Imagine how you would feel if you waited for something for decades but when it arrived, some of your brothers and sisters did not like it. Excitement and frustration simultaneously.
The Nepali people have been feeling that predicament today. They have waited for 65 years for a constitution written by their elected representatives. Such a charter — Constitution of Nepal 2015 — has been finally promulgated today, on 20 September, by President Ram Baran Yadav. Most people seem happy, but some are clearly agitated.
The demand for a people-written statute has been around since 1950. King Tribhuvan had, at the time of removing Rana oligarchy, promised to call elections for a constituent assembly, but that did not transpire. Kings gifted the statute on their own — Tribhuvan in 1951, King Mahendra in 1959 and 1962 and King Birendra in 1990.
Although the 1990 document was written by a group of political leaders, who were instrumental in forcing King Birendra to abandon the party-less panchayat system and embrace multiparty democracy, they were not elected by the people at that time.
Only the political change of 2006 opened the door to a constituent assembly afresh. It also immediately led to the suspension of the monarchy, which was abolished by the assembly in 2008. Unfortunately, the first assembly died in 2013 without delivering the law of the land, owing to major disagreements on several issues.
Federalism stood at the heart of such disagreements. Some outfits opted for several ethnic states, while others for a few multi-ethnic states. The dispute failed and destroyed the first assembly. The second assembly, elected in 2013, has been able to sort out the issue providing for seven states, though not everyone likes them.
Five things put pressure on Nepali leaders to deliver the constitution this time around.
First, the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), which preferred a few multi-ethnic states, secured nearly two-thirds majority in the assembly and formed a coalition government with smaller parties, enhancing their number and confidence to sail the charter to the finish line.
Second, both Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and UML leader KP Oli were personally men in a hurry. The ailing Koirala wanted to promulgate the statute on his watch. The ailing Oli wanted to become premier before his health compromised his ambition. Therefore, Koirala and Oli promised each other support to realize their respective ambitions.
Third, the devastating chain of earthquakes and aftershocks in April and May this year — they killed nearly 10,000 people, destroyed nearly 7 billion rupees worth of property and affected one-third of the country’s population — spurred the coalition to switch to a high gear. When the people and country destroyed by the natural calamity were crying for relief and reconstruction, it was in bad taste for the leaders to quibble over the fine prints of the charter.
Fourth, the Maoist leader Prachand cooperated with the coalition to protect himself from being marginalized further, to neutralize his pesky deputy Baburam Bhattarai, and to preserve as many agendas of his party as possible before monarchists, Hiduists, extreme leftists and secessionists hijacked them.
Fifth, external players — countries and organizations — piled pressure to tilt the constitution in favor of their respective clients in Nepal, in a way that threatened the power base of the main leaders. India openly lobbied on behalf of the minority parties from the plains. Christian organizations lobbied against any compromise on secularism.
Consequently, the constitution became a priority for the Big Three parties. These parties made compromises and agreements leading to the approval of the new statute. It would have been unquestionably ideal if all parties had agreed on the document and everyone in Nepal had welcomed it. However, that did not happen. Such lobbying created a situation of ‘now or never.’
Based on the celebrations in most parts of the country, it seems that most people liked the new statute, even though it is far from perfect. But some parties and people, mostly in the plains, found it unacceptable because it, as they argue, does not meet their demands and aspirations.
They have hit the street in protest. Some have abandoned the constituent assembly and joined forces that always opposed the assembly. Others too have joined protests. In the ensuing violence, nearly three dozen people — including eight security officials — have lost their lives.
The plains have been shut for nearly a month now. The army has been mobilized and curfew has been imposed in several places to control violence. People have had terrible difficulty going about their daily business. Schools have been closed. Hospitals have been attacked.
Both the pro-constitution and anti-constitution parties have blamed each other for this situation. The former have contended that the latter have become the instruments of the anti-constitution forces. The latter have accused the former of not listening to their genuine grievances.
Under the surface, the new charter is personally offensive to naturalized citizens of Nepal — such as Rajendra Mahato — for it prevents them from holding certain top posts, something that was allowed in the Interim Constitution.
There is some truth on both sides. The big parties did not wait until the minority parties were exhausted to come to the negotiating table to resolve the differences. The minority parties thought India would intervene on their behalf. New Delhi did by sending the Indian foreign secretary to Nepal, but it was already too late.
Constitution is not a Bible or Quran, written in stone; it is a living document that can be changed, as time and need necessitate. In the days ahead, both sides should show maximum flexibility and find a common ground for peace in Nepal. Neither bullying by the majority nor terrorizing by the minority will bring peace and reconciliation in the country. The discords, including on federalism could be sorted out, in the future.
Nepal has waited for so long for a constitution written by the people’s representatives. Now that it is in our hand, we should find a way to rally around it despite its flaws, which can be removed gradually.
I congratulate the Nepali people for the new constitution.