As the Constituent Assembly is on the verge of missing its deadline, questions are being raised about the silence of Nepal’s civil society in facilitating and mediating negotiations to work out common ground between ruling and opposition parties. What explains this silence? How can the civil society make a more meaningful contribution in the days ahead? And what are the challenges to Nepal’s constitutional process? Member of Citizen’s Movement for Peace and Democracy during the 2006 Jana Andolan and veteran civil society leader, Devendra Raj Panday, shared his insights with Mahabir Paudyal Wednesday morning.
CA is in turmoil, politics is deeply polarized. Why are civil society members like you mum?
There are some questions on the part of the public as to why civil society members are not being active. These concerns are genuine. But honestly, not a single political leader, except for Baburam Bhattarai, has been in contact with me nor have they sought our role for the past several months. If they believe we have contributions to make in the interests of the nation, mandate of 2006 people’s movement, peace and democracy, we are ready to offer it. We will.
Shouldn’t civil society step up to the plate of its own accord rather than wait for invitation from political parties?
I would love to do that. I fact, I am dying for it. I had been perhaps the most active member to facilitate peace process. I went looking for Prachanda in the middle of the People’s War 15 years ago and went to Girija Prasad Koirala asking him to bring the rebels into the peace process. During Citizen’s Movement for Peace and Democracy, I and some friends of mine spontaneously came out in support for democracy without any political parties seeking our role. We urged and pestered the political leaders, day in and day out, to work together. We brought Maoists and Seven Party Alliance together on the agenda of Constituent Assembly. Because that was the time major political parties were willing to work together. They only needed some kind of mediation.
Still, we expected a more active civil society at this time of extreme polarization.
Perhaps Civil Society is very active but I and some of my friends are not. From the way you are pressing me with this question, I gather that people do not recognize them as civil society but persons like me and some of my friends as. If that is the case, perhaps we need to dissect civil society further. What sets us apart from others is that we are progressive, we are for change, democratic values, human rights and peace. And we are not partisan. During the People’s Movement, we had fought with this spirit. After first CA election or even before that, it so happened that civil society agents were expected to take sides in favor of one group of parties over others. Whole notion of civil society became politicized. At the moment, if you support voting process in the CA, you are one type of civil society, and if you press for consensus you are labeled another type.
There is a feeling that if civil society had been more active, the constitutional crisis could have been averted.
I agree. And I stand guilty for not being able to do anything about it. But this is because the opportunity to play positive role in helping to resolve constitutional crisis has not come to us for the last five or six years. We could have helped in the process since the time of first CA if people like me had been allowed to play the role you are talking about. Perhaps there would not have been the need for CA II polls either.
Can’t the non-partisan civil society members still contribute?
Time has come. There should not be any more destruction, violence and acrimony between the ruling Nepali Congress and CPN-UML and Maoists and Madheshi Front. But let me also tell you, they are not sitting together in earnest to resolve the crisis. I don’t see them discussing issues in earnest. Their meeting often looks informal and casual so it has not been very productive. They need to sit in meeting with some people who are nonpartisan, who publicly pledge not to take sides, who are the stakeholders of people’s movement, and who also subscribe to the mandate of people’s movement II such as republicanism, pluralism, democracy, human rights, pluralism, ethnic, regional, linguistic and cultural identities and their place in the Nepali society and politics. The people who are averse to these issues cannot mediate.
But what has made you stay away?
I am not staying away. The truth is I am not allowed to step in. Look, what is this fighting in CA about? ‘My way or highway’ approach of politics is going on there. We are not going to be useful until the parties are in this approach because we would advocate some kind of give and take, we say we should not sacrifice the mandate of people’s movement and that we need to fulfill the aspirations and demands of the diverse communities, their ethnic identity, their language and culture without compromising democratic values.
How do you view the crisis in the CA?
Monday’s violence and destruction in the CA have tarnished country’s image. This is not acceptable. But I see it as an expression of frustration that political groups in minorities have against majoritarianism in the name of democracy. But they seem to have realized their mistakes. They acted differently on Tuesday. They did not allow the House to proceed but they did it rather peacefully. They have no other recourse either. This is the time for the advocates of majoritarianism to reflect on why opposition did what they did and how to engage them constructively. Otherwise this confrontation will go on. I can only hope it will be peaceful both in the House and in the streets.
Shouldn’t have Maoists and Madheshis accepted people’s mandate and played by the rules of the game?
Words like democracy and rule of the game are sweet to hear. But let us not miss the context here. There was decade long People’s War, demand for inclusion and representation and so on. In this context, it would not be wise to impose majoritarianism just because there has not been consensus on these issues. Truth is there has not been consensus because there have not been genuine efforts towards it. They seem to be trying for consensus all the time but they are not getting anywhere. We don’t know if they even made such efforts. There is no third party moderation or mediation, they do not keep records and minutes of those meetings. May be one side is not willing to act by the spirit of 12-point accord and the gains of people’s movement. May be both sides are not committed to these agendas. We don’t know. In a way they have kept the people in the dark. Even people are not ready to accept this fact because they are also partisan.
Where will this ultimately take us?
I don’t know where it will. But I know the kind of thinking that is necessary for the leadership to engage in order to steer the ship to the right destination. The main contention at the moment is federalism, what it means for ethnic rights, rights of Madheshis, Janajatis, dalits, and national integrity and so on. We can take these issues to logical end only when NC and UML also acknowledge the fact that there are Madheshis, Tharus, Janajatis, women, dalits and others to whom our society and history has done injustice. Once they do it half of the problem will be solved. Let them at least admit and take cognizance of the historical reality that this country has been ruled only by one section of the population regionally and caste and ethnic wise since the time of Jung Bahadur. People want rights, access to resources and their identities to be recognized. What’s wrong with that? This will be an act of nation building afresh. When everyone has stake in the nation and participate in the political and development process crisis will end. When there is no recognition even of this much no civil society will offer to play active role.
Parties are going to miss the deadline. What should they do now?
What happens if there is no constitution on January 22? How will that impact the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly and Koirala government? Is there still a way we can have something concrete by the deadline? Such questions have become the talk of the town as we enter the final one week to the January 22 constitution deadline. Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal put these questions to Purna Man Shakya, a leading constitutional expert and one of the three lawyers who drafted the rules of procedure of the first Constituent Assembly.
First of all, how realistic was the January 22 statute deadline?