The Constitutional Imbroglio in Nepal

Secularism may not be a hated word in Nepal today, but it is arguably one of the most contentious issues in the constitution-making process. Some of the major parties that took the lead in declaring Nepal secular in May 2006 are rethinking the matter. K.P. Oli, chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) invited Modnath Prashrit as guest speaker at the party’s standing committee meeting. Prashrit, who quit the party seven years ago, has been a key crusader against making Nepal a secular country. He also favours restoring January 11, the birth anniversary of king Prithvi Narayan Shah (1723-75), as national unity day.
The government led by G.P. Koirala, which had the UML as a coalition partner and Maoist support from outside, had taken both decisions — doing away with Nepal’s Hindu status and the national unity day. Prashrit has stood against the government ever since, and asked for the annulment of both. Others, mainly the Maoists, fear that a review of Nepal’s secular status may next lead to a questioning of the federal and republican character of Nepal.
“How can this country remain secular, which means adopting an indifferent approach towards religion, when it spends from its coffers 500 million rupees for the development of Buddha’s birthplace, an almost equal amount for the development of Hindu shrines, and a little less for arranging Hajj trips?” he asked. And added, “As a country that has been the birthplace of Buddhism and the land of many Hindu gods and goddesses, its glorious past, civilisation and culture must not be done away with.”
The demand for the restoration of Nepal’s Hindu status is gaining ground. Not only the UML but also the Nepali Congress (NC), which heads the coalition with the former, is vertically split on the issue. Religion and caste/ ethnicity have emerged as the major issues and stumbling blocks in constitution-writing. Maoist chief Prachanda, who heads a 30-party alliance that includes the Madhesi parties, has been demanding ethnicity-based provinces while advocating a secular state. According to a senior NC leader, “…a Hindu wave sweeps across Terai as well as the hills, and Dahal (Prachanda) is being backed by European groups in dividing Hindu society.”
Managing politics and parties with diverse ideologies may be easier some times. But the politics of caste and religion may not be that easy to handle. The January 22 deadline for the delivery of the constitution will be missed, which may not only cause the early exit of Sushil Koirala as prime minister but also bring the second Constituent Assembly’s existence into question. The UML, by reviewing “secularism”, perhaps wants to convey the message that it will deal with contentious issues more seriously and solicit a wide spectrum of public opinion, something that hasn’t happened in the past.
Secularism is being interpreted differently, triggering a largescale reaction. Padma Ratna Tuladhar, who issued a public statement as minister in 1993 arguing to allow cow slaughter, now leads a movement for secularism and ethnicity-based provinces in alliance with Prachanda. Maoists have a history of trampling Hindu temples and idols, burning rare Sanskrit manuscripts and slaughtering cows, which remains taboo, during the civil war. As a result, Hindu groups are now more agitated, especially after some EU states began openly advocating the right to change one’s religion.When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in November during the SAARC summit, he had two pieces of advice for the country’s leaders – draft the constitution ‘on time’, and draft it ‘based on consensus’. If Nepal is sliding into a political crisis in the run up to Thursday’s deadline for a new constitution, it is because the leadership has chosen to disregard this well-meaning advice. India, on Tuesday, reiterated this broad suggestion with a carefully constructed fresh statement.
Nepal is deeply polarized. The ruling parties – Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) – wished to initiate a process that would enable voting on contested constitutional issues like federalism, form of government, election system and judiciary. The opposition – led by Maoists and Tarai parties – insisted on working towards a consensus, rather than a vote. On Monday, the Maoist members vandalized the Constituent Assembly, disrupting proceedings. On Tuesday, the opposition followed it up with a nation-wide strike. A constitutional draft – let alone a new constitution – is now impossible.
In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs said that it was their ‘expectation’ that Nepali leaders would work together ‘in the final stage of the peace process, in drawing up a constitution that honours past agreements and understandings as well as the mandate of the CA elections’.
India’s approach carries weight. The original understanding between the political parties and Maoists in 2005, which saw the onset of the peace process, was signed in Delhi. Modi has elevated the relationship with two visits to Kathmandu. Instability in the northern neighbour will have a direct impact on India, given the open border. The failure of the constitutional process will threaten prospects of democratic consolidation, strengthen right and left wing extremists in Kathmandu, and jeopardize the upswing in bilateral relations. India cannot remain silent.
Without taking obvious sides, Delhi has adopted a nuanced approach. It recognizes that the CA elections have thrown up a particular mandate – which is what the ruling parties are using to push a vote. But it has taken the longer-term view, and warned Nepal’s polity that a constitution is a foundational document. It may be possible to draft a statute through the majoritarian route, but this will not be owned by key political forces or social groups. And such a constitution will lead to only more conflict, which will add to India’s strategic concerns. Delhi should use its leverage in Kathmandu to pull back Nepali parties from the brink.
In 1991, a British parliamentary delegation had approached then PM K.P. Bhattarai — when Nepal was writing its democratic constitution — to have the country declared secular. His blunt answer was that once the UK, the “mother of democracy”, did away with having the inheritor of the throne profess Anglicanism, Nepal too would follow. That democratic constitution had retained the country’s Hindu status.
But while provisions were debated threadbare before they became part of that constitution, no such process was followed last time round, when Nepal was declared a secular and federal republic. “We will not compromise on our demand that people must have their say on all these issues, if necessary through a referendum,” said the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal. However, with the majority community developing a visible persecution complex, which may even result in aggressive nationalism, the situation looks sad, especially since Nepal has had a reputation for being a tolerant and harmonious society. The absence of meaningful debate in the CA and within parties is responsible for this dangerous syndrome.The much-awaited January 22 deadline passed without the delivery of the “people’s constitution”. The history of failure and deceit was repeated for the fifth time in as many years. But this failure was more disturbing, since the chairman of the Constituent Assembly (CA), the prime minister, coalition leaders in government and the two major opposition groups, including the Maoists, had kept addressing popular doubts about the constitution being delivered.
The deadline was set voluntarily by the four biggest groups separately in their manifestos, when Nepal voted to elect the second CA — and later as a joint pledge, as assurance they would not repeat the failure of the past. The House was adjourned at midnight January 22-23, after the opposition Maoists and Madhesi groups rose up in the well, shouting slogans against the government’s move to adopt the constitution through a majority vote instead of a consensus.
The House chairman and the four major parties — the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the Madhesi groups — that have ruled together, or by turns, over the last eight years fell out after the second CA was elected. The Maoists and the Madhesis championed a more radical agenda, such as ethnicity-based federalism, a directly elected executive president and an autonomous Madhes province. This sharp polarisation and the obstruction of the House for the 72 hours preceding the deadline featured a ruling coalition as obstinate as the opposition, determined to bulldoze the vocal minority.
But a constitution by the majority, with diametrically opposite positions on many issues, including federalism and governance may only ensure that the constitution, if it comes at all, is shortlived. The international community, under the aegis of the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office, came together to warn that the outcome of a divided approach may imperil all the achievements of the 2006 movement. India wanted Nepal’s actors to put their heads together and reach a solution on the basis of all the understandings reached and as per the last election’s mandate.
That, precisely, is the stumbling block. The Maoists, despite being relegated to third place, and the Madhesi groups losing miserably, want to dictate the regional agenda. Moreover, of over 40 major understandings between the government and the agitating groups, many contradict each other. The failure to deliver the constitution is also being seen as a failure of the international community, including the EU and India, which mediated between Nepal’s key political parties and the Maoists to bring them together against the monarchy under a 12-point agreement in November 2005. The Western powers are being blamed for encouraging secessionism in the name of supporting federalism by the government.
Open involvement by external powers has also brought federalism, secularism and republicanism to dispute. With the CA failing for the second time, the decisions taken by political parties at the peak of their popularity, even as they enjoyed foreign support, are now vulnerable. But how the parties concerned own their accountability and how the public responds to this situation will chart the next course — and perhaps also a new destination — for Nepal.

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