Nepal’s New Constitution: India Sees Its Neighbours Through The Narrow Lens Of Security


Despite all its imperfections, Nepal’s new constitution is a huge breakthrough and a rare opportunity to realise its democratic potential.

Ever since Nepal embarked on its quest for a modern governing charter after the end of a Maoist insurgency in 2006, Nepali politicos have repeatedly said that the constitution would end the political transition and herald a new dawn for the country. Nepalis were already tired of such assurances, but there was no way out of the political quagmire. So they reposed their faith on a bunch of politicians – sitting ministers as well as former prime ministers and deputy prime ministers.

It was generally agreed that the document would not be agreeable to Nepal’s diverse social groups who often had competing demands. Indeed, the first constituent assembly, tasked with delivering the post-war, post-monarchy constitution, was dissolved following disagreement over federalism, the major bone of contention among the political forces.

The second constituent assembly, elected in November 2013, also missed its self-imposed deadline of January 2015. Patience was running out among the masses, frustrations soared. Then, in spring this year, a series of powerful earthquakes struck Nepal, which sits on the major seismic fault line. In early June, the leaders of four major parties – the ruling Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML), and the opposition the Maoists and Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (Loktantrik) – startled the earthquake-traumatized people by forging a consensus on federalism. This was indeed a historic breakthrough.

Why federalism?

While the political parties were also motivated by power-sharing agreement that was to come with delivery of the charter, the deal was meant to end political instability that had plagued Nepal for more than two decades. Federalism was sold as a formula to address grievances of historically marginalised communities and to decentralise the unitary state. The idea was to narrow the gap between Kathmandu and the hinterland and to reach out to the disenfranchised communities. Federalism was enshrined in Nepal’s interim constitution after the Madhesis and Tharus protested in the winter of 2007.

While the politicos dithered for years, the hastened process was called ‘fast track’, which meant the parliament was going to eschew regular procedure and deliver the charter by suspending many clauses. In mid-June, the coalition government of the Nepali Congress and the UML launched a drive to gauge public opinion on the draft of the charter. But the move sparked protests. Four people were shot dead after protesters clashed with police, while local administrations imposed curfew in several districts.

The protesters were angry with Kathmandu politicos for leaving the demarcation of the provinces to a commission. This forced leaders to reconsider the decision: they duly came up with a six-state federal model. This also drew protests from people of Karnali region in remote northwest. While the people of Karnali were placated after a state was added for them, now a total of seven, Tharus, the indigenous people of the plains, who had long struggled for a separate federal state, were angry for being sidelined. In the ensuing violence, seven policemen, including a senior officer, were killed in a small town in southwestern Nepal.

As Kathmandu remained complacent, protests erupted in the southeastern parts of Nepal, home to Madhesis, who share close marital, linguistic and cultural ties across the border in India. Police continued to fire indiscriminately at protesters. By the end of monsoon season, almost 50 people had been killed.

Defying India

That New Delhi is one of the key political players in Nepal is no secret. India tends to see Nepal through the narrow lens of security, relegating the all-important foreign policy to the South Block mandarins.

That all seemed to have changed in the wake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in August last year, which broke a 17-year hiatus by his predecessors. Addressing the constituent assembly amid a roar of applause (his carefully chosen words resonated with the lawmakers and the Nepali people), Modi gently nudged Nepali leaders to deliver the constitution and begin the crucial task of economic growth and development so that the neighbours can be partners on Nepal’s path to prosperity.

A year later, India has turned into a vile neighbour that adds insult to injury by imposing blockade to a landlocked, India-dependent country, where people are reeling from the aftermath of devastating earthquakes. This blockade, which India denies it has enacted, also comes on the eve of Hindu festival of Dasain, when business reaches at its peak in the Hindu majority nation. (I spoke to Mitra Lal Regmi, the head of customs office in Birgunj, and Sishir Kumar Dhungana, director general of department of customs. Both confirmed there is a blockade.)

Although the onus is on Kathmandu politicos – some of whom like to brag about their jaunts to New Delhi to project themselves as India’s allies at home – to resolve the deepening crisis on its southern flatland, this is also a case of a friend quickly turning into a foe. New Delhi has much to lose from this episode.

A leading Nepali daily recently reported that Maoist leader Prachanda vowed to end the political deadlock – the Maoists had cobbled together an opposition alliance against the ruling parties – on his secret foray in Beijing in April this year. Prachanda, who holds grudges against New Delhi, has in the past successfully maneuvered to defy India. In February 2011, he backed the UML’s Jhalanath Khanal for the premiership of a fragile coalition government that lasted only six months. The Khanal government was said to have been formed despite India’s reservations.

Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress, the UML’s blunt-speaking chairman KP Oli, and Prachanda – all snubbed by New Delhi at some point during their long political career – formed an unlikely trio that shepherded the constitution that New Delhi has so far refrained from welcoming. In mid-September, after realising that it was rapidly losing grip on Nepal affairs, Indian government dispatched its special envoy, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, to Kathmandu to salvage the situation. But it was too late: An overwhelming number of Nepali lawmakers had voted for the charter, which was officially promulgated on September 20.

An old game

For those old enough, the blockade has revived memories of 1989, when the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi imposed a 13-month embargo on Nepal. While New Delhi had been reportedly upset with Nepal’s purchase of anti-aircraft guns from China, the move bolstered the political parties protesting against the Panchayat regime under King Birendra Shah. India’s backing was the key factor for the end of the Panchayat autocracy in 1990.

In fact, in all changes of regime since 1950s, when Nepal entered a modern era, India has played a key role by supporting the opposition forces. Some commentators have argued that this time too it’s backing the Madhesis after feeling left out in the crucial stage of constitution promulgation.

Blocking vital supplies to its neighbour to apply pressure on the government of the day has always been New Delhi’s modus operandi. Nepal is not alone in suffering from such extreme measures.

Two summers ago, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in Bhutan, India withdrew subsidy for LPG and kerosene for the Himalayan kingdom. It resumed the subsidy only a month later. This move by New Delhi brought a pro-India politician on the hot seat in Thimpu. Tshering Tobgay, an opposition leader until the elections, defeated the party of prime minister Jigmi Y Thinley by huge margins. In one stroke, the Indian move sent the formidable former bureaucrat to political obscurity. New Delhi was upset with Thinley for his overtures with China. All along, Bhutan’s powerful Wangchuk monarchy kept mum. It has learnt its lessons: the small landlocked country wouldn’t mind sacrificing the political career of one of its most promising leaders to appease India.

An evolving document

There are many flaws in Nepal’s new constitution. Nevertheless, it’s the first step towards a liberal, democratic and inclusive political order. The definition of secularism has been diluted to mollify the pro-Hindu groups. Although the constitution ensures positive discrimination for women, Dalits and ethnic groups, it has drawn ire of women rights activists: A Nepali child of a woman married to a foreigner is entitled to naturalised citizenship; but, he or she can obtain citizenship by descent only if both parents are Nepali. Similarly, Madhesis are demanding proportional representation in all state organs, rather than only the government institutions.

But, despite all its imperfections, Nepal’s new constitution is a huge political breakthrough and a rare opportunity to realise the country’s democratic potential.

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