Persisting Madheshi trouble bodes ill for Nepal in its Constitution making process

Persisting Madheshi trouble bodes ill for Nepal in its Constitution making process

Introduction

Nepal has been passing through a series of transitional phases in her march towards democracy and rule of law. The latest phase began in 2006-2007 with the promulgation of the Interim Constitution and the start of the Peace Process. In fact, Nepal’s People’s Movement of April 2006, was instrumental in bringing the decade-long Maoist insurgency (1996–2006) to an end. It brought the Maoists into the peace process, ended Nepal’s absolute monarchy, and began the political transition. A major landmark of the subsequent peace process was the election of a Constituent Assembly (CA) in April 2008.

However, the first CA of Nepal, constituted on May 28, 2008, with mandate to deliver a new Constitution by May 28, 2010, was dissolved on May 27, 2012, after four extensions. Similarly, the second CA constituted on January 21, 2014, fixed the deadline for delivery of the Constitution as January 22, 2015, and missed it again as parleys between the ruling and the opposition parties to settle contentious issues through consensus derailed on January 19, 2015. The critical unresolved issues include the form of Government, federalism, judiciary and the electoral system.

In a major breakthrough, paving the way for promulgating a new Constitution, four major political parties – the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and Madheshi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik (MJF-L) – signed a 16-point agreement on June 8, 2015. The four parties command more than 465 seats in the 601-member CA, sufficient to endorse the new Constitution. According to the agreement, the country would be federated into eight federal states on the basis of five factors of identity – ethnicity/community, language, culture, geographical and regional continuity and history; and four factors of capability – economic capability, infrastructure potential, availability of natural resources and administrative feasibility.

Remarkably, after 17 months after the second CA election, the preliminary draft of the new Constitution was tabled in the CA on June 30, 2015. After weeklong deliberations, on July 7, 2015, the CA endorsed the preliminary draft of the new Constitution. Unfortunately, Nepal continues to exist under the shadow of an unending threat of political turmoil as the new Constitution promulgated on September 20, 2015, had failed to satisfy the Madheshis and Tharus who constitute 70 per cent of the Terai population.

Terai Marginalization

Nepal is divided into three regions: the Himalayan, Hilly and Terai regions. The Terai is located along Nepal’s Southern border with India and the name is used interchangeably with Madhesh, and its people are described as Madheshis or Madheshyas. 23 per cent of Nepal’s total land area of 147, 181 square kilometers and approximately 30 to 40 percent of the population falls within this region. Out of the country’s 75 Districts, 20 are located in the Terai, including, from east to west, Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Rautahat, Bara, Parsa, Chitwan, Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Kapilvastu, Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kalaiya and Kanchanpur.

Madheshis and the Tharus have always been humiliated ever since the central and eastern parts of Terai were gifted away by the British East India Company to Nepal partly after the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 and partly after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Until 1954, the Madheshis and the Tharus formed 94 per cent of the total population in the Terai region. But since the 1970s, the State – during the years of monarchy, helped hundreds of thousands of hill migrants to settle in Terai mostly by clearing the thick forest land. For this, even resettlement companies were set up. Though landlessness among the Madheshis was common, none of them got any piece of land as part of the resettlement policy adopted by the State.

Moreover, there was lack of unity among the Madheshis. Despite the overwhelming size of population of the Madheshis and Tharus in Terai, they could get only 10 per cent seats in the 601-member second CA in the December 2013 elections. Out of lust for money and power, the Madheshi leaders did not hesitate to fragment the parties. During the first CA elections in 2008, only three Madhesh-based parties had contested the elections and hence they had a substantial presence in the first CA. In contrast, during the second CA elections in 2013, there were 13 Madhesh-based parties. Though both during the first CA and the second CA elections, the overall voting percentage for the Madhesh based parties remained almost the same, about 12 per cent, Madhesh leaders lost the elections because their votes were divided, making it easier for non-Madheshi leaders to win.

Major Contentious Issues

While the adoption of the new Constitution was welcomed by most national and international groups and leaders, a large segment of the population, particularly the Madheshis and Tharus, residing in the Terai region contested the new Constitution on the grounds that:

The model would perpetuate existing fault-lines that marginalize the Madheshis and other minority communities.

Ethnic communities were aggrieved that, under the new Constitution, a smaller percentage of lawmakers will now be elected by proportional representation – 45 per cent, as compared to 58 per cent under the Interim Constitution.

Some ethnic communities are also unhappy at the proposed boundaries of the new provinces, although these are subject to future amendment. In western Terai, the indigenous Tharus are chafing at the prospect of being split in two and forced to share their provinces with the Hill Districts that have historically dominated the country’s politics.

Another controversy relates to the provision in the new Constitution that, if a Nepali woman marries a foreigner their children cannot assume Nepali citizenship unless the man first does so; however, if the father is Nepali, his children would be Nepali regardless of the wife’s nationality. The Madheshi communities, ethnically and socially close to Indians just across the border, say the new citizenship measures will disproportionately affect them because there are many cross-border marriages.

Madheshi Agitation

As the discrimination and exploitation of the Madheshis continued, in the 1960s, the Madheshis formed various armed groups to wage, armed struggle. The State suppressed the insurgency by killing top leaders such as Ramji Mishra, Raghunath Raya Yadav and Satyadev Mani Tripathi. Meanwhile, in order to spread their influence in Madhesh, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) included the problems of Madhesh in their agenda with the slogan of ‘Autonomy through Federalism’. It attracted many Madheshis in their ‘People’s War’. Surprisingly, however, the Maoists compromised upon the issue of Federalism when they joined the Peace Process by signing the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in 2006. Since then, Federalism has emerged as a key demand of all Madheshi groups.

The present crisis in Madhesh erupted when the top leaders of the major political parties represented in the CA, signed a 16-point agreement on June 8, 2015, to federate the country into eight provinces and promulgate a Constitution. The agitation by the cadres of United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF) comprising of the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N), the Mahantha Thakur-led Terai Madhesh Democratic Party (TMDP), the Rajendra Mahato-led Sadbhawana Party (SP) and the Mahendra Raya Yadav-led Terai Madhesh Sadbhawana Party (TMSP) began on July 1, 2015, by burning the copies of the preliminary draft of the Constitution in the capital, Kathmandu, as it failed to incorporate their demands.  The Madheshis are demanding redrawing of the boundaries of the provinces in the Himalayan nation as proposed in the new Constitution and restoration of rights granted to Madheshis in the Interim Constitution of 2007 which, they claim, the new Constitution has snatched away.

During the first round of violence, between July 1 and September 19, 2015, at least 44 persons, including 25 civilians and 19 Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed and another 229, including 166 civilians and 63 SF personnel, were injured in violent protests across the Terai region. In Surhket District, adjoining the Terai region, another two civilians were killed and 50 were injured. Further, subsequent to the adoption of the new Constitution on September 20, 2015, violence continued with 13 civilians and one SF killed and another 448 persons, including 344 civilians and 104 SF personnel, injured in violent protests across the Terai region. In adjoining Districts, one civilian was killed in Udayapur and another was injured in Dhading District (all data till May 5, 2016).

Further, to pile pressure on the Government to address their demands at the earliest, as many as 100 cadres of the UDMF on September 24, 2015, started a blockade at Dasgaja, the Indo-Nepal border, near Birgunj town in Parsa District. However, keeping in mind country’s problems, people’s needs and their suggestions, the UDMF at an informal meeting of the chiefs of its constituents on February 8, 2016, decided to lift border blockade, put off its general strike and allow Government offices to open for the time being. The front also decided to expand its protest programs in Madhesh/Tharuhat, Kathmandu and other parts of the country. The UDMF also decided to induct other like-minded parties and alliances into the front.

The impact of the ongoing Madheshi agitation in Nepal as a whole in general and in the Terai region in particular is quite severe. Estimating the economic losses of the Terai turmoil and subsequent economic blockade, Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), Nepal’s apex business body, on January 12, 2016, claimed that the Madheshi protests have resulted in a huge revenue loss to the country amounting to an estimated NR 2 billion daily for the last five months, over 400,000 Nepalis lost their jobs in the last five months and 2,200 manufacturing units stopped operations during the last five months.

For the first time, on March 11, 2016, after the UDMF withdrew its extreme forms of protest, including border blockade, leaders of the agitating UDMF held talks with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and submitted a seven-point memorandum to the Prime Minister urging the Government to address their 11-point demands before mid-April. Separately, Federal Alliance, a 24 party alliance, including the parties under the UDMF and other fringe parties on April 27, 2016, submitted a 26-point memorandum to the Prime Minister emphasizing that identity-based federalism could only resolve the current political problems and implementation of past pacts signed with various stakeholders could alone ensure identity-based federalism. Further, the Alliance at a meeting held at Tinkune, Kathmandu on May 5, 2016, decided to intensify its ongoing protest programs from May 15.

Government Actions

Remarkably, on February 17, 2016, the task forces of the three major parties NC, CPN-UML and UCPN-M and the agitating UDMF discussed the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the political mechanism to be formed to revise provincial boundaries, but failed to reach an agreement. The UDMF taskforce members put forth their views on the 11-point demand and sought a package deal. However, members of the taskforce of the major parties were concerned only with forming a political mechanism. Finally, the UDMF on February 18, 2016, rejected the political mechanism formed under Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa to revise provincial boundaries saying that the newly formed mechanism would not be able to address the demands of the agitating parties, so it would not accept the mechanism.

On April 12, 2016, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli called for fresh talks with the agitating Madhesis to resolve the differences over the new Constitution. However, terming the Prime Minister’s talk’s offer to the Madhes-based leaders as an eyewash, SP Chairman and senior UDMF leader Rajendra Mahato on April 14, 2016, said “At least 35 such talks between the government and the UDMF leaders during the last five months ended inconclusively. The PM’s talk’s offer is a waste of time and it is a ploy to stop the UDMF from taking to street.”

Remarkably, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on March 30, 2016, assuring that the nation would not witness any kind of border blockade and obstruction in free transportation as the Government would not tolerate such activities remarked “The government will move ahead in accordance with the law. The government cannot just look at Nepali people suffering because of someone’s whim.” Further, to rein in the anti-Constitutional activities to be launched in Terai by the Madheshi alliance, Home Minister Shakti Basnet on April 25, 2016, directed the security officials to stop the activities of the Madheshi alliance.

Separately, Speaker Onsari Gharti Magar on April 30, 2016, claimed that the recent Constitution drafted and promulgated by the people’s representatives was one of the best documents in the world. She also urged the agitating Madhes-based parties to come forward for talks to end the current deadlock. To discuss the reconstruction and relief works in earthquake affected areas, black marketing, and implementation of new Constitution, Budget session of the Legislature Parliament began on May 3, 2016.

Recent Developments 

Underscoring the need for unity among parties for effective implementation of the newly promulgated Constitution, UCPN-M Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal on March 15, 2016, said that there is a need of National Unity Government for the implementation of the new Constitution. On April 17, 2016, Dahal spoke with NC senior leader Ram Chandra Poudel seeking the latter’s support in the Constitution implementation process. Poudel responded agreeing to Dahal that consensus among the major parties was the prime necessity of the country and said his party was prepared to lend support.

Remarkably, NC, the main opposition party, on May 4, 2016, joined hands with the second-largest ruling coalition partner UCPN-M and agitating UDMF to topple KP Sharma Oli-led Government. Meanwhile, UCPN-M skipped a meeting called by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to discuss burning political issues among the coalition parties. But, in a dramatic turn of events overnight, UCPN-M Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal on May 5, 2016, changed his plan to withdraw support from the present Government after leaders from the ruling CPN-UML assured him of stepping down from power and helping him become Prime Minister within a matter of months. Later, Dahal argued that the national issues would not be resolved by merely changing the Government.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Oli, referring to the demands of some agitating Madhes-based parties for rewriting the Constitution, on May 5, 2016, said “It is not possible to rewrite the constitution as the Constituent Assembly, which promulgated it, has already transformed into a legislative parliament. I don’t think any of us has the right to rewrite a constitution drafted by the people’s representatives in the Constituent Assembly. However, we can amend the constitution if needed.”

Conclusion

No doubt, the promulgation of new Constitution on September 20, 2015, was a historic step forward, but there are certain shortcomings in the new Constitution and the disruptive protests by marginalized Madheshi formations have caused enormous loss and distress within Nepal. The Madheshis are demanding implementation of the terms of previous agreements between their leadership and the power elite in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, the top leaders in Kathmandu have not shown enough sincerity and concern to thrash out the issues with the Madheshi leadership. Rather, they are falsely projecting it as Madheshi jingoism encouraged by India.

The only way to resolve the crisis is to acknowledge Madheshis as genuine citizens of Nepal, whose respect and dignity can be protected by a clear recognition of their rights in the new Constitution. Any attempt to narrowly define Nepali nationalism and turn it into an exclusionary identity will lead to unnecessary chaos and confrontation, which the people of Nepal do not deserve. If the Government and the main political parties are really serious about defusing the present crisis, they should accept it as a political problem and take steps to ensure that Nepalese people of all ethnicities, including the Madheshis and the Tharus, develop a sense of ownership in the new Constitution. For this, it is urgently required to initiate a dialogue with the aggrieved Madheshi and Tharu political leaders and address some of the demands put out by them at the moment. With the Madheshi groups threatening a revival of their disruptive agitation and blockade, it is imperative that the main political parties end their blame games and unite to address the residual grievances and reservations of various political formations.

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