Nepal’s constitution: Political evolution has to be inclusive

The new constitution of the country which will reshape Nepal’s administrative, political and international ties.

September 20, 2015 11:58 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:30 pm IST

According to a legend that refuses to die, the infamous 1989 blockade of Nepal was triggered when King Birendra snubbed prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Earlier, Rajiv Gandhi on a tour of Islamabad for the fourth SAARC summit in 1988, had requested the king for a breakfast-meeting but the king opted out as he could not sacrifice his sleep. The clash of egos between New Delhi and Kathmandu was resolved by the diplomacy of intermediaries and diplomats like ex-Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari and K. Natwar Singh. The Rajiv-Birendra discord remains relevant, as despite the years and the change in bilateral ties, a lot remains the same between India and Nepal. On Sunday Nepal went ahead with adopting a new democratic constitution and asserted that change is an unavoidable reality in bilateral ties but India’s senior diplomats extended a cold welcome to the Himalayan democracy underlying that this sort of change is not welcome. However, beyond these two positions, lie the spirit of democracy.

First of all, Nepal has a reason to celebrate. The constitution that it has acquired after a decade of rancorous and often erratic discussion is the latest the constitutional history of the world. As the youngest Constituent Assembly assigned the task of creating a cohesive legislative document out of a raucous society, Nepal’s post-royalty politicians had the opportunity to learn from the veteran democracies.

Nepal’s new constitution has been based on the “entitlement approach” to rights. It guarantees fundamental rights as well as the right to food, right to education and right to protection from environmental degradation. In a move loaded with meaning, the constitution gives right of protection from human trafficking. The protection against human trafficking is symbolic and implies Nepal’s current rulers are influenced by the powerful anti-trafficking movement that has taken roots in that country. Such has been the advance that Nepal’s constitution is being compared to the South Africa’s post-Apartheid constitution due to its focus on social and economic justice. In seminar rooms of Delhi, in the last few weeks, Nepal’s constitutional achievements were applauded by largely Indian audience.

Constitutions are not just legislative and legal documents. As the Indian experience shows, they have palpable social and cultural dimensions and Nepal’s constitution has expectedly been aimed at achieving a social transformation of sorts. In that sense, the constitution borne out of protracted discussion within the largely conservative Hindu society can be described as an ambitious document.

The new constitution of the country which will reshape Nepal’s administrative, political and international ties, will also target many of the social practices in the country which has been under the Brahminical order patronised by a change-averse royalty. Revolutionary transformation therefore will be arduous, given Nepal’s history of 240-year long tryst with monarchy and Hindu Brahminical monopoly over state power. In this context, the criticism of the constitution emanating from New Delhi should be viewed without the tinted glasses of diplomacy.

Indian officials have spoken about a “majoritarian” tendency in the constitution. Secondly, they have raised objection over the constitution’s lack of seriousness over the issue of reservation for the backward and the traditional have-not sections mostly found in the Terai region. Thirdly, Nepal’s territorial rearrangements such as its delimitation of constituencies and its federal structure are not free of bias.

Though not offered cohesively, the criticism is valid as it expresses concerns of “majoritiarianism” in Nepal. After all, the post-royalty Nepal has to be socially inclusive and representative and such majoritarian bias can hurt the prospects of an inclusive society. In brief, a majoritarian society can not satisfy the “entitlement rights” even if it pretends to pledge them to its population.

The spirit of democracy has prevailed in Kathmandu. But this moment of triumph needs to be moderated with a reality check. Because Nepal’s democratic movement can achieve its now-enshrined constitutional goals by ensuring equal opportunity for all sections of its society and not by leaving out parts of its citizenry from its long term plans for change.

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