Life was paralysed across Nepal on Sunday as the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella organisation of ethnic communities, kick-started a three-day nation-wide shutdown demanding identity-based federalism, and opposing the agreement signed by the top three national parties on constitutional issues last week. Among the most severe bandhs in recent years, the day saw incidents of violence as well as attack on the press in Kathmandu.
Transport was crippled and markets were closed in the capital. Over 60 people were arrested by the local police on charges of disrupting law and order and instigating violence.
Since the morning, protestors began vandalizing media vehicles as well as manhandling journalists in what appeared to be a concerted attack on the press. NEFIN chairperson, Raj Kumar Lekhi, blamed it on ‘vigilantes’ who had infiltrated the movement, and termed it as a ‘conspiracy to defame the peaceful movement’.
General Secretary of the organization, Ang Kaji Sherpa, however blamed the media for its selective representation of issues concerning ethnic groups, accused it of hill upper caste dominance, and threatened journalists. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) organized a protest meeting on Sunday evening, and strongly condemned the attacks.
NEFIN’s shutdown was supported by the Broader Madhesi Front, a cross-party Madhesi grouping led by former foreign minister Upendra Yadav. The front shutdown its stronghold of eastern Tarai for the third consecutive day, and protests by the Tharu Struggle Committee crippled life in western Tarai.
New federal deal
The bandhs are a part of the opposition to May 15 agreement between Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Nepali Congress (NC), and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) by Nepal’s marginalised and excluded communities. According to the pact, there would be eleven provinces in a future federal set up – the names and exact boundaries of the provinces are to be decided later.
Both Madhesi and ethnic groups have demanded that federal restructuring be based on the report of either the subject committee of the Constituent Assembly, which recommends 14 provinces, or the report of the State Restructuring Commission which suggests 10 states. Ethnic groups feel they will be reduced to a minority in all provinces if the 11 state model goes through; Madhesi parties are against slicing the Tarai plains into five provinces as the bigger parties propose to do. Over 320 ethnic and Madhesi lawmakers, across party lines, have opposed the understanding. Serving Madhesi ministers have threatened to resign from the government unless the deal is revised.
On Saturday, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ said that the agreement has lost its legitimacy and must be reviewed. The NC and UML have however warned against revising the number of states.
With the term of the Constituent Assembly expiring on May 27, Nepal has exactly a week to resolve the contentious issue of state restructuring and finalise its constitution.