Unveiling Nepal’s constitution amid deadly protests

Minorities in the southern plains denounce the new constitution for failing to protect their rights.

Activists from Nepal's Madhesi minority protest against the new constitution in Kathmandu on Saturday [Niranjan Shrestha/AP]

Kathmandu, Nepal – In the days after a series of earthquakes killed about 8,900 people in late April, many Nepalese abandoned the capital, Kathmandu.

Among them was Sabita Bichha, who moved with her husband back to their hometown of Jaleswar in the plains of southern Nepal.

Four months later, Jaleswar terrifies her more than Kathmandu during the deadly quakes, she told Al Jazeera.

For the past month, her town has lived under a police clampdown with curfews imposed by the government to thwart a protest movement that has grown in intensity, futilely attempting to halt plans to push the constitution through Nepal’s second Constituent Assembly.

President Ram Baran Yadav officially proclaimed the new constitution on Sunday – the first since Nepal’s monarchy was abolished in 2008.

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A group of protesters from the ethnic minority Madhesi community fought with police near Bichha’s house on September 9. She said she watched a young man, bloodied by police gunfire, run for his life.

A few hours later, she got a call saying her brother-in-law, Birendra Bichha, 38, had been shot in the head and was airlifted to Kathmandu with three other wounded.

The father of two young children, he died that night – one of 45 people killed since protests against the constitutional provisions – in particular, boundaries of newly created federal states – flared in August.

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Violence continued on Sunday ahead of the constitution announcement with one protester killed and more than a dozen wounded when security forces opened fire in the southern town of Birgunj.

The demonstrations – organised by leaders and activists from two groups, the Tharu and Madhesi – have frequently been violent. Both communities are demanding that their narrow strip of homeland should not be divided into more than two states.

Under the constitution, 14 districts in the southern plains would be joined with provinces dominated by hill dwellers.

Tharu protesters killed eight policemen in Kailali district on August 24 in western Nepal. An 18-month-old baby also died from gunshot wounds. Two police were killed in two other districts.

Subsequently, the government mobilised the army in all “riot-hit” areas. 

The rest shot dead by police and paramilitary forces include toddlers, teenagers, and a grandfather. Most were bystanders. Almost all are Madhesis, the inhabitants of the plains bordering India.

Human rights

Police spokesman Kamal Singh Bam told Al Jazeera that some police officers may have made mistakes in the heat of the moment during demonstrations. The police’s “human rights cell” was investigating, although no action had been taken against anyone using excessive force so far, Bam said.

Mohana Ansari, spokesman of the National Human Rights Commission, said rights violations had occurred.

“The casualties point to a human rights crisis in the region,” Ansari said. “Instead of rubber bullets, we’ve found live ammunition was used.”

Reports say hundreds of people have crossed the open border with India to take shelter in the homes of relatives. After police started arresting local politicians accused of leading the protests, many of them also fled.

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In the violent prelude to the new constitution, leaders from the plains encouraged protests, even promising a $47,500 cash payment to the family of anyone who dies during demonstrations.

Birendra Bichha’s dead body lay in the Jaleswar hospital for six days after his death. The administration had refused to give permission to take the body on a political procession – as the family wanted.

Last Wednesday, local politicians visited the family in the hospital and after a short procession, Bichha was cremated.

“All my brother wanted was for the government to follow the agreement it signed with the Madhesis,” said Roshan Bichha, Birendra’s brother.

The agreement signed in 2008, between the government and a coalition of Madhesi parties, committed to create “fully autonomous” federal states in the plains.

‘Existential crisis

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Plains-based political parties boycotted voting on the new constitution, and chose instead to burn copies of it.

The wide “psychological gap” between residents of the flatlands and Kathmandu could lead to “an existential crisis” for Nepal – unless the ruling parties concede to some demands, political scientist Lokaraj Baral told Al Jazeera.

For those who oppose it, the arrival of the constitution is a bitter victory of the ruling parties over the marginalised that limits their rights.

For those who support it, Sunday’s announcement represents a culmination of aspirations of the people to write a constitution through an elected assembly that institutionalises federalism, republicanism, and proportional representation.

“We’re all Nepalis, whether from the hills or plains, and we should be able to live together,” said Sabita Bichha. “I pray to god every day that the curfews are over, we have enough to eat, and our children can go to school.”  

But with little progress in talks among the ruling parties and plains protesters, half of Nepal’s population living in the flatlands will continue to face an uncertain future.

Source: Al Jazeera