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The Chinese formula

Beijing tells Kathmandu how much federalism and secularism Nepal can have

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire | Updated: November 3, 2014 1:14:00 am
A man speaks with a woman inside a house at Khokana, in Lalitpur July 24, 2013. (Source: Reuters photo) A man speaks with a woman inside a house at Khokana, in Lalitpur July 24, 2013. (Source: Reuters photo)

Revolutionaries often talk of the possibility of counter-revolutionary forces emerging, if they don’t behave themselves or match the expectations of the people. But in Nepal, the Maoists are now helplessly watching the rise of those they used to call “regressive forces”. The call for a “Hindu Nepal” and the growing popular scepticism about federalism are no longer isolated cases. These are taking the shape of an organised movement, as political parties miss one deadline after another to sort out the contentious issues of the new constitution.

As the January 22 deadline for the constitution seems almost impossible to meet now, members of the international community are urging Nepal to take a cautious approach before deciding on federalism, one of the three fundamental features of the constitution.

Two ambassadors — Asko Luukkainen of Finland and Russia’s Sergey Vasilievich Velichkin — asked Nepal’s political actors to think about the cost and practicality of going federal. This is a clear dissociation from the unconditional support the international community, led by India, had earlier extended to the constitution-making exercise with federalism, republicanism and secularism as “irreversible” features. Interestingly, this stance follows China’s far-reaching “lobbying” over attributes of the constitution in a subtle way.

These suggestions became louder when the Tibetan Autonomous Region chief, Luo Sang Jiang Cun, completed his five-day visit on Friday, after hectic meetings with political leaders and top-level authorities. The Chinese prescription, as Nepali authorities perceive, will have a bearing on all three issues. It wants a smaller number of provinces, and on a north-south axis, if at all Nepal goes federal. This means each province may touch both China and India. The Chinese formula also strictly warns against ethnicity-based provinces. India and other democracies, including the EU — which had supported an “identity-based” federalism earlier — are silent, as the politicians they had backed for bringing about this change stand discredited.

During his speech in Nepal’s parliament on August 3, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed India’s support for a federal and republican constitution, on the condition that “it should be acceptable to all sides”. But with the forces opposed to federalism and a republican order growing and organising themselves, the actors are now left with two options — to review their stance or take the issue directly to the people.

Modi maintained his silence on “secularism”. But his silence and Chinese concerns appear to have converged on the issue. Chinese authorities are believed to have warned some senior CPN-UML leaders of the ruling coalition that the way Nepal’s secularism is being practised may have larger political and security implications for China in future. They fear that the unchecked freedom to proselytise in Nepal might invite a “faith-based” approach from the West, mainly the US, with the intention of making China more vulnerable.

Both the RSS and Beijing have asked Nepal to consider seriously curbs on Western NGOs and strict monitoring of uses of money for religious conversions.

Nepal’s leaders are not yet sure of how to respond to these developments, which clearly go against their former agenda. The bricks with which they hoped to build the edifice of the constitution are crumbling even before the foundation is laid.

China seems to have succeeded in building bridges with the Tibetan community living in Nepal, but it opposes their being called “refugees”. “Why will Chinese people need to seek asylum in Nepal?” was the blunt question the head of the Tibetan autonomous government asked. China’s insistence on an extradition treaty is understandable in that context.

Amidst so much confusion, Nepal, as the host for the Saarc summit beginning November 26, is worried about its failure to create constitutional order, despite PM Sushil Koirala’s assurance to Modi that things were moving in a positive direction. While neighbours’ views and legitimate concerns have to be taken into account, Nepal’s leaders have not yet decided to review the radical agenda they had imposed in a euphoric moment, when the king handed over power in April 2006. However, they are no longer reiterating that Nepal’s transformation into a “secular, federal, republican order” is final and irreversible.

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