Understanding the Perilous Progress in Nepal

Following seven years of fitful birthing, Nepal’s new constitution was promulgated in September 2015, and instantly became the epicentre of ongoing political turmoil that threatens to undermine progress on many fronts in the country.

The culmination of a protracted political transition since the comprehensive peace accord of 2006, the new constitution attempts to address the many injustices and indignities that comprise longstanding grievances that have manifested themselves in a bloody insurgency and two peaceful street movements in the past 25 years.

Yet its announcement met with mixed reactions within and outside the country. On the one hand, the new constitution represented laudable concrete progress for an exhausted nation and its well-wishers; on the other hand, there are specifics that are problematic or inadequately treated in the constitution, which have created controversy and divisions across a country that is only slowly recovering from the devastating earthquakes of April and May 2015.

The most visible manifestation of unhappiness with the constitution are ongoing protests by the Madheshi community. The Madheshi represent significant swathes of political territory in the southern plains and view the constitutional provisions for their representation, participation, and protection as grossly inadequate. Over the past four months, these protests in tandem with stoppage of flow of goods and supplies from India have caused physical hardship for all Nepalis, including the Madheshis themselves. The air is thick and poisoned with accusations and counteraccusations about who is responsible and what ought to be done.

The Madheshi protests, howsoever presented and viewed in the current, identity-politics-driven discourse of divisiveness, also give us pause to appraise the unhappy dynamics of contemporary Nepal in the larger context of political behavior and practice over time. It is clear, for example, that the most pernicious characteristic of Nepali political practice over the past several decades – marginalization – persists in the new constitution, despite the rhetoric of inclusion and social justice. From the promulgation of a Civil Code in the 1800s endorsing a hierarchy of rulership and social order based largely on Hinduism to the demarcation of administrative boundaries in the 1960s redistributing and diluting ethnolinguistic concentrations across 75 districts, the architecture of national government remains heavily influenced by traditional elites.

Other marginalization-related criticisms of the constitution include the differential treatment of women in the matter of passing citizenship to their children, the gerrymandering of federal-provincial boundaries–essentially to preserve the electoral dominance of traditional elites, and the lack of attention to subnational governance arrangements, particularly to local government, and so on.
Despite the rhetoric of inclusion, evidence shows that exclusionary practices persist in most aspects of Nepali life including, sadly, in facing the ongoing challenges of disaster relief and recovery and pressing issues of economic and social development that have languished during the past eight years of political transition.

As federal provisions are more fully devised and implemented in the immediate future, the interest of ethnolinguistic and territory-based groups to gain significant control over resources and revenues has to be addressed against the established tendency of the centre to retain overwhelming control and preserve the sociopolitical status quo. These and other constitutional action items, such as national and provincial parliamentary restructuring and elections, designation of administrative/electoral zones, structuring of courts and commissions at provincial level, assignment of subnational fiscal authority and jurisdiction could provide opportunities for redressing grievances and strengthening state-citizen relationships. However, unless harnessed and watched over carefully, these could also further entrench political, social and economic divisions and enhance related power and resource capture.

The first few months under the new constitution in Nepal demonstrate the potential damage politically, economically, and socially of failure to address political representation and participation concerns going forward. The perils of progress in Nepal are no different today than they were under absolute monarchy; the protests surrounding the constitution should be viewed as symptoms of a society that is stuck in reverse and having great difficulty in moving forward in progressive ways.

Dr. George Varughese

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