A hundred days of a nascent constitution

(By Deepraj Sanyal)

Kathmandu, Dec 30: The Constitution of Nepal on Monday completed 100 tumultuous days of its promulgation. Over this period since the constitution was issued by the first President of the Republic of Nepal, the country got a new Prime Minister, a new Head of State, a new Vice-President, a new Speaker and a new Deputy Speaker. With this, the country for the first time ever got a woman as President and a Speaker. This is a big achievement for a patriarchal society like ours. It carries a great symbolic meaning and the spirit of women participation needs to be carried forward in the days ahead, which is guaranteed by the new constitution.

The process of implementation of the constitution has started with its promulgation. But the dissatisfaction over some provisions of the national charter and the agitation which had started in the Tarai-Madhes, the country’s southern plain region, before the promulgation of the constitution still drags on. The constitution was met with cold shoulder by the Tarai-based parties over some provisions. Although the people’s aspiration of writing a constitution from an elected constituent assembly has been realised, the developments that happened in rapid succession after the promulgation of the constitution have taken a toll on the country’s already fragile economy.

Nepal had to face a harsh economic embargo at the hands of India in the form of border blockade immediately after the constitution was issued. Although India denies it, it imposed an unofficial blockade on Nepal in the pretext of the Tarai agitation. The entry of fuel, imported goods, raw materials, medicines and daily essential through the transit points on the Nepal-India border was impeded. The cross-border transit and trade was dealt a blow. This chocked the national economy, created shortage of goods and badly hit the general life, leading to a humanitarian crisis. The people affected by the April 25 devastating earthquake were the hardest hit lot. There was difficulty to transport food, relief materials and other supplies to the quake-hit areas in the remote mountainous districts due to the fuel crisis. The earthquake survivors are bearing the brunt of the border blockade amidst the harsh winter.

Amidst this grim scenario and the loss of life and property due to the Tarai movement, efforts were on to address some of the genuine demands of the agitating Unified Democratic Madhesi Front, a coalition of various Madhes-centric parties which are waging a movement protesting some provisions of the new constitution. Already into the fourth month now, the Tarai agitation against the new constitution has brought untold-of misery to the people. The ruling parties, the government and the main opposition Nepali Congress are all holding talks with the Madhesi Front to arrive at an amicable solution to this political imbroglio. The government has launched a month-long campaign called “People’s Constitution Among the People” on December 7 to clear what it calls some misconceptions on the new constitution, under which leaders are travelling across the country explaining the salient features of the constitution to the public.

Various rounds of talks have been held and the three major political parties of the country have reached an agreement to have the Constitution Amendment Bill ratified from the Parliament. In fact, the Parliament has already started deliberations on the Bill. It is hoped that the amendment to the constitution will address the principal demands of the Madhesi Front. The three main demands of the Madhesi Front include ensuring inclusive and proportional representation in all the State bodies, retaining the citizenship provisions that were spelled out in the Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2007 and state delineation.

In this context, the three major parties – the ruling two parties including the CPN (UML) and the UCPN (Maoist) and the main opposition party, Nepali Congress – have agreed on a common understanding on addressing the demands of the agitating Madhes-based parties.

They have floated a three-point compromise formula through the government talks team headed by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kamal Thapa, for addressing he demands. Among the three points in the compromise are addressing the demands related to the inclusive proportional representation and the one on citizenship through constitution amendment. Similarly, the demand related to the demarcation of election constituencies on the basis of population would be addressed by forming a committee of experts while the demand on redrawing the state boundaries would be done by a high level political committee comprising the top leaders of the three major parties and the agitating Madhesi Front within three months.

However, the Madhesi Front has rejected this compromise formula offered by the three major parties as well as the government. Whereas, India which has been indirectly aiding the cause of the Madhesi Front through the undeclared border blockade has welcomed the three-point solution offered by the government. It is difficult to understand why the Madhesi Front refuses to buy the idea mentioned in the three-point formula. It is sticking to its demand that all its demands should be addressed in a package. The Parliament has begun discussions on the Constitution Amendment Bill after efforts at bringing the Madhesi Front on board failed to produce results due to the obstinacy of the Front. If the Parliament passes the constitution amendment bill, then, two of the major demands of the Front would be met, which will create pressure on the Front to reach a compromise on other demands as well.

As has been mentioned by the Prime Minister and the leaders of the three major parties, the constitution is not something engraved on stone tablet. It can be amended and the demands of the Madhesi Front addressed. Actually, the process to that end has already started. This is no time for political shenanigans and prevarication. The Parties in the Madhesi Front should give up their narrow-mindedness and come to sense that prolonging the agitation is neither in the interest of the Tarai-Madhes nor the entire nation. Rather they should demonstrate political culture and accountability to the democratic process and extend support in implementing the constitution. Therefore, the ruling parties, the opposition party and the agitating parties all should seek a solution to the present impasse keeping the national interest high. Seeking a solution taking part in the discussions in the Parliament on the constitution amendment bill brought with the aim of addressing the Madhes demands would be by all means the most appropriate step.