Nepal’s Constitution of September 2015, which triggered a storm of protest in the Terai and prevented fuel and necessary supplies from India entering the landlocked nation for over a month, is set for major amendments under a new coalition crafted by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, who secured the backing of the Madhesi parties after explicit assurances to address the concerns of the majority Madhesi, Tharu and Janjati communities. The crisis centres on delineation of constituencies which entrenches domination of the upper caste hill people, giving them 100 out of 165 seats in Parliament, and the demarcation of provinces.
Tharu leader Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik (MJF-L) and Kamal Thapa of the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) have joined the new government as Deputy Prime Ministers. Thapa is also the Foreign Minister and his inclusion is a signal that the Hindu right has reclaimed status within the polity.
Nepal took care not to accuse India of conducting an illegal blockade, seemingly accepting New Delhi’s rebuke that its own agitating citizens were preventing the entry of trucks lined up on the Indian side of the border.
The new coalition led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), including Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the RPP, defeated outgoing Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress by a comfortable margin. Koirala’s decision to contest, violating an understanding to step down after the Constitution was promulgated, was viewed as a betrayal by the UML, which had supported the NC-led government. This also angered the NC cadre, causing the joint general secretary, Purna Bahadur Khadka, to resign in protest. Observers say that at the forthcoming general convention of the Nepali Congress, Sher Bahadur Deuba may stand for party president.
During his recent visit to New Delhi (17-19 October), Nepali Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa told Sushma Swaraj that he personally voted against the new Constitution in deference to the “genuine concerns” of its opponents. Admitting that “earlier understandings” (with the Terai) had not been honoured, he urged India to help ease the supply situation to facilitate Dasain (Dussehra) celebrations.
Nepal took care not to accuse India of conducting an illegal blockade, seemingly accepting New Delhi’s rebuke that its own agitating citizens were preventing the entry of trucks lined up on the Indian side of the border. But within Nepal, citizens feel the pinch of fuel and other shortages. Dr Nishchal N. Pandey, director of the Kathmandu-based Centre for South Asian Studies, told this writer, “During these troubling times, perception is more powerful than reality. There is a general feeling that Delhi is only listening to some Terai leaders, not the grievances of the entire people of Nepal.” The situation has since eased substantially.
Kathmandu realises that dependence on China to supply the country through the mountainous Tibetan terrain is not technically feasible in the long run. Though the Nepal Oil Corporation has officially requested China for supplies, it is learnt that Beijing wants Kathmandu to guarantee the purchase of at least 35% of its annual fuel and gas consumption before it commits to export. This would be expensive, but possible, as the Kodari and Syafrubesi links (damaged during the April earthquake) were reopened last week. But it is still questionable if Beijing favours an active border with Nepal via Tibet.
China took considerable interest in the framing of the statute, sending Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Vice-Minister Chen Fengxiang and Assistant Minister Dou Enyong to Kathmandu during this period, and inviting Prachanda to Beijing. Initially, the Maoist leadership favoured dividing Nepal along ethnicities (Rai, Magar, Limbu, Newar, Gurung, which found favour with Western countries as it would facilitate religious conversion). But China, like India, disapproved of so many federal units in Nepal as it could lead to instability and affect the security environment in Tibet.
The non-viability of the new statute was immediately evident. Then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had to cancel his proposed visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly and open talks with Madhes leader Mahanth Thakur (22 September). Koirala, UML chairman K.P. Oli and Maoist leader Prachanda also met Tharu leader Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar (now a Deputy Prime Minister).
The greatest blow came just six days after promulgation of the Constitution (26 September), when former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai resigned from Parliament to support the Madhes cause, which suggests differences even among the hill elite regarding the character of the new statute. Bhattarai’s huge support base among the Gorkhas would have sent warning bells ringing in Kathmandu.
Twelve days later, Prime Minister Koirala directed the Ministry for Law, Justice, Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs to take steps to amend the Constitution, after making a commitment in Parliament; this was opposed by the CPN-UML.
But on assuming office, Prime Minister K.P. Oli set up a five-member team (19 October) for talks with the Madhes, to be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa. It includes Law Minister Agi Kharel (CPN-UML), General Administration Minister Rekha Sharma (UCPN-Maoist), minister without portfolio Ram Janam Chaudhary (MJF-L) and a member to be named by the main opposition Nepali Congress.
The Madhesi Morcha has expressed willingness to talk, but insists it will not call off its stir until its demands are met. It has constituted a four-member committee for the purpose, which includes Laxman Lal Karna (Sadbhawana Party), Lal Babu Raut (Federal Socialist Forum Nepal), Sarbendranath Shukla (Terai Madhes Democratic Party) and Ram Nares Raya (Tarai Madhes Samajbadi Party).
Their protest will span the popular Dussehra, Diwali and Chhath festivals.
The proposed amendments will guarantee proportional inclusion in the social justice clause of the new Constitution and ensure population as the main basis for delineation of electoral constituencies as demanded by the Madhes, Tharu and Janjati groups. The new Constitution allowed only 45% MPs to be elected to Parliament under the system of proportional representation, as compared to 58% under the interim Constitution, which enabled more members of indigenous and marginalised groups to get elected. The Tharu and Madhes also want provinces demarcated on the basis of concentration of ethnic populations, which are spread east to west in the southern part of the country.
Resolution of the Constitutional crisis will enable the regime to take up reconstruction after the April 2015 earthquake, for which donors have already pledged approximately US $4 billion.
Sandhya Jain is a veteran journalist