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Nextdoor Nepal: Letter from UK, message from China

Questions of secularism and federalism divide the political spectrum

It is not federalism alone that divides the political spectrum and constitution-writing. It is not federalism alone that divides the political spectrum and constitution-writing.

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is inept when it comes to communication. But over the last few weeks, he has not only lost his temper and reprimanded his cabinet and party, but also offered a refrain at every public platform: “The constitution will be ready at any cost by the January 22 deadline.”

The ruling coalition of the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) insists a two-thirds majority in the Constituent Assembly should bulldoze all opposition and meet the deadline. But a 22-party coalition, led by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M), has dared the government to promulgate the constitution without addressing the identity- or ethnicity-based issues of federalism they have raised.

It is not federalism alone that divides the political spectrum and constitution-writing. The role of external forces and donors is seen to be equally detrimental to the process. An open letter by British Ambassador Andy Sparkes to legislators, encouraging them to ensure the “right to change religion” in the new constitution, sparked sharp protest not only from the right but also from the government. Acting Foreign Secretary Shankar Bairagi summoned the charge d’affaires, asking him to refrain from meddling in Nepal’s domestic issues. The embassy clarified it was not preaching in favour of or against religion and that “in fact it had no position” on secularism, which the Nepalese people and their elected representatives had the sole right to settle.

This was a clear retreat by the UK that, along with some Scandinavian countries, has openly supported radical groups demanding ethnic federalism. The British ambassador’s open letter came against the backdrop of the EU’s Working Group on Human Rights, which feared that the rise of Narendra Modi and Hindu groups in India had encouraged “regressive forces” in Nepal and felt the international community should intervene, given the “threat” to religious minorities. Their position was that secularism would lose its relevance without the constitution guaranteeing the right to change one’s religion. This not only backfired but, apparently, consolidated the forces demanding Nepal’s restoration to a Hindu monarchy. It is not only Britain and the EU. China has taken an even more aggressive stand.

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Vice Minister Chen Fengxiang came to Nepal on a four-day visit and returned on Thursday after fixing the date for a visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi at year-end. This will be followed by a visit from President Xi Jinping. These high-level visits indicate China’s growing interest and presence in Nepal. China has also overtaken India on FDI in Nepal and is no longer shying from a clear position on the attributes of the future constitution, thereby sending a subtle message that the policies adopted by India and the EU in Nepal are detrimental to Nepal’s interests.

Fengxiang’s message was clear — that if at all Nepal goes federal, it should have no more than three provinces, and with the provinces oriented north to south, touching both China and India; and that the right to change one’s religion would allow Western forces to get involved in Nepal. The Chinese position contradicts those of India and the EU on federalism and secularism. It also boosts the morale of conservative forces that oppose radical changes. But it is not only China that seems worried about the Europeans and Americans using secularism as a tool to increase their influence. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat is believed to have said recently that Nepal’s instability was the outcome of the monarchy’s overthrow. How much of that will be reflected in the NDA government’s Nepal policy is to be seen. Modi’s other option would be to continue with the UPA government’s Nepal policy, which placed the Maoists at the centre of Nepali politics.

These pressures from outside, coupled with increasing differences among Nepal’s players, has brought the second Constituent Assembly’s relevance and ability into question. But avoiding accountability will not be that easy this time round.

First published on: 22-12-2014 at 00:36 IST
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