May 21, 2012

Nepal: A camel in the making

By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU - Despite an extended gestation period of four years, Nepal's Constituent Assembly is preparing to approve a constitution that could be still-born.

Politicians both inside and outside of the 601-strong assembly are working overtime to have a constitution proclaimed by the May 27 deadline. But there are doubts such a statute, drawn up through last-minute deals and compromises between parties leaning left and right, will fulfill the expectations of the masses and meet the procedural requirements necessary to establish its legitimacy.

"The legitimacy issue is unlikely to disappear even after the new constitution is issued," says constitutional lawyer Badri Bahadur Karki.

It remains a matter of conjecture whether the new statute and

some unreliable assurances will be enough for Nepali people whose hopes and aspirations soared following the abolition of the monarchy and the adoption of an interim republican constitution in 2007. The proposition to split the country into 11 provinces (without providing names or demarcating them) and plans for two power centers - a president and a prime minister - are seen as major flaws in the constitution, along with concerns that too many important procedures, such as promises for the draft to be circulated for public consultation, have been skipped and that it will arrive incomplete.

Leaders of the three major parties - and a block of five regional groups - reached an understanding on Tuesday to produce a draft statute by the May 27 deadline, However, it seems unlikely that proper attention was given to social harmony among Nepal's over 100 ethnic groups.

There are growing apprehensions that the new statute, once it surfaces before the public, will remind of a Hindu tale that says that Brahma the Creator assembled attractive body features of several animals with a view to creating the most good-looking creature, but what eventually emerged was the ugly camel.

If the latest understanding among political parties survives, Nepal will be divided into 11 provinces (or states) with provisions for provincial governments, legislatures and courts along with accompanying paraphernalia. Political leaders do not seem bothered about whether or not this resource-poor country can sustain such a massive structure.

Nepal is currently divided into 14 zones and 75 districts, and grouped into five development regions.

Another contentious issue that the leaders think they have resolved is related to the form of governance, with plans for a directly elected president (as in France) and a parliament-elected prime minister with executive powers.

Knowledgeable observers see the scheme as unworkable as the two power centers are bound to be locked in constant conflict. "It is a pity that our leaders failed to see what happened in a country as close as Sri Lanka," said Gopal Krishna Shiwakoti, a political analyst who also works as a human-rights activist.

Contemporary media reports say that the names of the new provinces will be given at a later stage and boundaries between newly created states would be undertaken by a commission created when the constitution has been passed.

Besides, the restless public is being told that the incumbent Constitutional Assembly - which operates as the interim legislature - will be converted into an interim parliament that will take care of the rights and priorities of ethnic communities. Uncertainties and ambivalence have accentuated public restlessness.

Will such propositions be acceptable to the remaining 30-odd smaller political parties represented in the assembly? And are the ethnic groups prepared to rely on these seemingly hollow words?

Protesters might set fire to copies of the newly proclaimed constitution on the very first day. The dominant Brahmin and Chhetri communities are among those firmly against the plan to federalize the country. Such a measure, in their opinion, could encourage separatist tendencies that could compromise Nepal's very existence.

Voices that initially were muted have become louder in recent weeks. A campaign to keep the far western region undivided has placed the central leadership of all main parties on notice. This has encouraged other regions to speak against the plan to create divisions that they say are not needed. Clashes between rival groups have already resulted in injuries and damage to property in some parts of the country.

The situation is becoming more explosive day by day. In a jointly written article published by the Republica newspaper on Sunday, two Nepali diplomats who had stints as ambassadors to the United Nations and Bangladesh, commented that Nepali leaders had failed to grasp the gravity of the unfolding scenario. Territorial claims of various ethnic groups "could invite the horrors of Yugoslavia and Rwanda", according to Murari Sharma and Bhagirath Basnet.

In a statement on Monday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concerns "at the rising tensions and disruption of daily life in parts of Nepal". He called on the government to address "escalating tensions".

Independent analysts apportion part of the blame for these dangerous trends on the UN itself, which persuaded Western donors to invest for empowerment of what they perceived as " traditionally marginalized groups".

Some Westerners are also presumed to have a hidden agenda to agitate Tibetan exiles in Nepal against China. India, the at times meddlesome neighbor to the south, is accused of supporting militant activity in the separatist-leaning southern Nepali region of Terai.

A newspaper survey released on Monday by Himalmedia showed that over 72% of about 3,200 participants above 18 years of age reject the ethnicity-based federal structure.

Nepal is predominantly rural and almost all villages have residents from mixed ethnic groups. While separate languages and dialects are used across different communities, Nepali is the only language spoken in all corners of the country.

Similarly, many different religions are represented, although 80% of Nepal's 29 million people are Hindus. Therefore there is a deep resentment against a proposition to permanently transform the country into a "secular" nation, creating a scenario comparable to neighboring India where animosity between Hindus and Muslims persists despite the creation of Pakistan in 1947 as a separate nation for Muslims.

The compulsion to give Nepal a federal look came in the light of promises made by the Maoist party during its insurgency years (1996-2006).

The revolutionary leaders had mobilized illiterate and unemployed youths through assurances that the ethnic groups to which they belonged would have separate states once the feudal monarchy and its supporters were overthrown.

There are strong demands that the promises be fulfilled. The campaign has intensified since 2008 when an interim statute pushed aside the Shah dynasty that ruled Nepal for 240 years. Some groups wants to leave no room for a revival of the monarchy.

Pro-monarchists, however, are undaunted. Their say that while the last Shah king, Gyanendra, was despised for his shortsightedness, a sizeable section of Nepal's population has begun to realize that a monarchy would be useful for stability and social harmony in an ethnically diverse country.

Kamal Thapa, who leads the only pro-monarchy party, with four seats in the Constitutional Assembly, contends that a free and impartial referendum would prove his belief.

That is a subject for future debate. The immediate need is for measures that can tackle the growing ethnically-motivated tensions. Since the present bunch of leaders have failed to provide a secure atmosphere, expectant eyes are focused on President Ram Baran Yadav, who has an obligation, as provided in the interim constitution enacted in January 2007, to play the role of guardian.

With support from democratic forces, he would be able to handle the challenge that has come with the Maoist-backed demand for federalism based on ethnicity.

Dhruba Adhikary is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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