One of the defining features of a functioning democracy is people’s right to protest. But only so long as those protests do not curb the rights of other citizens. No matter what the grievances, it has become almost a norm among Nepali political parties, labor unions, ethnic bodies and just about any group to call for bandas to press their demands. The latest in this exhibit is the three-day banda called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) demanding scrapping of the 11-state model proposed by the three major parties. The Broader Madhesi Front has also extended its support to the banda, expressing its solidarity for the common cause of federalism based on identity, guarantee of rights of indigenous people and their equal representation in all state bodies in the new constitution.
The protesters’ demands are legitimate, no doubt. It is up to the state to secure the legitimate rights of all its citizens. The protesters are also right that top political leadership have at times seemed more concerned about securing their vote banks and giving continuity to the old unequal social structure, than working to secure the rights of marginalized communities. The 11-state model, which settles neither the issue of border nor the names of provinces, was undoubtedly a cop out to buy some time for the political parties to settle this most contentious of all constitution issue. That said, it is also true that no model proposed by the political leadership would have been welcomed by all segments of the society. Seen in this light, pending the decision on final structure of the state could be seen as a safety valve that releases some pressure that has been gradually building on top political leadership from all sides.
Notably, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai (as well as leaders of all three major parties) has made it clear that the 11-state model is provisional, and the final decision on state restructuring will be left with the future parliament to be set up after the constitution is promulgated on May 27. But this assurance seems to have done little to remove the suspicions of the indigenous communities that the traditional ruling elites are out to dupe them off their legitimate rights once again by pushing federalism further down the road. Thus, despite the assurance, they decided to press ahead with their three-day banda. On the first day, normal life was brought to a standstill around the country. What was particularly striking about Sunday’s banda was vandalizing of vehicles belonging to vital service providers like press, hospitals and human rights bodies. This, despite the assurance of NEFIN Chairman Raj Kumar Lekhi that unhindered passage would be provided to vehicles belonging to emergency services providers.
Even as we believe such protests should be avoided, it is upon the banda organizers to ensure that their protest programs do not go out of control. It is also up to the organizers to make sure their protests are not infiltrated by disruptive elements, which, in this case, not only risks undermining the credibility of banda enforcers but might also pose a serious challenge to communal harmony. We call on banda organizers to explore alternative forms of protests and call off their three-day banda. The government and the leadership of major parties must explore all avenues to begin meaningful dialogue with the aggrieved side and address their grievance