Nepal: October 2015 political update

Constitutional blues

In November 2006, the Nepal government and Maoist insurgents signed a peace agreement that promised to end ten years of bloody civil war. At the heart of the deal was agreement to negotiate a new constitutional settlement. Within a short time, the monarchy was abolished. But agreeing a new Constitution has proven painfully slow and difficult. However, on 20 September, just under nine years of negotiations finally bore fruit, and a new Constitution was overwhelmingly approved by the country’s Constituent Assembly.

However, instead of heralding an era of peace and stability, the new Constitution has simply triggered renewed protest and another major political crisis. So, what is happening?

Federalism and the Madhesis

The main issue that held up negotiations on a new Constitution for so long was federalism, which the Maoists, along with a host of ethnic and indigenous groups, strongly supported as a means of addressing long-standing problems of marginalization and inequality which had fuelled the civil war. In the course of the negotiations, identity-based political mobilisation increased significantly.

Successive governments of various political stripes have faced a serious challenge to their authority in the plains (or lowlands) of Tarai Region (also referred to Terai), which runs along the long border with India. The bulk of the population in Tarai calls itself Madhesi.

Meaning ‘people of the middle country’, the Madhesis cross caste, linguistic and religious lines. Madhesis make up one-third of Nepal’s total population. Discrimination against them takes many forms, according to analysts. For example, perceived as Indians by the mainly hill-dwelling Nepali Hindu elite, many have found it hard to gain citizenship and establish title to their land-holdings.

As long-term supporters of a federal Nepal, in the past the Maoists were confident that they represented the interests of those regions that felt marginalised. However, this confidence has been increasingly challenged in Tarai, where local political leaders have argued that the Madhesis have again been ignored during the constitutional negotiations. A small break-away Maoist faction takes the same view. Under the Modi government, neighbouring India has also appeared increasingly sympathetic to these complaints.

The new Constitution on federalism

Critics claim that the new Constitution represents a rolling back of the federal principle. The new Constitution establishes seven ‘states’; but opponents assert that these have fewer powers and are less delineated by caste and ethnicity than those that existed they are set to replace. Critics argue that the proposed boundaries of these states, albeit yet to be finalised, dilute ‘lowland majorities’. For example, in the west of Tarai region, one lowland group, the Tharus, are strongly opposed to being spread across two states.

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The new Constitution also reduces the percentage of seats in parliament that will be elected by proportional representation (PR) from 58% to 45%. PR is believed to have helped larger numbers of ethnic and indigenous representatives, often of low-caste, to get elected to the Constituent Assembly since 2006. Finally, there are concerns about how new citizenship provisions might affect marriages between people on either side of the Nepal-India border.

More generally, opponents have charged that – despite the fact that it has taken nearly a decade – the constitution-making process was “rushed”.

The current political crisis

There are other social groups disappointed with aspects of the new Constitution – for example, women’s rights activists and Hindu nationalists – but it is the grievances of indigenous and ethnic groups that pose the most immediate threat to Nepal’s peace and stability. Dozens of protestors have been killed in clashes with police in recent months. An unofficial ‘blockade’ of the border has ensued, in which some have seen the hand of India (it denies any role but many Nepalis recall that there was a similar blockade in 1989-90). Relations between the two countries are rocky. Fuel and gas shortages have mounted at a time when the country is still struggling to recover from the April/May earthquakes, in which about 9,000 people died and nearly 3 million people were displaced.

Although he had begun talks with leaders from the United Democratic Madhesi Forum, the group at the head of the Tarai protests, and withdrew the army to its barracks in order to calm passions, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala was forced to stand down a few days ago after losing a confidence vote in the Constituent Assembly. He has been replaced by Khadga Prasad Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, who has immediately appointed a moderate Madhesi figure, Bijaya Gachchedar, as one of his deputies, in the hope that this will give further impetus to the talks. But Oli is also widely viewed as more likely to stand up to India and take a strong stance if the Tarai protests continue unabated. Koirala’s defeat means that the largest party in the Constituent Assembly, the Nepali Congress, is now outside the government.

The peace process in Nepal has appeared on the brink of collapse, only to be rescued by a last-minute deal, on numerous occasions since 2006. Turbulent as the situation currently appears, the odds must be that this is another such moment.

Gachchedar has said that the Constitution just approved can be amended as part of bringing the current political crisis to an end. A Bill to this effect has already been tabled. In this sense, it can be said that the constitution-making process is far from over in Nepal. Messy and unsatisfactory though this may seem at first sight to Western eyes, the truth is that ‘post-conflict transformation’ is usually the work of decades, rather than months or years.

It is also worth recognising that many Nepalis see the new Constitution as a giant step in the right direction; for example, local LGBT campaigners have hailed it as the most progressive in South Asia in upholding their rights.

Britain and Nepal

Many Britons may well think first of the Himalayas or the 3,500 Gurkhas serving in the British Army when they think of Nepal. Some will also recall the major earthquakes that took place in Nepal in April/May this year. The UK has a continuing bilateral aid programme with Nepal and was the biggest bilateral donor in response to the earthquakes, pledging about £31 million, along with another £22 million to increase resilience to future natural disasters.

Over the last decade or so, the UK has provided considerable political and financial support to Nepal’s peace process. 2015 marks the bicentenary of the UK-Nepal relationship. In September, the UK Government called for an “inclusive resolution” of all constitutional issues and for calm.

Further reading

Why is Nepal’s new constitution controversial?” BBC, 19 September 2015

Nepal’s endless peace process, 2006-12 (House of Commons Library briefing, October 2013)

UK aid to Nepal (DFID ‘Development Tracker’ webpage)

Picture Credit: Kathmandu Nepal by Macro Eye, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)