Nazma Khatoon, a member of the Constituent Assembly (CA), put on a riot helmet before she occupied a chair to solicit public opinion on the preliminary draft of the constitution on Tuesday. Khatoon took the necessary precaution as top leaders like Madhav Kumar Nepal and Prachanda had faced public fury a day earlier, having to be rescued by security forces. People are divided on both the content of the draft as well as the manner in which public opinion is being solicited, with just 48 hours allotted to it.
An overwhelming majority wants Nepal declared a “Hindu” state. This deals a near-fatal blow to the radical agenda imposed by the forces that have come to power since April 2006. India had mediated a settlement between the Maoists and seven other parties, bringing them together against the direct rule of King Gyanendra. The euphoric parties had thereafter refused to seek a larger public debate on crucial issues and unilaterally declared, in a phased manner, that Nepal would be federal, secular and a republic. Due process was not followed when these radical changes were made. The international community, led by India, had readily endorsed these changes, little realising that the direct involvement of the people was the best guarantee for institutionalising the changes.
In fact, these nine years of change have been the most intolerant phase in Nepali politics, when anybody asking for democratic norms and respect for due process and dissenting voices was branded “regressive”. It was practically an eight-party dictatorship in Nepal, which had a brute majority in the CA and yet failed to deliver the constitution. A CA member having to wear a riot helmet shows the level of distrust between the people and their leaders. Public lack of trust in the constitutional draft is likewise growing in the same proportion.
Despite being called a “Hindu state” in the constitution since 1962 with a “Hindu monarch”, the old Nepal was a more liberal society, tolerant of all faiths, although with strict laws against conversion.
But the parties that assumed power in 2006, Nepal’s foreign donors, the international community and civil society appeared to be swayed by the argument that if Nepal had to become a republic, its “Hindu” identity must be done away with. The idea of secularism was never debated. Moreover, the West, international NGOs and some UN organs openly advocated the right to conversion as an integral part of secularism. Then British Ambassador Andrew Sparkes had to resign when the Nepal government reprimanded him for his open letter to CA members to lobby for the right to conversion. This episode had also demonstrated the unwarranted extent of engagement foreign diplomats had with the constitution-writing process, which fell squarely in the sovereign sphere of Nepal’s people. The international community had earlier extended its support also to “ethnic federalism”, which implied breaking Hindu groups into “ethnic units” to demarcate provinces. With Nepal’s political parties now completely discredited, Hindu groups, together constituting more than 85 per cent of the population, have become vocal in sharing their perception that they are being divided and persecuted. The “new and progressive” Nepal now needs to settle the question of religion and its role in politics, including constitution-writing.
The undue involvement of outside powers on the issue of secularism seems to have brought hitherto unorganised groups together, demanding the restoration of Nepal’s Hindu status. “Why are outsiders being allowed to speak their mind and extend monetary, diplomatic and political support to secularists, and why are we, the people of Nepal, not being allowed to have our say?” asked Kumar Regmi, a constitutional lawyer and member of the Nepali Congress, who has now joined the national campaign for a “Hindu” Nepal.
If the matter is taken to a referendum, the outcome is easily anticipated. Ignoring public sentiment, which has now been clearly articulated, will further discredit the failed constitutional process. This seems to be the end of a badly mismanaged radical phase in Nepali politics, but without a clear exit from the mess the actors, domestic and foreign, have created.
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