Political stability still continues to elude Nepal -By Suhas Chakma
Ethnic and linguistic aspirations are not likely to be met by the mere creation of Provinces. The various warring groups could ruin the peace initiatives
On May 15, the three major political parties of Nepal — United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists), Nepali Congress and United Marxist Leninist reached an agreement to bring the fragile peace process to conclusion. The agreement, among others, provides for 11 Provinces, a mixed system of governance with a directly elected President sharing powers with a Prime Minister elected from the bicameral Parliament comprising a 371 member Lower House and a 60-member Upper House. This follows the successful integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants. The latest agreement paves the way for promulgation of the Constitution by May 28 as the Supreme Court of Nepal refused to extend the deadline.
So far, Nepal’s peace process appears to be progressing as per the script. Following the promulgation of the Constitution, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is expected to hand over the reign to Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress as per the unwritten agreement that led to Mr Bhattarai assuming power. The latest agreement suits the Maoists as they expect Prachanda to win the President’s direct election in addition to winning the majority of seats in the parliamentary elections. India, the arbitrar of the peace process, expects Mr Koirala to ensure victory for the Nepali Congress in the next general election. Obviously, lessons of the previous election have not been learnt. Prior to the outcome of the Constituent Assembly election in June 2008, India’s then National Security Advisor MK Narayan stated that India preferred a Nepali Congress Government over the Maoists. Until Mr Bhattarai took over, the relations between India and the Maoists were strained.
Though there is a possibility of promulgating the Constitution by May 28, Nepal finds itself in the throes of more conflicts because of contesting claims over proposed Provinces. The federal States are to be carved out on the basis of ethnicity, geography and language and the names of the Provinces are to be determined by elected State Assemblies themselves. A commission is to determine the boundary of the Provinces.
However, it is unlikely that 11 Provinces will satisfy ethnic and linguistic aspirations. The State Restructuring Commission had proposed the 14-Provinces model and the same has been endorsed by the Constituent Assembly Committee too. Not surprisingly, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities and the United Democratic Madhesi Front have rejected the deal. Further, they view the decision to set up a panel to determine boundaries as an attempt to delay decisions on federalism. The records of various commissions established in Nepal also do not evoke much confidence.
Federalism is not only about names and boundaries of the Provinces but also equally about the separation of powers between the Federal Government and the Provincial Governments and sharing of the resources of the State. There has been very little discussion about the sharing of the resources and the costs of running the Provincial Governments.
Borders and names are by no means simple. For the last three weeks, Terai region has been choked over contesting claims. A number of Madhesi groups have been demanding a “unified far West region”. The same has been contested by indigenous Tharus and the Maoists who are demanding Tharuban province. And clashes have been occurring intermittently. On May 15, a clash took place at Dhangadhi, Kailali district after the Maoist cadres tried to disrupt a mass meeting organised by undivided far West campaigners. After the clash, undivided far West demonstrators vandalised offices of the Maoists and Tharuhat Autonomous State Council.
Earlier, on May 11, another clash had occurred between the Madhesis demanding undivided far West and the Tharus. Around 23 persons including Tharu leader Laxman Tharu were injured during the clash.
Further on May 9, a clash between the indigenous Tharus and upper caste Chhetris took place at Nawalparasi district in which six persons were seriously injured and had to be flown to Kathmandu for further treatment. The Tharus were protesting against vandalisation of Tharu Museum at Danda.
Nepal has always been about controlling the Kathmandu valley — whoever controlled the Kathmandu valley controlled Nepal. It is precisely for the same reason that the Maoists despite controlling vast swathes of Nepal had to align with the Nepali Congress and the UML to topple King Gyanendra.
However, the issue of federalism has brought Kathmandu versus rest-of-Nepal to the fore. The Nepali Congress and UML led by the dominant Bahuns and Chettris opposed federalism in the past. Even the Maoists are led by the dominant Bahuns and Chettris in the form of Prachanda and Mr Bhattarai and the Baidya faction of the Maoists rejected the 11-provinces solution on the ground that Prachanda and Mr Bhattarai betrayed the Janjatis.
The Maoists have garnered the support of the Janjatis on the promise of the right of self-determination. Madhesis and Janjatis who lived as second class citizens until the latest people’s movement are now demanding their due. The agreement signed by the Government of Nepal on May 17 to include Brahmins and Chhetris in the list of Janjatis as ‘Arya Khas’ effectively puts a spanner to the federalism question. But there is still no way out for Nepal as the Madhesis and Janjatis, despite their contesting claims, try to shift power of balance away from the Kathamandu valley.
(The author is director, Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi.)