We don’t believe that the controversy is about federalism or providing more rights to the people. We’d be happy if it were so.
Here is an important distinction for people who view Nepal from eyes trained elsewhere, where it’s easy to draw lines in country as a “Muslim North” and “Christian South”.
During the elections last year, we published updates that aimed to reach people who are ill-informed about Nepal’s situation because of relying too much on the English language commentary coming out of Nepal and from Nepal’s English-language experts. A similar situation has ensued from the controversies surrounding Nepal’s constitution writing efforts. Like last time, here are the updates you need to save yourself from embarrassment that will result from relying on the aforementioned sources. These are not just our views, but a distillation of news, and different opinions in Nepal right now.
Seven questions to understand Nepal’s latest crisis with Constituent Assembly
1. What is the Constituent Assembly (CA)?
The second Constituent Assembly (CA II) was elected through popular mandate last year. The first one (CA I) failed at its job after its 4-year tenure ran out. The first CA was elected following popular street protests of 2006 that forced the King out of power. It also paved way for the warring Maoist rebels to join mainstream politics. They had been waging a bloody war against the state and their main demand was a CA election. The Maoists and political parties from the parliament jointly started street protests after the King had dissolved parliament and taken power a few years earlier. The parliament was a result of street protests further back in time- 1990, which ended almost 30 years of King’s direct-rule that banned political parties and several democratic rights.
2. What is the position of Maoist party today?
We have written previously about CA I elections, which under dubious circumstances enabled the Maoists to emerge as the single largest party. They were in power for most of the time after the CA I elections. Because of several misadventures while in power, and the failure to lead the constitution writing process, they were reduced to the 3rd largest party in the CA II elections. Not only did they try to attack religious institutions, influence the army, foment inter-cultural discord, muzzle state funds in the name of peace process, backtrack democratic rights, they also tried to introduce provisions in the constitution that would help their long-stated goal of state-capture through the use of violence and force. Disrespect for basic rights like freedom of expression was in display, judicial process against grave war crimes were haughtily challenged and senior Maoist leaders always carried an expression that seemed to say “I can do anything to you- don’t dare challenge me.” The video footage of Baburam Bhattarai while he was announcing elections can be seen today to understand what we mean here. Some of their demands were: the creation of federal provinces on the basis of what is called the “single-ethnic identity” (more on that later), a legal preference to people of certain ethnicities over others inside such provinces, a directly elected president, a ban on parties that disagreed the above views, limit on property rights, a judiciary under the control of parliament, and so on. While declaring elections, the ruling coalition categorically said that “we could not include these provisions in the constitution because we didn’t have a two-thirds majority in the current assembly- please vote us this time so we get the required number in the next assembly.”
3. Who are the Madheshi Morcha (coalition)?
The political partners of Maoists partners were/are the regional parties from Southern plains of the east and central Nepal (their presence in Western plains is minimal)- called Madheshi Morcha (MM). This Morcha (coalition) emerged from the Madhesh uprising immediately after the peace process began. The uprising began as a violent opposition against the Maoists, but soon took the form of a political alliance demanding greater political autonomy for the Madheshi people (which is not a homogenous group of single peoples, but a very diverse group- ranging from Nepal’s most privileged group to the poorest- more on that later- living in Southern Nepal, who are ethnically and culturally different from the people of the hills and mountains). The demand of that uprising was a “single Madhesh province” in the South, stretching from the east to the west of the country. The prime minister of the time, Girija Koirala remarked that India was behind the uprising, suggesting that India wanted to check the growing influence of Maoists in Madhesh by cobbling together a political force there. While it could have been partially true, the grievances of Madheshi people against an exclusive state-apparatus that had been in Kathmandu for many years was also real. Many prominent Madheshi leaders from Koirala’s and other big parties defected to join the Madheshi coalition. Amidst a lot of opposition and pressed by the security situation in the South as well as the urgency to hold elections for CA I, the government agreed with the coalition to “federal states including Madhesh province.” The government has made such agreements with several other groups who were rioting and demanding provinces of their own. The situation was very volatile, as the Maoists had just joined mainstream politics, the monarchy was under suspension and the state’s capacity was in an all-time-low situation.
4. What are the points of contention in constitution writing?
As discussed above, the Maoist-Madheshi coalition is not in power after CA II. They performed dismally in the elections. The coalition of two centrist-leftist parliamentary-democratic parties NC and UML is in power now. Both coalitions have the support of several other smaller parties. The ruling coalition of NC-UML has a two-thirds majority in the CA II. These two parties have won more seats than any other parties (or all of them combined) in the Madhesh belt too. They went to the election rejecting the “single-ethnic identity based provinces” and other points advocated by the Maoist-Madheshi coalition. They won people’s support. Right now, the bone of contention is said to be the very subject of carving out provinces for the federal-government model. The opposition coalition wants a single province in the southern plains, or two, as a compromise. The ruling coalition says that is not acceptable. It is important to understand that neither side has clearly published their stances and federal model to the public. All remains murky. From the interviews of leaders published online or in print, the ruling coalition’s proposal seems to address the demands for linguistic rights and proportional representation for different ethnic groups. But they seem reluctant to name the provinces on ethnic grounds, and want them to be named based on geography, rivers, mountains or cultural heritages. The points where the opposition disagrees over these proposals are not clear apart from their demand of naming the provinces after some large ethnic groups. They talk about “identity”, “redress for the oppressed groups” and “progressive constitution”- but we haven’t found any concrete points as to what they constitute in the new constitution. The only clearly articulated point of disagreement seems to be the nature of province in the plains, but it is unlikely that such a big rift could have grown out of this. Some people suggest a hidden power-sharing agreement to be behind the conflict (more on this later).
5. Why such a problem with a province in the plains?
There are different viewpoints to this, and it is difficult to provide a single, coherent justification that is agreeable to all, but let’s try. The southern plains of Nepal stretch for almost 800 kilometers from east to west, along the Indo-Nepal border. It is home to almost half of the country’s population, and almost all ethnic groups. The southern plains, called Terai or Madhesh is home to not just the Madheshi people (who constitute about 20-30% of Nepal’s population, and less than 50% of the plains), but also to hill people, and usually there are many areas with mixed settlements. This is an important distinction for people who view Nepal from eyes trained elsewhere, where it’s easy to draw lines in country as a “Muslim North” and “Christian South”. Such situation is absent in Nepal, not just in the plains, but also in the hills. And apart from small pockets of areas where one group dominates, almost all of Nepal’s territory has competing historical claims by multiple groups of people.
Nepal has more than 100 ethnic groups (cultural groups) with as many languages, cultures and traditions. Many of these groups have suffered discrimination because of the South-Asian caste-system, a feudal state structure that emerged in Nepalese hills as a response to European-Islamic expansion in the subcontinent, a nationalist fervor that is typical to small countries sandwiched between big, aggressive powers and a state struggling to consolidate, which is typical to ungovernable mountain terrains with their proud people. But to say that the Maoist-Madheshi coalition are the representative of this section of population is a gross generalization. The ruling NC-UML coalition has been voted in huge numbers by the same people and in areas contested as theirs by the opposition coalition. This is indication of people’s disagreement to the federal and constitutional model presented by the opposition coalition. They were often criticized for being too violent, divisory, extreme, and racist. People of Nepal, having lived in harmony, disliked such an agenda, and preferred a more conciliatory approach.
Then, there’s the question of geopolitics. It is believed that China dislikes the idea of a province running along India’s borders. India, as mentioned above, has been seen as a supporter of such a claim.
6. What’s the solution to the current impasse?
Again, it is hard to provide an unbiased opinion here. Let’s first review the current situation. The interim constitution that is in effect today mandates that the constitution can be drafted through a “consensus”, failing which, a two-thirds majority can approve it. The task of finding such a consensus and preparing questions on which the assembly would vote was given to the Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai. He’d lead a parliamentary committee to discuss and decide on these matters. Most of the time he spent in this position has been bizzare, to say the least. He invited a separatist campaigner (from the Southern plains) for discussion on the issues of federalism, but never entertained voices that have opposed federalism (in favor for more decentralization of state powers). In a bid to garner more media-attention, he was busy issuing pictures and tweets of who he was meeting and where he was traveling as the deadline of his committee kept expiring. He was even debating starting a “new-force”- in order to bargain for more powers inside his own party and to split it, if he didn’t get them. Essentially, after several extentions, his committee failed miserably at finding consensus and also preparing the list of questions for the assembly to discuss and vote. The opposition coalition is demanding that consensus still be sought. People are starting to get fed up after years of the process, and want a constitution written early. The assembly’s own deadline of January 22nd has expired. The opposition parties took to violent street protests, vandalism inside the assembly and threats of more violence if their demand of “consensus” was not met. The ruling parties want to move ahead with the process of preparing questions for discussion and engaging the CA as efforts to forge a consensus continues.
7. Could there be hidden reasons for the current crisis, apart from what meets the eyes?
It has been said that Maoist chairman Prachanda and second-in-command Bhattarai have been trying to bargain important positions in the post-constitution power-sharing agreement. They want immunity from war crimes as a condition to forge a consensus. Leaders from the ruling coalition, including KP Oli, Prime Minister Koirala, and others have also been said to eye important positions. It is hard to confirm any of this, however.
But looking at how parties almost reached consensus several times before the January 22nd deadline, and mysteriously “failed” to maintain it, this looks plausible. If federalism was the only point of disagreement, such a consensus would have been impossible. A similar situation was seen prior to the dissolution of CA I when an agreement was violated by the ruling coalition of that time.
It is also essential to remember that although the opposition coalition has been called the voice of the oppressed and marginalized people of Nepal, their own behavior, principles and attitudes seem to be miles apart from such ideals. The Maoist party’s political principle is a centralized party apparatus to dictate over the diverse group of people. Their own lifestyles, past record of doing anything to justify their power goals, and political dishonesty paints a picture that is in contrast to the one potrayed by their supporters in media and intellectual circles. Similarly, the leaders of Madhesi coalition belong to the upper-caste landlords and feudals of Madhesh. According to statistics published by the UN and Nepal’s universities, these groups are the most advanced ethnic group in Nepal in terms of social-economic and educational status. On the other hand, the poor people of Madhesh, including Dalits, are Nepal’s poorest. During a BBC interview, a Madheshi leader Rajendra Mahato used abusive words against the physically challenged people, raising questions about his displayed principle of equality and fair treatment. Madheshi leaders have often warned of “pulling off the tongues” of people who disagreed with their views.
We don’t believe that the controversy is about federalism or providing more rights to the people. We’d be happy if it were so.