Nepal’s constitutional conundrum: Will Dahal untie the political knot?

Nepal’s constitutional conundrum: Will Dahal untie the political knot?

P K Balachandran,
Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal signs new constitution

Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal went into a huddle with various parties in parliament on April 28 to untie the Gordian knot hindering the full implementation of the country’s constitution passed in September 2015.

Parties of the Madhesi community living in the Terai or plains region bordering India, are locked in a prolonged and fierce battle with the parties of the hill country over constitutional rights.

The Madhesis, who are people of recent Indian origin, are portraying themselves as the underdogs seeking justice and equity in an avowedly multi-ethnic Nepal. The Madhesis now operate under an umbrella organization called United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) and are demanding significant constitutional amendments.

But the hill region-based parties, representing the indigenous Nepalese, and which are led by upper castes Hindus, maintain that the 2015 constitution drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly has accommodated the interests of all groups including the Madhesis, and therefore, no more amendments are needed.

The dominant hill-region based parties are the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), the CPN-Unified Marxist Leninist, and the Nepali Congress. While CPN (MC) is heading the government with the Nepali Congress, the CPN (UML) is the main opposition party.

Also Read: Nepal Govt begins process to increase local units in Tarai

A determined set of Madhesi parties have declared that they will not only oppose the local elections earmarked for May 14, but will disrupt them if the constitution is not amended as per their wishes first.

According to Nepal’s Minister for Law, Ajay Shankar Nayak, who is an MP of the Prime Minister Dahal’s CPN (Maoist Center), it is not only the Madhesi Morcha, but other parties have also opposed the amendments suggested by the government. The main opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) is vehemently against it, especially the provision relating to altering provincial boundaries to alter the composition of provinces.

Demands of the Madhesis

The Madhesis basically want 20 districts where they are in large numbers to be joined to carve out two Provinces. They want five districts which are now tied to non-Madhesi provinces to be hived off and merged with one or the other of the proposed Madhesi dominated provinces. The Madhesis also want electoral constituencies to be demarcated on the basis of population so that more of them will get elected to parliament. Right now, their representation is less than what their population warrants.

The Madhesis point out that the constitution makers have ignored the Terai region’s economic importance and have not given the people here a fair political deal. Terai gives 75% of the land revenue; 93 % of the excise duty; 70% of the customs duty; and 77% of the public revenue to the Nepalese Exchequer. But in return have little say in the affairs of the State. The Madhesis have also been fighting for language rights after Nepali was made the sole official language and Hindi, Bhojpuri and Maithili were marginalized.

The Dahal government did go a long way to address Madhesi grievances in 2016 when it proposed constitutional amendments to increase the number of seats in parliament by twenty; to allow Indian women married to Nepalese to get Nepalese citizenship if they give up their Indian citizenship and to allow Indian languages like Hindi, Bhojpri and Maithili to be used in areas where there are significant numbers of Madhesis.

But the government’s proposals ran aground on the issue of changing boundaries of the provinces or to create new provinces to cater to the Madhesis’ demand. The government did agree to create two Madhesi dominated provinces but there was a dispute over the allocation of some districts. Government wanted this dispute to be settled by the Federal Commission. Government also said that any change made in any province will have to get the support of the majority of provinces.

But the Madhesis would have none of it. They wanted nothing to be left to the Federal Commission without precise Terms of Reference.

The Dahal government’s plea was that any measure will have to get the support of all parties, especially the main opposition party, the CPN-UML. But the CPN-UML led by the pro-Chinese K.P.Oli, sees every move of the Madhesis as a handiwork of India as they are seen as handmaidens of India.

Indeed, India was not happy with the September 2015 constitution as it had been rushed through without taking the stated concerns of the Madhesis into account. While the hill-based Nepalese parties wanted to go by majority support in the Constituent Assembly, India, like the Madhesis, wanted the constitution to be based on consensus in which the minorities views will count.

When the Madhesis organized a blockade of the roads connecting Nepal with India, New Delhi looked on nonchalantly which made hill country Nepalese wonder if it was an Indian instigated action.

As things stand, the possibility of holding provincial and federal elections slated for January 2018, is slim. The first of the elections, for local bodies, was to be held by the end of December but they are yet to be held.

Also Read: Constitution amendment proposal tabled

According to political observers in Nepal, the opposition and the Madhesi parties have their electoral calculations, as do the ruling Congress and the Maoists. The ruling coalition seems to believe that their efforts to amend the new constitution and break the political deadlock will be rewarded with votes. While the Madhesi parties and the CPN (UML) believe stubborn opposition will yield votes.

Additionally, the government’s proposal to hive off six districts from Province five has been met with demonstrations and protests there. Local leaders of the Nepali Congress and Maoist parties which brought the amendment proposal are also involved in these protests, as are members of local business community and civil society. These districts do not want to be separated from the Tarai districts and become distant from the Indian border whose proximity is important for trade and livelihood.

Nepalese observer Biswas Baral’s prediction is that extremist forces will exploit the situation for their benefit.

He says: “Many Nepalese are starting to lose patience with the mainstream actors, who seem happy to muddle through the confusion. As if to cash in on this souring public sentiment, the two parties comprised of former functionaries of the monarchy have now united under the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) banner. The new party, now the fourth biggest in parliament, has made restoring the Hindu state its main agenda. No one should be surprised if the united RPP, with its promise of restoring the ‘sacred land of Hindus’ and eventually bringing back the ‘stabilising institution’ of the monarchy does well in future elections.”

On the other hand, the Madhesi academic C.K. Raut, has come with a proposal to establish an independent “Madhes” in the Terai region. Young Madhesis are said to be attracted to this concept.

“The longer the political deadlock prolongs, the greater will be the appeal of these radical forces. So, it is in the interest of all the mainstream political actors, especially those who agree to the changes brought about by the popular movement in 2006, to somehow work out durable solutions to outstanding constitutional issues – and soon,” Baral pleads.