When King Gyanendra took over the reins of government back in February 2005 for, as he then said, a period of three years, it seemed plausible that he would remain at the helm for quite some time before the forces of history would compel him to hand power back to the people. But the king lasted barely 15 months before being shunted aside by what is now called the People’s Movement II. That popular uprising against royal rule was as much a cry for the restoration of democracy as for a return of peace. After all, with both the major political parties and the rebel Maoists having made a common cause out of opposition to the monarchy and resolution of the decade-long conflict, both seemed possible.
And thus it has seemed since April 2006, as milestones have been reached and passed one by one: a resurrected Parliament deprived the king of any role in the state, and brought the army under civilian control; in November 2006, a peace agreement was reached that effectively ended the Maoist ‘people’s war’; two months later, an interim constitution was promulgated; soon thereafter, an interim legislature was convened, with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as a major presence; the definition of the country’s very identity was reconfigured to reflect its demographic plurality, through actions such as dropping the controversial provision that declared Nepal to be a Hindu country, and a promise to redress the exclusion felt by many social groups; this past April, an all-party government was formed that included the Maoists; the country is now looking forward to elections to a Constituent Assembly, which is to write the new constitution. The Constituent Assembly elections are currently slated for 22 November.
That is the rosy outlook. On the flip side, there are too many imponderables involved to be able to predict where the country is headed. On the political front, there is creeping doubt as to whether the elections to the Constituent Assembly, already postponed beyond the rather unrealistic June 2006 deadline set by eager politicians, will even be possible in November. For the first time in more than a decade, despite their continuing erratic conduct, the Maoists do not pose the primary threat to Nepal’s political stability. Rather, greater potential for volatility is now found among myriad social groups – including the ‘indigenous nationalities’ and the Tarai plains-based Madhesi groups – seeking a place as equals in the country’s polity.
Uppermost in the minds of the people, however, is the law-and-order situation. At times, it seems there is hardly a government in place, in Kathmandu or anywhere else. Bandhs are a nearly daily occurrence in one part of the country or another, whether instigated by the mundane or something loftier; armed groups have sprung up in parts of the Tarai, and have been killing people at will; the most daring robberies and most criminal shootings do not even make the front pages of newspapers anymore; the Maoists have unleashed their youth wing on the people, ostensibly as part of a national political campaign, and this behaves like a vigilante force unto its own. In short, public security is at its lowest ebb.
That the country’s current situation would be so uncertain was perhaps unforeseen when Nepal entered the transitional period that began with the king’s forced retreat from the political arena in April 2006. The anti-king agitation had been possible due to an alliance forged in 2005 between the Maoists and the seven major political parties (who formed the Seven-Party Alliance, or SPA), the largest of which were the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN (UML). While this new alignment identified the monarchy as the major obstacle to full democracy, more significant was the SPA’s accession to the Maoists’ longstanding demand that a Constituent Assembly be elected to draw up a new constitution, predicated on the Maoists’ commitment to give up violence and enter competitive politics. Thus, the king’s capitulation was expected to usher in a period of peace, along with the only-to-be-expected hiccups.
Indeed, the early days of the transitional period saw a smooth progression of events. The SPA duly nominated Girija Prasad Koirala to lead the new government. The Parliament that had been disbanded four years earlier met on 27 April 2006, and began taking measures to safeguard citizens’ rights. This mainly took the form of clipping all of the king’s powers, but included the attempt to create a state that was more respectful of the many peoples that make up the Nepali ‘nation’, such as the commitment to fostering a democracy characterised by ‘inclusion’, a new term that has gained wide currency.
In the meantime, the 10-year-old Maoist insurgency effectively came to a halt (it would formally end with the peace deal in November). Negotiations between the SPA and the Maoists began in June. The latter were none too pleased that their preferred roadmap – a roundtable conference followed by an interim government that would work towards a Constituent Assembly – was largely ignored in the new scheme of things. Instead, the new set-up followed what the SPA wanted: restoration of Parliament, which had been dismissed in May 2002; the creation of an interim government; and an eventual Constituent Assembly.
But faced with the fait accompli of a Koirala-led SPA government, the Maoist leadership had no choice but to go ahead and work out the modalities under which they would give up arms and enter the political mainstream. This was done in the form of an eight-point agreement, signed on 16 June 2006, which called on the United Nations to help monitor and ‘manage’ the arms of both the Maoists and the Nepali Army. It was agreed that an interim constitution would be promulgated, and an interim parliament and government formed in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly (CA) polls. Apart from this election, which has yet to take place, everything has gone according to plan, even if not exactly according to schedule. That in itself was a remarkable achievement; and the process would have been smooth enough, but for what was not anticipated by either the SPA or the Maoists.
Challenging the status quo
If the interim constitution was meant to reflect the popular mood, it largely succeeded. While depriving the king of any role in the state, the new document, promulgated on 15 January 2007, left it to the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly to decide the monarchy’s fate by simple majority. More significantly, it declared the country to be a “secular, inclusive and a fully democratic State”, and also gave full constitutional recognition to languages other than Nepali (which remains the official language). Recognising the fact that the electoral system in place (the common first-past-the-post, or FPTP, set-up, whereby individual candidates engage in direct competition in each electoral constituency) had failed to make past parliaments more representative of the country’s social diversity, it adopted a 50-50 mixed system for the Constituent Assembly election – FPTP combined with proportional representation of the various social groups. Furthermore, in order “to bring about an end to the discrimination based on class, caste, language, sex, culture, religion and region by eliminating the centralised and unitary form of the state”, the interim constitution called for an “inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state” to be decided by the Constituent Assembly.
According to the 2001 census:
• There are 97 population groups in Nepal, of which 53 are Indo-Aryan and 44 Mongoloid. The major groups: Chhetri (15.8 percent), Bahun (12.7), Magar (7.1), Tharu (6.8), Tamang (5.6) and
• There are 106 languages, with the following as the major mother tongues: Nepali (48.1 percent), Maithili (12.3), Bhojpuri (7.5), Tharu (5.9) and Tamang (5.2).
• There are five major religious groups: Hindu (80.6 percent), Buddhist (10.7), Muslim (4.2), Kirati (3.6) and Christian (0.5).
‘State restructuring’ has been a key theme of discussion for quite some time in Nepal; the Maoist agenda obviously has always been defined by this goal, while other political parties also formally adopted it in 2003. This is because the entire machinery of the Nepali unitary state has been dominated by high-caste, hill Hindu males, ever since present-day Nepal was consolidated out of numerous principalities by the present king’s ancestor back in the mid-1700s. Power has alternated between the Chhetris (Kshatriyas) and Bahuns (hill Brahmans), and has not devolved outside this group (the two make up around 30 percent of the population). While it did usher in democracy, the 1990 democratic Constitution was not able to concede this fact, and thus state policies continued to discriminate against nearly 85 percent of the population in terms of language, religion, ethnicity and gender.
For all its weaknesses, the Constitution of 1990 did open up the public space for popular mobilisation. The Maoists themselves took advantage of the ‘political opportunity’ provided by a democratic polity, and set the stage for an insurgency. The various groups that had felt marginalised by the state also began openly articulating their grievances, and pressuring for change. The state, dominated mainly by the upper castes – the Bahuns and Chhetris in particular – turned a deaf ear to these voices, as it has always been wont to do. The Maoists, on the other hand, had always adopted the issue of the underprivileged as their own, and used group grievances to their fullest potential to rally support for their cause. Thus, within a few years, hitherto silent groups – Dalits, Janajatis (or ‘indigenous’ groups), Madhesis (linguistic groups of plains origin) and women – were being mobilised both by their respective community organisations and by the Maoists; in the process, the clamour got ever louder. By 2006, there was no question that structural changes would have to be introduced if the country was to head towards lasting peace. And, hence, talk of ‘inclusion’ and ‘restructuring’ became increasingly common, despite the fact that the CPN (Maoist) and nearly every party in the SPA were dominated by Bahuns.
The ‘progressive restructuring’ mentioned in the interim constitution, however, touched a raw nerve among the Madhesi and Janajati communities, since the document was silent on the question of two of their major demands – a federated state and a full proportional electoral system. It is generally accepted that the Constituent Assembly will deal with issues such as the nature of the state and the system to be adopted for parliamentary elections. As with other issues, however, such as the question of secularism, there were misgivings that the CA would simply ratify decisions already taken by the eight-party leadership – hence the eagerness to decide on such issues before the CA polls.
The manner in which the eight parties, as those who had led the April movement, arrogated the right to speak for all Nepalis was perhaps mediated by the political contingency of bringing the Maoists into the mainstream as quickly as possible. But having raised expectations all around of creating a ‘new Nepal’ that would be more inclusive, it may have been a lack of foresight not to have involved all stakeholders in how and what decisions affecting the country’s future were made. The first disjuncture between stated objectives and actions became evident in the formation of the Interim Constitution Drafting Committee: of the six members, four were Bahuns and one a Chhetri. Although ten others were added following vehement criticism, the whole process did little to engender confidence in the motives of the party bosses.
It was therefore no surprise that, within days of the interim constitution being promulgated in January, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), a Madhesi organisation that cut across party-political boundaries, began an agitation that soon brought the entire eastern Tarai to a complete standstill. After 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded over a period of 19 days, the government finally responded to two of the MJF’s major demands. Prime Minister Koirala declared that the interim constitution would be amended to make Nepal a federated union, and that the number of electoral-constituency seats in the Tarai (as well as the midhills and the mountains) would be increased in proportion to the respective population distributions. The Madhesis had long decried that the highlands had a larger share of legislative seats, disproportionate to the number of people living there. Following the constitutional amendment, a commission to redraw the boundaries of the electoral districts was formed. However, Madhesi activists, including MPs from the SPA, criticised the commission’s recommendations as gerrymandering in favour of people of hill origin (the pahade, or pahadiya) in the Tarai, and it was asked to go back to the drawing board.
By this time, the Janajatis had also begun to protest in earnest. Unlike the Madhesis, whose concentration in the Tarai aided them in imposing their writ, Janajatis are disadvantaged in that they are more dispersed. But in the current environment of fear, their calls for bandhs were still effective. The government announced that it would begin talking to all agitating groups; and although it has indeed made some attempts at doing so, as yet these have not yielded anything substantial.
Maoists and Madhes
Nepal’s transition has been most difficult for the CPN (Maoist). The about-face that the party leaders decided on, from trying to capture state power through violence to accepting political pluralism, has proved to have been the easy part. Actually putting the new understanding into practice has been significantly more complex. The leadership could not be seen to be compromising on the ideals it had drilled into the party’s cadre, even though that was precisely what it needed to do. As a first step, the Maoists were able to negotiate a presence in the interim parliament at par with the second largest party, the CPN (UML), which automatically translated into a significant number of cabinet positions. But the Maoists’ greatest test will be in the electoral battlefield this November.
As a party that had built its organisational structure on the power of the gun, open politics was not going to come easy to the CPN (Maoist). Under the peace agreement, the Maoist leadership had to reveal the true strength of its fighting force (about which there had previously only been educated guesses), in order to canton the fighters and their arms under UN supervision. But there was also the need for a body of experienced cadre to remain outside the cantonments, in order to carry out political work. Given the dual role of soldier and political worker that a Maoist guerrilla is trained to undertake, the Maoists could not afford to send all of their fighters into the camps. Thus, just before the cantonment process was to begin, there were reports from across the country of the Maoists recruiting youngsters, to boost their numbers and to take the place of the ‘real’ fighters in the camps.
The regimented lifestyle that the former guerrillas were used to, however, meant that they could not be typical party workers. Instead, they continued communal life as a section of the re-established, English-titled Young Communist League (YCL). The Maoist leadership resurrected the YCL out of its long dormancy not long after the peace agreement, ostensibly to mobilise people in favour of a republic. It has since attracted a large number of youth to its fold; and since it is highly organised, it has become much-dreaded for acting like an extra-legal authority. Doubts about the Constituent Assembly election are partly fuelled by fears that a free and fair poll will not be possible so long as the YCL continues to act as storm troopers for the parent party. There is also the danger that other political parties will float similar forces for the purpose of taking on the YCL, thereby leading to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty all around.
Back in the cantonments, by the end of February the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) had registered a little over 30,000 ‘fighters’ and close to 3500 weapons. The gap between the two figures resulted in much sniggering that the Maoists had finally been exposed with regards to the size of their force. But experts agree that the discrepancy is not all that unusual. For one, a guerrilla force, especially one that has not received any external support, can ill afford to equip every one of its fighters. More importantly, those registered had yet to undergo a verification process to prove that they were 18 years old and had joined the Maoist’s People’s Liberation Army before the April 2006 movement had begun.
This is where the Maoist leaders are having trouble with the UN itself. At the time desperate for international legitimacy, the Maoists were the ones to have originally mooted the idea of engaging the UN as a guarantor of a peace process in Nepal. That was back in 2004, and no one seriously believed that such a thing would ever come to pass, given India’s anathema for any kind of external involvement in the Southasian neighbourhood. With the path having been cleared for the UN’s entry, it was perhaps a bit naïve of the Maoists to have filled the cantonments with new recruits. Maybe they were unaware that there are well-established procedures for verification in such circumstances, and that the UN would bring in its own experts. As was only to be expected, the exercise brought UNMIN and the Maoists to loggerheads in mid-July. Viewed from another angle, however, even if the majority of those in the cantonments fail verification, the Maoists still stand to gain, since the past seven months or so has been a period of intense political indoctrination (on a government stipend, to boot) for everyone in the camps – a fact that should be worrisome to other political parties.
The bigger headache for the Maoists, though, is the Madhesi movement. As with most political organisations in Nepal, the CPN (Maoist) is dominated by the pahade. Even though, as the self-styled champion of all disadvantaged groups, the Maoists had set up a Madhesi National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 2000, along with various other ethnic and regional fronts, it has not been immune to charges of pahade chauvinism. A group led by its former chief broke away from the MNLF in 2004, to continue armed struggle for Madhesi rights as the Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), which has since splintered twice (see accompanying story, “The Madhes rises”).
All three JTMM factions, as well as the MJF, are led by people who were Maoists at one point. Perhaps because of this, the CPN (Maoist) has been publicly dismissive of the Tarai agitation, and initially attributed it variously to Hindu rightists from India, royalists and secessionists. As a major player in the interim government, the CPN (Maoist) has also been advocating tackling the Madhes situation as a simple law-and-order problem, ironically akin to how its own insurgency was once viewed by successive Kathmandu governments. By ignoring the political nature of the grievances involved and using a heavy-handed approach, the Maoists (and the government) have come close to risking total conflagration in the Tarai – in particular its east and centre, where Madhesi anger runs deep.
Should such a flare-up take place, it could easily overshadow the decade-long insurgency in intensity, since a full-blown Madhesi movement would most likely take on communal overtones. Moreover, history has shown that a grievance-driven conflict easily becomes more difficult to resolve if the protagonists have empathetic ethnic brethren across an international border. Thus, any use of force by the state in the Tarai – which, given past experience, would most likely be relatively indiscriminate, particularly if it involved the Armed Police Force – would only inflame passions across the border, particularly considering the Madhesis’ close familial and cultural links with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Whatever it may be, New Delhi’s official reaction would have little impact on how such a situation would unfold.
Elections and federalism
The demand by the Madhesis, Janajatis and Dalits that the Constituent Assembly elections be held under a system of proportional representation follows from the argument that the Constituent Assembly is going to decide Nepal’s fate for some time to come. As such, the CA needs to reflect the social plurality of the country. A strong point in favour of proportional representation is that it ensures inclusion of all communities by language, faith, region, caste, ethnicity and so on, but usually only if there are political outfits that stand for such partisan interests. Since such political organisations are not yet the norm in Nepal, the country’s national parties will have to be trusted to be aware of the need to be more representative. Ordinarily, under a proportional-representation system parties draw up a slate of candidates, and the number of seats each party is ultimately allocated depends on its share of votes. But the proportional system being advocated by the agitating groups in Nepal is one in which all the communities are represented in proportion to their size in the general population. In effect, this would create something like a (generally ineffectual) house of nationalities, as found in some communist states.
If the elections are going to be competitive – and by definition they should be – they have to be contested on issues that go beyond questions of identity. Politics has to be granted its due primacy if the Constituent Assembly debates are going to be meaningful. In that sense, the mixed system agreed to by the parties in power is perhaps not all disastrous, even if the FPTP part will give established parties more seats than they would get in a fully proportional system. Due to the proportional-representation element, the Constituent Assembly will certainly be more inclusive – representative of the plurality of both parties and social groups – than it would otherwise have been. It also has to be remembered that, due to their geographic concentration, Madhesis and Janajatis will also be elected in substantial numbers under the FPTP system. (In the three post-1990 parliamentary elections, these groups made up 21, 20 and 20, and 21, 19 and 22 percent of the MPs for a population share of 31 and 36 percent, respectively. In the current situation of heightened identity consciousness, these figures are likely to go up.) Dalits, making up around 14 percent of the population, however, have seen just one MP elected in the three polls. They could again be short-changed under FPTP, although under a proportional-representation system, Dalits would be represented in the CA in a proportion never before seen in any parliament.
Federalism is an even more complex issue. The centralising tendency of the Nepali state over the centuries is currently the main argument for a federal structure. Tied to federalism are the questions of regional autonomy and the right to self-determination (the last not to be confused, according to most activists, with the option to secede, but instead limited to cultural and social rights). Almost all of Nepal can be divided into areas of origin of various population groups, and this buttresses respective claims over those areas. In fact, in the later stages of the insurgency, the Maoists divided up the country into nine autonomous regions, setting up underground local governments in each. This division was based on ethnicity (seven) and region (two). It was also quite arbitrary, given that it ignored the reality that there had been great inter-mixing of the population over two and a half centuries of nationhood (or even earlier), and that the ‘original inhabitants’ found themselves outnumbered almost everywhere. Federalism along ethnic or linguistic lines would surely give rise to more problems than it would solve, not to begin to discuss any individual unit’s economic viability.
In the Tarai, Madhesi activists claim that they want a separate autonomous region covering the entire strip of the plains for themselves. But opposition to a unitary Madhesi state has come from one of the larger Tarai groups, the Tharu, who, to make matters more complicated, are also considered Janajatis. In addition, there is a huge minority of pahades who have lived in the Tarai for generations, and whose interests cannot be overlooked. Considering the domination of most Madhesi organisations by high or intermediate castes of the central and eastern Tarai, Tarai Dalits are also unsure as to what their status would be under such a set up. Finally, the Muslims of the Tarai wonder if the strong tradition of Hindu orthodoxy in the area would make it susceptible to fundamentalist Hindu influence from across the border in India.
Madhesi leaders brush aside all of these concerns, and claim that all Madhesis are one. This claim of homogeneity is not all that different from that made by the longstanding Nepali nationalism, centred on pahade identity, which the Madhesis have been so strenuously opposing. This paradox has thus far been ignored in public by Madhesi leaders, but is something that they will have to come to terms with during the course of the struggle for their rights.
When all is said and done, there is unanimous consensus that the Constituent Assembly election is imperative. For one, the assembly has been overdue for close to 60 years, having been first announced by King Gyanendra’s grandfather, Tribhuvan, in 1951, following the overthrow of the Rana oligarchy. It will also be the first time that elected representatives will debate and decide on constitutional provisions, rather than having a constitution formulated by a hand-picked committee, as was done after the People’s Movement I in 1990. Furthermore, since the Assembly is guaranteed to reflect the country’s heterogeneity as no legislature has done before, the new constitution can be expected to be more widely acceptable than earlier ones. It is equally important that an elected legislature, and subsequently the government, take the place of the present interim arrangement.
The monarchy is still viewed in some quarters as a source of instability, but dire warnings have been sent out to the king. The last was through a constitutional amendment in June that allowed for the removal of the monarchy itself (through a two-thirds majority in the existing interim parliament), should the king be adjudged to be disrupting the election process. Opinion polls have shown that support for establishing a republic (as opposed to a democracy under a constitutional/ceremonial monarchy) is over the 50 percent mark. But until the political parties clearly articulate their positions on the issue, and the people vote on them, the surveys can hardly reflect how the Constituent Assembly would decide on the monarchy.
Tangentially linked to the monarchy is the question of the status and role of Hinduism in the state. Besides defining Nepal as a secular country, the government has not specified what the relationship between the state and religion is going to be. However, the declaration has not changed anything on the ground. A total separation between state and religion may not be immediately possible in Nepal; and perhaps in the interests of communal amity, even a secular state does not need to do away with all of these practices at once. Nonetheless, their continuation should at least be with the consent of other religious communities, which might want some of their own practices institutionalised as well.
Religion is also where Madhesis and Janajatis part ways. In general, Janajatis, who have their own religious traditions (some based on Buddhism and animism, and others not), would be expected to opt for a secular state. But support for the retention of Nepal’s Hindu identity is still very strong in the Tarai. The two groups claim common interests in that they both maintain that they are struggling against a state dominated by the Bahun-Chhetri combine. In everyday life, however, Madhesis are equally discriminated against by the hill Janajatis, and the ire of the former is as much against the latter as against the Bahuns and Chhetris. Janajatis are pahade, after all, and do wear their hill-based nationalism on their sleeves. The complexities are such that neither side seems to have given enough thought on how to reach an understanding with the other. Thus, each side has been articulating its own grievances to the state, which is expected to respond as well as find common ground between all sides, including Dalits, women and the various other interest groups that are continually being formed.
The challenge for the moment is the Constituent Assembly elections, and the making of the new basic law. The YCL menace is very strong in the countryside, and the political atmosphere is not as yet conducive to political campaigning. There is a view that the Maoists will use any excuse possible to defer the CA elections, since they neither have the machinery ready for a political campaign nor are they likely to retain the premier position they have in the present interim arrangement. They might not accept any result that seriously undermines them, either. But it is also true that the longer they linger, the more likely it is that the CPN (Maoist) will see an erosion of its support base. For a revolutionary party, to be immersed in the minutiae of running a government, even if only in coalition, can have a stultifying effect.The only real spoiler is likely to be the violence in the Tarai. The armed groups active there are becoming increasingly brazen in their attacks, almost as if daring the state to respond. Even the MJF may not be able to carry the entire Tarai with it. Given its initial amorphous character, the MJF was able to attract all sections of the Madhesi community in the surge of protest against the interim constitution. The January-February demonstrations in the Tarai were unlike anything seen before in the plains, and it was almost as though a long-overdue, cathartic release of anger was taking place against the hill-centric state. There is thus reason to be alarmed that the MJF – as well as the other Tarai-based groups, armed or otherwise – has seen splits in its leadership, making it all the more difficult to bring all sides to the table. Nonetheless, that is now a task to which the eight-party government needs to give the highest priority, howsoever onerous it may seem. Otherwise, the dawn of a ‘new Nepal’ will remain largely a mirage.
~ Deepak Thapa is contributing editor Himal Southasian based in Kathmandu