalit), indigenous nationalities, Madhesi, oppressed, neglected, minority communities and backward regions. However, it is totally uncertain how the discriminations based on class, ethnicity, lingual, gender, cultural, religion and region will be ended.
Furthermore, article 63 of the constitution has proposed a gigantic unicameral constituent assembly with 425 members but failed to address the heart of the matter, how women, low caste (dalit), indigenous nationalities, Madhesi, oppressed, neglected and minority communities will be represented in it. It proposes a mixed electoral system but there is no logic why it is needed. The absurdity is that even 204 seats proposed through the proportional electoral system cleverly avoided clarity to bring in representation from these neglected sections of the society. Of course, sub-clause (4) of article 63 vaguely states the political parties must select their candidates by following the principle of inclusiveness and says while appointing the candidates, the political parties should ensure proportional representation of oppressed groups, regions, Madheshi, women, Dalit and other groups. It means ethnic nationalities (janajati), Madheshi, women, and Dalit are to depend on the mercy of the political parties. This makes it clear that the leaders of all the parties, including the revolutionary Maoists are not sincere about their earlier promises regarding rights to ethnic nationalities (janajati), Madheshi, women, and Dalit.
It is a known fact that the Maoists have been advocating a federal type of state structure, autonomy and rights to self-determination for the indigenous nationalities in Nepal. In the aftermath of the 2006 April Revolution, leaders of all other parties, including the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), and certain leaders of both the Congress parties have been campaigning to restructure the state along federal lines to grant autonomy to indigenous nationalities. However, the interim constitution they promulgated totally ignored these promises. In this regard, their slogans in favour of oppressed nationalities appeared only to gain cheap popularity and to deceive the people.
Therefore, it was but natural that the Madhesis as well as all other indigenous oppressed nationalities lamented this constitution and rightly the Madhesi population in the Terai began their protests, since the leaders of these parties preferred to ignore their grievances. Similarly, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella organization of more than fifty nationalities has also announced protest programmes to let their voices be heard.
It has been a well acknowledged fact that after the success of the 1990 people’s movement, all the political parties loyal to the 1990 constitution neglected the issue of rights to oppressed nationalities (janajati), Dalit and Madesi populations. This is one of the reasons why the Maoists could gain support from these populations for their flashy slogans in their favour. After the failure to stick to their promises in the interim constitution, the Maoists and the CPN (UML) are sounding clarifications in their own ways. The Maoists are saying that they do still stand for a federal republic, autonomy and rights to self-determination for the indigenous nationalities but had to compromise with the SPA so as to not delay the peace process. Similarly, the leaders of the CPN (UML) and Congress are trying their best to justify their failure. However, it is the time to act and they must be ready to amend the interim constitution to make it inclusive in reality, so that it will address all the demands of the Madhesis, indigenous nationalities and Dalits. The government is running out of time, but it is never too late to begin a right job.
(The author is assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Leiden, the Netherlands)
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