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Between Despair and Hope

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  • November 28, 2015

    Rather than hoping for fatigue to set in among the agitators, or playing the China card vis-à-vis India, the Nepalese leadership should shed its intransigence, own up the Madhesis, Tharus and other such communities in the Terai region, value their aspirations and secure a consensus to amend the new Constitution to put an end to the stalemate

    On November 23, the Madhesi agitation in Nepal completed its 100-day mark. A day later the first sign of a possible thaw was visible in the shape of two amendment proposals fielded by the Nepali Congress party which seeks to secure inclusive and proportional representation of the Madhesi people in all State bodies and delimitation of electoral constituencies taking into account the grievances of the people in the Terai region.
    This has been welcomed by some of the prominent Madhesi leaders. As per media reports, the NC and Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN) Maoist leaders are ready to even bring about changes to the bills to accommodate the demands of the Madhesi people.

    From the beginning of the third week of November, media reports from Nepal indicated that UCPN Maoist leadership Prachanda in particular — has been busy advancing some tentative proposals aimed at addressing the demands of the Madhesi people. He was reportedly positive about settling the demarcation issue together with other disputed issues and went as far as accepting the demand for a separate Tharuhat province in the west and including some parts of Sunsari in the Madhes province in the east.

    There were even talks of merging Madhes-Janjati majority areas in Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari with this province. There is thus hope that the ongoing dialogue between the Madhesi groups and major political parties may be able to pull Nepal out of the crisis it is in.

    The Deepening Crisis

    However, pessimists would argue that the crisis does not show any sign of ebbing so soon. On November 21-22, four people were killed in police firing in Saptari while trying to block movement of vehicles on the highway at night.

    Despite Prime Minister Oli’s participation in the Chhath puja which is celebrated with fervour in the Madhes region and expression of his desire to shed inflexibility while dealing with the demands raised by Madhesis, his Government continues to remain as adamant as ever.

    NC spokesperson Dilendra Badu acknowledged it when he remarked that the Government was not serious about amending the Constitution. Many observers in Nepal would also tell you that powerful sections within the three major political parties continue to oppose the idea of granting any major concessions to the Madhesis.

    As per the calculations of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) and National Trade Association, industrial sector in Nepal has incurred a loss of Rs 200 billion due to the Madhesi agitation. The Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) released a report titled ‘Impacts of the unofficial Indian embargo on Nepali economy’ on November 20, which predicted a negative growth rate for Nepal due to the impact of over 100 days of unrest in the Terai region, where 80 per cent of all the manufacturing industries in the country are located, as well as the unofficial blockade by India.

    For the first time in the last 33 years, Nepalese economy would contract to minus 0.9 per cent if the blockade persists till mid-January. An editorial in a Nepalese newspaper said reacting to NRB report that the Nepalese economy fared better even in the worst days of the decade-long Maoist conflict. The NRB report held that such economic downturn could push an additional 800,000 people below the poverty line.

    Scapegoating India

    The reactions to such looming crisis from the Government as well as the editorial in the newspaper have not mentioned the need to engage in purposeful dialogue to end the crisis. Rather, Minister for Industry Som Prasad Pandey stressed the need “for ushering the country forward on a path of self-dependence” to avert such crisis.

    The editorial attributed the crisis to “Nepal’s unhealthy dependence on India for both fuel and food” and “inability of successive Governments to take lessons from history”.

    Rather than reducing dependence on India, it mentioned ruefully that the Nepalese leaders ensured that India accounted for 63 per cent of the total bilateral trade in 2014-15, compared to 34 per cent in 1988-89.

    The efforts on the part of the Nepalese Government to scapegoat India for the distress of the people at large, to build an anti-India nationalism among the people, and to aspire for illusory self-dependence, signify the strategy the leadership has adopted to fend off the crisis that refuses to die down primarily because of its unwillingness to address the Madhesi demands, which have been accepted by Nepalese leaders as genuine from time to time.

    Going Back on Commitments

    Not long ago in January 15, 2007, the first draft of the Interim Constitution was issued in contravention of the spirit of the Jan Andolan, to build an inclusive and federal State. This led the Madhesis to take to the streets the very next day. The agitation forced the Interim Constitution Drafting Committee to bring about the first ever amendment guaranteeing “participation of Madhesi, dalit, indigenous peoples, women, labours, farmers, disabled, backward classes and regions in all organs of the State structure on the basis of proportional inclusion”.

    There was a 22-point agreement signed between the then Government of Nepal and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum on August 30, 2007 “to ensure proportional representation and partnership of Madhesis, Adivasi/Janajatis, Dalits, women, backward classes, disabled people and minority communities, including Muslims, who have been excluded for generations in all organs and levels of Government and in power structures, mechanisms and resources” and to “immediately establish a commission of experts for State restructuring and ensure that its Constitution is inclusive”.

    There was also an assurance given to the Madhesis that “while restructuring the State, a provision shall be made for a federal governance system with autonomous provinces/States”.

    Sensing lack of commitment of the leadership, the Madhesis took to the streets again in January 2008 before the elections were to take place to elect the first Constituent Assembly of the country. There was yet another agreement signed on February 28, 2008 between the Government of Nepal and the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM) “respecting the sentiments and aspirations of the Madhesi people of Nepal, expressed during the protests and movements that they have organised time and again for equal rights”, and “to ensure the establishment of federal democratic republic in Nepal for multiparty democratic system of governance, to guarantee equality, freedom and justice for all, and to end all forms of discrimination”.

    The Government also accepted “people’s aspiration for a federal structure with autonomous regions, including the Madhesi people’s aspiration for an autonomous Madhesi State”. There was also a commitment to ensure “proportional, inclusive group entry of Madhesi people and other communities into the Nepal Army to impart national character to the Nepal Army and to make it more inclusive”.

    Past Record of the Nepalese Leadership

    The political experiment in the shape of electing the new Constituent Assembly (CA) raised the hopes of the Madhesis by securing their participation in the elections and securing a proportional representation for them in the new Assembly. However, the Maoist-led Government during the first CA and the Nepali Congress-CPN-United Marxist Leninist coalition Government in the second CA more importantly, the senior political leaders of the majority parties were rather too smug and complacent about their roles.

    Contrary to what they promised in public, they functioned in an opaque, non-democratic, and non-accountable manner. A handful of top leaders tended to hijack the agenda and functioning of the Constituent Assembly, with the result that important issues like ensuring a truly federal and inclusive Nepal were not paid the attention they deserved.

    True they could resolve difficult issues like integration of Maoists into the Army, brought in many progressive principles into the Constitution like , abolishing death penalty, recognising the rights of sexual minority or the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, equal rights of women to ancestral property and their proportional inclusion in all agencies of the State through positive discrimination, providing for right to compensation for victims of environmental pollution, and empowering differently abled citizens etc.

    However, when it came to accommodating the sensitivities of a significant section of the population the Madhesis, and Tharus who constitute about 30 per cent of the population, inhabiting the Terai region bordering India, the leaders proved rather jaundiced and myopic. They also disregarded different proposals of the State reorganisation commission to have both identity and geography based provinces which ranged from 10 to 14 in number.

    Lack of Foresight: Default or Design?

    They could not perhaps foresee the trouble lurking for them when they entered into the 16 point agreement in June 2015, which provided the basis for their finalisation of the Constitution on the basis of majority disregarding their own commitment to evolve a consensus based document, which would have been acceptable to all.

    In view of the fact that the people in the Madhesi region had started agitating since August 2015, and there were regular inputs from India at the highest level to go for a consensus based Constitution without shortchanging Madhesi aspirations, the decision of the majority parties to ram the Constitution through a majority vote in desperate hurry clearly demonstrated their unwillingness to even consider the Madhesi demands, leave alone, thrash them out with their leaders in a spirit of dialogue and reconciliation, so germane to democracy.

    If the recent report by Human Rights Watch were to be believed, the Government had anticipated the Madhesi agitation and had issued a new regulation governing the Armed Police Force (APF), arming it with enhanced powers to use lethal force.

    The report stated that the APF personnel were given impunity if anyone was killed by them. As per section 8, article 58(3) of the new regulation an APF personnel “may use necessary or final force in order to defend self” while discharging his duties to maintain law and order and to arrest the attacker.”

    The very next clause clearly states that “if a person is injured or killed” in the process, “no case will be filed against the APF personnel without the consent of the Government of Nepal.”

    The Demand and the Neglect

    The Madhesis were demanding for one or two provinces in the Mechi-Mahakali belt comprising the border districts where they have significant numerical presence, including some districts having majority hill population like Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari in the east, Chitwan at the centre and Kailali and Kanchanpur in the west.

    The hill leadership finally decided to have two provinces in the Madhesi area without these districts, choosing to attach these with the northern districts having majority Pahadi or hill population.

    Moreover, some hill districts like Palpa, Gulmi, Argha-Khanchi, Pyuthan, Rolpa, Sallyan and Rukum have been added to the second province in the region in western Terai, which was certain to provoke the Madhesi-Tharu population in the area. This also militates against the spirit of the agreement the Government of Nepal had signed with the Adivasi Tharu Community agitating in the Terai on March 14, 2009.

    The result of such neglect is there in front of us. The agitating population in the region has obstructed commercial vehicles entering into Nepal from India. Nepal is facing acute shortage of essential goods, including petroleum products and cooking gas, due to the blockade of key trading points with India. As many as 50 people have lost their lives so far. The decision by some Madhesi parties to continue with the agitation threatens to protract the crisis further. The lack of political consensus among the three majority parties and factions within them may make it difficult for them to resolve the issue through dialogue.

    Indian Position

    The fact remains that it is primarily the shortsightedness and inflexibility of the leadership that has led to the present crisis and its prolongation. India is concerned about continuation of this crisis, as much as the Nepalese leadership. A careful study of India’s reaction would show that right since the start of the Madhesi agitation, India stayed out of the process of internal negotiations and Indian Prime Minister conveyed to his counterpart very clearly that “India’s one and only desire was to see the emergence of a peaceful, secure, stable, democratic and prosperous Nepal, which draws strength from its rich social diversity, enormous resources and extraordinary talent”.

    In fact, the message from the Indian PM on August 25, 2015 was loud and clear, “The political leadership of Nepal should resolve all outstanding issues through dialogue between all political parties and through the process of widest possible consultation, including with the public, so as to strengthen the climate of trust and confidence across and between all sections of society, and arrive at solutions that reflect the will and accommodate the aspirations of all citizens of a richly diverse society within a united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Nepal”.

    A day before the final promulgation of the Constitution, on November 19, the Indian Foreign Secretary made a special trip to Kathmandu and met all senior leaders of the NC and the CPN-UML. He conveyed India’s apprehensions clearly when he said India strongly supported Constitution-making process in Nepal and it “would like its completion to be an occasion for joy and satisfaction, not agitation and violence”. He urged Nepalese leaders “to display the necessary flexibility and maturity to ensure a durable and resilient Constitution that has broad-based (ownership and) acceptance”.

    A day after the promulgation, India expressed its concerns about “the incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India” and talked about Indian freight companies and transporters voicing their “complaints about the difficulties they are facing in movement within Nepal and their security concerns due to the prevailing unrest”.

    As the troubles for the Nepalese people mounted throughout October due to non-supply of oil and gas, the Nepalese leadership deflected the attention of its people towards India, disregarding the fact that Indian suggestions of seeking a political solution at the earliest aimed at preserving the unity and integrity of Nepal through effective inclusion of the Madhesis through dialogue and widest possible consultation.

    New Government, Old Tactics

    The change in the Government after the promulgation of the Constitution, as per the understanding between the NC and the CPN-UML, and the new leadership quest for popular support have interfered with the process of reconciliation with the Madhesis.

    There seems to be a temptation on the part of the new leadership to expand its support base by interpreting Madhesi agitation as a function of Indian provocation and support and by demonstrating its resolve to stand up to India. By opening a channel of communication with China and securing its willingness to supply oil and gas to Nepal at this critical juncture, the new Prime Minister, KP Oli, from the UML, has conveyed to his people that Nepal is seeking to reduce its dependence on India. At the same time, the Oli Government seeks to both cultivate and benefit from anti-India sentiments in Nepal.

    At another level, the new Government is aware of the limits of Chinese help given the opacity that characterises Chinese deals and the lack of adequate physical infrastructure to sustain transport of oil and gas from China to Nepal.

    While China may take advantage of the situation and it does have the capacity to lay down smart transport network if it is serious about making permanent inroad into Nepal, the Nepalese leadership knows that it may take a long time to fructify. The people of Nepal may not be prepared for such a long wait. The terms and conditions of Chinese help may also not be acceptable to the people.

    Moreover, the long-term consequence of any rupture in bilateral relationship with India may not be lost on the leadership of Nepal.

    Limited Options

    As much as India would like the situation to get back to normal, the Nepalese leaders should not expect India to arm-twist Madhesis for an agreement deemed unfavourable by the latter. This would be blatant interference. As regards, Indian leverage with the Madhesis is concerned, there is an exaggerated account of it among the Nepalese people and leadership, which must yield ground to pragmatic thinking the need to engage Madhesis and work out a solution to the ongoing crisis.

    If the leadership deeply believes that the crisis has been either midwifed or stoked by India, there is a need to do some frank talking at the bilateral level rather than indulging in a pointless blame game that serves nobody’s interest.

    Rather than hoping for fatigue to set in among the agitators, or playing the China card vis-à-vis India, the Nepalese leadership should shed its intransigence, own up the Madhesis, Tharus and other such communities in the Terai region, value their aspirations and secure a consensus to amend the new Constitution to put an end to the ongoing stalemate.

    It needs nothing short of a change in mindset now to reclaim sanity in the process of democratic transition in Nepal. The leaders of Nepal have shown exemplary maturity in solving many knotty issues in the past. They have an opportunity to demonstrate it again.

    This article was originally published in The Pioneer.