Consensus with regards to drafting the new Constitution in Nepal has become the most overused word in recent times. This is especially true of the proponents of single identity provinces, which have come to mean single-ethnicity-based states in the mountains and single, or, at the most, two east-to-west state(s) in Tarai. Consensus is also being made to mean agreeing with what the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Madhesi Morcha proposes on state restructuring. Anything else is seen as either status quoist, regressive, or violating past agreements struck with these two political forces.
Admittedly, striking an agreement over new states is very difficult. Party leaders have to watch out for their constituencies, political bases and their own careers. Some of them are willing to work out a compromise and end the deadlock on the Constitution, but fear of charges of a sell-out from within their own ranks and an obstinate “progressive” commentariat are keeping them shackled. Moreover, there are leaders in every political party who believe that they will lose if a compromise was reached. Of these, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, senior leader of the UCPN(Maoist) and former Prime Minister is fast emerging as a leader of the ‘my way or the highway’ brigade.
If differences between the India-brokered political alliance of parliamentary parties and the then outlawed rebels, the UCPN(Maoist), continues, there are real risks of squandering away all the gains made so far — the formal end of conflict that claimed over 17,000 lives in a decade, the end of a meddling and unaccountable monarchy, inclusiveness, secularism and federalism.
Failed efforts Because the parties failed to reconcile their differences, the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elected in 2008 to draft the statute in two years failed despite giving itself two additional years through four extensions. The political parties then went for the second election with the motive of drafting the new statute through an elected CA. That was the original intention of the parties, clearly stated in their manifestos until the election results forced a change of heart. Now this very CA is termed “regressive.”
A false narrative is in circulation these days: That the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) are against consensus because they have a two-thirds majority in the assembly, strengths that the UCPN (Maoist) and its then coalition partner, Madhesi Morcha, never enjoyed in the first CA despite claims being now made on that front. Both the NC and the UML have been maintaining, in private conversation as well as in public, that they are for consensus. Of course, they also say they disagree with the meaning of the word — that it is consensus only if they agree to Maoist and the Madhes-based parties.
“ Age-old state discrimination is real in Nepal; carving and naming states won’t end it if there is no real decentralisation of power ”
The seven-state ‘model’ It should be noted that those opposed to carving single-ethnicity or identity states far outnumber those advocating this idea of federalism, both inside the Constituent Assembly as well as outside, demonstrated clearly through successive election results and public opinion surveys in the last four years. The UCPN(Maoist) is running away from its avowed commitment to the democratic process of voting — through Bhisma pratigya in its election manifesto in and through the passing of the CA Rules of Procedure in March 2014, four months after the election results. Its leaders say they will return to CA only if their idea of consensus is agreed to. This is not an allegation. Mr. Bhattarai and some Madhesi leaders have been saying that in public.
The UCPN (Maoist) leaders say they would accept even the seven-state model proposed jointly by the NC and the CPN-UML a few months ago if the states are named reflecting ethnicity. Or, if the states are to be named by state legislatures later as suggested by the NC, then they would settle for nothing less than 10 provinces. Both these models, goes their argument, would be progressive and end age-old discrimination. The number of states, clearly then, is not an issue here. But one continues to hear the accusation that those proposing fewer states are “regressive” and “status-quoists.”
Let’s examine the claim that ethnicity-based states would end discrimination and would ensure inclusiveness in an erstwhile exclusive state. The Maoist ‘model’ discriminates against some communities despite their larger population. For example, according to the 2011 Census, Muslims (1,164,255) are more than double the number of Gurungs (522,641) and Limbus (387,300) but the Maoists have proposed Tamuwan (for Gurungs) and Limbuwan as states. There are more Muslims in Central Tarai districts bordering Bihar than the entire Gurung or Limbu population in Nepal. It is also worth asking if India would be open to such an idea.
But the UCPN(Maoist) does not want to discuss the merit of its proposal. The proposal is seen as a panacea for ending “age-old Pahade Bahun-Chhetri domination and discrimination.” Muslims have been alleging they have been treated as second-class citizens in an overwhelmingly Hindu-majority nation. But it is impossible to raise these questions.
Numbers too are selectively deployed to suit one’s argument. On the one hand, some pundits point out that persons of Madhesi origin are underrepresented in government agencies; in fact, much below their population (a valid point, although some among them have been benefiting from the state disproportionally to their actual numbers). But when it comes to carving out provinces, here’s what is being insisted: one or two in the plains and either nine or eight (or even more) in the hills/mountains, despite the population being roughly equal in these two regions. Madhes is being made out to be monolithic and homogenous, which it is not. Tharus in the western plains resent being clubbed as Madhesis.
The Constitution-drafting process is stalled also due to petty interest of some leaders. The parties were close to striking a deal on the Constitution as the self-imposed January 22 deadline to deliver the Constitution approached, but five districts in the Tarai — Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari in the east and Kailali and Kanchanpur in the west — apparently got linked to age-old “Pahade Bahun-Chhetri domination.” If these five became part of hilly states, it becomes regressive. But if they became part of the states in Tarai, it would herald a break of the age-old discrimination. That’s on the surface, though.
Many influential NC, UML and Madhes-based party leaders including Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, K.P. Oli, Krishna Prasad Sitaula, Bijaya Gachchadar, Ram Janam Chaudhary and Upendra Yadav represent electoral constituencies from these five districts or want to represent these in future. They fear for their election prospects if the states are merged into mountain or Tarai state.
Finally, is the spirit of Jana Andolan and Madhes movement being dishonoured as is being alleged? The ideals of republicanism, federalism, secularism and inclusiveness are set to be institutionalised further through the new Constitution. No agreement in the past specifies number or names of provinces. Most parties have committed to a democracy which is republic, federal and secular and inclusive in character. No one, except pro-monarchy and pro-Hindu rastra, Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal, is opposed to these ideals. Therefore, just agreeing to a particular criterion of naming states in a certain way would neither make one progressive or regressive; nor would it make the parties an upholder or violator of past agreements.
Age-old state discrimination in Nepal is very real. Carving and naming states in this or that way won’t end discrimination if there is no real decentralisation of power, fair distribution of natural and state resources and unencumbered representation of communities in governance.