Ipso Facto Comment

Days and nights in Kathmandu

Reason for resentment: "According to the groups agitating, the new Constitution has taken away the benefits that were granted to the Madhesis and Janajatis under the 2007 agreement.” Nepalese protesters clash with policemen in Kathmandu.

Reason for resentment: "According to the groups agitating, the new Constitution has taken away the benefits that were granted to the Madhesis and Janajatis under the 2007 agreement.” Nepalese protesters clash with policemen in Kathmandu.  

An escalating face-off between government and protesters threatens to wreck Nepal’s new constitutional system and grind governance to a halt.

The surgical mask and its stylish variants are a new must-have for Kathmandu residents. Though unsettling to have so many masked faces around, the vehicular pollution and the slow, all-pervading humming of the private electricity generators emitting toxic fumes usually convince visitors that the masks are a real necessity and not a fashion statement.

With 13 to 18 hours of electricity outage daily, generators have emerged as the alternative energy source as Nepal’s infrastructure has all but collapsed. As a result of load-shedding, every public event in Nepal needs a power backup. I was not surprised to find one such backup generator parked a little distance away from the ongoing protest of the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM), which has been on the warpath in Kathmandu since May 14 for equal rights for the Nepalis of the plains, known as the Madhesis and the Janajatis, indigenous people of Nepal.

For Upendra Yadav, former Foreign Minister of Nepal and leader of the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum, the biggest constituent of the SLMM, the dismal infrastructure and power cuts are part of Nepal’s overall problems of non-representative government. “The government cannot function smoothly as it does not have the support of majority of the people who are taking to the streets daily,” he tells protesters, elaborating that the government of Nepal represents 30 per cent of people whereas the SLMM represents the rest. “Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s government sitting in Singha Durbar has failed to bring development. The government says that it will give petroleum to us in two years from under the mountains, but in reality it is hiding the truth that Nepal’s growth rate is actually close to zero,” Mr. Yadav thunders, as the generator hums in the background. A little distance away from the protest site, the walls of the Singha Durbar present a sad sight with numerous cracks left behind by last year’s earthquake still awaiting repair. Close by, covered in blue protective gear, ready for action stand the Armed Police Force of Nepal. They appear fidgety as the SLMM leaders hurl predictions of the coming revolution.

The widening protests

The SLMM protest has been described as a “tamasha” (spectacle) by Prime Minister Oli but to the thousands of activists like Ram Kumar Mandal from the Madhes region, this is serious business. “Our ancestors found the Nepali royalty and the hereditary elite intimidating, but we don’t. We are educated and we know our goals. We will fight to safeguard our dhoti and kurta,” Mr. Mandal says, summing up the core of the twofold problem of “identity and representation” under the new democratic Nepal. But he adds, in between chewing pan, that the struggle is no longer only for the Madhesis.

The flags of the four prominent Madhesi political parties that have been at the forefront of agitation against the new Constitution of Nepal have now attracted a number of other flags. As a result, the Kathmandu-centric protest, which began last weekend, is far more diverse. The Limbus, the Sherpas, the working class, Dalits, and the Janajatis like the Magars and the Tharus — perhaps the most influential and revolutionary of all groups in Nepal — have sent their representatives to the latest movement in Kathmandu under the banner of SLMM. At last count, at least 29 parties and social organisations have been participating in the protest which has now spread to other parts of the country.

The protest that the SLMM launched in September 2015 turned into an economic blockade and stopped flow of essential goods through the Birgunj crossing on the Indian border. But the new strategy of Kathmandu-centric protest is an effort to take the entire country with them, say leaders of the protest.

A new notable name in this round is that of Kumar Lingden ‘Mirak’, the leader of the Federal Limbuwan Party of Nepal, which is agitating against the Constitution for not recognising the sacrifice of the Limbus and Rais of Nepal. “The hill Brahmins want to dominate and we are determined to prevent it,” he says. Mr. Lingden, Upendra Yadav, Mahendra Yadav, and Rajendra Mahato belong to different political parties but are united by their opposition to the Constitution promulgated on September 20, 2015. The core issue for all the groups agitating in Kathmandu today is that the new Constitution took away the benefits that were granted to the Madhesis and Janajatis under the 2007 agreement that they sealed with the government of Girija Prasad Koirala after a protracted struggle dating back to the 1980s.

Political process derailed

The blockade and now the “Kathmandu-centric protest” by the SLMM have served to keep the political process in limbo as local elections under the new constitutional framework have not been held so far due to the protests. While Mr. Oli has tried to project a confident leadership by being tough with India and by reaching out to China, he has not been able to stop the surge of anti-Constitution groups. The Prime Minister has repeatedly defended the Constitution as a document created through consultation. A strong section in the Oli government has blamed “Indian interference” for both the SLMM protests and the political instability that plagues the ruling coalition. A major scare came on May 4 when Mr. Oli’s ally, Pushp Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, joined hands with Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba for forming an alternative government. Subsequently the Prime Minister’s advisers blamed India and cancelled the visit of President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to Delhi and recalled Nepal’s ambassador to India even as Mr. Oli sealed a deal with Mr. Prachanda under which the latter is to take over the reins of government after the summer budget.

However the tension between Mr. Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and Mr. Prachanda’s United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is far from over. A Prachanda aide joined the SLMM protest on May 17 and threatened that the UCPN(M) would leave the governing alliance if the demands of the agitators were not fulfilled. On May 19, Mr. Prachanda himself skipped the inauguration of the International Buddhist Conference by Mr. Oli to celebrate the 2,560th birth anniversary of Lord Buddha.

Academic Uddhab Pyakurel says that given the fragile health of the ruling coalition, any attempt to bring the amendments as demanded by SLMM or the budget may precipitate a meltdown in the government as both will test the government’s legislative strength: “The government has been given verbal support for budget by its coalition partners. But given the fragile ties, we will have to wait for the final passing. That apart, the amendments will need both the allies as well as the chief opposition, Nepali Congress on board. Any setback on these two fronts can precipitate a crisis.”

However, the aces in this daily game of power politics still lie with the SLMM leaders who have declared that they will celebrate the 29-party unity with a massive rally in Birgunj. Protesters say the all-important economic artery between India and Nepal may once again be blockaded then at least for some time. Neither Upendra Yadav nor Rajendra Mahato has any desire to call off the protest soon, with supporters demanding that they should keep it alive for at least the next few months to have an edge in case the government of Mr. Oli falls suddenly, as many are expecting.

Constitutional crisis brewing

However, the real concern is that what will happen to the hard-earned Constitution if local elections and provincial elections are not held as per its new framework. SLMM leaders are demanding a rewriting of the Constitution and amendments. Mr. Oli has declared that local elections will be held by the end of the year, but the Nepali Congress has opposed the move. All signs on the road to constitutional democracy, says Shekhar Koirala of the Nepali Congress, indicate that a fractured government under siege from allies and popular protests will not be allowed to go ahead with local and provincial elections, which means systemic crisis. “If the local and provincial elections are not held then the Constitution will become suspended and Nepal will revert to the pre-Constitution days,” he says explaining that these two-stage elections are necessary to establish the rule of the new Constitution. “Not holding these elections will leave the federalisation process incomplete and trigger a meltdown. The Constitution, which guarantees the federal structure, will become unsustainable,” adds constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari.

However, some sections have begun to express doubts if a future under a Constitution that they perceive as discriminatory and a strong-willed Prime Minister is the best option available. Upendra Yadav is among those who believe that another new Constitution is possible. “We can suspend this Constitution and call for a new Constituent Assembly,” he says.

The road ahead looks unclear for Nepal. But Mr. Pyakurel says that in case the Constitution is weakened and dissolved, various traditional and constitutional bodies like the army and the anti-corruption bureau may acquire more power to keep the state running.

As the political slugfest and protests continue, the ultimate losers are the earthquake-hit districts in central and eastern Nepal where hundreds of thousands continue to live under plastic sheets.

kallol.b@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 10:58:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Days-and-nights-in-Kathmandu/article14330162.ece

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