The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M) had signed the 12 Point Understanding with the Seven Party Alliance in November 2005 and joined the ’peaceful struggle’ for democracy agreed to abandon their armed struggle. They joined forces with the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) to transform Nepal into a federal republic. In September 2007 the Maoists pulled out of the interim government blaming the Nepali Congress Party’s octogenarian supremo, Mr. G. P. Koirala and the interim government for the continuation of the political crisis and the uncertainty about the status of the monarchy.
The Maoists who had voluntarily laid down their arms and put the members of their ’Peoples’ Army’ in UN monitored camps, had earlier participated in the creation of an interim parliament, an interim constitution and an interim government. Their walk out of the ’Interim Government’ on the ground that the interim parliament had to declare Nepal as a republic and abolish the monarchy before the election to the Constituent Assembly was a serious blow to the peace efforts and the up coming elections to the Constituent Assembly. Every body was looking forward to the election of the Constituent Assembly. By walking out of the interim government in September 2007, the Maoists effectively derailed the holding of the election to Nepal’s first ’Constituent Assembly’ which was due on the 22nd of November this year.
In addition to the demand for declaring Nepal a republic before the election to the Constituent Assembly the Maoists also insisted that the election to the Assembly should be conducted on a fully proportional basis that would provide an opportunity to the divergent different ethnic communities and national minorities an opportunity to be represented in the Constituent Assembly on the basis of their status in the national population. The Maoists rejected the agreed ’dual system’ of half first past the post and half on the basis of the seats won by each party in the first past the post system. The Seven Party Alliance, particularly the Nepali Congress rejected these demands of the Maoists.
Most of the political leaders, the intellectuals, civil society actors and the news analysts of Nepal have blamed the Maoists for stopping the holding of the election to the Constituent Assembly. Various constituents of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) also claimed that that the Maoists took the desperate step of walking out of the government as they were afraid that they would do rather badly in the election. The non-Maoists political parties claimed that after the election of the Constituent Assembly all of Nepal’s political problems would have been resolved and the country would have moved on to the path of political stability and progress. If this reading is correct then the Maoists are certainly to be blamed for the continuation of the political impasse in Nepal. However, one needs to ask whether the Constituent Assembly, elected on the basis of the dual system with the participation of the ’Royalist’ or the ’loyalists’ political parties could live up to the expectations of the people as articulated on the streets during the Jana Andolan II and subsequent to that in Terai and other places.
The Seven Party Alliance opposed the demand of the Maoists on the ground that it was the prerogative of the elected Constituent Assembly to formally remove the monarchy and declare the country as a republic. They argued that it would be illegal for the ’interim’ parliament to take this decision before the election of the Constituent Assembly. However, considering the fact that the ’interim parliament’ has taken many decisions including declaring the ’interim Prime Minister’ as the de-facto head of state replacing the monarch, this argument sounded a bit hollow. Also, one can not deny that there is merit in the argument of the Maoists that if the status of the monarchy was left ambiguous and the political parties loyal to the monarchy were allowed to contest in the election to the Constituent Assembly, there is the possibility that the king and sections of Nepal’s feudal elite and the army loyal to the monarch would try to influence the electoral process to restore the monarchy.
The Maoists also pointed out that the people of Nepal during the Jana Andolan II had clearly indicated their preference for the removal of the monarchy and establishment of a ’Federal Republic’. They argued that there was no need to fall back on constitutional niceties, particularly those which would give the royalists an opportunity to subvert the peoples’ mandate. The fact that till October this year, Mr. Koirala and several influential leaders of Nepali Congress were continuing to talk about retaining a form of ’constitutional monarchy’ and that it was only after the Maoists walked out of the interim government, that the Nepali Congress adopted the resolution to establish a ’federal republic in Nepal’, gives credence to the position of the Maoists that the interim government was not fully committed to the ’republic’.
Similarly the demand of the national minorities and the ethnic communities to convert Nepal into a federal polity also remains to be addressed. The interim constitution is not clear about how the demands for territorial autonomy and division of power structures would be done. Though the demands for devolution of political power continue to be placed before the interim government every day by the ethnic minorities and the nationalities, the government has yet to come up with any policy perspective.
The unrests in the hill areas by the Janajatis (indigenous/ethnic communities) and the Madhesis in Terai plains have exposed the weaknesses of Nepal’s peace process. The Madhesis - plainspeople who constitute one third of Nepal’s population - have been protesting against the discrimination that has virtually barred them from public life. The demonstrations and clashes which have been going on since the past six months have left several dozen dead. The interim government led by Koirala has offered to increase electoral representation, affirmative action for marginalized groups and federalism but has dragged its feet over implementing dialogue.
Tension between the Janajatis and the Madhesis on one side and the Bahun-Chetri hill elite on the other has been building for several years. It has been largely ignored by the political elites dominated by the Pahadi Bahun and Chetri communities. The Madhesh or the Terai plains that stretch the length of the southern part of Nepal and are home to half the total population, including many non-Madhesis (both indigenous ethnic groups and recent migrants from the hills). With comparatively good infrastructure, agriculture, industrial development and access to India across the open border, the Terai is crucial to the economy of Nepal. It is also an area of great political importance, both as a traditional base for the mainstream parties and as the only road link between otherwise inaccessible hill and mountain districts.
The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) has emerged as a powerful umbrella group though it lacks an organizational base and clear agenda. It has decided to enter the electoral fray but if it is to challenge the established parties, it must first deal with the traditional Madhesi political parties like the Sadbhavana Party and other Madhesi politicians competing for the same votes. There has also been a proliferation of Madhesi armed groups; some have expanded significantly in numbers, and their strategy and attitudes will affect the political process. As is evident the from the continuing ’Bandhs’, strikes and violent clashes the mood among Terai residents is increasingly confrontational, with collapse of trust between most Madhesis and the government. The armed Madhesi groups, led by break away leaders of the Maoists party have been attacking the cadres and leaders of the Maoists all over Madhesh.
Unresolved grievances and the hangover from the Maoist insurgency, especially the lack of reconciliation and the greater tolerance for violence, make a volatile mix. The unrest has also provided a fertile ground for subversion to the diehard royalists and Hindu fundamentalists in Nepal and from across the border in India, who see it as a chance to disrupt the peace process. The mainstream parties have changed their rhetoric but are reluctant to take action that would make for a more inclusive system. Mainstream parties, particularly the Nepali Congress who rely on their Terai electoral base have failed to compete with Madhesi groups in radicalism. They have also been ineffective at communicating the positive steps they have taken, such as reforming citizenship laws. Competition within the governing coalition is hindering any bold moves.
For the Maoists, the Terai violence was a wake-up call. As much of it was directed against their cadres, the Maoists characterized the Madhesi movement as a regressive movement supported by the Hindu fundamentalists from India and sponsored by the royal palace. However, the outbreak of the armed movement in Terai by rival groups like the Loktrantik Jana Adhikar manch led by former Maoists - Jaiprakash Goit and Jwala Singh shattered the myth of dominance of the Maoists. The Maoists hit back. What ensued was a virtual battle between the Maoists, the armed factions of the Madhesi groups and the Madhesi Jana Adhikar manch. Several lives were lost on both sides. Despite the pressure and attacks, the Maoists continue to remain well organized, politically coherent and determined to reassert themselves.
The key political issues in Nepal are clear and still offer room for a reasonable compromise. The Seven Party Alliance need to demonstrate more serious intent, such as ensuring political participation of all excluded groups (not just those whose protests have forced attention) and undertaking to discuss and resolve grievances not only with protest leaders but also with concerned parliamentarians, local community representatives and civil society representatives. The interim government has made several agreements with the leaders of the Jana Jatis organization demanding ’autonomy’ and ’equal rights’. Unfortunately those promises are yet to be translated into action. The Seven Party Alliance’s willingness to make concessions on the basis of equal rights for all citizens has to be demonstrated effectively. Confidence in national and local government will only come if there is decent governance, public security based on local community consent and improved delivery of services, redress for heavy-handed suppression of protests, demands for compensation, honoring of dead protestors and follow-through on a commission of enquiry need to be met. There is urgent need to revise the electoral system to ensure fair representation of Madhesis and all other marginalized groups, including a fresh delineation of constituency boundaries.
The political parties and the government in Kathmandu need to increase the representation of Madhesis and other agitating Jana Jatis in parties and state bodies. This would pave the way for longer-term measures to remove inequalities. This requires a change in outlook and a delicate political balancing act. The Kathmandu government must do some things immediately in order to earn the trust of the Madhesis and other marginalized communities. There is no doubt that the election of the constituent assembly is an urgent need. However now that the elections have been postponed, the time should be utilized in re-designing the elections in a manner that will give proper representation of the Madhesis and other Jana Jatis in the Constituent Assembly. If this does not happen, the fear of sections of the Nepali people rejecting the assembly will always remain.
BOSE Tapan Kumar
* From INSAF Bulletin, December 2007. Circulated by South Asia Citizens