Last week, there were a few incursions of a different kind on India's border with Nepal. Unlike in the case of the western border, these were not malevolent infiltrators sneaking in from the neighbouring country. In one instance, nearly 40 men belonging to the Armed Police Force of Nepal crossed over into India and sought refuge with the Sashastra Seema Bal, the Indian border guards. The Nepali policemen were forced to abandon their posts following widespread violence in their country against the new draft constitution. The Himalayan nation, recovering from an earthquake that devastated it a few months ago, seems to be in the throes of yet another crisis.
Violent protests spreading quickly across Nepal have killed around 30 people in the last few weeks. Nepal has been governed by an interim constitution since the monarchy was abolished in 2008. After years of wrangling, and two constituent assemblies later, political parties had agreed on a draft constitution last month.
The draft, which was made public on August 8, has evoked furious response from the minorities. These include the Madhesis—the Awadhi-, Bhojpuri- and Maithili-speaking people of Indian origin, who live in the eastern Terai [the plains of southern Nepal] region, the Tharu groups—the descendants of bonded labourers, who worked for upper caste landowners and considered to be among the most marginalised people in Nepal, the Dalit groups and the Janajati group, the indigenous people of the hills.
The new constitution, which has been in the making since 2008, has failed to address their longstanding grievances. Throughout its history, Nepal has been a unitary state, with power and resources concentrated in Kathmandu, while the periphery was forever sidelined. The marginalised groups expected the new constitution to right this historical injustice, but they feel that it has failed to do so. The fuse of the recent outbreak of violence was lit by the constituent assembly's decision to create a new federal structure for Nepal, by dividing it into seven states, replacing the existing 75 administrative districts. The Madhesis, who comprise 22 per cent of the Nepali population, are unhappy about the new system as it included some portions of the plains in the hill states. This, they argue, puts them at a demographic disadvantage, politically. The Tharu groups, which are concentrated in the far-western Terai, too, have similar concerns. These two groups want to keep the plains together by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which merged plains, hills and mountains for administrative purposes. Some of the indigenous groups in the hills also support this view as they want to keep their traditional homelands intact.
The constituent assembly, which has been elected to draft the constitution, appears to be divided on the issue. In the assembly, the ruling coalition consisting of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the opposition Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) are in support of the new draft constitution. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D), which was part of the ruling coalition, has now threatened that it will pull out, if the concerns of the Madhesis and Tharus were not addressed. Sadbhavana, which is the oldest Madhesi party, has already pulled out its members from the assembly. Many other smaller parties, too, have disassociated from the constitution drafting process.
The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party have asked their members not to permit any more changes to the draft that was cleared on August 8. In defence of their stand, these parties argue that it is not proper to keep the hills and plains as separate administrative entities as the Terai region these days have large mixed communities because of increased migration from the hills.
Other contentious issues include the new system for demarcating electoral constituencies and a new citizenship measure which would make it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship. The minority ethnic groups are worried that such measures are aimed at marginalising them further.
There are people who believe that there is an Indian hand behind the violence, especially since the protests are being led by the Madhesis. Some officials were quoted in reports saying that intruders from the south, [meaning India] were behind the unrest. India has denied the charges. Adding to the woes, Nepal has also been witnessing several violent protests demanding renaming the country as a Hindu nation. After the monarchy was abolished in 2008, Nepal was declared a secular republic. The protesters now want the decision to be rescinded.
The continuing violence in Nepal, which has severely affected the post-earth quake reconstruction efforts, has attracted international attention. Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the United Nations, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was concerned about the violence and saddened by the loss of life. "He urges all to refrain from the use of force, denounce violence in all forms and engage in dialogue," said Dujarric. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, has urged the Nepali leadership to resolve all outstanding issues through dialogue.
Critics said the recent decision to thrash out a deal quickly was caused by the urgency of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and K.P. Oli, chairman of the UML. “Koirala wants the constitution to be finalised early so that he legitimises his legacy as the prime minister who gave Nepal its post-conflict democratic constitution that none of the earlier four Left or Maoist prime ministers could,” said Major General (retd) Ashok K. Mehta, who has been following Nepali politics for several decades. He said Oli, who was said to be seriously unwell, wanted to be the next prime minister and that there was a gentleman’s agreement in the Nepali Congress for supporting him.
Time is running out for the Himalayan nation. And, so is the patience of its citizens. The earthquake ravaged Nepal, which is among the poorest nations in the world, cannot afford to alienate any further its minorities and marginalised groups. Insisting on artificial deadlines for finalising the constitution can only be detrimental to the unity and integrity of the country. Nepal's political parties and its leaders should keep this in mind as they try hard to tackle the spiralling violence engulfing the country.