Nepal pushes to finalise constitution despite concerns

Plans to complete long-delayed constitution come as many Nepalis focus on rebuilding following devastating earthquakes.

The impoverished country of 29 million people is in the middle of a massive reconstruction effort following the April quake [AFP]

In the southeastern Nepali village of Jhorahat, Bhanu Sardaar filled a large plastic bag with rice saplings from his parched farming land. He was relocating them to a friend’s field with a water pump in order to save his crop.

Less than 100m away at a local school, members of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly were recording public opinion on the country’s new draft constitution. Many of the local population, small farmers like Sardaar, did not attend the meeting.

“Farmers like me don’t have the luxury and time to worry about the constitution,” he said.

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes on April 25 and May 12, which killed more than 8,700 people and left millions without proper homes and living in tents, Nepal’s major political parties finally came together to sign a 16-point deal on June 8 to swiftly conclude the charter-writing process, which has been paralysed since 2008.

There is mounting pressure on lawmakers and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, both from the people as well as from international donors, to conclude the process and focus on the relief and rebuilding efforts as billions of dollars in aid money were promised.

But critics say the political elite have taken advantage of the disaster to include regressive provisions that will curb the rights of women and marginalise groups, including Dalits. Lawmakers plan to promulgate the new constitution in mid-August.

Prashant Jha, a New Delhi-based Nepali journalist and author of “Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal”, told Al Jazeera that the ruling parties exploited the post-earthquake scenario to push through a charter with a conservative agenda.

“They have done it on purpose because they know people are too tired and bogged down to come out and protest at this time,” said Jha.

Members of Hindu right-wing party have protested to demand return of Nepal as a Hindu state [Getty Images]Members of Hindu right-wing party have protested to demand return of Nepal as a Hindu state [Getty Images]

After the earthquakes, the nation saw “unprecedented national solidarity and a sense of the country coming together across ethnic political divisions,” said Jha. That spirit should have been sustained, he said, to bring about a constitution that everybody could own and to work cohesively towards reconstruction.

Contentious clauses

The draft charter has citizenship clauses that will reduce the children of Nepalis married to foreign nationals to second-class citizens with limited constitutional rights. The main political parties this week promised to address the issue.

This provision will affect the population living along the open borders Nepal shares with India where it is common for people to marry across the borders into communities with shared cultures and values.

“They have gone back on the idea of federalism, they have instituted a discriminatory citizenship provision for women, they have quashed inclusive provisions agreed earlier in the Constituent Assembly, and they are on the verge of dropping the word secularism,” Jha said.

After a decade of civil war in the country between the Maoists and the government ended in 2006 with a peace agreement, the 239-year-old Hindu monarchy was abolished and Nepal was declared a secular republic. 

Over the past eight years there was a sustained campaign from the conservative right-wing Hindu to stoke public fears about secularism.

The ruling Nepali Congress (NC) leader and Constituent Assembly member Gagan Thapa told Al Jazeera this week that the word “secular” will be dropped out of the new constitution, adding that the new country would be not identified with any religion.

“People will be free to choose their religion. There will be no state interference in the matter of religion,” he said.

Influential leaders within the NC and its ruling coalition partner centre-left Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), popularly known as UML, have been campaigning for the leadership to drop the word “secular”.

Extended deadlines

The Maoist-dominated Constituent Assembly elected in 2008 failed to conclude the constitution-writing process within the original two-year deadline, hobbled primarily by the issue of the federal structure.

Tens of thousands of people still live in makeshift camps as the rebuilding efforts have yet to gather steam [AFP]Tens of thousands of people still live in makeshift camps as the rebuilding efforts have yet to gather steam [AFP]

After four extensions in as many years, the assembly was suspended and a new one was elected in November 2013 that brought the NC and the UML to power. But further political bickering meant the stalemate has continued.

Although a 16-point deal last month brought the NC, UML and the opposition Unified Communist party of Nepal (Maoists) together, each conceding their rigid positions on several issues, it fails to address a number of contentious issues, including the issue of demarcation of future state boundaries – a point of contention between the NC-UML and Maoists.

People from the southern plains known as Madhes, also known as the Terai, have staged sporadic protests against the draft saying that the delay in marking federal boundaries is a ploy to deny their long-standing demand: self-rule for people in the region.

Despite public opposition and violent clashes with the police in several districts of the Terai region, the government ran a campaign to garner people’s feedback on the elements in the new draft.

Farm workers in Morang district are worried about their crop [Anurag Acharya/Al Jazeera]Farm workers in Morang district are worried about their crop [Anurag Acharya/Al Jazeera]

“Madhesis already feel alienated from Kathmandu, this [police] crackdown will antagonise them further,” Professor Rajendra Bimal, a Madhesi civil society activist from the historic town of Janakpur, told Al Jazeera.

The Terai region bordering India has long complained of marginalisation at the hands of the administration dominated by the upper caste groups from the hill region, who have traditionally dominated politics in the Himalayan nation.

Laxman Lal Karna, the Madhesi leader from the opposition Sadvawana Party, called the draft constitution a “regressive document”.

“We burned the draft copies in Kathmandu two weeks back. Now it is being torched all over Madhes as the locals have refused to take part in the consultation,” he said.

Tracking public opinion

The campaign to get feedback on the draft constitution was launched this month, at a time when hundreds of thousands were still homeless across the hill districts and people in the plains were busy working in their fields.

Critics fear a lot of people might have missed out on the opportunity to look at the draft, let alone comment on it.

The earthquakes are believed to have destabilised the country’s mountainous terrain and on Thursday torrential rains triggered more landslides, killing at least 30 people in the town of Pokhara, west of the capital Kathmandu.

With the monsoon season expected to last until September, for the millions made homeless by the earthquake, the situation is desperate as people try to ensure they have a roof over their heads.

“My earnings are modest,” said Mala Shrestha, 45, who sells vegetables in the busy streets of Mangal Bazaar in Lalitpur district of Kathmandu Valley. She is oblivious to the constitution-writing process.

“My only daughter is married, but I have a broken house I am saving to fix,” she said.

Survival is the core concern for most Nepalis, Jha said.

“Everybody is fatigued and tired. People want to bring their life back together. And they [politicians] have used the opportunity to push through the constitution.”

Anurag Acharya in Biratnagar and Kathmandu, Nepal, contributed to this report.

Political bickering has led to delaying the constitution-writing process that started in 2007 after the king was forced out of power [AFP]Political bickering has led to delaying the constitution-writing process that started in 2007 after the king was forced out of power [AFP]
Source: Al Jazeera


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