Nepal: The New Constitution and the Trust Deficit with India

05 Oct, 2015    ·   4916

Siddharth Singh explains the relationship between Nepal's new constitution and the subsequent complication in the Kathmandu-New Delhi bilateral

After nearly eight years of work, Nepal finally promulgated its new constitution in mid-September 2015. In June 2015, Nepal’s four major political parties reached a 16 point political accord on the progress of the constitution-making process. However, the agreement left the borders of the six newly proposed provinces of a federal Nepal – which would run north to south linking the hills to the plains with most of the provinces sharing borders with India – un-demarcated.

Subsequently, following protests by some sections of the country, Nepal decided to add another province to the list, increasing the total number of provinces to seven. Despite the addition, situation turned violent. Most of the violence has been taking in the western districts of Nepal. The Terai plains that share a border with India have been paralysed by strikes.

The current crisis in Nepal has two key dimensions: first, the unrest in Nepal in the areas near the Indian border has resulted in a scarcity of essential goods and fuel in the region, crippling daily life, tourism and the overall economy of the region, thus affecting a large numbers of people. The second challenge is about expanding the scope of ownership of the constitution and its acceptability among a large cross-section of the Nepal’s citizens.

The new constitution has defined Nepal as a secular state. This decision is laudable given that it was done despite the several protests against it. It is a progressive step towards making Nepal a nation that is not based on any particular identity.

However, several key issues such as gender equality still remain to be addressed. There are clauses in the new constitution that discriminate against women; for example, a child born to a Nepalese woman with a non-Nepalese man does not automatically have the right to a Nepalese citizenship. In today’s globalised era, it is the responsibility of every country to treat its citizens equally and without any discrimination on the basis of gender.

Another area of concern is that after passing the new constitution, only 45 per cent of Nepal’s parliament will be elected by proportional representation in comparison to 58 per cent under the previous post-war interim constitution. The proportional representation system had helped a large number of indigenous people and those who belonging to the lower strata of society in getting elected. That proportion will likely drop in future given the mandate of the new constitution.

The India Factor
Until now, officially, India has welcomed Nepal’s new constitution only partially. India shares an open and contiguous 1750-kilometer long border with Nepal. India’s biggest concern is that the Madhesis entirely oppose Nepal’s new constitution. The Madhes region is actually the Terai area of southern Nepal that shares a border with the northern Indian state of Bihar. Any political instability in that region will have an adverse impact on Bihar. None of the major Madhes-based political parties have signed the new constitution. The Madhesis have been fighting for equal representation in the country’s political structure, and according to them, the new constitution has failed to meet their aspirations.

Nepal’s new constitution has allocated nearly 100 of the 165 seats in the parliament to residents of the hill and mountain regions, despite their population share being less than 50 per cent of the total. Conversely, the Terai region, which constitutes only 20 per cent of Nepal’s territory but accounts for approximately 50 per cent of the country’s total population, has been left with only 65 seats.

A forward-looking constitution should not exclude representation for a substantial section of its people. Instead it should take ample effort to accommodate the genuine aspirations of those who feel marginalised. If such a sentiment remains unaddressed genuinely, then, as the prevailing unrest among the people of the Terai has demonstrated, the ongoing crisis might likely intensify. In recent times, India has consistently recommended that Nepal promulgate a constitution that is based on a genuine consensus and one that represents the aspirations of all sections of the Nepalese society. In the current troublesome scenario, India needs to play its cards carefully and diplomatically, especially because Nepal has always viewed India’s interest in the issue as New Delhi’s overbearing attitude in the region. This perception coupled with India’s preferences has the potential to create unrest in the border areas between the two countries.

In any crisis situation, countries often face the temptation to find an external scapegoat to pin the blame on, so as to consolidate its own domestic political priorities. Nepal’s reluctance to address the proportional representation issue and blaming India for failures can be viewed via that lens. It would require exemplary courage and a pragmatic approach on part of the Nepalese leadership to own up their mistakes and put their house in order before it becomes too late.