Nepal

Nepal: A costly constitution

Crucial issues ignored in the debate over the constitution will create faultlines in Nepali politics once it's passed.

Activists from ethnic Madhesi political parties shout anti-constitution slogans during a protest to mark Nepal's first constitution day in Kathmandu on September 19 [EPA]

Last November marked a decade since Nepal's Maoists ended their bloody "People's War" in 2006 to join competitive politics. The conflict, which started after a fringe communist group declared an armed revolt against the government in 1996, claimed the lives of more than 16,000 Nepalis.

In 2007, the reinstated parliament of Nepal adopted an interim constitution, declaring the country a secular, federal republic and called for an election of a constituent assembly that would write Nepal's first democratic constitution within four years. But this gruelling exercise took eight years of political bickering that saw six governments fall and two constituent assemblies elected.

The final months of the constitution drafting was marred by violent protests by ethnic Madhesis and Tharus against arbitrary federal demarcation and citizenship provisions in the southern part of the country. Nepal's first constitution delivered by the people's elected body had pushed the country into further instability and violence.

Nobody would realise that better than former President Ram Baran Yadav, who has spent the past year publicly repenting the fact that he was forced to promulgate a constitution that is now in limbo and that has divided the country.

Yadav has all the time in the world to regret and reflect whether his loyalty towards then ruling party Nepali Congress betrayed his judgment in promulgating a bitterly contested document. But what followed next has created faultlines that have made Nepali politics more unstable than ever.

Geopolitical tectonics

A landlocked nation, Nepal has always been dependent on its neighbours for importing essential goods, especially India, with which it shares more than 1,800km of largely unregulated borders.

The mountain barrier with China in the north meant Beijing has mostly been a distant observer of Kathmandu's affairs. This has historically given New Delhi leverage, especially since it brokered the 2006 accord between the Maoists and Nepal's political parties.

So, when Madhesis and Tharus, who share geographical and cultural affinities with people living on the Indian side, took to the streets against the draft constitution in August last year, the government in New Delhi used its diplomatic channels to put pressure on Kathmandu to address their demands.

The Madhesis and Tharus have long complained about being treated unfairly by dominant hill caste groups, taunted and politically marginalised for appearing to be "more Indian and less Nepali". The community's aspiration for autonomy is among one of the long-standing struggles in recent Nepali history.

READ MORE: Nepal - A decade after the Maoist rebellion

The demand for federal autonomy was revived during the 2007 uprising known as Madhes Movement, and the issue became contentious as the constitution drafting team in the constituent assembly came up with a proposed federal demarcation.

The Madhesis and Tharus, each demanding an autonomous province with a demographic advantage, took to the streets protesting arbitrary demarcation of provincial boundaries.

Having exhausted its diplomatic efforts, India resorted to a blockade on Nepal, crippling life across the country for six months and causing a massive shortage of essential goods including petroleum products and medicines.

The angry government in Kathmandu under then Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists and Leninists, reacted by signing a historic treaty with China and vowing to build a petroleum pipeline between Tibet and Kathmandu.

Emboldened by Kathmandu's overtures, Beijing sent a fleet of petroleum tankers to Nepal. When the tankers arrived in Kathmandu on the first week of November 2015, they were greeted by cheering crowds waving national flags.

Despite ridiculously vague provisions in Article 17 and 19 clearly limiting individual and the media's freedom of expression, there has been no serious lobbying from citizen groups to pressure political parties to amend these coercive provisions.

For a country surrounded by two nuclear giants, Nepal may have little room for manoeuvring when it comes to managing its foreign affairs.

But the country is being held hostage to the diktat of incompetent and greedy leaders, who have made political careers playing one powerful neighbour against the other, forcing the country into a dangerous political course.

Every small country treads a thin diplomatic line to balance its national interests against those of its larger neighbours, but it takes years of consistent bad governance and diplomacy to arrive at the mess Nepal currently finds itself in.

State of limbo

The April 2015 earthquake and the political blockade may have momentarily brought international media focus to Nepal, but the world has moved on, leaving Nepal to deal with its problems.

The way political parties and the newly formed government in Kathmandu have gone about their business, it seems that they have conveniently forgotten that the constitution was delivered at the cost of precious Nepali lives.

Now, a year under a dysfunctional statute, the present political equation in the parliament may finally favour the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and the Nepali Congress to table an amendment proposal and bring the protesting constituencies into an agreement.

But with the Oli-led CPN-UML party taking to the streets, obstructing the house and trying to polarise public opinion, the Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal will find himself cornered.

Dahal will look to strike a compromise deal with UML to get the proposal endorsed and secure a good campaigning chip for his party during the next elections. The largest Nepali Congress party, too, has invested huge political capital in the process by backing a Maoist-led government, and would want to see the amendment bill tabled.

But, even if the amendment bill is endorsed by the parliament, it will come at the cost of more than half of the population still being denied their rights to equal citizenship. Under the Article 11 (5) and (7) of the present constitution, Nepali women cannot pass down citizenship rights to their children without declaring the citizenship status of the man who fathers the child.

Such a provision is deeply humiliating and discriminating for women who want to exercise their right to be treated equally by the constitution, and it violates several provisions under international law including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On the crucial issue of federal demarcation, the proposed amendment seems to have recognised indigenous Tharu people's demand for autonomy by carving a province that includes six districts with demographic advantage for Tharus.

But, in a glaring display of political dishonesty, the proponents have left out Kailali and Kanchanpur districts which have a major Tharu population, to suit the political interest of a few leaders including Nepali Congress boss Sher Bahadur Deuba.

Unfortunately, the Tharus of midwest and far west Nepal lack a strong voice in Kathmandu and may go unheard today, but it will create a major faultline in Nepal's federal politics in the years to come.

But, the biggest letdown in this constitutional amendment debate has been the passive role of Nepal's civil society and intelligentsia.

Despite ridiculously vague provisions in Article 17 and 19 clearly limiting individual and the media's freedom of expression, there has been no serious lobbying from citizen groups to pressure political parties to amend these coercive provisions.

While the Nepali media has been busy dissecting other constitutional provisions and their possible impact on national life, it sees no merit in questioning the limits put on its own constitutional rights.

Nepal has lived through a decade of bloody conflict and another decade of painful transition, but the country is yet to be at peace with its own people and their liberated political aspirations. The broader acceptance of the constitution is a minimum requirement to ensure it, which the proposed amendment may not guarantee after all.

Anurag Acharya is a Kathmandu-based journalist. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera