Tharus have received a rough deal in the draft constitution of Nepal with respect to federalism, and it must be remedied.
But first the background. Nepali political leaders, prodded by the April and May 2015 earthquakes and motivated by the impatience to change government, have finally come close to promulgating a new constitution. Though still far from certain, the statute now seems within the striking distance, after seven years.
Compared to some other countries, Nepal has taken longer to frame the new constitution. The Constitutional Assembly has been battling with the matter since 2008. Many other countries could write their constitution in a comparably short period.
For instance, the US constitution was drafted in less than 100 working days. The Indian constitution was written in less than three years. In South Africa, it took a little more than two years for drafting and adopting the document.
Why has Nepal taken so long? There are several reasons, but four of them tower prominently over others.
First, political transition is always difficult. Change is desirable but inconvenient. The system may change quickly, but people’s mentality and attitude do not. That was evident in Nepal. The powerful groups tried their level best to protect their existing privileges.
Besides, transition from monarchy and unitary state to republic and federalism was a gargantuan challenge. Federalism was very much needed to empower the marginalized and disadvantaged people, promote competitive growth and bring the best out of every region and people in the country.But the demand for ethnic states came in the way of federalism.
The Maoists and Madheshi parties rooted for ethnic federalism with 14 states. It would have satisfied a few ethnic groups while rubbing the others the wrong way in a country where there are 25 ethnic groups for 28 million people. In addition, that many states would have become economically unviable in a poor country like Nepal and a constant source of friction.
Second, change becomes particularly cumbersome to institutionalize when there is no clear political winner. The Maoists fought for proletariat dictatorship; the monarchy and democratic political parties sought to preserve the status quo of bourgeois, liberal democracy. Neither side was a clear winner. The civil war ended in a compromise. So the process of writing a new constitution was stuck in a tug of war in the opposite directions.
Third, the Maoists, who were the largest party in the first constituent assembly, squandered much time to sabotage the infant democratic values and institution rather than focusing on the constitution. Other parties should also share part of the blame, but the Maoists were at the steering wheel.
Fourth, even though the principal objective of the CA was to write a new constitution, political parties focused their energy more on changing government rather than on drafting the statute. There were five prime ministers in five years between 2008 and 2013.
The hope for a new constitution rose considerably after the elections for the second CA. Voters gave the Nepali Congress the largest number of seats, followed by the UML. Together the two parties secured the two-thirds majority needed to approve the constitution. They, which supported multi-ethnic and fewer but economically viable states, formed a coalition government.
Two things hastened the process of drafting the statute in the second CA. One was the motivation of the UML to head the government as quickly as possible. At the time of forming the coalition government, Nepali Congress leader Sushil Koirala had pledged to quit as prime minister when the constitution was promulgated. UML leader KP Oli is in a hurry to replace him, in coalition with either the NC or the UCPN (Maoist).
Oli had to check his ambition because the NC with its 205 seats in the 601-member assembly could block the constitution from being approved.
The other thing is the desire of the parties outside power to join the government for the country’s reconstruction, after the devastating earthquakes. Political parties expect considerable financial and political bonanza from the reconstruction activities.
Development partners have pledged more than 3.5 billion dollars for the reconstruction. The UCPN (Maoist) and Madheshi parties are now outside the government. They do not want the incumbent parties to get away with all of the benefits of rebuilding. So they were quick to give up their previous entrenched positions this time.
Political leaders’ greed for power and for reconstruction resources has cut the throat of procrastination on the constitution. Sometimes something good comes out from ill-intentioned actions. The statute appears within grasp now.
But it will solve some problems and unleash others. It will fill the constitutional vacuüm and lay the future course for Nepal.
New troubles have begun even before the constitution has been promulgated. Protests have started all over the country with diametrically opposite demands. Some for Hindu state, others against it; some for breaking the regions and districts to create states and others keeping them intact.
Madheshi and Hill minority leaders have declared that they do not agree with the six states that have been agreed on by the major political parties.
Some Madheshi leaders have demanded that there must be only one state for the entire plains. Other Madheshi leaders, particularly from the Tharu community, have called for more states in the plains.
While Hill minority leaders have been muted in renewing their old demand for ethnic states in the hills, they have found a common cause with the majority groups against breaking the districts and development regions to create states. Three districts and all regions have been broken to adjust them into six states. The unrest has emerged mainly in several districts in the western hills, including Baglung and Rukum.
The Madheshi, Hill minority and Hill majority people have their own reasons and logics for their opposition to the six-state structure or state demarcation. There is no way that everyone could be pleased. But some reasons appear more serious and logical than others.
Here are my thoughts on the six-state structure. One, six states are too many to sustain financially for a poor country like Nepal. Most of the resources will go to maintaining the government rather than investing in development. States lacking investment and growth will be a perennial source of trouble.
Two, denying a separate state for the people living in the plains from Daunne to Bardia is patently unjust. It is injustice against the Tharus, one of the most disadvantaged communities in Nepal; more so in view of the fact that the Madheshi in the east — from Saptari to Parsa — have been given a separate state.
Three, if demographic, communication and other objective imperatives exist for breaking the existing districts and development regions, they should be broken; otherwise not. In this light, in some cases, the demands for restructuring the country and preventing the breakup of any district or region are mutually contradictory.
Four, the six-state structure in which two states were envisaged for the plains was much better than the latest structure. The only thing that was necessary to change in the previous proposal was to give the state comprising Dhawalagiri, Gandaki and hilly districts of Lumbini land access to India by adding Nawalpur to it.
Let me emphasize once again, give Tharus a state from Daunne to Bardia.