Nepal votes for majority constitution to end impasse
by Sandhya Jain on 21 Sep 2015 9 Comments
After the abject failure of the constituent assembly of 2008 and the inability to achieve unanimity in the assembly elected in 2013, Nepali lawmakers have understandably opted to end the impasse by voting for a draft approved by the three major parties, viz., Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The landmark agreement of June 8 was a mature response to the devastating earthquake of April 25 that took as many as 9,000 lives, flattened much of Kathmandu, destroying its roads and tourism infrastructure.


These three parties have a combined strength of 475 in the 601-member assembly, far above the two-thirds majority (399) required to endorse the new statute. Peeved at this development, the eleven Madhes-centric parties (60 members) are boycotting the drafting process on account of intractable differences over federalism. One Madhesi faction, led by Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar, was present at the June 8 meeting at Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s official Baluwatar residence, but later retracted. However, Madhesi groups will eventually have to come to terms with the situation and redress their grievances by constitutional means.


The majority decision is not unreasonable, as most constitutions de facto reflect the thinking of the ruling establishment; changes are made when needed, and have even now not been ruled out by Prime Minister Sushil Kumar Koirala. Hence, though President Ram Baran Yadav favoured further attempts to accommodate the Madhesi parties, the Constituent Assembly Chairman Subhash Nembang was not unjustified in ruling for closure. The years of wrangling finally ended on September 16 when the House adopted all 302 clauses in the Constitution by an impressive 507-25 vote (532 members were present). The country’s new, and first democratic constitution, was finally promulgated on the evening of September 20 and is the greatest legacy of Mr Koirala, who will shortly be leaving for the United States for treatment of an aggressive cancer. 


Just prior to voting on the demand for restoration of Hindu Rashtra, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was tactfully persuaded to postpone his scheduled visit. With Nepal having been a favourite hunting ground of missionaries and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) since the massacre of the royal family in June 2001, many felt the Vatican emissary’s visit was timed to influence the constituent assembly decisions.


The issue of Hindu State is highly emotive as the Vatican appointed a Bishop for Nepal soon after the Maoist takeover, and began printing and distributing Bibles in all tribal dialects. With over 81 per cent of the population Hindu, many, including some Muslim groups, felt that a secular state would make them vulnerable to evangelical trespass. Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until the Maoists abolished the monarchy in 2006 and declared a secular State in 2008.


Despite intermittent demands for restoration of the monarchy and Hindu State, on September 14, 2015, the constituent assembly by a majority of over two-thirds of its members rejected the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party’s proposal in this regard, triggering incidents of violence in some places. Yet, this was a foregone conclusion, as the 12-point agreement mediated by New Delhi in November 2005 and signed by seven major Nepal parties, agreed to end the absolute monarchy. Indeed, the agreement was notable only for its strong denunciation of the monarchy. Observers claim this marked the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s outsourcing of India’s Nepal policy to the Indian leftist parties, CPI and CPI-M, and ensured that the Maoists came to power in Kathmandu, to derail the world’s only Hindu Kingdom. Today, Prachanda denounces the Terai parties as splittists backed by ‘foreign forces’ (read India).


Equally contentious is the proposal to divide Nepal into seven federal provinces. These have been conceived as administrative units, each sharing a border with India, to promote integration with the Indian economy, rather than along ethnic lines. Madhesi and Tharu groups find this unacceptable; over forty persons have died in violence in the Terai region. However, the issue of demarcating and naming the provinces will finally be decided by a commission within six months of the statute being promulgated. The Madhesi parties would do well to represent their case here.


Throughout the constitution-making process, India has been on the proverbial horns of a dilemma. A constitution was the crying need of the hour. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Nepal Constituent Assembly last August, he emphasised the need to accommodate the aspirations of citizens of all communities and regions and urged a constitution based on consensus.


But, perhaps tired of the endless petulance, the majority of elected representatives feel that the constitution must be clinched at the earliest, and amendments mooted later, given the country’s fragility after the earthquake. Prima facie, it is difficulty to dismiss this view as illegitimate. True, the Madhesi parties are generally viewed as pro-India, but there is only so much India can do without appearing to be interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.


New Delhi has to be sensitive to the anti-India sentiment in Nepal, with social media abuzz with rumours that India’s Foreign Ministry and RAW were offering covert support to the Terai agitators. In July, former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ visited India to examine post-earthquake reconstruction in Gujarat, followed by former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who came to thank India for the generous earthquake relief. Both met Prime Minister Modi, and both meetings become controversial in Nepal due to the divisiveness engendered by the constitution-making process.


Reports from Nepal suggest that the Indian Ambassador, Ranjit Rae, met senior leaders of all parties on Friday (September 11) in a bid to stop voting for the new statute, but he was rebuffed and the process began on Sunday itself. If true, India has rarely been humiliated in this fashion. Insiders say that even the $1 billion credit line offered by Mr Modi after the April earthquake has not been used by Nepal; possibly it is too soon.


Given the deep ethnic polarisation in Nepal at present, observers feel that the top political leaders have allowed ethnic loyalties to prevail over party ideology and national interest. That may be so, but this was certainly not the time for India to interfere with Nepal’s constitutional process. It was appropriate to allow the Constituent Assembly to conclude its task; hopefully tranquility will return to the Indo-Nepal border. Instigating secessionists in the Terai is not in India’s interests. A wait and watch attitude, as employed by Beijing, is in New Delhi’s best interests.



Foreign secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Nepal on September 18, just two days after the country’s Constituent Assembly approved the new statute, is ill-timed and can only confirm Nepali suspicions about New Delhi intentions. India is naturally concerned about the legitimate aspirations of the Madhesi and Tharu people, but could have held its peace till the celebrations over the new constitution are over and the commission to demarcate provincial boundaries begins work.

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