As Nepal’s constituent assembly (CA) votes on the clauses of the draft constitution, the country is being plagued by strife and violence over the contested issues of federalism and the state’s religious identity. The ruling coalition, consisting of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, together with the main opposition Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, have enough votes to adopt the constitution by the September 20 deadline. However, for a constitution that has already taken seven years to negotiate — missing several deadlines, under five prime ministers — the CA would do better to adhere to wider consultations to accommodate as many legitimate demands as possible, instead of insisting on a rigid deadline.
While the demand for a return to Nepal’s Hindu-nation status comes from a smaller royalist-nationalist segment, Monday’s defeat of the revivalist amendment in the CA — thereby reaffirming Nepal’s secular status — led to violent protests that dovetailed with the running discord over Nepal’s federal status. The CA’s decision to abandon the plan to federate Nepal into 14 provinces, some on the basis of ethnicity, and its recourse to a six-province federation, with a province added later, has led to violent clashes in which several police personnel and civilians have died. The protesters accuse the major parties of disregarding the interests of the Madhesi and Janajati peoples along with those of other marginalised groups. The Madhesi parties have been boycotting the vote on the constitutional draft. Though it may have been exacerbated by the top-down nature of bringing in the constitution, the crisis had been building up for a long time. It has much to do with the fact that in the seven years since the overthrow of the monarchy, political parties have spent their time fighting each other, instead of delivering governance. This lack of political will was demonstrated most recently in the post-earthquake relief operations.
India has expressed concern about the violence, and asked for flexibility and dialogue in sorting out all outstanding issues. Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had advised his Nepali counterpart, Sushil Koirala, to ensure accommodation as well as restraint. Given Kathmandu’s sensitivities vis-a-vis New Delhi, India can only offer advice without appearing to interfere. The onus is on Koirala’s government and the opposition Maoists, who are the most adamant about the deadline, to realise that the successful completion of Nepal’s journey, from insurgency to an inclusive, modern democracy, cannot happen if everybody is not on board.