It is as if the constituent assembly of Nepal was unable to resolve competing demands and decided to promulgate the Constitution anyway, leaving incomplete its task, abdicating some of its responsibilities to future governments.
One had thought that Nepal’s bloody conflict had taught the Kathmandu elites the need for federalism, but the ethnic minorities in the Terai region have again been shown their place as lesser citizens.
The other two main disappointments are secularism and women’s rights. The Maoists seem to have given in to the demands of religious groups, and have tried to fool the world by definining secularism as the protection of Sanatan dharm (upper caste Hinduism) and religious freedom. In other words, the religion-state conflict will continue. For instance, the Kirat ethnic group believes in cow sacrifice, but killing cows are illegal in Nepal because of upper caste Hindu beliefs.
The new Constitution will result in elections which will almost certainly be violent. Nepal’s civil strife and political conflict is far from over, it has merely been postponed. History will say that the current Constitution makers abdicated their responsibility of creating a Constitution that takes all Nepalis together with equality and dignity.
A renewed crisis in Nepal comes just months after a devastating earthquake that show how inept the Nepali government was to face a natural disaster it long knew was in the coming. The political disaster is greater, and more frustrating.
Kathmandhu should learn from New Delhi’s headaches in conflict areas such as the north-east and Kashmir that inequities and unresolved troubles at the time of promulgating a Constitution only become greater with time. Being fair to the plains with a truly federal structure, unambiguous secularism that guarantees religious freedom for minorities and equal rights to women and naturalized citizens, are things that Nepal will find harder to do tomorrow than today. Intractable conflicts are ‘managed’ by governments, who often find themselves unwilling to take the political risk that it takes to resolve them.
Yet, as the outside world judges Nepal, we need to remember that even promulgating a Constitution is a big step for Nepal.
In his book Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, published last year, Prashant Jha argues that Nepal has gone from war to peace, monarchy to republic, theocratic to secular state, a monolithic hill-centric nationalism to inclusive citizenship, and is slowly moving from unitary to federal state. These are processes, Jha argues, that countries and societies have taken decades to achieve. Nepal is leap-frogging in no time -– and when you see it this way, you’d be slightly less contemptuous of Kathmandu’s acrimonious polity. These processes began after the royal massacre of 2001, 14 years ago.
The Nepali war years from 1996 to 2006 left 16,000 dead, 1,300 disappeared and thousands displaced. In a world full of conflict, these numbers appear small. Constitution making was an opportunity for Nepal to resolve its fissures. Bringing the Maoists to the table was no mean achievement, one that India came around to supporting.
It is clear now that those processes are not complete with the promulgation of Nepal’s 6th Constitution. As Nepal struggles with its internal power battles, there might be something for us in India to learn from the country.
Firstly, secularism. Secularism is a dirty word in India today, and Nepal’s commitment to secularism has been diluted by the Sunday Constitution. Yet, it is not hard to wonder why Nepal needed secularism at all.
Secularism in India came as a response to Hindu-Muslim tensions. Nepal’s religious minorities are too small in number. The pressure for secularism has come not only from Maoists but also from Dalits and adivasis who see a religious Hindu state as a way of enforcing upper-caste hegemony. Secularism isn’t just about Muslims and Christians, as many in India think, but about making the state not interfere with the rights of a range of ethnic groups and minorities.
It is equally curious why Nepal has almost no internet censorship, a claim no other South Asian country can make. Any small protest in Gujarat seems to result in blocking of mobile internet services these days. It is curious why Nepal’s politicians don’t seek to muzzle online voices even though their politics is bitter to the point of being internecine.
This is not an isolated case of being comfortable with free speech and dissent. Nepal is also the only country in South Asia with no restrictions on community radio. Anybody can set up a local community radio station. News and politics are allowed. There were 263 operational community radio stations when the earthquake struck; 20 of them have been destroyed. Community radio is a powerful tool for bridging the information divide in poor societies like ours. Unfortunately, India is too afraid of radio, and does not give community radio licenses to anyone other than small NGOs and universities. India doesn’t even allow news on FM radio.
Nepal is the only country in South Asia where homosexuality is not criminalised. Instead, the new Constitution says Nepal shall not discriminate against sexual minorities, and that the new Nepal government may create laws to protect and empower sexual minorities.
The Nepali Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality in 2008 and had asked the government to legislate in favour of equal rights to sexual minorities. In 2008, Sunil Babu Pant became a member of the first constituent assembly (2008-2012), thus becoming the only openly gay politician in South Asia. There is no country in South Asia which is so progressive in favour of LGBT rights.
The Indian Constitution and the formative years of the Indian state were helped by Nehru, who had few political challengers. In Nepal’s case, the polity is bitterly fractured between a declining feudal order and an assertive subaltern politics. To this churning, the earthquake came as a major setback. The earthquake is partly responsible for making the Constituent Assembly hurry up even though federalism and some other issues weren’t fully resolved.
At a time when Nepal needs Indian and international pressure to make a Constitution fairer to the Terai region, there might be lessons from Nepal for all of us to learn.